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Grading: Adam Ondra and Alex Megos on Ethics and Kneepads

A discussion of climbing's ever evolving technology, ethics, and the ultimate effects of both on route grading and difficulting

Grading is one of those aspects of climbing that receives both too much attention and too little consideration. Any gym and their desk worker will tell you that there is a lot more to climbing than grading and, to prove this, many of these facilities have removed the V-scale entirely for a quiet colour-based system that plays more gently with the ego. This is all well and good, however outdoor climbing does require some assessment of difficulty. (V-Scale inventor John Sherman discusses grades in video below)

The major reason for this is accessibility. By numbering difficulty, it becomes easy to assess which routes or problems fall within your ability, which might be good projects for you, and which might make for a fun day of sending. Another might be that difficulty provides a metric by which a person might measure their own strength over time. As limit bouldering always feels like limit bouldering, it can be difficult to know your progression without a stated difficulty.

This is evidenced by developers who have difficulty grading their routes or problems due to the fact that a route, especially a project, begins as challenging and becomes easy by the time it is climbed. Did you get stronger or did you simply figure out the beta?

The obvious issue with grades is that they become all consuming. Quickly, the desire to climb V-hard outweighs the desire to climb something cool. This desire to climb V-whatever or 5.Hard has led to the development of incongruent ethics that a couple of the leading professional climbers have brought attention to over the last six months.

Though a conversation around grading is hardly new, it is worth rediscovering as a lot has changed in recent years to dramatically affect difficulty. The two climbers that reference this evolution of beta and technology most obviously are Adam Ondra and Alex Megos.

On August 10, Ondra released a video (above) describing many things about grades. One of the things he touches on specifically is the fluidity of grades. This fluidity is based on a single principle: the difficulty of a climb is defined by the easiest way to get to the top of the route. This is to say that if a person gets the first ascent of 120 foot 5.13a that is largely graded for the pump factor, but then a person comes along and finds a hidden resting jug, or maybe a no-hands rest, the difficulty of the climb might drop to 5.12d or further.

He expands on this point referencing the evolving technology of climbing. The newer climber might looks at the modern climbing scene and not see much in the way of technology considering that a climber only has chalk and shoes, but the recent invention of kneebar pads have done a lot for the world of rock climbing, especially in the terms of a difficult climb. To that effect, the climbing shoes of today differ greatly from the climbing shoes of a long time ago.

Though many climbing shoes have remained the same for face and slab climbing, those shoes were near-perfect by the time the Miura came around, shoes for the overhang have improved dramatically. The soft, sticky downturned shapes of high-performance bouldering shoes have made it significantly easier to hold onto steep overhangs than the stiff flat shoes of the past. Though, in many cases, this is not enough to change the difficulty in itself, it is evidence for why so many face routes are considered “sand-bagged.”

It is a style that today’s modern bouldering shoes don’t really help all that much with. To that effect, modern gym climbing has also made many more climbers proficient at climbing in steep, juggy overhangs. It is important to remember that gyms, in themselves, are also relatively new to the sport of rock climbing and have also had an effect on the way that we perceive different difficulties and the relative accessibility of 5.12, a grade once labelled as the beginning of elite rock climbing.

All of this is simply to prove the point that there are modern advances in climbing that have affected, if nothing else, perceived difficulty. Sometimes, however, there is a new trick that is so consequential that it changes the way the rock is climbed entirely. It is here that we see the kneebar pad.

The kneebar pad has long been a point of contention among rock climbers. The obvious reason is that it makes a route easier, especially when that route was developed before the invention of the kneebar pad or if the route was established without the kneebar pad. For those that do not know, the kneebar pad is a rubber rectangle that you strap to the lower thigh, just above the knee. It is used in conjunction with a kneebar or a knee scum and takes the weight off the climbers hands.

Different routes are aided by this to different degrees. Sometimes, it is merely a comfort thing. On Black Magic, in Squamish, the kneebar pad basically just keeps your thigh from getting bruised. The kneebar is placed in a granite jug, so pad, or not, you are staying there without having to work very hard and are able to get a no-hands rest. Here the kneebar pad seems like a nice form of protection.

However, The Phoenix V11, A Niagara Glen boulder problem, is made easier when a kneebar pad is used. It was also not established with a kneebar pad, but was instead a difficult V12 dead-point. Though other beta has been found since then, making it nearly impossible for the Phoenix, kneebar pad or otherwise, to be fairly graded V12, the pad-less beta is notably different and more difficult than its padded peer.

To that effect, there are many climbs across the world that seem to greatly influence the difficulty of the routes when they are used. Alex Megos, in a recent Instagram post discussed the Dave Graham test-piece A Story of Two Worlds V15 in Ticino, Switzerland. Megos noted that in preparation for the climb he found himself watching beta videos that differed greatly. In one, no kneebar pad was used, in another, a kneebar pad was used.

In his post, Megos said, “After doing Dreamtime, I set my sights on the famous Dave Graham test piece ‘The Story of Two Worlds’ on the other side of the boulder. There are various videos online from lots of different climbers, all theoretically climbing the same boulder and claiming the same grade- 8C. It seems like the climbing community is not differentiating at all and rarely mentioning HOW things are climbed. This issue was recently brought to my attention after the discussion about Yannick Flohe’s ‘dab’ on Dreamtime.”

“Climbing and especially bouldering is all about the HOW. Even more surprising though was the fact that people don’t really seem to care too much about the HOW, although it is supposed to be the most important part of climbing/bouldering in some people’s eyes.”

“After watching all those videos of ‘The Story of two Worlds’, I noticed there are huge differences. Some use a kneepad, although the FA was done without. Most sit down to start, some don’t. One climber Dai Koyamada)started lower than all the others and didn’t use a kneepad. And in the end they all climbed the same 8C? That thought seems very alienating to me.”

“Yes, climbing is a funny sport and it’s not only about getting to the top. It’s HOW you get to the top. I would wish for more awareness within the climbing community, that there are differences in ethics, styles and grades. We, as climbers, should be more open about it and communicate HOW we have done certain climbs. Ticking a grade shouldn’t be the most important part of climbing. Climbing is so much more than that.”

“There are differences in HOW things get climbed and we should acknowledge those. Glad I managed an ascent of “The Story of two Worlds” on my last day. I valued climbing it without a kneepad and I did (barely). I’d say 8C seems about right. A little too much fridge hugging for my taste though.”

Megos’s position differs slightly from Ondra’s though they both claim the same sort of thing. At the core of both of their arguments, new climbing technology affects the difficulty of a climb. This is to say that a kneebar pad, when used, on certain boulders affects the difficulty of the climb.

Some might say, “Well, shouldn’t we use everything at our disposal to get up a climb?” Perhaps, but Megos would argue that, at that point, you should not take the same difficulty for that ascent. If your kneebar pad beta is removing a great portion of the boulder’s difficulty, then it can hardly be called the same difficulty. You can say that it is a technique, but if the technique is no longer viable without a kneebar pad, then your beta is not technical but a function of extra equipment.

The ethics of extra equipment in climbing is a difficult conversation in itself as modern climbing shoes are incredible when compared to their ancestors. As a result, the line here becomes blurry. If climbing is not about the grade, not about the difficulty as we originally asserted, then perhaps Megos is right. Perhaps HOW we climb is more important than the number achieved at its top.

Featured Image by Ilya Sarossy.