Tuesday 20 January 2009

Deliberately dangerous?

I was just reading an interesting post by James Pearson about the use of mats on Gritstone routes. If you’ve followed the climbing scene in Britain lately you might know that James did a first ascent of a very short climb in the peak district called The Promise. On lots of these Gritstone routes which often lie in the range of 15-35 feet high, using a pile of bouldering pads at the bottom is enough to change them from ankle/leg/life threatening undertakings to exciting and perfectly safe boulder climbs.

Given that lots of these big E-grade climbs are seeming more difficult to compare than ever (or is it that folk are more impatient to compare them??), this issue is simmering underneath some of the arguments.

James’ route The Promise was downgraded from E10 to E7 by some climbers who used mats where James didn’t. It’s obvious this made their climb a bit safer.

I can totally understand why they would want to use mats even though James didn’t – it’s only natural that climbers want to make the climb as safe as possible. It’s a paradox isn’t it – We as climbers want to put ourselves under potential danger for the enjoyment of dealing with that situation, yet we want to avoid needless danger, for example a spiky rock that you could pad out with your bouldering mat.

I climbed a lot on grit as a teenager, doing about 20 or so grit E7s and E8s. It’s quite funny that this period in my climbing pretty much ended after a 6 metre fall onto a very thin and pretty much useless bouldering mat after a pebble I was pulling on snapped off. I spent three months in plaster with a badly broken ankle which still complains eleven years later. My friend baggy Mike used to have this futon mat in a zip up bag that let the air out like a bouncy castle. It was the best mat I've ever used. We could jump off the top of the highballs in the peak rahter than bothering to walk back down. I remember spotting Mike when he fell off the last move of Piece of Mind (E6) at the Roaches. I watched in horror as he fell in the wrong direction, away from the air futon. But he landed like a gymnast on a tiny rock ledge beside it and burst out laughing. After that I discovered the potential of Scottish new route climbing and forgot about grit!

So for me looking on this debate about hard trad routes it seems sort of silly that grit is used so often as a yardstick to make benchmark E grades, when sometimes it’s barely high enough to warrant them at all (with modern mat protection, and abundance).

What to do? Like many people, when I think of grit climbing I think of it’s most famous son Johnny Dawes in the Stone Monkey film. I can’t remember off the top of my head exactly, but he described it’s character something like:

“just enough to interest and intrigue, without becoming tiring, or awkward”

Dawes being Dawes, he could have been referring to any manner of things, but I take from his statement that he felt grit climbing was playful, fun and centred much around the kinaesthetics of body movement, with the seriousness rather more in the background. This makes common sense – the peak district’s edges are quite a gentle and non-serious place, compared to some of the other places Johnny later focused on (Cloggy or ‘the big stone’).

I’ve thought this over a lot, and although I’m quite often in favour of making climbing on the harder and more demanding where possible (just because I like that!), I think that ultimately the best style is the one that is the most fun. When the route is 6 metres long and would be a good ‘highball’ boulder problem above mats – so boulder it.

If you are looking for a truly soul searching lead, go somewhere that lends itself to it. If you are looking to understand what E-grades mean, Gritstone is pretty much the last place to start.

Strone – the big stone – somewhere where E-grades will make more sense


  1. Your veiled digs at JP are becoming more obvious with every blog entry. Are you jealous because he is younger than you and therefore, has more of a career ahead of him?
    The Promise was downgraded to E8, not E7,just to clarify.


  2. Dave, I rather think you fell more than 6M, as spotting you nearly broke my shoulder which incidentally nearly 11 years on is still giving me a bit of bother (but that's wholly unconneected with your fall).

    The point about grit being less well suited to E grades than mountain crags is spot on but then again I've always found a lot of mountain grades to be soft as they seem to take into account the 'atmosphere'.

    Anyway I can't grade flour.


  3. Martin
    The americans suggested E8, the brits that came after suggested E7


    These are proposed grades and I don't think a consensus has been made.


  4. reply to Martin:

    It seems that at the present time top climbers aren't able to breathe without folk suggesting they have an ulterior motive for doing so! What do you suggest - they don't take an interest or debate issues at all?!


