/ Grades in the Thirties.
In a similar vein, as part of the work for the new Climbers' Club Mid Wales guide, we've been finding and repeating 'lost' routes that were done between 1950 and 1954 in Radnorshire. The grades concerned are also from Difficult to Severe but, just as you've found, the climbs are, in modern terms, much harder.
From what we've discovered so far, this is a pretty accurate rule of thumb:
Things graded D in 1950 = HS now
Things graded VD = VS
Things graded S = Scottish VS!
I'm not joking ... you can only take so much, er, route-checking "excitement" before needing to retreat to a darkened room. Dirt/ looseness/ lack of traffic aren't the issue; the routes are all just grossly undergraded. Perhaps we're not as good as we think we are - or are we just, uum, weaker? ;¬)
If it's any consolation, I fully understand your pain.
One of my key arguments has been the post ww2 period to the onset of cams led to an internal grade creep of 2 grades on crack climbs that became protectable. Most of the balance and slab climbs didn't go up enough and they climbed them in the 30's in plimsoles.
IIRC correctly even in the 1950s Napes Needle was a V Diff.
Climbing in the 1930s involved long run outs on a hemp rope tied around the waist with a bowlin, no protection other than the odd sling around a spike or tree, plimsoles and a pipe in your mouth. It seems that the hardest part was keeping the pipe alight.
I for one am pleased we don't grade like that anymore! Nowadays dergrading would just be an affectation
Grading has become more refined over the years - thats all, like anything does.
Are you climbing them properly: You do realise that a lit pipe subtracts at least two grades?
I think I've got some tatty hemp rope and some pebbles if you need some help :-)
Are the routes you are talking about in the ukc logbooks yet? Could you paste a link in if they are? I'm heading that way hopefully towards the end of the easter and would be interested in taking a look at them. I've not climbed on the mendips before.
Yes, you are absolutely spot on. Sometimes i think it would be good to go back to that grading.
Another point to bear in mind is that people tend to get good at those things that they spend most time doing. In the world of climbing, and across the whole population, there has been a gradual shift in the type of climbing that most people tend to do, with a resulting shift in expertise; so it's quite conceivable that climbers of several decades ago were better than modern-day climbers at some particular type of climbing that was widely practised back then but is less popular now. Cracks, for instance, in all their more obvious and awkward forms.
When climbing various upland protuberances purely for the fun of it first took hold, the routes followed by pioneers - which of course gradually became "routes" - tended to follow the more obvious lines of weakness. By and large these were the (enclosed and secure) gullies, chimneys and cracks rather than the (exposed and precarious) open faces and buttresses in between; furthermore, and when climbing ground-up onsight, it would have been generally easier to see from below whether some major fissure-line actually led anywhere, than to tell whether a fortuitous line of holds out on an open face did the same. As rudimentary ropework gradually developed the cracks and gullies would have offered more in the way of belaying potential, in the form of various wedged blocks and flakes that could be slung or threaded; unlike dolomite rock, with its myriad "clessidra" features on easier routes, the buttress- and face-climbs on our mountain and moorland crags don't offer such natural tunnel-threads in anything like the same abundance, simply the occasional slingable flake. Early climbers, therefore, became very good at climbing these fissure lines and all the features found therein - and they weren't necessarily easier than subsequent climbs out on the intervening faces, simply more obvious objectives.
When climbers started venturing out onto the open faces in search of unclimbed rock, and lacking our modern gear that often allows a face-climb on relatively featured rock to be almost as protectable as a crack, this would have involved a definite escalation in overall difficulty and would have been graded accordingly; the climbs would have been more serious, the positions more intimidating, and the required climbing techniques less familiar - although not necessarily technically any harder than than some of the earlier routes. But as such adventures became more commonplace and gear development significantly reduced the risk factor, people started to realise that many of these newer routes were actually more enjoyable than the old ones. Spool on several decades to where we are now, with bouldering and sport climbing offering the possibility of reaching a high level of technical ability while in the process completely by-passing an earlier learning ladder wherein some degree of crack-involvement was pretty much mandatory, and it's easy to see why a modern climber might find a world of difference between two old Severes like Crackstone Rib and Deer Bield Crack, or a VS like The Brain and an old one (I think) like Right Eliminate!
All of them!
