The Grade Outdoors: Part 1 Inflation

The Grade Outdoors

Fred Nicole on his ungraded L"'isola Che non c'e" or "The Island That Dose Not Exist"

Nothing is so much a source of confusion, gratification, bragging, infighting, obfuscation and yet is such a necessity as grading is in climbing.

It’s easy to see how some people reject grading new routes especially at very high levels where no grade will be without controversy, with legends such as Fred Nicole who when sending L’isola Che non c’e refused to grade it, instead saying just that it was his “most difficult climb ever.”[1]

It’s all well and good if you climb as well as Fred Nicole to say whether something was hard or ok for you, you’ve probably met everyone that is able to climb it on the planet.   The rest of us are stuck for better or worse with grading.

The inaccuracies from location to location and First Ascent time can in some ways be attributed to the same thing that gives birth to blow up dolls.


Grade inflation is a real thing and it makes since. Here’s what happens:

Lil Johnny starts climbing and gets pretty good. He climbs pretty hard in the gym and outdoors at a few crags. He climbs his first 20 in no time, (it’s easy for the grade). Unfortunately most of the climb he’s been climbing have been put up by climbers that climb much harder grades than he does.  these climbers don’t spend much time on 20’s and often over look small holds or complex rests. Instead their talent and strength means they can climb straight through. They grade the route at twenty, but if you were to spend days looking and trying different betas, the route could probably go at about 18.

After Johnny climbs a couple of these routes he starts to assume he should be able to climb all the 20’s. He’ll avoid “notoriously difficult” routes or “old sandbags”  for a while and if he travels to a new area with different style, he might get shut down. It’s not his fault he thinks he should be able to climb harder than he can, it’s just inflation. One day he puts up his own routes and passes the grading inflation to the next generation of rope guns.

This whole conundrum is a great reason for the existence of…

Test Pieces.


If you want to know what the grades used to be like go to Mount Piddington, choose a test piece and get on it. Oh choose something a lot lower than you usually climb, and definitely a grade you can onsight. Hope your okay at placing gear and have the endurance for forty minute routes as well.

But some of the old test pieces are harder than they used to be especially in bouldering(most of them are probably easier due to new gear).


Sandstone gets this issue a lot. Chalk goes on, chalk comes off, more goes on, never comes off. Rubber rubs. The rock gets spoogy and black or white and slippery as all hell. If you don’t think this could ever happen, go to Sissy Crag and jump on the V0 warm up on a sweaty day. You’ll find the route name quite appropriate. (What the hell am i doing here?, V0)


Some routes were never graded right at all. Sometimes people aren’t honest or they grade something in such a way as to get more people to climb it.

In Part Two…

Well talk about all the different grading systems and what they are good (and bad) at.

[1] Core, a chuck frybergerfilm


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