Bouldering Grades

By Mathieu Elie, March 7, 2019

Ah! Grades! Yesterday I couldn’t send a V4. Nightmare. Last week I sent two V6s. But not yesterday, V4 was too hard. I was really angry. But! Today I almost managed to send a V7, I was ecstatic. Even better, everyone saw me almost sending that V7. Coming off the wall, I heard two guys say that it was probably not harder than V5. Huh! So now I don’t really know if I’m happy or frustrated. One thing is certain, the routesetters don’t seem to know what they are doing.

Bouldering grades, well before the opening of Bloc Shop, has always been a hot topic in climbing. The grading system we use is the most common in America. It’s the V-scale pushed forward by John Sherman (his nickname was ‘Vermin’) that appeared in the 1980s in Hueco Tanks, Texas. It’s an open system that, for the moment, includes difficulties between V0 and V17. In short, a number is affixed to each boulder to assess its physical difficulty. A few criteria also need to be taken into account: the type of boulder, the commitment, the difficulty of the movements, the type of holds, among others.

Of course, one quickly realizes that these grades are subjective because of the differences between every climbers: size, weight, “reach”, style, strengths and weaknesses are all factors that will influence the difficulty of the boulder. In the end, for outdoor bouldering, the grade of a boulder will be a consensus among those who have successfully climbed it. It will evolve over time with different opinions and when new methods are found. This means that in order to establish a solid grade, it will take a few years. Even then, many differing opinions will be pleased to challenge this consensus.

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Sometimes we wish holds were a bit closer...

Let’s come back to Bloc Shop. Every week, the routesetters set between 20 and 25 new boulders for customers in each gym. These boulders stay on the walls for five weeks at most. Routesetters test and propose grades to guide customers through the gym . Thus, it is not possible, as it happens with outdoor bouldering, to wait several years to affix a grade on a boulder.

The primary goal with the Bloc Shop grading system is to provide customers with a constant indication in order to guide them in their boulder choice. Even with many years of experience, it remains difficult to assign bouldering grades systematically and without errors. Thus, from week to week, difficulties will vary a little. Several factors come into play: were the routesetters in better shape that day? Were the routesetters who tested the crimpy boulders injured ? Are the holds on the boulder you are trying dirtier than a few weeks ago? During the summer, was it cooler when the routesetters tested the boulders? These are just some of the many examples that will affect the grading from one week to another. Moreover, these are all elements that routesetters take into account when they put a rating on a problem. Evaluating a difficulty, however, remains too subjective to be an exact science.

So, if boulders are easier on a given week, enjoy! If they are more difficult, try to leave your ego aside and have fun. One thing is certain, the small variations in the difficulties is very hard to control despite all the experience and the good intentions of our routesetters. And, we must admit, sometimes are routesetters are just plain wrong!