Gadfly 2005 #2, Mixed Grades 2005, January 29th.

Note: I've gotten a ton of feedback on this both pro and con, I urge everyone not to "cut their spurs off" but to simply try climbing in both styles--all the intellectual dancing here means nothing compared to going climbing, climbing is where things get real. Anyone who tries, not just talks, both styles will grasp the different feelings immediately, it's not hard to figure out. Either it will feel closer to really climbing for you or it won't, and more the power to you whatever style you're into. Give 'er!

OK, I've been climbing bareback style all season, and I'm fired up, it's been great. Nothing like a new way of looking at things to bring fresh energy into your mind. The "bareback" style is growing. Bubu just did a new M12 sans spurs or trickery, and given his talent I'm sure that it is solid for the grade. In Canada most seasoned mixed climbers are going spurless, as are many Europeans. This doesn't make it right or wrong or anything, it just says people find climbing without slothing more rewarding.

I'm now fully convinced that climbing an M12 or M15 or whatever with spurs is a nice personal accomplishment, but grades should be based somewhat on the amount of effort required to climb something, not what will work for a press release. To me it seems clear that the grades for steep mixed routes done with full trickery should be lower than those that were done either old-school style (pre-leashless/spurs) or bareback style. Spurs are a relatively new invention, better to grade that style than re-write the entire mixed grading scheme. This is not a new thought, others have had it, I'm just getting clear on it all after climbing a stack of routes bareback style. Rock grades are made based on the physical effort to send the route, and as hard drytool routes are basically rock climbing with ice tools I've applyed the same rating system to them for different style ascents.

Note: Rock grades and mixed routes obviously require different skills. A pure rock climber will not find bareback M12 equal to 13a without a lot of practice. Until you're really comfortable with tools everything seems really hard. These grades assume an equal fitness/skill level for rock and mixed.

The bareback grade shows relative effort on a route, and fits closely with what M-grades meant when they were established in terms of effort. Those climbing with spurs generally didn't really really want to say how easy spurs made the routes, everybody likes to climb big numbers and think what they are doing is hard (me included, I started losing interest when it wasn't hard anymore). Some climbers, including Bubu, Raphael Slawinski, Aljaz Anderle and others have switched styles and are now going spur-free for routes.

Note that climbing routes bareback style is pretty much the same difficulty as climbing them old school, but the climbing is a lot more technical and fun with light boots and leashless tools. The great thing about spurs and full trickery is that the technology makes almost any mixed route possible for any motivated mixed climber, which is great. I have jokingly called trickery climbing "sloth" climbing based on the amount of hanging going on, but in reality it's a personal accomplishment for the climber, cool, give 'er. I feel strongly that sloth style cimbing was an aberrant off-shoot from an aberrant sport, grin, do what you like, just be honest about what you do. Claiming an M12 redpoint with full trickery is like riding a bike in a marathon--yep, ya covered the same distance, but you didn't really have to run too hard.

Some links:

Current mixed Grades chart up here. JD LeBlanc's take on mixed grades. Bubus commentary on spurs. On the same site but only in Italian is his story about a new M12 done sans trickery.

Answers to questions I've heard from those feeling out the different styles:

Q. Knee bars reduced the grades for some steep hard rock routes, are you proposing that spurs are like knee bars?

Exactly. Many hard routes were downrated when knee bars were found on 'em. Spurs are like having a knee bar for every single move all the way up a route, only much better. And then still claiming it's the same grade and accomplishment... Bullshit, downrate the rig. Musashi is flat-out not M12 done with spurs. The difference is that you can't really take a knee bar off a route, but you can take your spurs off, especially as they are an "add-on" piece of gear that wasn't part of mixed climbing originally. We took leashes off, we took umbilicals off, now we've added spurs and claim it's the same? OK, when we were first playing with spurs it was interesting for the comps, but for routes it became clear pretty quickly that they changed the grades to something very different.

Q. How do Rock Grades compare to mixed?

A. Rock grades are relatively consistent, and there are thousands at each grade so consensus develops relatively easily. The grades I give below were developed after talking to a lot of people and climbing both rock and mixed routes at each grade, in both styles. Note that the grades condense quickly at the upper end of the spectrum; mixed climbers have basically used an entire new number grade for each two rock letters. In Canada we condensed our grades, with the result that most of our hard M9s became M10 on the world grade system with the exception of the routes that were over-graded on the Canadian scale. We sorted our grades out once globally, we can do it again.