Hargreaves Original I expect, though there are many others that would fit!
One other thing to bear in mind is erosion, esp. at popular crags. When Cook did his eponymous leap the landing was a nice soft peat 'featherbed'. Now its rocks, partially hidden by heather.
Balcombe had top climbing skills.
He made a trip to the Lakes in the mid-thirties and did three standout routes as well as other lesser ones:
Engineers Slabs on Gable Crag
Buttonhook Route on the Napes (Kern Knotts)
Direct Finish to CB on Scafell Crag
Must have been huge undertakings!
> Balcombe had top climbing skills.
"He apparently did`nt suffer fools gladly" sounds right. I found this which is a good account of his activities in the Lakes.
It's a different recalibrated system now. It worked then wouldn't now though
I think looking at how things have changed over the years in climbing is really interesting; not just grades, but the whole lot - equipment, techniques, class divides, etc, etc.
However, I think some climbers are so enamoured of the way grades have been applied in the past that they lose sight of the primary requirement of a grading system, which is consistency. The trad system as used today has more subdivisions, and is far more consistent and precise than in the past. Yes. it is amusing that Very Severe has come to mean a relatively easy climb, but at the end of the day it doesn't really matter what it's called; it's just a label. We could call it marmite soldiers and it would still work, as long as everyone more or less agreed what band of difficulty it represents.
After all, nobody any longer expects to be able to do all their weekly shopping for three shillings and sixpence :)
To put it another way, if a modern climb is considered a bold lead then it will get a substantially higher grade than its mere technical difficulty might suggest, whereas in the early days all leads were bold so it was less of a consideration. The grades reflected that, so V Diff really did mean "very difficult", and not "very easy" as it does today.
There was also less uniformity of grades in different climbing areas, so while grades may have been fairly consistent locally, if you went to another area you might find them easier, or harder. As climbers travel around more this has been largely, although not entirely, ironed out (Yorkshire grit excepted!).
Get hold of a copy of the 2012 Scottish Mountaineering club Journal, there's a great article 'No one said it would be Easy' about trying to repeat easy routes on Skye done in 1912.
Some images that show my Grandfather climbing in the 1930's and some contemporary gradings at Helsby.
Forgot to add that I also have his 1924 Langdale guide, the description of what is now Gimmer Crack as being 'as yet unclimbed' is firmly crossed out and 'It is Now' added, (I don't think he sued Kenneth Wolstenholme in 1966).
He was very active in the late 1920's and thirties, He avoided the Kinder trespass and went up onto the northern edges knowing that all the keepers would be occupied on the south western side! He was also a Bogtrotter, Munro bagger and alpinist when these things were unfashionable. I have a load of his slides from Zermatt, Skye and the peak that I really need to digitise at some point.
With regard to the OP, grades wise the routes seem to be divided into Nails and Rubbers climbs. Falling was not an option for the leader no matter what the footwear!
> I for one am pleased we don't grade like that anymore! Nowadays dergrading would just be an affectation
The late Paul Nunn might have been right?
He wrote about grades only being there to bamboozle the gullible.
Or maybe not...
Except that depends on who cares about consistency. In quite a few areas for quite a long time no one gave a damn for less popular climbs, especially below VS.
I think the early guides were in fact pretty accurate, given the context Ian rightly describes above; in part because the editor could climb nearly all the routes and understand their gradatations. Modern guides contain the potential for major problems, especially as sandbag grades became more common in the 60's through to the 80's and crag deterioration (lichen and dirt) seriously affects bold routes in the low extremes.
In the peak BMC guides Moff and I and a few other keen souls did our level best to clear out the worst examples; like Diffs that are now VS and a Severe that is now E3 but sandbags almost certain still exist HVS upwards as we were not always good enough to climb these (we cleaned and checked a few of these on tr in Froggatt that went up 2+ grades).
Another increasing modern problem is that I climbed a V4 Font6b indoors, second go, on Thursday...never done this on a real outdoor problem in my life. There are only a handful of indoor walls with honest outdoor standard grades at the lower end of UK tech; Font or V grading.
In conclusion I think grades are not their most consistent ever even with the help of places like UKC logbooks (as a public list) where we are gaining slow grade creep for the removal of serious outliers.
