Monday, 12 January 2009

More thoughts from Devon

We just got back from Devon and back to real life. Some folks had some more questions about the Walk of Life and my blogging about it. Some folk asked me about the protection I used, specifically suggesting that maybe I found the route easier than it’s suggested grade because I had more trust in the sliding nuts that James used on his recently downgraded routes. Actually I didn’t use any at all on the Walk of Life, just standard wires and friends.

Folk also picked up on my appeal not to make a big deal about my different opinion on the grade. I get frustrated when people blindly assume that climber do climbs for exposure or sponsorship rather than just because they are looking for challenging climbs. I also get frustrated when the grade of the route becomes the centre of the discussion. Mick Ryan from UKclimbing says “I laugh when I see a top climber saying that grades don't count and aren't important - its sheer bullshit.” I can’t think of anyone who has, but even if they did, perhaps they might just be attempting to get some kind of balance from the media which is always focusing on them above the other important things. When there is such a leaning towards this view of cutting edge climbers, I think it’s natural that they will rail against it and move closer to the opposite pole.

Things are not so black and white. It’s not that grades are all important or not important at all. The truth is that they are a small part of going climbing, which has many important aspects. This is why I didn’t offer a grade immediately for Echo Wall. Yes, it’s the hardest climb I’ve ever tried or done by a mile. Yes, that is important, but it’s not everything. The effort, the appreciation of the climb, the location and the skills needed to climb it were more important. This is not some hippy, wishy washy idea, it’s real. It’s what made most of us want to start climbing in the first place and it’s still why I go climbing now. I felt the only way I could take control of that was to not offer the grade from the start. I’m pretty glad I did.

These days I get asked at nearly every lecture I give if I feel pressure to perform or to produce big grades from sponsors. Sometimes after spending an hour talking in great detail about my motivations for climbing, I figure I have not explained myself very well. I can see that this cynicism is engrained and that in some cases, external motivations for doing climbs are assumed from the start. Some healthy cynicism is definitely good, but there is a large patch of middle ground between engrained cynicism and being sycophantic.

At times during my sports science degree studying the history of sport and drugs in sport I became fairly close to being utterly dejected with sport after seeing what a mess of drug cheating exists in a lot of mainstream sports. I have no smart solutions to offer here. But it is my opinion that constant scrutiny by the media on comparisons between athletes and the external rewards and recognition that sporting success can bring can reinforce the problems as much as it can be useful in exposing negative aspects of sport.

When the columns are filled with comparisons, medal counts, and dishing dirt this creates an image that this is normal – what it’s all about. Young people coming through believe this, and so it goes on. It doesn’t help that some athletes and media are caught up in the idea that the competition is the end, rather than just the means. It also doesn’t help that a minority of website users who post on discussion forums think that this medium absolves them of responsibility for the words they post and the effects they can have. That is why athletes blogs can be so interesting and popular, because the people themselves get to talk freely about what makes them tick, which is usually the thrill of breaking personal barriers and pushing themselves and the adventures along the way.

This is part of a much bigger problem that ‘getting ahead’ is thought to be a worthy goal in life and will make people happy. Naturally it’s projected right onto sport. Climbing has held out from this for a long time, but it’s in danger for sure.

The reporting media (be it editors or site users) could lead here, instead of always going for the lowest denominator. It might seem like poor commercial sense in the short term – controversy will always receive a peak of interest. But a calmer approach will help bring people on board to collaborate and tell the real stories better, rather than athletes and media suffering from mutual wariness.


  1. Well I, for one, am very pleased to see a world- class climber doing what any climber should: pushing themselves as hard as they can, regardless of the grade. In my opinion grades should go back to what they were originally intended for, that is, a reference so other climbers can know if a certain route would be what they were looking for on any particular afternoon.

    I enjoy looking at the climbing rags as much as the next person, but for a long time now it seems like they've turned into number chasers, only bothering to write about E10, 5.14, or 9a. In the end this makes for boring reporting and, as you said, fostering cynicism.

    So cheers for just going climbing. That's what matters.

