Scoop Wall, Stoney Middleton, Peak District is arguably the most celebrated E2 route on limestone in Peak District. During Stoney Middleton Reunion, taken by Steve Kirman. [©Steve Kirman]
The grade of climbing-routes is a funny thing.
Many climbers are more or less obsessed with it, such as, choosing a route to climb purely based on its given grade, or starting up a heated debate on the grade of a particular route.
For example, a three-star route, Wall of Silence in Reiff (north of Ullapool) was named after the incident
the first ascent team didn't speak to each other all the way back to Aberdeen, due to the second suggesting an E1 5b, which was 2 grades lower than the leader's thought (quote from Scottish Rock Volume 2 (North) (2014) by Gary Latter).
At the end of the day, a grade is a grade, and just indicates how hard a route is (in average). Isn't it silly to be obsessed with a (climbing) grade for a climber? Indeed equally many climbers say (or pretend?) they don't care about the grade.
Climbing is at its heart a challenge to scale a steep wall. Therefore, when a route is too easy for a climber, it is by definition not a challenge for her/him, and so it spoils a point of the game. Also, climbing is a sport. Just as most of runners, footballers or else are pursuing to improve the time, fitness or skills, many climbers are aspired to get better at climbing, that is, push the grade.
In that sense, caring about a grade does make some sense, and breaking through a next-level grade means something for climbers. It is perhaps similar to the progression in (artistic) gymnastics, such as, from the difficulty of C to D, or in jumps in figure skating from 3.5 rotations to 4 rotations.
To be fair, to climb a route at a higher grade does not necessarily mean s/he climbs much better than before. The grade can fluctuate considerably, unlike difficulties in gymnastics, and moreover, the difficulty is by definition continuous. Still, to achieve the first route at the next grade usually means a lot to climbers, as it is one of more objective measures to indicate they have progressed to whatever extent.
I am not an exception. Having finally achieved the next higher grade after years of continuous failures, I am here looking back at what pushing the grade has meant to me.
First trad lead
Brian and Sarah at the P2 belay of Doorpost, Bosigran, Cornwall. During Bowline CC Cornish Meet in May 2009. One of the best routes in the country at the grade.
My first lead of a trad (traditionally-protected) route was the second pitch (P2) of Doorpost (Hard Severe: HS), Bosigran, Cornwall back in 2002. Yes, it was HS and a multi-pitch route. I had seconded the route the previous day in pitch dark without trouble, and so I thought it would be all right. It was, though still memorable, as I realised the massive difference between leading and seconding.
Looking back at it now, I am amazed my (lot more experienced) mate, Rob Whitehead, let me do that, given it is a committed sea-cliff multi-pitch route! Nowadays, I proclaim single-pitch trad leaders should know at least half a dozen ways of rigging a belay, and multi-pitch leaders should, at least a dozen (and mountaineers, at least 2 dozens), because building a sound belay is not always a straightforward job and a failure to do that would easily perish the entire party. I was fairly experienced in mountaineering as a beginner at that time, but I don't think I knew a dozen ways of rigging…
Well, I suppose climbers often do risky things in their early career without realising what they are doing, and I wasn't an exception…
First HVS lead
Michelle on Goliath's Groove, Stanage Edge, Peak District in 2011. I lead the route donkey's years after my first lead.
I don't remember my first lead of a VS (Very Severe) route. By the time I realised, I was leading VSs fairly confidently.
My first ever climbing was on a sport route Promenade,
in Fujisaka Rock Garden in Japan, graded 5.10a [YDS scale] (roughly F6a, or E1
in terms of the physical difficulty; note
the grades of the crag are known to be quite soft).
Though it was just in a bottom-rope (of course!), I flashed it, albeit a serious effort needed.
Then, a couple of years after that, remembering it well,
I didn't believe VS, which is supposed to be about 5.7, would be a big deal for me.
I remember when a friend of mine excitingly reported
Sarah lead her first HVS!,
Only HVS?. What an insulting word! (Sorry.)
Of course I was wrong. Very wrong. It didn't take long before I realised many VS routes to be desperate to lead. Occasionally even mere Severe routes were felt tough. I wondered why. Again, it was a stupid overconfidence as a beginner… However, I think it is also true I was all right in leading VSs due to my confidence, even if it was baseless.
