Sunday 5 October 2008

The grade of Echo Wall

Shaking out before the final crux on Echo Wall (video still)

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.


  1. Hey Dave, a typically balanced and thoughtful post on a minefield of a topic. Nice to read your thoughts concerning the grade. But yes, what really matters is the route and it stands very proud. Amazing effort. Looking forward to the film. Peace

  2. Hey Dave, interesting read. You say "I still have no idea what to grade Echo Wall". I don't believe you. I think you know what you should grade it, but you hesitate to do so.

    You've spelled out in no uncertain terms how much harder, involved and serious this route was for you than anything else you've done. So why not go ahead and give it a grade that reflects this?

    To hell with what anyone else thinks.

  3. 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.

    Possibly something to do with the DVD Hot Aches and yourself made, which was called "E11" and not "Rhapsody"??

  4. Hot Aches alone made the film "E11" and named it. Dave had no input into what a film production company decided to name their film, quite rightly so.

  5. You're right, Dave Echo Wall can't be graded now and I think it'll a long time if it ever does. You have given the facts that could grade a route if it is in known territory but stepping from one grade to the next level is very hard to do. I'm of the opinion that there should probably be a different level above E now that I think James Pearson's route and your's would fit into. It might not mean too much to regular folks but with the average standard where it is they're not likely to be climbing for a while.
    Food for thought.

  6. Hi Dave
    How would you compare Echo Wall with 'To Hell and Back', which at the time you described as the scariest route you'd ever done?

  7. Lee - well you're wrong. When putting so much effot into one route for so long you lose accurate measurement of how it compares to references elsewhere. Also, I've said it might get a high grade based on the way the grading scale has been used in the past, but don't necessarily agree or want to follow some of the examples set.

    Fiend - As Claire said. Hot Aches made E11, not me. I wouldn't have called it E11, but then I wasn't getting any royalties from it!

    Tony - Echo Wall is in a totally different league to THAB. That route needed a bit of sombre consideration on the day because of conditions, but it was just a case of turning up and doing it. The last boulder problem on Echo Wall is probably similar standard to the THAB crux, but the differnce is you have done a Rhapsody to get there and are feeling a bit pumped!

  8. Hi Dave. I'd be interested to know how many F8c/F8c+s you've redpointed 1st go. Also, how many times you top roped Echo Wall cleanly before going for the lead (I guess your answer might be "watch the film")!? It must seem incredible to most people that you would lead something just .5/1 grade below your very top redpoint grade, where if you fell it would be certain death. Until I read your post about grading, I had assumed that there would be at leasy some decent gear on the route. Time for some E9 ground ups now?!

  9. Hi,

    If it helps, the logistics of working the route on a top rope should not come into the grade because (as you know) E is for onsight. But other factors such as the route being dirty or difficult to predict conditions would effect the onsighter. Cheers, look forward to seeing the film.


  10. Hi Dave,

    a bit slow on the up take but i just watched Echo Wall. WOW!

    Having gone straight to your blog to read your view on the grading, my respect for you has grown even further.

    I have to say im fairly new to the climbing world, pushing myself out onto trad (S, VS, E1 area), so my experience of super hard crazy lines is, well, non-existant. However, i think that its important to remember (remind people) the reason why we climb, and like you point out in the film, that's something everyone has to answer for themselves and hold true to.

    I totally agree with you that climbing is not about the grade, its not about the fame, or the films, its about getting out on the rock and pushing yourself to your limits and beyond, to look inside and find out who you really are, and what your really made of. to hell with the grade.

    Keep on going and i look forward to further films!