Thursday, September 26, 2013

Grade Drift: A cautionary tale.

Pitch Two of Desire: Photo Tom Hutton

I believe it was Ken Wilson who coined the term ‘Grade Drift’. The context was entirely negative. It suggested that guidebook writers were nudging up the technical grades of traditional climbs without having just cause. It suggested that if a climb was graded V Diff for example in the 1960’s then why on earth should modern authors-I think we are talking 1980’s here-up the grade to say Hard Severe and apply a technical grade. Particularly as modern gear would make the climb easier than for those first ascentionists with their rudimentary equipment and big boots. On the face of it it seems a persuasive argument. It’s not an argument however that holds water for me. I’m not sure why early guidebook writers should be seen as the true arbiters of climbing grades above modern authors?

My experiences of being involved in guidebook work suggests that the grading particularly of lower grade climbs can often be totally out of touch with reality. David Craig had an article first published in the Fell and Rock journal and re-published on Footless Crow-An intriguing failure- which detailed an attempt to climb an obscure Lakeland V Diff. It’s an article that will ring true for climbers described by Steve Ashton as being ‘of a pioneering bent’ It describes backing off a low grade horror which was thin, dirty and poorly protected. 

When I was helping out with the last CC Ogwen guide, I found myself covering some of the areas’ rarely frequented backwaters. What quickly emerged was the undeniable fact that these unpopular areas are usually just copied verbatim from one guidebook to the next without any checking by the writer. Ogwen was unusual in that unpopular areas like the West Face of Tryfan were checked out for probably the first time since Menlove Edwards was involved in guidebook work. It was pretty clear that many traditional climbs were hopelessly undergraded.

It’s interesting to note that even first ascentionists can often make a total dog’s dinner of grading their own routes. In fact the term ‘sandbag’ is a fitting riposte to those who throw the term ‘grade drift’ around. In the mid 90’s on a cold November day, I remember doing a not particularly memorable two pitch 150’ route on the beautifully situated but unpopular cliff of Craig Dinas above the Lledr Valley. I named it ‘Desire’ and graded it as a Hard Severe 4b. As I was covering the crag for the 2000 Meirionydd guide I included it and guessed that it wouldn’t see much traffic in future. A couple of years ago I found myself re-climbing it with some guidebook team members. Three things struck about the route. First, my description was appallingly inaccurate. Apologies if you’ve ever tried it but I’m guessing you won’t have actually done it as it was conceived. Secondly, it was actually a pretty good route and worth a star and thirdly, the consensus was it was more a VS than HS. A couple of months ago I did it again with the outdoor writer Tom Hutton and the feeling was that actually 4c was a more accurate technical grade than 4b. Not a huge drift in the scheme of things but when the context is a HS-4b being reclassified as a VS-4c then that kind of thing is bound to get Ken’s goat up!

Not that Desire was unusual on that cliff. A route called Grooved Slab had not appeared in a guidebook since Tony Moulam’s 1970 Snowdon East guide showed it as a V Diff on a crag topo. There was no route description in the text though. After climbing it I graded it VS-4c! A grade reconfirmed by a new team of writers last year. From V Diff to VS in the blink of an eye. Not so much grade drift as grade earthquake! Of course if it hadn’t had been actually climbed and had been just copied up as a V Diff we’d be well and truly in sandbag territory.
Tom on the first pitch of grade drifted Desire.

So...sandbag or grade drift; What do ordinary climbers prefer to be met with when they select an unpopular route? Speaking for myself, I’d take a soft touch anytime over a hopelessly under-graded sandbag and I’d take a modern revised grade over something that Menlove Edwards wrote up in the 1930’s any day!

1 comment:

  1. JA has the right of it. Having spent a few years in Cornwall I now find myself heading for some of the more esoteric cliffs where grading is tad haphazard (and we are talking V Diff needing to go to VS here) to say the least. But there is another issue which seems prevalent - that of the historical view of the grade - as in, 'oh, its traditional Severe (or whatever)'. This leads to some real horror shows wherein a leaders capable of, say, Doorpost or Right Angle (classic HS) would then find themselves struggling on a V Diff such as Andrew wherein the top two pitchers are described as 'quite challenging for the grade'. Indeed so.