The British E grade system is unique. Some argue it's the best in the world, giving more information than any others with its double-barrelled descriptives. True, for well-established routes it works like a charm but does it start to wobble when addressing cutting edge routes? A system designed for the on-sight ethic, it doesn't lend itself to grading after roped practice, leading to genuine mistakes. With the importance of sponsorship to the modern climber, the deep-rooted British attitude held up by some and the massive increase in 'who was first?' reporting, these grade mistakes are more in the public eye than ever before.
The Sheffield Adventure Film Festival will bring together a bunch of Britain's leading climbers to discuss the situation on Sunday, 5pm at the Sheffield Showroom. I caught up with these climbers to find out whether the Great British Grade Debate was likely to be a civilised affair, with everyone delighting in shared E grade opinions, or whether the discussion would spark major disagreement and descend into a monkey's tea party. More to the point: what if they all agreed the E grade doesn't work? Could the Great British Grade Debate change climbing history?
“I think we need to work out where or who the authority for grading routes comes from,” says James Pearson.” James is eager to talk about E grades. Relieved even. I get the impression that, as an up-and-coming professional climber, he would both like to modernise the British grading system and have the comfort of some safe, defined boundaries.
“At the moment,” James continues, “grades given by certain climbers have more weight than others. Whether a given grade is accepted or not seems to depend somewhat on who is in vogue.”
After 20 years at the forefront of British climbing, John Dunne has a better idea than most how the British grading system works. And, he'll admit, he's a little cynical about modern route grading. He thinks some climbers like or need to be in vogue.
“Do some climbers grade routes to get attention to please the media and their sponsors, or do they actually believe their grades are accurate?” he queries. “I think this E12 business needs bringing into check.”
Although he's climbed plenty of trad in his time, Steve McClure isn't a fan of Peak grit and is best known for pushing the limits of British sport routes.
“I'd like to get the real trad climbers at the top talking about grade compression and the fact that our advances are tiny,” he says. “We had UK 7a about 20 years ago, people still won't give anything 7b now and everything is E8 or E9 maximum: also ancient. Have we not progressed at all? Maybe we haven't!”
Of all the climbers who will take part in the Grade Debate, Nic Sellars comes across as the one who most thinks E grading is a hole-riddled system. If a climber wants the limelight, he points out; it's in his or her interest to overgrade.
“A route might get graded with massive fanfare in 1995 and two years later is massively downgraded,” he says. “However, this is only shown quietly in guidebooks. I think there should be more of a consensus: a route shouldn't be graded until it has had a few ascents.”
"Personally,” says John Dunne, when I ask him this, “I grade everything on what it would be like if it was bolted, and then think: what would happen if there were no bolts and you fell off?”
Dave Birkett will be bringing the Lakeland perspective to the debate table in Sheffield. Routes are a bit longer where he comes from, and he thinks grading complications arise when comparing different venues.
“You can have experience grading things on small outcrops,” he says, “but then, when you go to a bigger venue the intimidation is a lot greater. How do you grade for that?”
I can't answer that.
“No,” he agrees, satisfied that he's made his point. “Well, we've been arguing about these things for 50 years.”
James Pearson hasn't been arguing about these things for 50 years (I don't think Dave Birkett has either, actually, as he's 39). James is 21, but he's clearly given the matter of route-grading some serious thought over his short but brilliant climbing career.
“Personal experience affects how climbers perceive a grade,” he says thoughtfully. “Some people are affected by exposure more than others. All points of view are valid. How do you define the average climber? It's hard enough to work out how a route feels for you, let alone define it in terms of the average climber on the average day. It's a mine field,” he sighs.
John Dunne, on the other hand, has been grading routes for many years and he's come to the conclusion that, in many ways, trying to do so is an utterly pointless endeavour.
“A 100m race is a 100m race but what is one grade for a 6'2” climber is not the same for someone who is 5”5',” he explains. “And I can't comprehend Ryan Pasquil doing those moves so how can anyone else, even if you could define it with a grade? You just can't rationalise climbing like you can other sports.”
Steve McClure, though, is quite clear about the answer of how you grade a route. Apparently, the solution lies across the pond in Europe.
“You grade a route on the experience you had on it, related to the experience you've had on other routes. You might get it a bit wrong but that's alright as long as you're honest. That's key,” he says. “It often takes several climbers to try a route to get the grade exactly right. In Europe that's the norm and climbers don't get slated if they grade routes wrongly!”
Whereas E grades denote the hardest move, French grades assess the sum difficulty of a route and the length of the climb. Grades start at 1 and the system is open-ended. The question of whether quoting French grades after E grades simplifies or over-complicates British routes divides our climbing community.
Dave Birkett is fine with borrowing from the French. “There isn't a better system in the world than using the E grade and technical grade with a French grade next to it,” he says, firmly. “Some E7s are harder than others. If you know a route is French 7a and E7, you know it's scary and you might kill yourself.”
