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Crawl or Climb: When Kneebars Change Routes

This was some of the most atrocious beta I’d ever seen. Not only was this climber pointlessly not using kneepads, apparently he was also eschewing the techniques of “back step” and “drop knee.”

“What is he doing?” I muttered, a mix of horror and awe.

Hey, it was Daniel Woods! And he was on the Rifle-area classic Simply Read. With unrelenting arms and indefatigable fingers, Daniel was turning an otherwise technical rock climb into a genuine crimp ladder. Standing in the road beneath the Project Wall, I was so transfixed by Daniel’s feat of strength that I didn’t even realize there was an F-350 growling at me to get outta the way.

First climbed by Scott Franklin—also, apparently, without kneepads—Simply Read is a pretty solid 5.13d, a grade for which Rifle is renowned.

“That was kinda hard,” Daniel said after returning to the dirt. He massaged his swollen forearms, which looked like two hocks of prosciutto. “Could be .14a,” he mused casually.

“Maybe it’s .14a the way you climbed it,” I said. Daniel laughed, though I’m not sure he realized I was telling him his beta was junk.

Fifteen years later, Simply Read offers a menu of beta options for those who aren’t in possession of freak strength. It’s interesting to see the continuous evolution of beta and norms on some of these climbs, which are really a reflection of climbing’s widening demographic of body sizes and strengths. Even sequences can become trendy and sometimes become the new normal.

Because of this phenomenon, it is my belief that most climbs get easier with time, which is fine, I guess, and not just because it gives crusty climbers something to carp about on their podcasts. Yes, holds sometimes break and, yes, footholds get more polished, and of course these things can make routes harder. But over the long haul, the wellspring of hyper-refined beta and collective knowledge makes routes, on balance, easier than they first were. (This is just my theory and you’re welcome to disagree if you would like to be wrong.)

Curiously, what doesn’t change, or at least rarely, is the route’s grade after the so-called “consensus” establishes—even though earlier ascents relied on vastly worse beta. Once a grade is printed in a guidebook, that’s the grade people take. The end.

Let’s consider how Simply Read has evolved over the past few years.

Right off the deck, Simply Read begins with one of the best V8s you’ve ever done—compression moves on slopers, underclings, and crimps lead to a drop-knee dead point to a jug. A few years back, one of my friends discovered a kneebar smack in the middle of this crux, allowing you to ratchet all the way up to the jug without any of the compression or deadpointing. I’ve heard this sequence called V4, though it’s probably a touch harder.

The top of Simply Read gets pumpy and go-y. Those final 20 feet can vanquish even the strongest climbers, rendering them flailing punters whose frustrated little feet kick through the air as they fall. One friend pitched off the last move—the very last move—38 times before finally clipping the chains. Just recently, I saw a climber kneescum her way through this entire 20-foot section, methodically setting one kneebar after another as if she were some kind of Boston Robotics android repetitiously slow-crawling to the chains.

To be fair, most people redpoint Simply Read with the “normal” beta, taking the obvious kneebar rests, and avoiding too much additional trickery and tomfoolery. But it’s also true that there is a certain class of climber who loves tomfoolery, and will even go so far as to openly embrace shenanigans of the kneebar variety.

“It’s kind of a sleazy way to climb,” a friend once said, only half-jokingly. To be clear, he wasn’t railing against kneebars or kneepads in general; he was talking about the excessive kneebar style. Climbers make hazy and arbitrary distinctions between kneebars they consider “acceptable,” and those which run afoul of the established beta orthodoxy. Perhaps like obscenity, as the judge in the Larry Flynt case famously argued, you know it when you see it.

Consider the drastic beta differences I just described on Simply Read. When you compare the beta used by someone like Daniel Woods, who used almost no technique at all, to those who require a surfeit of sleazy-ass kneebars to crawl to the chains, it’s easy to conclude that Simply Read, depending on the beta used, could be anywhere from 5.13c to 5.14a.

So what does one make of this fact? Should we normalize giving routes, say, three different grades, depending on how it’s climbed? I’m not so sure that bad beta (Daniel) should be awarded with higher points any more than I’m convinced that sleazy kneebar beta should be penalized with fewer points.

But by flattening these disparate approaches into a single grade-trophy I fear as if we’re taking the youth-soccer-league approach to assessing achievement in climbing. And it is making no one happy.

The postmodern quality of difficulty in rock climbing has always left us climbers at a loss. We sort of half-heartedly pay lip service to how difficulty is just so subjective—and yet it’s also a thing we take seriously, maybe the most seriously. Grades are the thing by which we track our individual progress as well as distinguish and celebrate climbing achievements at large. Of course we want to know precisely how hard routes and boulders are.

Last week, Adam Ondra weighed in on the ethics of using kneepads on his website. Also wundercrushenkind Alex Megos recently riffed about kneepad beta on The Story of Two Worlds (8C) on Insta.

“There are various videos online from lots of different climbers, all theoretically climbing the same boulder and claiming the same grade: 8C,” wrote Megos. “It seems like the climbing community is not differentiating at all and rarely mentioning HOW things are climbed. … After watching all those videos of ‘The Story of two Worlds,’ I noticed there are huge differences. Some use a kneepad, although the FA was done without. Most sit down to start, some don’t. [Dai Koyamada] started lower than all the others and didn’t use a kneepad. And in the end they all climbed the same 8C? That thought seems very alienating to me.”

Another way to frame this discussion is to ask: are routes and boulders independent of beta, or does the beta make the route?

