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 5.9 Aint What it Once Was: An Exploration of Grade Inflation in the Yosemite Decimal System Article

# 5.9 Aint What it Once Was: An Exploration of Grade Inflation in the Yosemite Decimal System

Page Type: Article

Activities: Mountaineering, Trad Climbing, Sport Climbing, Toprope

Page By: Legpowered

Created/Edited: Feb 6, 2013 / Feb 9, 2013

Object ID: 837295

Hits: 1648

Page Score: 81.69%  - 14 Votes

## Grade Inflation: Myth or Reality?

The Yosemite Decimal System is a complicated entity fully worthy of dissertation-like exploration. But the YDS is an empirical system not a intellectual one, and any attempt to reduce it to research and discussion is bound to be flawed. If you are new to the Yosemite Decimal System, a good place to start is an article that provides a basic understanding of its history and of its general grade ratings.

There is much discussion, particularly between the older and younger generations, about a particular YDS phenomenon in the climbing and alpine world often called grade inflation. I work occasionally as a route setter at a local climbing wall. After designing and executing a project I was sure (and was confirmed by three other climbing friends, all of which can onsight 5.10 and one of which who can onsight 5.12) was 5.10b/c, a climber that was 48 years old and has several decades of climbing experience suggested 5.9+ as the rating. Surprised by this, I voiced my doubt and had him try another climb nearby which I originally rated 5.11a but after a few ascents downgraded to 5.10d. Again, this was confirmed by the same three friends. After struggling a bit but finishing the climb, this 48 year old climber suggested once again that this climb was 5.9+, only adding this time that it was "maybe" 5.10a. I was shocked, and this time I protested saying that this rating was simply impossible. After a lengthy discussion, at best I could convince him that it was at least 5.10b but he would concede no higher. While I was thinking "sandbagger," he suggested perhaps the difference was due to "a different generation" in a smug tone I interpreted as elitist.

Girls With Guns (5.10d) at the Pup Tent 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 dropping of "boldness" from the mainstream climbing realm? Or that many climbers today climb for years and never learn to place a cam or a piton?

While considering this question, my research took me to a broad spectrum of places. In order to understand the issue of grade inflation, it seemed vital to understand its history. As noted in the history article, the YDS scale was invented at Tahquitz Rock as an extension of the Sierra Club's terrain rating scale that was used to grade alpine routes of all levels (class 1 being trail walking and class 5 being technical climbing). Ratings were established from 5.0 (easiest technical climb) to 5.9 (hardest technical climb at the time). The climbs at Tahquitz Rock, therefore, became the baseline routes by which all others would be compared. However, when you review the history of the ratings at Tahquitz, you find a peculiar thing. The original ratings, the ones that were supposedly designed to anchor the entire system, have migrated slowly and steadily upward.

5.9 dihedral in Colorado National Monument
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 are 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.

What all of this seems to mean is that modern climbers are not soft compared to their predecessors, despite the explosion of popularity in the safer mode of sport climbing. What the sport climbing explosion has allowed for is climbers to focus on pure difficulty, and people are sending routes that those who established the YDS scale could never have imagined 80 years ago. While the lower end of the scale might be softer than it was decades ago, the upper end of the scale has now been pushed higher than ever in all aspects of the sport, not just in bolt protected sport climbing. The so-called world's hardest off-width, The Century Crack (5.14b), was free climbed in Canyonlands National Park in Utah in 2011, as well as the hardest trad line in famed Indian Creek: Carbondale Short Bus (5.14- PG-13). Bold alpine first ascents have occurred in the Ruth Gorge in Alaska and elsewhere across the world. Alex Honnold soloed Half Dome, El Cap, and Mt. Watkins in a single day. While the sport has gone mainstream and become safer in many ways, boldness is still very much alive and rewarded. Though grade inflation has occurred notably over the decades in the lower grades, the higher grades have remained relatively stable, only expanding as new generations are able to push the sport further and further into the future.

This original article on my mountaineering website

A multimedia article that explores the Yosemite Decimal System, its history, and a breakdown of the various grade levels and modifiers such as safety ratings, aid ratings, and more.

Another article that explores the YDS system. This one focuses on the question of whether we grade terrain by the hardest move or the route as a whole

## Images

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 Matt Lemke Thanks! Voted 10/10 Thank you for writing this...grade inflation is very real however the YDS grade is falling apart rapidly. When you compare all the different ratings from different places and even different types of climbing they are all very different. For example, gym ratings compared to crag ratings, compared to alpine ratings are all vastly different. Not only that, depending on where you are, say Washington vs. Colorado all three of those types above are different compared to regional location. Take a well known examle...Class 4 in Colorado can be as low as class 2+ in Washington and California. Within Washington, Index cragging is often 1-2 grades lower than a similar climb at say Mt. Erie! Another example...North Table Mountain cragging vs. Eldorado Canyon....nuff said! I personally think YDS ratings should be altered to a more qualitative system with keywords describing each route such as reachy, pumpy, hand-crack, smearing, rock type, pro placement etc. But regarding grade inflation...everyone from the generation before us will think everything is lower. Posted Feb 6, 2013 11:34 am