  2. Super, super article. The sniping on climbing websites in recent weeks has left me feeling very disillusioned with reading about the sport, I've been beginning to feel that I really wouldn't like - or like to climb with - the majority of the people posting on these forums.
    Motivation for climbing is something I wonder about a lot and find hard to explain to myself, and even more so to non-climbing friends. It's good to read your views.
    As an aside, something that really confuses me is that in Britain, no-one seems to care about the climbing World Cup competitions. Surely if everyone is so keen to see top climbers in competition, that's the place for it?

  3. Hello Dave... I think I'm one of those 'folk' you're reffering too, though my comments were in jest, I don't think it's such a big deal. I'm intersted, in retrospect, would you have preffered it if that DVD had not have been called 'E11'? I ask as I know this is a cause of cycnism to some.

    Best Regards Mike

  4. Hi Mike, I would have preffered it at the time, and in retrospect. But it wasn't my film. I dont think it's a big deal either, but some do.

  5. Right on Dave. Great article. It's nice to hear a hard climber such as yourself talking about grades being just that, grades. I don't climb to climb grades, I climb to climb. Period. Whether I'm leading a 5.8 or a 5.11, I love it all.

    Climb on!


  6. The reporting media using the peak of interest generated by grade contoversy for commercial gain?

    Reminds me of an ad that keeps popping up on UKC:

    Ad here

    Seems to link to your site, Dave ;)

    Tongue firmly in cheek, by the way, top film!

  7. Hi Dave, it's good to see you agreeing with thoughts I expressed at my blog. The numbers/grading obsession has reached a new high or is it low?

  8. You're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't Dave. For those of us who understand the 'balance' you are trying to achieve, your climbing and your goals makes perfect sense. Well done.

  9. Dave, you are the Mr Miyagi of the climbing world. Wise words as usual.
    Wax on, wax off!

  10. Hi Dave,I apologies if my comment offended you. As an Australian using the Ewbank system, the E grade mystifies me and I was trying to garnish some perpective on the system as a whole, not related to TWOL, or your and James's efforts.

    After much thinking about it, I have formed the opinion that not only does the E measure the difficulty, but it attempts to measure the feeling the climber may have on the route. (being scared, pumped)
    and also the situation the climber is in, (constant weather conditions,remote access)Something Aus grades do not really cover

    While I still cant get a grasp on how this is applied to a scale; thinking about it has allowed me a good insight. The E doesnt promote competition or 'better than' comparision.
    It promotes the adventure and experience a climber can have. It attempts to move the focus away from the number crunching of pure hardness of moves and allows the quantifying of a more holistic approach.

    It advertises there is much more to climbing than an allocated number. We should remember that; I should remember that.


    Jono Whitfield

  11. You SHOULD get paid! Money is great and when you make such a bad ass film that some country bumpkin' in Canada can watch and get psyched about climbing by watching it, i feel you deserve money for your HUGE effort to bring this to light.
    Market the crap out of it even if you get to exploit grade chasers. They're the ones buying it even if they do not actually "get it." There are some that do, however, "get it" and either get psyched or nod they're heads in agreement. Those that don't, you hear about those a lot, (player haters) while they sit and get fat wishing they were you!!

    I like the way you don't mention your E grade or whatever grade, and do focus on the PROCESS of climbing something like that and the mental battles and tactics and determination....Who the heck Shovels mountain snow from above a climb!!!LOL... Im looking to climb a 5.12c this year and im PSYCHED to do it. its impossible now, but the PROCESS is the same (similar) as yours, no? To create ourselves and rise to previously impossible levels. THATS what counts. Not a numerical symbol trying to explain such a HUGE multi-dimentional experience.

    Jordan Pack
    Salmon Arm, BC

  12. Hi Dave - insightful comments, once again.

    It seems to me that this is as much about being a well-balanced person, as the level at which someone climbs.

    I find it interesting that some of the best climbers going around, McClure and Sharma among them, do not have an 8a,nu account. Surely not a coincidence that these guys exude a real joy in climbing, and something of inner peace for everyone to see

    From personal experience, the least happy times in my climbing life have been when grade ticks and willy-waving comparisons have taken over from just going climbing.

    Grades are quite important to me, but only to the extent that they provide a brilliant quantitative measure of how I'm improving, and how all that hard work is paying off. I've rediscovered the real joy in climbing since I stopped using online logbooks / ticklists to show everyone else what I've been up to.

    Best regards

    Tim Nicholson