Anyhow, eventually I completed many VS 5a routes, and felt ready for the next grade, Hard Very Severe, or HVS. By that time I was well aware of the difficulty of the challenge. HVS is a big grade! One day in March 2005, 3 years after my first trad lead, I decided to give a go at a super classic Goliath Groove (HVS 5a), Stanage Edge, belayed by my best trusted partner at that time, Adam Webb. It was desperate, as expected, but I successfully onsighted it.
Several years later I had a chance to climb it again. I was surprised to find how tricky it was. It is certainly not an easy HVS! However, corner climbing is what I have been always the best at, and in that sense my choice of the first HVS route was probably not that bad.
First Extreme lead
The next up is Extremely Severe, or its lowest, E1. I knew many considered to climb the first E1 would be the biggest milestone in the climbing-grade ladder. That's where both the difficulty and perhaps risk gets serious, or extreme. It was intimidating, and I wasn't in a hurry at first. But eventually I began to consider to proceed to the grade.
In the meantime, my indoor climbing grade went up considerably. I had onsighted up to F7a indoor by that time. I was literally cruising every F6a (6 grades lower than F7a in the French(F) grade) indoor, which is the standard equivalent to E1. However I still kept failing in HVSs from time to time. Combined with very occasional seconding of low Extremes, which I usually found to be all right, I guessed I must be fine in most E1s. But the fact I failed in HVSs proved otherwise. It was quite frustrating.
Tony on Great North Road (HVS 5a), Millstone Edge, Peak District. Without doubt, one of the best routes at the grade in the country.
In June 2008, I had a particularly disappointing day in Birchen Edge — I failed in two HVSs miserably, being unable even to top out after many rests and falls, Orpheus Wall (HVS 5c) and Dead Eye (HVS 6a). The technical grades of 5c and 6a suggested they must be hard for HVS, but still, a climber aspiring to Extremes should be able to flash them!
I accepted the bitter implication I was still not ready for Extremes, and so kept climbing HVSs, which included the mighty Great North Road (HVS 5a), Millstone Edge. It had been the top of my wish list since my first visit to Millstone Edge years before, when I had barely lead any trad route. Yet, Great North Road was still so intimidating, every time I visited Millstone Edge since, I couldn't summon the gut to get on, always finding an excuse like a weather and conditions of either rock or myself. Then when I finally got on, I was almost disappointed — the quality of the route was marvellous and absolutely superb, but I found it to be a little too easy for me and so to be not exciting enough. I wished I had climbed it earlier, when I hadn't been as good as at that time, to have a more exciting experience. Also, I thought I really should move on to, or at least try, Extremes.
I went to Stanage Edge in the end of July, a month after the day in Birchen. I didn't have any intention to climb hard on the day, regarding it as a more social opportunity. However somehow the classic route Black Hawk Bastion looked very attractive and doable. It is E3 5c, three grades harder than HVS.
For whatever reason, I decided to give it a go out of impulse. At least I knew well my mate Andy Richards was trustable in belaying me, after his many arrests of my falls on Orpheus Wall and else. I then successfully onsighted it! It was such a memorable experience.
I knew many people chose a soft-touch route for their first E1 or Extreme route,
then later found the route to be downgraded.
Say, Three Pebble Slab, maybe?
Black Hawk Bastion, graded as E3, would not be downgraded to HVS for sure.
I was happy.
Stanage Edge — on the summer day when I made my first Extreme onsight.
Consolidation of low Extremes
My next job then was to consolidate my Extreme grades, up to E3. Now I had climbed an E3, and was climbing hard indoor, I shouldn't have a trouble in E1 or E2s at least, if E3s would be still hard.
I was wrong, again… I had hard times in some E1s, let alone E2s, including close calls.
To be fair, looking back at the log, apparently I succeeded more than failed, which is better than I remembered, perhaps because failures tend to stick to the memory more than success.
After all, while I found most HVSs to be steady, I did fail in some at that time. And by definition, E1/2s are harder than HVSs. The fact I had climbed an E3 doesn't necessarily mean I could cruise many other E1 and E2s.