“I don't know about that,” says John Dunne. “You could tell climbers where to put wires in as well but wouldn't that ruin the route? And what is Font 7c for one person is 8a for another if they can't reach a hold. That could throw in more problems for the climber than it fixes.”
Steve McClure thinks the problem lies solely with upper E grades. “The British technical grade has been abused above 6a for a long time, maybe irretrievably,” he says. “Hardly surprising really as it purports to assess the hardest move and nobody can even agree on what constitutes a move! I think guidebooks will soon start adding French grading, and it will be whole-heartedly accepted.”
James Pearson disagrees. “It's useful to have a French grade as well as a British one to go on, but I think it's too much information to put in a guidebook,” he says.
Over the last 20 years, John Arran has climbed all over the world, establishing himself as one of Britain's best all round climbers. He firmly believes the E grade is fine as it is. “British trad is a game that needs its own measures,” he says. “The E grade is the best trad grade in the world. It aint broke and it doesn't need fixing.”
The Ewbank system is used in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Routes are graded from 1 (which you should be able to walk up, in theory) upwards. Full route descriptions are included in guidebooks.
Dave Birkett is whole-heartedly against the idea of borrowing the Antipodean grading system. “The British system is by far the better system,” he says. “An Australian route graded at 25 can be death all the way or have one hard move and be basically safe.”
Nic Sellars explains that, with the Ewbank system, the guidebook description mentions all the factors affecting a climber's experience, including exposure, difficulty of setting protection and lack of protection. He thinks the Australians might be onto a winner.
“An Australian 25 might be straightforward or very insecure and much harder," he says, “but you know it's harder because it has a reputation and a history and that's written in the guidebook. In Britain we try to encapsulate all that information in a grade and it doesn't always work.”
John Arran disagrees. He thinks there's strength in numbers and we have more of them than the Ozzies: “The British system is one of the best around if you know how to use it. The Australian system is a number and ours is two, so it's obviously better: it gives more information.”
And, with youthful acceptance, James Pearson stands back and looks at the bigger grading picture. “Every climbing grade system across the globe has its positives and negatives,” he says. “Generally, a climbing system that has been developed for an area works in that area. There are bits of other systems that would work well in ours.”
The British system is completely upside down to the Australian system: they offer full route information as standard; we grade for the on-sight. However, hard British routes are often practiced on a top-rope before they are finally sent and ... graded for the on-sight. How does that work?
Nic Sellars doesn't think it does work: “If you've spent eight days working a route how can you give it a grade?” he asks. “And it's so hard to define on-sight, too – if you've seen a video or a photo then you've had a clue.”
John Arran suggests giving a separate grade for headpoint ascents. “After all, there are better grades than the E grade for highball problems and sport routes,” he says.
In order for route grades to have any sort of validity, James Pearson thinks there needs to be a universally accepted definition of what on-sight and headpoint are. “At the moment, different people apply grades in different ways for different styles of ascents,” he says. “If this can be rectified, I feel everything else will be a little less murky.”
Nic Sellars is all in favour of grades. “I think they are what define your enjoyment and satisfaction of a route,” he says. “If they get skewed then climbing falls apart.”
“Grades are very important,” agrees Steve McClure, “because they help climbers choose whether they're going to enjoy a challenge or a nice day out. People becoming obsessed by grades is the only downfall.”
It's all too easy for top climbers to become grade-obsessed, thinks John Dunne: “The big problem is that the media and the sponsors just want to know about grades,” he says.
James Pearson thinks it would be nice if we could all forget about grades sometimes: “It seems there is too much emphasis put on the grading system when in reality it should just be another guide – something to take into account when choosing a route,” he says.
Dave Birkett agrees and thinks it's important to be able to work outside the grade: “You also need to be able to use natural intelligence and experience to gage a route,” he says. “Numbers don't always help.”
Which climbers want to keep the E grade in its quirky entirety, who thinks it needs a tweak and does anyone think it should be ditched altogether?
James Pearson thinks we need a modern, official definition of how a route should be graded so all climbers can work off the same page. “In the last ten years, route climbing technique has changed and styles have broadened,” he explains.
John Dunne agrees with James that some changes are needed. “A shake up of the British grading system could be beneficial,” he says, “but a lot of people would have to take a big whack to their egos in order for it to work.”
“90-something percent of climbers are happy with the British grading system,” argues John Arran, “And it's all a storm in a teacup that the E grade needs changing.”
Nic Sellars gives the question some serious thought. “There is so much history behind our system and we are just one generation of climbers,” he says. “Do we have the right to change the British grading system? It would be like changing from the Pound to the Euro and losing all the faces on the coins and notes.”
I'm musing what a lovely and apt analogy that is when he adds, “Anyway, there would be a massive uproar if the E grade had to be changed and I wouldn't want to go to all the conferences.”
He ponders some more.
“But then, the E grade isn't the best system in the world. Perhaps we are too conservative.” An air of finality comes into his voice and he stamps his final words with decision:
“Yeah, OK: I think the E grade should be changed.”
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