Modern Mixed Grade (bareback/pure style/reloaded or "old school")

Like any mixed route the onsight effort is way higher due to having to find the holds.

Bareback "Rock Grade" Spur Grade (assuming it's steep, and for the redpoint grade)
M8 5.10 to easy 5.11 No big difference.


M9- to M9+

Somewhere around 11d/7a to 12b/7b M8 if it's steep, otherwise no big difference.


M10- to M10 +




M11- to M11+

5.12b/7b to c or d/7c. M10 or so, sometimes easier if it's a big roof.
M12 12d/7c to 13b/8a M10 to soft M11
M13 13c/8a+ and up M11 to M12- , not many routes of this grade yet. The Game Reloaded felt like a letter grade harder than the Game done bareback, but I just added a plus symbol to the grade rather than calling it M14.
M14 ? ?

Q. How come you care about all of this so much? Wanker...

For me bareback style came about as a result of realizing that adding spurs and tool rests to mixed climbing made it relatively boring. I have spent a lot of the last nine years putting energy into this sport, and I lost that energy when the hardest routes in the world started to seem easy, as Bubu and others also found. Take away the added technology and the movement gets better and the pump factor is back--there's nothing like falling off with your eyes glazed from the pump. I am motivated by hard climbing, I need to get pumped and fall off to feel like it's hard. Spurs remove the pump. I think it was Kid Rock who said, " If it's marketed right you'll buy it, if it's said loud enough you might agree with it, but if it's REALyou'll feel it." I could feel this spur gig wasn't real for me, so I took 'em off. Now M10 is interesting and hard again, and the potential is there for much harder routes, hell yeah!

Q. It's all aid 'cause you're hooking the rock with tools anyhow, so?

That's true to a certain extent, but with heel spurs you're hanging off your spurs or sitting on your tool (cam it with the shaft horizontal, easy). You might as well put your foot through a sling on a bolt and call it a free climb--that doesn't make sense. Free climbing is about hanging on, not hanging off. It's sort like hanging on umbilical cords to place screws vs. hanging on your tools to place screws--the difference is pretty obvious if you try both. Alternatively, replace every copperhead on an A5 pitch with a bolt--it's not the same grade, plus the feeling is totally gone. The best thing is to just try the alternate styles, it's pretty obvious to anyone who tries both.

Q. Why not climb with straight-shafted tools, no leashes and big boots? That would be harder, yeah?

Yeah, it would. But so would rock climbing without shoes or chalk, on a swami. That wouldn't be much fun, and it would seem regressive. In climbing we've always tried to reduce the amount of aid, and to do more with less. Spurs and trickery makes mixed climbing more like aid climbing, not really the direction I want to go. I also don't enjoy hanging off a straight-shafted tool, and big boots suck. I do enjoy hard technical movement and a good pump, bareback style seems like a reasonable way to approach mixed routes. Plus the climbing is a lot more fun than either spurring or climbing with 1980s gear, grin.

Q. Technology for climbing changes, spurs are no different. Look at what Cams and sticky rubber did for rock climbing!

Super Crack is a little (letter grade maybe?) easier and a lot safer to lead with cams instead of hexes, but the basic climbing is the same, check it out on a top-rope. (I've done it both ways 'cause I've been climbing since hexes roamed the earth). Spur trickery isn't about protecting a route, it's about radically reducing the the continuity pump, sort of like deciding it's OK to rest on every cam on Supercrack and still call it 5.10--and "free." I'd call it 5.9 AO as no individual section is harder than 5.9 and AO for obvious reasons. Sticky rubber made some slab routes easier to climb for sure, but spurs are like sticky rubber that sticks to a flat roof for no-hands rest anywhere. No comparison.

Q. Why not just find routes that are harder and accept the new gear?

When I first started playing with spurs and trickery that's what I wanted, it seemed logical--find a big roof with icicles, climb it! But I quickly discovered that spurs turn big roofs into boulder problems seperated by spur or trickery rests. Musashi isn't much harder than its hardest individual move with full technology, and even the crux is a lot easier when done with a tool sit. Ben Firth found harder individual moves on The Game--it has a 9-foot horizontal reach--but this proved to be a dead end because mixed climbers can always find an intermediate hold or, failing that, add extensions to their tools as has been done. In short, a route has to have a cumulative pump to become harder than its individual moves, so a 50-foot horizontal roof is the same as a 10-foot horizontal roof with spur rests. Take the spurs off and future is wide open, there are lots of wild caves with cool lines! If a mixed route isn't steep it isn't hard, the holds beat in and soon it's M9 with rests on the ice.

