Grades are Dead, Long Live Grades pt.1

Prepare yourselves, we are going on a journey, AND we are discussing one of my favourite things..... numbers.


V grades are dead, well at least for routesetters they are, or they should be.....


Yossi and Tonde discussing a boulder at AUS team selections
Yossi and Tonde discussing a boulder at AUS team selections

As a routesetter V grades are the bane of my existence. They have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. They don’t tell you how long a climb is, how powerful, how fun, how dangerous, how beautiful, really how anything, except the ‘cudos’ you might get from your climbing buddies or digital forums if you post a send vid.


Plus, V grades raise so many questions. If you’re really tall and dyno past the crux, do you still ‘get’ the same V grades? If you’re tiny and have to pull on the footers, do you ‘get’ more V grades?? PLUS, we regularly will hear people (men) talk about how much easier X is compared to Y, but heaven forbid a small climber should be able to up grade because they are short!


The other bizarre thing we do as climbers is reduce the difficulty when a more complex solution is found. Climbing is the only sport or activity I’ve ever encountered where more technical solutions apparently lower the overall difficulty. How many times have you been at a crag and someone said “it was V9 until someone found the toe hook, now it’s like 7”. The only value V grades seem to handle is intensity, and in the world of routesetting, intensity is really only a starting point. Read more about the short history of the V scale here


Who only likes climbing on smaller and smaller holds, further and further apart? (put your hands down moonboard climbers). And for everyone who is thinking to themselves, well there is always the fontainebleau system, don't even get me started! Check out a super fun (aka nerdy) analysis of font grades here.


Routesetters reviewing their work at one of the new Urban Climb Facilities
Routesetters reviewing their work at one of the new Urban Climb Facilities

One of the interesting things that is happening in my world of routesetting, is that our professions is (slowly) becoming a profession. I may be one of the first generations of routesetters, who for the most part are primarily routesetters. What this means is that the tools that we use are becoming more specific and specialised to our craft. The demands and the pace of change requires us to not only create, but also communicate what we are doing, and how we are doing it across multiple teams of people. The most challenging of which is how we discuss and use the idea of difficulty. How difficult is hard? How easy is something for a beginner? Can we make it interesting (not a ladder) and easy?


So, let’s rewind….. it must have been 5 years ago when I first heard about RIC. The ingenious metric for describing boulders create by Tonde Katiyo (I am sure that he would hand ball off much of the creation to his mentors). R or risk, is how difficult it is for a climber to repeat a movement, it is used to describe climbs with bad feed, or dynamic movement, or co-ordination. I or intensity, is how hard something is physically to do and C or complexity, is how difficult it is to decipher the method to climb something. Each value is scored from 1 to 5, and is based on the group of people that climb is intended for. So a boulder that is a 5 risk for beginners, may only be a 2 or a 3 for advanced climbers.


After using RIC for half a decade, I began to notice a couple things. The first is that risk and complexity have a very close relationship with intensity. Basically if you want someone to figure something out, the intensity has to be at the right level to give the climber enough capacity (time to think) to solve the problem. The same goes for risk, if you want someone to do a paddle, the intensity of the catching holds has to be just right, so they can actually pull on the holds, but not stop before performing the paddle. The other thing I noticed is that climbers had very different abilities depending on the ‘intensity’ of the hold (it’s easier to campus on a jug than a crimp).


Routesetter looking closely at a hold
Good routesetting is all in the details

One of the outcomes you seek being a head routesetter for a commercial facility, is to create some form of gradual progression through your grades (usually), with the idea being that if you create the right sized steps, your climbers will always have something to work on. (I believe there are other models too, but as a starting point). This makes it very attractive to create some form of database that shows you how much of everything you have in the gym. If we were to use V grades, we would want there to be lots in the middle band (usually V3-V5, depending on what that means to you), and less on either end. You also want good diversity within the grades, and for each grade to step up gradually. V grades, as I said earlier, just don’t give you this kind of resolution. RIC on the other hand does, but what it misses is the ability to place all of your boulders on the same continuum. You would have to log a V grade, plus the RIC. The question then is how do you compare the RIC descriptors across grades? A V5 (whatever that is) with a risk value of 4, is similar to a V7 (again, whatever that is) with a risk value of 2??? For me, this model gets complex, creates confusion and (as is V grading in general) open to the impact of ego, emotion and well..... problems.


I should add at this point my personal opinion about grading in this context. It is important to remember that I am actually not trying to develop a new grading system to take outdoors, another value system to compare and contrast your performance, or add to your conversion chart. What I am suggesting is a tool that is built to assist routesetters create, discuss and develop climbing in an indoor space. For me it's like we've been using our hands to measure distance, and RIC is a tape measure. Technically it is still random values, but the system is a little more robust.

So...... I introduce to you PICA…. (Also congrats for getting this far!)

P for precision (another word for risk), I for Intensity, C for complexity and A for athleticism. The reason for calling it something else is:

  1. So it sounds cool

  2. So you know it is something different to RIC

The goal with this structure is very similar to RIC. The difference, however, is that all the boulders are graded on the same continuum. So your V11 in the corner uses the same scale as the V1 at the front. This allows you to look at your progression, in a similar fashion to V grades (just with less ego and more information). Values are calculated from 1 to 7 (why 7? Well, I will go into that in the next post, when I deep dive PICA), and intensity is split into 2. I or Intensity is how hard it is to hold on and A or Athleticism is how hard it is to move. To calculate the overall difficulty of the boulder you simply add each variable, P+I+C+A= difficulty.


So in essence, it is the same as RIC. All we have done is expand the values each component can have, and added in another measure for intensity. This was to account for the huge variation in intensity when compared to risk and complexity.


The other benefit of using PICA is that it grows your vocabulary during the testing phase for your routesetting team. “This is too hard” can become “I think the athleticism is too high” or “I think the intensity is too much for the precision” which gives you actionable information to make your idea work where it needs to. Plus, routesetters who may not be able to handle the intensity of the boulder have specific vocabulary to add to the conversation.


We all can understand how powerful language is, I mean, it got you to this point of the post! So creating vocabulary that is more specific to our craft, seems like a good thing.


Olympian walking towards a climbing wall
Pre-Olympics training during COVID lockdowns, with new routesetters, communication was key. Creating tools for them to understand things at that level was paramount.

Anyway, that is enough from me for now. Stay tuned for part 2 and I will dive a bit deeper for thos that are interested.

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