|A 5.10a sport climb in Colorado|
While this encounter is not proof of anything other than the subjective nature of any grading scale in general and the Yosemite Decimal System here in particular, it got me wondering about the familiar theory of grade inflation all over again. Does it exist and why? Visit beta websites that allow users to vote for "consensus" ratings on routes such as Kor-Ingalls on Castleton Tower or The Mace near Sedona, Arizona that were established several decades ago or more and you often find that the new consensus is higher, sometimes considerably, than the original suggested rating. Is it that modern climbers, influenced by the safety of clip and go sport climbing, have been softened by the loss of "boldness" from the mainstream climbing realm? Or that many climbers climb for years and never learn to place a cam or a piton?
White Maiden's Walkaway on Tahquitz Rock's Maiden Buttress is an 800 foot multipitch trad route that was established in 1937 as one of the baseline routes at the 5.1 rating. Subsequent guidebooks over the years show that the rating has slowly risen to 5.3 then 5.4 and now some guidebooks list it 5.5. A survey of the consensus votes on one popular beta website reveals that one quarter of the climbers suggesting 5.6. Has the scale really bumped five number grades? Would that mean that modern 5.15 is simply what 5.10 was in 1937? The short answer is yes... and no.
The truth is the scale has inflated. As it has been refined, the higher grades have become more important and useful by modern standards. After all, many climbers today will lead their first climb at 5.6 or 5.7. The difference between 5.0 and 5.2 is almost indistinguishable. In truth, everything from 5.0 to 5.4 is a vague blur and often seems to overlap with class 4. In the days before the scale was opened to the mathematically illogical 5.10 rating (subverting the notion that class 6 climbing was aid climbing) in the early 1960's, when a climber encountered a climb that was at the very limit of the time it had to be rated 5.9. Sometimes the most devious of these would get a feeble 5.9+ modifier. That's not to say all 5.9's were the same, they just had no other rating to apply to these cutting edge climbs. When the scale finally opened, it was ultimately refined and slowly expanded as the sport advanced.
Today, the YDS and other scales are continuing to expand together. The YDS and the French scale, for example, have locked in step progressing at identical increments as a small group of international climbers establishes and confirms new futuristic climbs. As the grades expand slowly, one letter increment at a time, and benchmark routes are established at the new grades, the scale(s) have become more refined than in the older days. The aforementioned grade inflation does not seem to occur at these higher grades, and certain routes that have been held up as examples of certain grades have rarely changed over the years. If anything they tend to get downgraded as the beta develops and more ascents are made.
|5.12a sport climb in Colorado|