Q. Isn't the search for hard mixed routes leading toward pure drytooling with no ice?

Yes. But the most satisfying lines have both, and hard sections of both. My perfect line would have M-hard drytooling pitches seperated by wild freestanding pillars, then a few pure ice pitches on free-hanging icicles. Anyone know where this 10-pitch rig lives? I'll buy a ticket tomorrow! Still, hard drytooling is fun, and most hard drytooling needs to be done in winter for the holds to be frozen in place. In warm temps all the holds just start breaking off, which sucks. Plus summer is for rock climbing, I can never get motivated to drytool until it's too cold to hang onto the rock. In Canada we have a six to eight-month ice/mixed season, so here it makes far more sense to go hard on mixed.

Q. If you remove spurs you'll just do lots of figure fours out the route...

My first reaction to this comment is, "So? Shut up and hang on!" But that misses the point. Climbing without spurs means you have to use your feet far more creatively and keep good body tension. I do use more figure fours, but I also do a lot more body-tension moves and cool foot trickery on the rock with toe scums, raking (using the secondary points) and so on, it just feels more like climbing than always sticking a foot up over my head and hanging off the spur. I'd rather do a figure four than hang off a spur, one style means hanging on and one hanging off.

Q. Why are you re-grading routes? Isn't a route the same grade if you do it in mountain boots or rock shoes?

If you climb supercrack in mountain boots then rad, but it's still 5.10. But if you hang a lawn chair off each piece and climb it barefoot, well, I'll let whomever does that grade it, mixed grades didn't develop with full rests between every move. I'm grading for the amount of effort and skil required to climb a route, which is how I've always seen free grades in climbing. Claiming an M12 redpoint while hanging from a lawnchair, I mean spur, between every move makes it a tad easier and I'll grade it as I see it. Spurs are added technology, tool trickery is just aid.

Q. So what are the rules? What is "Bareback Style?"

There aren't any rules for mixed climbing, do what you like. The style I find most rewarding is climbing without spurs, and without putting my leg/ass/feet on the tools. I call this bareback. Competition rules vary; in the Kandersteg comp the final was run "bareback" style, with no stacking your tools on each other. I like stacking my tools on each other and do, it's something I've done for 20 years. I knew the first time I threw my leg over my tool that it felt too much like sticking it though a sling for me, but do what you like, just be honest about what you did to climb a route. You might find your grade level drops initially if you've been climbing with spurs, but I'll bet the satisifaction index goes up a lot after sending a hard route bareback style. Give 'er!

Q. What's the difference between onsight and redpoint grades in mixed climbing?

Generally onsighting on mixed terrain is a lot harder than in rock climbing, the holds are much harder to find. Mixed routes are graded for the redpoint ascent. I'm always amazed at how much easier mixed routes get with a little work compared to sport routes, the learning curve is much faster.. Spurs allow a climber to rest while searching for the holds, and between moves; this is why there was a sudden jump in onsight and flash ascents of M12s when bolt-on spurs came along.

Q. I've got some old crampons I put spurs on, and they don't seem to make all that much of a difference.

True. Putting spurs onto strap-on crampons on heavy boots doesn't work all that well as the spurs tend to "droop" as weight is applied. Get some bolt-on downsloping spurs so you can hang there all day as climbers using this style regularly do--if that's how you want to climb.

Q. Some routes don't seem all that different with or without spurs, in fact spurs get in the way.

Then take 'em off, you probably haven't learned how to use 'em well anyhow. Spurs, like anything in drytooling, take time to learn how to use really well.

Q. M10 must be really hard, I've seen the pictures in the magazines. You're just a freak.

If you can redpoint endurance 12b/7a+ you can redpoint any M10 with work. Do it with spurs/trickery and if it's steep it's probably M9.. You'll just have to learn how to use the tools and develop new strengths and muscle patterns. Until you learn the techniques M9 can feel really hard even if you can climb 5. 13. I am a freak.

Q. What is the "spray" factor in all of this?

Pretty high. Spurs and tool trickery opened up the hardest mixed routes to those who would have little to no chance of climbing the routes without 'em. This is cool as these climbs are cool no matter what style is employed, but claiming an M12 redpoint after hanging on the route by your feet in "gravity boots" for an hour is a rather different approach.


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