Home > Indoor Climbing

Who Do You Grade a New Climb For?

Climbers of varying heights have different advantages on routes and boulders than others, so who is the climb graded for

While difficulty is subjective, there are factors that influence a route’s rating on an individual level. Short climbers will notice that taller climbers almost always have more options when they are climbing vertically whereas tall climbers might notice the length of their legs when they bunch into the small gastons that frequently describe bouldering sequences.

With this, it is easy to appreciate that different routes have different difficulty ratings for people of different heights. Some things are easier if you are short and some things are easier if you are tall. Who do you grade for?

The most obvious answer is to take either the median height or the average height of all climbers and then grade for it. For example, if we assume that most climbers are within the 5-foot to 6-foot range, and accept that there are outliers that do not represent most of the population, then we could rate routes for this population’s median height: 5.5 feet.

The alternative is that we look at this same demographics and grade for their average height. While it is impossible to know the exact average height of climbers in North America, it is worth considering what this average might be. Due to the fact that we think of Daniel Woods as a shorter climber at five feet and seven inches, it is fair to presume that this average value is greater than his height.

If this is the case, then it may be reasonable to presume that climbing already grades for people that are closer to some “average height” that is greater than 5.5 feet. This is further supported by the average height of men in North America: five feet and nine inches.

The reason that we look for the average height of men in North America is because, on this continent, men have developed and continue to develop most of the crags for every outdoor-climbing discipline. For a long time, the climbing community has viewed the average height of climbers as the average height of men.

While 5′ 7″ may be shorter for a man, it is three inches taller than the 5′ 4″ average height of women in North America. This suggests that while it is impossible to grade for everyone, most routes have specifically not been graded with female climbers in mind.

While it is true that some climbs are easier if you are short and some climbs are easier if you are tall, the disparity between these difficulties is not equal. Take a compression boulder. Sometimes, the grips are far away from one another. If you are hugging up edges that are five feet and eight inches apart, the “average” climber might feel spanned, but the average female climber will have to climb the boulder in a completely different style. They cannot reach both edges.

While tall climbers do have to try harder on small-box moves, they generally have the ability to shrink down into that small box and, if they so choose, skip the next move and expand their box into something more breathable. It might require flexibility or finger strength, but these aspects are inherent to climbing.

Short climbers, those under the five-foot nine-inch presumed-average height of route developers in North America, might find themselves questing up a 5.11b with a V3 crux that feels a lot like the V5 crux one might expect to find on a 5.12a simply due to reach.

There may be those that believe this male body-type-based form of grading is fair considering that men make up a greater portion of climbing’s population, however this is not a question of majority. It is a question of accessibility.

If the goal of the climbing community is to expand that community and to be a welcoming space for all demographics, perhaps it is time to consider grading for the average height of all people and not the average height of men.

This is not to say that morphologically dependent routes should not exist, some amazing routes  require morphologically dependent movement. Instead, it is a point of consideration.

While this discussion appears to reach into a call to action, that which is ethical is unclear. Perhaps this is what the slash grade was invented for. Not to differentiate between two perspectives on a difficulty, but height-based accessibility.