Hmm .. complex post. You make some interesting points. I think I sort of agree with some bits and sort of disagree with others - hard to say for sure, though :)
IMO some of your scenarios aren't to do with the modern calibration of the grading system at all, but more about things going wrong with the checking process, which can happen in any era - I don't believe it happens more now than formerly. Other points you make are directly to do with the calibration system, but are arguably about exceptions rather than an overall downward trend in accuracy. FWIW I'm still pretty convinced that that trend is upward.
Regarding indoor grades: I really don't think there's an "increasing modern problem". The difficulties in correlating indoor and outdoor grades have always been there, and it's only a problem if a correlation is sought or expected, which is unrealistic IMO.
Good post. I think the other thing to remember is just how early on we STILL are in the whole game of climbing - just Look at the number of new grades that have appeared in the last 40 years.
A question that really needs to be answered is "should grades be the same in all areas". In other words, is it ok that an E6 in the Peak would get E4 in the Moors? Does it matter? Well, it's going to become more of a problem as people start to travel more and more into different areas.
If you're trying to showcase an area, or just dip in and out, then sandbags are incredibly annoying.
Yes, of course it matters and there's no reason for it.
> Yes, of course it matters and there's no reason for it.
I'm inclined to agree with you, but there's a certain question of whether a region's grading is an integral part of its "climbing culture". Would Northumberland be the same place if it wasn't known as a county full of sandbags?
A question of degree, I think. Out-and-out sandbags need to be regraded wherever they are; likewise obviously overgraded routes. IMO that's not part of the charm of a crag - it's just wrong.
However, some crags have routes which tend to gather at particular cusps between grades, and that does become part of the character of that crag. We're never going to be able to smooth it all out completely.
First-time visitors to crags aren't generally well placed to assess grades, especially if they have little experience of the rock type. On the other hand, locals often have too much familiarity, and have probably developed all sorts of specialized techniques. Accurate grades have to find the middle ground.
Not sure about that, if I get on a route that I expect to be a test and just cruise it I often feel strangely empty.
Checking is way harder now than it was then. There are many more routes and you need a wider range of skill levels to get anything like accurate data and the clean air is leading to much more overgrown and lichenous crags.
I think you are in denial on your view on if modern grading is better or not (I think the opposite, that its not, and have evidenced why).... 30's guidebooks were pretty damn good in their own context. However, like I've just said, it was easier then.
Onto Franco's points some degree of localism is inevitable given the current volunteer teams. An eastern edges slab E6 may well be E5 in Yorkshire and you say E4 in Northumberland, yet how many people onsight these??. Its also not all one way... we still have Chequers, Teck, Masochism etc at HVS; Toy, Vice etc at E1; Sentinal; Apollo etc at E2 in the Peak (all noticeably without queues). I'd add that Western Peak grit was IMHO graded harder than Eastern areas with Moorland in between. Yorkshire as hard as Western Peak, if not slightly harder again.
I agree we need closer alignment and localism requires care, especially on common leadable classics.
I climb reasonably widely (except never been to Northumberland) and sometimes locally exhaustively and give advice based on that. In the Peak and Yorkshire I'm nearly always suggesting upgrading obscure sandbags and downgrading soft classics and similar elsewhere (with perhaps more tendency for downgrades in the new guides in CC areas, esp Snowdonia).
I prefer we hold out against further grade creep but would accept some creep to better align (as I said many time here before many Peak grit VS crack climbs creeped 2 effective grades in as many decades from largely unprotected to well protected with new cams).
> Checking is way harder now than it was then. There are many more routes and you need a wider range of skill levels to get anything like accurate data and the clean air is leading to much more overgrown and lichenous crags.
Interesting point of view, I remember in the 60's the 'greening' up of Helsby and Frodsham was put down to the pollution of the chemical factories at Ellesmere Port etc.
> An eastern edges slab E6 may well be E5 in Yorkshire and you say E4 in Northumberland, yet how many people onsight these??.
I said the north york moors. They're starting to get onsighted, but yeh, not that much. Hopefully as they are onsighted, or people think about onsighting them, they'll be brought into line with other areas.
I should imagine the acid content of the atmosphere was already in decline then. I've only been around these crags for 30 years and they are noticably greener now. Some of the photos from 60 years back are almost unrecognisable as being on the same rock. I think the vegetation issue is partly down to less unofficial crag cleaning.
