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  • Writer's picturewillhammersla

Grades are Dead pt 2.

OK, so, where did we finish?

  • PICA is like RIC, but we have expanded the values, so instead of 1-5, we have 1-7.

  • P (Precision, instead of Risk), I (Intensity, how hard is it to hold on), C (Complexity, how hard is it to figure out), A (Athleticism, how hard is it to move between holds)

  • P+I+C+A = Difficulty

  • PICA is a tool that creates language for setters to communicate during the briefing and testing process

So far so good? Great!

So now, let’s circle back to one of the points I made in the first part of this post - “I am 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.” PICA is a tool, originally developed for routesetters. I say ‘originally’ because I think there are uses outside of routesetting that I can cover in another blog, but for now….. routesetting. PICA will not suddenly give you super powers to understand and cut through all ego and emotion, finding the one true grade….. It is only as good as its users, and like any tool, with practise it can be weilded with great precision and make your life easier than before. So with that in mind, let’s talk about PICA.

First off, I will discuss the way PICA can be used to build a spread of boulders in a space.

Each circuit (colour, number, whatever) has a PICA range. You could use a PICA value as a circuit, but ranges allow for a little more flexibility and the ability to be more diverse. In a 1-7 scale, the mid circuit might have a range of 12 - 16 (PICA sum). So you could get those values with:

1 + 2 + 4 + 5 = 12 which might be some sort of stem or press (low precision, low intensity, high complexity, high athleticism)

5 + 2 + 4 + 4 = 15 which might be an easy paddle (high precision, low intensity, moderate complexity, moderate athleticism)

Spreadsheet of PICA values and circuits
As example of a spreadsheet summary using PICA values. The charts are the frequency of PICA values in each colour circuit

Really the type of movements and the tangible thing each value communicates is up to the setting team, and the vision of the chief setter. You might be focused on creating a space that is ideal for beginners, which may mean that a 7 intensity means one thing, where at a gym for competition climbers, a 7 intensity means something else. This is where PICA shares one of the key ideas of RIC. The values are group specific, determined by the routesetting teams vision.

visual representation of PICA in a circuit
A visual representation of a circuits 'PICA' balance, note the darkest colour in precision and the small variability in Intensity

Let’s move to the next logical question then. What if I have a gym or a space that provides for beginners and athletes! Isn’t PICA just like using RIC, if one set of values works for one group but not the other? Well this is where the idea that PICA as a ‘tool’ really comes in.

Increase your value range. Creating a space for beginners to advanced climbers may mean that you need 1 - 10 for each attribute. One word of advise, is that I would suggest the minimum number you would use would be the same as the number of circuits you have. So, if you use colour circuits, and you have 7 colours, your value range is 1 - 7. This gives you a value for each attribute that is in line with your offering. It makes it easier to discuss and differentiate each value. This complexity is what we would see in the top circuit, but with holds we usually use for the middle circuit, so Complexity would be 7, but intensity would be 4……. Of course it doesn’t actually work like that, but it is a good place to start.

Another interesting way to set it out would be to grow the values as your community grows. You could start with 1 - 7 and then add values as they are required. “We have never had this level of intensity before, let’s make it 8”.

Basically the actual values don’t matter as much as the scheme itself. P+I+C+A = Difficulty. Just remember that there is always a trade off between the detail of a model and how user friendly it is. If you create your values in a way that each attribute has a different range (say I has 1- 8, but C has 1 - 5), inducting new setters into your program becomes much more challenging!

Mae, James and Robbie look at the climbing wall
My not so new team, was new not so long ago!

I hope you are still with me!….. Now for the fun part.

Climbing in general has very little research, so what I am about to say is based more on observation over time than from any studies…. But….

‘Climbers tend to choose intensity, before choosing anything else.’ Watch a competition, you will see lots of climbers try to static the dyno. Watch climbers around the gym, you will see people fighting barn doors instead of matching feet, campusing instead of heel hooks and cutting loose rather than keeping feet on.

James climbing
James grabs what he can

As routesetters, this is the balancing act we find ourselves in. We think someone will match that hold, the hold size decreases. We think someone will static the dyno, the launch position might get further away, or the hold you jump from becomes worse.

So let’s use PICA to talk through one of these examples.

We set a dyno in our middle circuit that has a PICA range of 12 - 16. The team thinks the current values for it are:

5(P) + 3(I) + 2(C) + 4(A) = 14

Turns out, Steven (it’s always Steven….) can static the dyno, which he thinks is ‘easier’. We ask Steven what he means and he says……. “ Well I can reach, which maybe ups the intensity (because he really has to hold on hard to the first hold), but drops the precision a lot. Which might mean that doing the boulder this way is more like:

2(P) + 4(I) + 2(C) + 4(A) = 12

Now, we have a decision to make, because a 12 still sits within our circuit range…… So maybe we are ok that there are a couple of solutions (after all, we set problems, not solutions). But the team says no, we want to chase the dyno.

So imaginary setter 2, let’s call them Kat, she suggests we increase the complexity, to encourage the jump. Holds move, now you have to land a foot when you catch the hold, which means Steven can’t solve the boulder statically anymore, but it feels a lot harder. The team thinks the values are now more like:

6(P) + 3(I) + 4(C) + 4(A) = 17

Adding in the foot stomp bumped up the precision too (adding another moving part usually does this). It also pushes the boulder outside the PICA range. The solution? We drop the intensity. The catch hold gets more positive, and hey presto, we are back in range:

6(P) + 2(I) + 4(C) + 4(A) = 16

At first, as you get used to the PICA tool, asking questions about the values might be useful, but over time, they begin to matter less. What is more useful, and more valuable, is the language and communication this process creates. Everything that happened above could be summed up with something more like:

  • I can static the dyno, and I think this is much easier because it drops the precision a lot! So let’s fix that.

  • We add some complexity in the catch

  • The catch holds are too intense for the added complexity and precision

  • We reduce the catch hold intensity

For a lot of experienced routesetters, this process might be second nature. We test boulders and we can feel in our bodies what is going on. What is exciting about this process though is that it makes the testing a tweaking process more accessible. PLUS, it also allows us to maintain the most important aspect of a boulder during the tweaking process.

Tonde and Yossi talking in front of a boulder
Tonde and Yossie making sure they are sticking to the brief

This is where the brief comes in. At the start of the day, the chief Routesetter might determine that we need more intensity in circuit A. There are too many complex climbs with positive holds, and we need something crimpy or slopey to improve the diversity of the circuit.

Let’s say we use Steven again, who sets this super fun complex bloc with a kneebar rose move….. it’s amazing….. but it’s too hard (and too complex).

Using PICA again, let’s say the values are:

2(P) + 4(I) + 6(C) + 4(A) = 16

We know how to fix the boulder, and make it work within the circuit. We drop the intensity, add in a more positive hold and then it works and is closer to the difficulty we wanted….. BUT….. We have lost the intensity, which is what the chief wanted in the first place. So what do we do? Well we have the other 3 dials we can turn….. To keep the intensity where it needs to be, the team decide to reduce the complexity of the boulder. They scratch the rose kneebar sequence, even though it was pretty cool, because it wasn’t what the space needed! The team finish with a simpler, but intensity focused boulder, which creates more diversity in the circuit. I’m not saying numbers don’t lie, but they provide a routesetting team a way of discussing the effectiveness of a particular boulder, without attacking the quality of it. Quality after all is much more subjective and is really something that occurs based on many other factors (see my what is good routesetting post).

Hopefully this has been interesting and useful for my fellow routesetters out there. I always love hearing from my readers, so feel free to comment on my socials.

Keep up the good work!


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