It’s been an interesting experiment, climbing the hardest route of my life but not giving it a grade. Contrary to what some people seem to be thinking, this was not to make any particular point, merely because I didn’t know what to grade it. That said, it always irritated me that the grades of my routes or repeats ended up at the centre of the discussion, rather that at the fringe where they belong. I have noticed people even referring to my climb Rhapsody as ‘E11’ as if that were it’s name rather than an insignificant and rather meaningless number attached to it.
Part of the reason writing this blog is useful is that I can answer question folk commonly ask and hopefully steer the chat back towards what’s important - the climbing - and away from grading (ha! he says, optimistically). Anyway, perhaps some more details will help folk get on with pigeon holing a beautiful climb into a ill fitting picture.
Right now, I still have no idea what to grade Echo Wall, so I’m not going to at the moment. Perhaps at some point I’ll have repeated some more routes given E grades in double figures and have a better idea. Grades evolve. With few references to go on, they are pretty shaky. Once there are more routes and more climber’s opinions on them, they become a bit more useful. Echo Wall is much harder than any trad route I’ve ever done or tried, thats all I know right now.
Quite apart from the line and the mountain, I was really inspired by making a route that had the combination of 8c or harder climbing, an uncompromising level of seriousness (which, if you need it spelled out, means you would die if you fell off it), and a remoteness of situation that would create a logistical challenge of actually working on the climb. Echo Wall was perfect in this respect. None of the Ben’s hardest routes to date have had high standard physical climbing. Why? Because it’s just not practical. It’s covered in snow, rain, mist, lichen or moss 99.9% of the time. Go to somewhere like the lakes and you’ll get nice weather, nice chilled approaches and pretty small and convenient crags. When I first began to think about trying Echo Wall, I figured I would be able to absorb this hurdle and that the climbing would be the main problem. The climbing challenge was be to be able to climb 9a at the same time as spending lots of time in the mountains to have a realistic chance of linking Echo Wall on a top rope. As it turned out, this was the easy bit!
My headache here is how should this be reflected in the grade? We have trad routes given big grades like E9 or E10 that are completely piss on a toprope (like 8a+ or easier) but their grades stand the test of repeats because of either seriousness or mountain situation (often stretched quite a bit!). I actually agree that proper mountain trad routes should have some recognition of their remoteness and awkwardness reflected in the grade. Echo Wall feels like 8c/+ on a top rope, with the real prospect of death from the redpoint crux, on a crag with more logisitcal issues than any other mountain crag in the UK.
Do you see my problem? I am uncomfortable with the feeling of grades advancing too quickly due to overgrading, but on the other hand feel that Echo Wall might well earn a laughable quanta of E points over anything else I’ve done, based on the way the E scale has been used traditionally over the past couple of decades. I just don’t know.
Grades will always be very shaky and mobile at the cutting edge, but it would be a shame for these grades to lose any credibility they did have just because the standard going through a period of rise. On the other hand, if you really believe a route is a certain grade, it’s important to just be straight up and make the proposal. James Pearson has just done this with a stunning looking new line in Devon. An inspired piece of work from one of the world’s top climbers in the trad and bouldering disciplines right now. And top effort for sticking his neck out and pinning the E12 grade to a climb for the first time.
So what is the solution to all this uncertainty? Like most hard truths, you knew it already - time and repeat ascents. It will take climbers to drag themselves to these corners of our isles and make the time to get these things repeated. Until then, comparison between them is a fools errand.
For that reason, Echo Wall is ungraded, for now. It doesn’t matter, because the interesting part is the story of the ascent, and I’ve not been nearly so cautious in making sure it can be heard!
Even more stats, if you are into number crunching:
Echo Wall took me longer to link on a top rope than A’ Muerte 9a, i.e. Many days, while in Spain I was able to consistently climb 8b+ and 8c in a day.
Echo Wall is 8a+ up to the roof at 12m, with the smallest BD micro cam for gear. This section is comparable with If Six Was Nine E9 in the Lakes. At the roof I could get about 40 seconds rest out of the kneebar.
After the roof is the technical crux. There are three bits of gear protecting this - a poor Camalot in a very shallow slot, a good wire but in a suspect tooth of rock and wire in dubious rock. It’s dubious because there used to be another wire placement right beside it which was the best of the lot, but the placement broke and fell off randomly in between my visits. Scary!
Right after the crux there is an RP3, quite good but blindly placed. Then a runout to a shakeout.
The shakeout isn’t so good, and afterwards there is final hard section and this is where I fell many times when trying to link it. There is an RP and very poor skyhook at the shakeout, but the placement is in a loose flake of rock so I’m pretty sure they would just pull right through if you fell here. You have to do the final boulder problem pumped, knowing if you fall you will die.