Well, you may be right - but as I said hard to say for sure. So many variables to take into account, so many different sorts of crags. My set of experiences as a route checker are probably different to yours or any other checker.
I take your point about healthier and faster regrowth; that is a factor.
Regarding the inability of the average checker to onsight the harder grades: I think every team needs a friendly beast to call on (or an unfriendly one you keep in a cage). Fortunately, here in the Bristol/Forest of Dean area, we have Guy Percival to unleash.
> If you're trying to showcase an area, or just dip in and out, then sandbags are incredibly annoying.
But there are hardly any around any more! I've occasionally in the last 30 years found something over/under-graded -including County grades, Scottish VS Yorkshire Blue Book etc etc but it's never been a real, life or death issue. And today the vast majority of routes are regularised - for better or worse - so by and large you're not going to be unpleasantly surprised very often at all!
It still gives me the shivers when I remember my lead of Banana Wall - "MVS 4c" - 10m off the ground with no gear...
Stargazer direct- Highcliffe Nab. E4 6b. Fall from the crux is onto one crap RP. If it rips (which it probably will) you're dead. Probs E6.
Magic in the Air- Highcliffe Nab. E6 6b. No gear. Fall from the crux and you're dead. probs hard E7.
Cardiac arrest- Highcliffe Nab. E5 6b. Fall from the crux and you're dead. More like E7.
Original Sin- Highcliffe Nab. E6 6c. font 7c+ highball boulder problem, then 6b soloing. Totally jiggered if you fall off. E7 at least.
They're just the routes at the popular end of one crag in the Moors. The list goes on and on. There are E5 6bs and E6 6cs all over the shop where a fall would mean total jiggerdom.
So you should write the next guidebook and sort this nonsense out then?
Yes Ian's post was spot on i reckon.
>They're just the routes at the popular end of one crag in the Moors
Judging by your description I bet it's not that popular!
You need to get out more! Franco's right... there are plenty of sandbags left and these can sometimes be checked routes but representing honest differences about how grades are regarded by different local teams or even specific crag teams.
In reply to bmpclimb
I've not noticed a shortage of 'beasts', thing is they have limits too (especially volume, with up-to-date currency, on grades well below their limit) and there are other variables beyond clean routes one year that can be dirty the next. Most changes in the BMC guides were sub-HVS, except maybe OtM where stuff like Dewsbury route on the Pagoda were outed (HVS up to E3 and still a starred E1 in Rockfax).
> Another increasing modern problem is that I climbed a V4 Font6b indoors, second go, on Thursday...never done this on a real outdoor problem in my life. There are only a handful of indoor walls with honest outdoor standard grades at the lower end of UK tech; Font or V grading.
My experience too; I did an "V7" onsight recently and regularly get V5/V6 problems after a few goes - I don't think I've done anything harder than V5 outside in my life.
However, it is partly familiarity with the style of a particular wall - try a new one and you tend to get spanked at the grades you normally do.
The other thing is that even if the moves on a real boulder were reproduced exactly on an indoor wall, I suspect the indoor problem would still feel easier. The holds are more obvious, are perfectly dry and the problem is perfectly padded, so baling out from height is less of an issue.
> from 60 years back are almost unrecognisable as being on the same rock.
I guess it is indeed harder to see the green in a B&W photo.
Sorry, probably wasn't clear - the idea is to call in the beast (whose opinion you trust) for the occasional route that's too high in the grade for the "normal" team members, not "waste" them on lower grade routes or volume. I know there are some UK crags with a high proportion of very hard routes, but I've not been responsible for checking/writing up any of those - just as well!
> You need to get out more! Franco's right... there are plenty of sandbags left and these can sometimes be checked routes but representing honest differences about how grades are regarded by different local teams or even specific crag teams.
Exactly. In areas where routes above E4 (and very rarely are routes this hard onsighted) are only ever headpointed, it's very easy for harder routes to be massive sandbags. Once you've top roped something 20 times, that knacky 6a sequence seems a lot more friendly. "how can it possibly be E6? It's only one move..."
Colour was around by the early 50's although mainly special occasion landscape stuff. I agree black and white was really the only option in most guidebooks and I guess colour reproduction may not be ideal on old shots. Even old climbers have a rose tint sometimes to their memories ;-)
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