Ondra’s article tries to establish what he thinks is appropriate for the professional class of climbers who use kneepads and kneebars on elite climbs. After asserting the legitimacy of kneepads as legitimate climbing tools, Ondra acknowledges that they can “make the grading a little inconsistent” and often do make routes easier. As a result, he asserts that professional climbers should be more willing to award themselves a lower grade, i.e., a “personal grade.”

“I think [honesty] is important for professional climbers nowadays not only declaring an ascent, but also the way of sending the route,” he wrote. “I believe professional climbers should try to reflect these facts (kneepad when it wasn’t used for the FA, new beta and others) into the grading even though they only repeat the routes and should not just take the guidebook grade for granted.”

Ondra’s take seems targeted at climbing’s elite, where this kind of discourse is more encouraged if imperfectly. Grades of cutting-edge climbs are, by definition, lacking consensus. So it makes sense to encourage an open and honest conversation about new beta, new techniques, and new propositions of difficulty. And I think for the most part these conversations, when appropriate, take place.

But what about well-established routes that aren’t at the cutting edge? I would be interested in hearing Ondra’s analysis here. Routes like Simply Read (and many others in Rifle and elsewhere), which appear in guidebooks with definitive grades printed next to tick boxes, aren’t getting downgraded. For obvious reasons, the kind of critical thinking and honest analysis that Ondra encourages is largely absent for the well-established routes that most of us climb.

I’m skeptical that an average climber is even capable of recognizing that they are using 5.13c beta to do a 5.13d route, let alone willing to accept a lower grade just because they figured out “beta that works for me.” Nobody is taking a personal grade of 5.12d when they kneebar through the 5.13b crux on that one route.

That’s because personal grades are for pros, not schmos.

A few questions for us schmos: Why are we so reluctant to take personal grades, or suggest downgrades in general? As I understand the way grading generally works, grades for sport climbs and boulder problems are an assessment of the difficulty one experiences while executing more or less perfect beta. If one person finds a bunch of kneebar beta that turns really fun V8s into sleazy V4s, should that become the new beta norm—and therefore reflected in the grade—just because it’s easier?

I’m not so sure. The consequences of this approach would be to reward one style of climbing, which a lot of people don’t even like that much, and effectively sandbag everyone who doesn’t use every sleazy kneebar that’s been discovered over 20 years of projecting.

The other option might be to create a new norm in which we give relevant routes more than one grade to reflect the variety of beta preferences that people hold? For example, “Simply Read (5.14a 🤖 / 5.13d 💪 / 5.13c 🍗).” Think of all the opportunities for retro-grading crack climbs based on hand sizes, and how complicated/enjoyable that would be.

Thirty years ago, climbers were much more willing to downgrade routes. Today we’re all yasss queening ourselves to death. Today’s new norms keep us silent in observing that someone else’s method of climbing a route actually makes it way easier. This is partly because we’re taught to just accept the grade we get in our guidebooks, even if that grade was a reflection of just one person’s idea of difficulty, which was originally based on using unrefined beta, 30-year-old climbing shoe technology, and no kneepads.

There’s also the fact that downgrading could be considered a form of micro-aggression among climbing’s most cynical representatives. This is not to deny the many obvious examples in climbing’s history of fragile male egos downgrading routes only after women have climbed them, but if you see someone coping a no-hand kneebar rest in the middle of what was otherwise called “the crux,” it’s reasonable to suggest that this style warrants a lower grade without being assaulted by accusations of being intolerant and fragile.

Seeing anyone discover kneepad / kneebar beta to reduce the difficulty of your big, proud climb can bruise your ego a little bit, as Ondra acknowledges when he writes about Change, his own FA and the world’s first 9c (5.15c), which recently got a second ascent by Sefano Ghilsofi.

“Even for me, it was not easy to see Stefano Ghisolfi in Change, using the kneepads in places where it was not possible for me without kneepads, but it is evolution and in this case, fortunately I do not think it changes the grade.”

But what if it had changed the grade? Presumably Ondra would’ve had a tough pill to swallow, and I wonder if he would still be so charitable toward the use of kneepads and kneebars. (Ondra is a charitable guy, and my guess is that, yes, he would.)

There’s no easy answer to any of these questions, although I look forward to the comment bros who insist there are. But if I had to try to construct an argument for when and when not to use kneebars based on higher principles, I’d encourage climbers to consider two things beyond just being honest: aesthetics and their own self-improvement.

On self-improvement, one example for me comes to mind: Years ago, I was working toward my first 5.13c, Sprayathon. I’m selecting this route as an example in part because today I see most climbers using two kneepads to cop every little scrunched rest they can. The route, which is already soft in the grade, is a power-endurance special—meaning it’s hard because it’s pumpy.

Encouraged by my friend, I approached Sprayathon by trying to climb it with as few rests as possible. That meant no kneepads or kneebarring. Just shaking out, hanging on my arms, and steadily climbing through the pump. It took me a couple months, but I finally got it. And by the time I did, I had also leveled up my endurance. That, more than the tick, was the real reward. And it paid dividends: the next week I climbed my second 5.13c in just 4 tries.

There was also the aesthetic component. Avoiding kneebars on Sprayathon is just an inarguably more fun way to climb. It feels like sprinting, running, flying. I love that feeling of redlining up the wall. To invert the lesson of the famous fable, it makes you the proverbial hare to the tortoise. Yes, the slow and steady crawl may be smarter, and it may get you to the finish line more quickly. But sometimes winning isn’t the most important lesson you can learn from these routes.

The post Crawl or Climb: When Kneebars Change Routes appeared first on Evening Sends.

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