 Legpowered Re: Thanks! Hasn't voted Thanks for you input Matt. I agree, there is grade inflation, particularly (as mentioned in the article) in the lower levels (class 3, 4, and, in my opinion, up to 5.10). I love to hear feedback from climbers and alpinists that have experience in a broad spectrum of areas. I don't, however, see much change in the higher grades. Climbs like To Bolt or Not To Be at Smith Rock that were established as benchmarks at their grade (America's first 5.14a in this case) decades ago (1986 for To Bolt or Not to Be) and the grades have not changed. If anything, they have gone down as more ascents are made. Keep up the good work! I am stoked to see what you climb this upcoming season! Maybe we will run into each other in the mountains sometime Posted Feb 6, 2013 12:01 pm

 pookster1127 Old School Voted 10/10 Having only top roped a 5.8 and led a 5.6, I can not yet comment on the higher ratings - However having climbed dozens of mid rated climbs in the east I can say that the "traditional trad areas" Gunks, NY - Seneca, WV etc have routes that are sandbagged compared with newer routes put up later, so grade inflation is alive and well. The problem for a cheap guy like me is that I want to on-sight every lead and with that desire, I run the risk of leaving gear behind, when I have to bail on a route too tough to complete. It happened to me in the Gunks on Three Pines. After being lowered with shaking legs from not being able to make a fairly easy move above a sharp ledge (head case), I begged a 5.10 + climber to retrieve my stuff. It was late in the day and he volunteered to climb on my rope - top roping to my last placement and finishing the first pitch on lead. For me the thought of losing two biners, and two stoppers caused me to overcome my embarrassment of admitting I could not finish a 5.3, which I though at the time was much tougher. I had climbed much higher ratings in New Jersey - but what do they know about climbing?? Anyway I could barely sleep that night and sended the route on fresh legs the early the next day so that I could go home with some dignity. John Posted Feb 8, 2013 6:56 pm

 pookster1127 YDS Classes 1 to 5 Humor Voted 10/10 From http://climber.org/data/decimal.html#fifth RJ Secor quips: Class 1: you fall, you're stupid. Class 2: you fall, you break your arm. Class 3: you fall, you break your leg. Class 4: you fall, you are almost dead (i.e., you can't breath and move your arms, legs, and head). Class 5: you fall, you are dead Posted Feb 8, 2013 7:17 pm

 Legpowered Re: YDS Classes 1 to 5 Humor Hasn't voted That's good, I like it. Though I have climbed some class 3 alpine routes that were surely a you fall you're a goner. Pyramid Peak and Capitol Peak come to mind in particular. Anyways, thanks for the anecdote. Happy climbing! Posted Feb 9, 2013 1:31 am

 Josh Lewis Re: YDS Classes 1 to 5 Humor Hasn't voted Not quite true. You could have a 20 foot pitch of class 5. And you could have very slick class 1 with high exposure. While typically this is true, there are many cases where it's just not as simple as that. I been at this mountaineering game for a long time. I've seen sketchier class 1-2 than loose class 4. Posted Feb 11, 2013 3:58 am

 jacobsmith Very True Voted 9/10 I think what you said about the modern YDS system focusing on the higher grades is very true, below 5.5 use to be easy climbs, now its just called low-5th and when we solo it we call it class 4 to make ourselves feel better. YDS seems to be working very well for the 5.10+ grades, particularly for sport and other "pure rock" climbs, but i agree with Matt that a lot of the time route ratings have little descriptive power. these are not real attributes of the rock we are talking about, they are subjective opinions of generalized difficulty, in essence: how much did i sweat getting up this? I just find it funny when people argue about whether a route is really a 10a or a 10b, as if it "really" any grade at all. that's why a more descriptive, qualitative rating system, where we write a paragraph instead of assigned a number, might be better. Posted Feb 10, 2013 11:15 am

 Legpowered Re: Very True Hasn't voted Very good points. I agree that there is very little descriptive power in a few numbers. For me, however, I actually kind of enjoy those debates about whether it is 5.10a or 5.10b. I dont take it seriously enough to really argue about it. I find it more interesting for what it reveals about the differences between us as humans and individual climbers. Anyway, thanks for reading and for your comments! Posted Feb 10, 2013 11:34 am

 pvnisher Learn from the Brits Hasn't voted So use the British system. One adjectivial grade which describes how strenuous, sustained, bold, etc., it is, and then a technical grade which describes the hardest move. Everyone would agree a 5.9 that is only 5.6 with a single 5.9 move is not nearly as hard as a 5.9 that includes a bunch of 5.9 moves on top of each other. Yet the YDS would rate them the same. The British model would rate them differently, and you would know much more about how "difficult" the route actually is. http://www.ukclimbing.com/databases/crags/grades.html Posted Feb 10, 2013 4:03 pm

 Legpowered Re: Learn from the Brits Hasn't voted I agree, the dual system gives you a more thorough picture. Usually we are forced to added descriptors like "pumpy" or "sustained" or "powerful" into the route descriptions. Maybe we need to develop a standardized system for these adjectives as the British do. Thanks for reading and for your comments. Posted Feb 10, 2013 8:43 pm

 jacobsmith Grading Question Voted 9/10 You seem to know quite a bit about the YDS so you may know the answer to this question, how do the letter and number grades relate to each other? is the difference between a 5.10b and a 5.10a supposed to be the same as a 5.10a to a 5.9, or are the letters sub-grades that indicate small increments? Posted Feb 21, 2013 11:32 pm

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