  5. Jeez, what a patronizing and vain blog entry. Naval gazing at it's very worst. Get a life!

  6. The grade debate is taking the focus away from the climbing. wish everyone would just stand back and commend a good feat of climbing. I'm getting so tired and feed up with this who cares???????? its all just good fun at the end of the day, pushing your limits to go back to the pub and have a beer with your mates and talk about what your doing next week is a better topic!

    Grade bloggers should get real and stop the inane gossip your like a bunch of school girls. No dig at the actual people who have climbed the route their opinions should be taken into account if you’re going to do the climb. But they are just that opinions and everyone is entitled to them when they have done the route and respect each opinion put forward

  7. In reply to Martin:

    It more seems like you don't want to hear other climbers talking about each other. Dave and James have a major common ground, leading hard/death trad routes. It's only common sense that they would talk about each other and compare climbs and experiences.

    To the above:

    Screw off. Get a life yourself buddy.


    This was another interesting read. Keep 'em coming.


  8. Interesting post. I think the only 'problem' with using unlimited bouldering mats is that, beyond a certain point, you might as well just top-rope the route instead. Which is ok in my opinion! The 'rules' of climbing are arbritary, I believe we're all free to do as we like as long as we don't harm the environment or each other.
    Ahem, sorry, I think Obama's inauguration speech has rubbed off on me a bit!

  9. Good thoughts again Dave,

    With the whole grade debate would it not be simpler if repeat ascensionists only offered a downgrade if they had done the route in the same or a better style. It seems unfair that someone can grade a route with danger in mind and then have it downgraded by someone who did it with less danger. That opens up a debate about rope versus pads but still...
    Mark Dobson

  10. Well said Dave, these people seem to think that grit rules all rock climbing!

    well it doesnt. in fact couldnt all grit routes be given bouldering grades?

  11. Thoughtful and provocative post, Dave. I enjoy climbing in fun-style too! Keep it coming.

  12. Cracking post ;0)

  13. Dark Mavis, have you ever climbed on the grit?
    I would love to see you jump on a few hard grit routes and let me know what bouldering grade you would give them, falling 30-50ft on to boulders isn't my kind of bouldering.

    There are safe hard grit routes and dangerous ones too, to suggest that all grit route should be given a bouldering grade is plain stupid, you obviously haven't got a clue what you are on about.

    Anyway, keep up the good work Dave.


  14. The underlying point I think Dave makes is that many hard short gritstone routes don't fit in to the E grade system, something which I think almost anyone who's climbed a fair bit on other higher cliffs in the UK would agree with.
    Inertia abounds but gritstone should take their cue from somewhere like Bishop. Pads and highball bouldering grades are the only sensible way to go.


  15. Partly IRT Jonathon,

    To clear things up (as one of the Brits that has climbed the Promise.)

    Out of the three brits that have climbed The Promise, two thought it E8 (Bransby and me) one thought it E7 (Robins.) The majority consensus there is E8, but of course it hasn't settled. That said I reckon if Niall wrote the guide tomorrow it would go in at E8...

    It is really difficult to grade short grit routes, those that climb in lots of different environments accept that but also understand and appreciate how good the UK grading system is. Those that have the ability to get up these highly graded grit routes usually have enough knowledge to know what to expect simply by who's done it, looking at it, asking others but also humility to take whatever grade they think it is E7 or E11. It is very difficult to take a stance if you haven't climbed it, and I'm glad Dave has done this on WOL.

    In spite of what Dave has said about the grit and WOL etc, I'd be seriously interested in Dave doing Equilibrium/groove/promise/any of the "top end" routes (Kaluza Klein et al are not exactly cutting edge, or that hard, and forgetting blind vision as it's really a hard boulder + E8) and offering his opinion. Simply because he would be the only one with exposure to "everything" at the top end and I'm sure he's capable.

    Respect to Dave, James and anyone else pushing their own limits I hope we all get the same enjoyment out of climbing as these guys.

    John Roberts