Indeed, looking back at it, there were several factors. First, Black Hawk Bastion is allegedly soft for the grade E3, and apparently some consider it to be E2. Second, it is likely the route nature suited my strength and my small body; for example, I could jam a finger at the crux, which my second could not, finding the crack to be too narrow. Those multiple luck must have helped in my successful onsight ascent of the E3 route. Third, the fact I was climbing hard indoor (onsighting F6c+ regularly) means I had a potential to progress, but only on the conditions I would exploit the potential well on real rock, which I must have not done well enough. In that sense, my top trad grade at that time must be E2 at a push.
Doug leading the top pitch of Thin Wall Special, Bosigran, which Chicken Run has merged to. This photo was taken an hour or so after my near-miss in the lower pitch (P1) of Chicken Run. The fact I had this photo means I was relaxed enough to take out a camera by this time (and later enjoyed seconding this brilliant 3-dimensional pitch). Another friend of us, Zoe, who had been at a belay ledge of Doorway above our P1 belay when I reached it, later testified I had looked very stressed at the P1 belay, hardly responding to her cheerful yell to me at that time. It was not surprising… (see text)
Another important point to consider is climbing grades are not an exact science, and so they fluctuate. Even if you ignore the flickering nature of British weather, individual human factors count considerably. Some climbers are good at steep and powerful moves, while some excel at delicate slab climbing. The former and latter may feel the given grades for routes differently. In particular, the grades in climbing usually assume the standard body shape, most notably, a reach. As I am much shorter than the standard in the UK, it is fairly common for me to find a move to be harder than the given grade by one, two or even more, simply because my arms are not long enough to reach the supposed hold as easily as assumed.
The route Chicken Run in Bosigran, where I took a massive fall on to a skyhook, was a good reminder. One of my two seconds, Doug Sleigh, later found the move, from where I had fallen, to be pointlessly easy, as he could just reach and grab the good hold above from a good stance.
That is at least a part of the reasons why I kept failing in some HVSs, let alone E1/2 routes, at that time, while I had managed an E3, which luckily suited me.
Having said that, every cloud has a silver lining. Being frustrated with my poor performance on rock, I upped my exercise level, and even started some climbing-specific systematic and scheduled training.
Road to E4
Lee entering a crack school — The Fin, Burbage North, Peak District. Lead by Masa, belaying.
Eventually I consolidated E2s, almost, and became reasonably confident in E3s. By that time I had well realised that a given grade can just mean the lowest difficulty I should anticipate, because the standard grading doesn't always work well for me.
A memorable was Cock-a-leekie Wall (E2 5c), Stoney Middleton. The crux was so extremely reachy for me it was the hardest move I had ever managed to flash on rock at the time, probably a solid 6b. It should be E4 for me in that sense. The same goes for Chicken Run — dangerous E4 5c for me, as opposed to the given E2 5b. But it is hard to impossible to guess such fluctuation before getting on a route. I wouldn't have considered to get on Chicken Run, had I known the true grade for me, given the risk and difficulty involved.
In that sense, I had climbed “E4s” — that is, “E4s” for me, not for most other people. But that wasn't enough. I wanted to make a proper and objective E4 onsight. I started trying, and — kept failing to onsight. Sforzando (Dovestone Tor, Peak District), Modular (The Brand, Leicestershire), Resurrection (Dinas Cromlech, North Wales; My write-up), Fay (Lower Sharpnose, Devon), Adrenalin (Wilton 1, Lancashire), the list goes on and on.
I remembered a cheerful word by my good friend, Graeme Baxter,
when he had been pushing the grade to HVS/E1.
So far I have 100 per cent failure rate in 5b moves! Haha.
I was exactly like that, and just like him, I kept trying.
As I upped my training, low Extreme routes were beginning to feel a little easier (or little less desperate) in average. But somehow the barrier to E4 was still high. Meanwhile, I started to concentrate to improve my skills in crack climbing with jamming. It was a hard way in the sense I failed in even HVSs like Teck Crack (Roaches), but certainly it made me a more rounded climber.
The best bit is the crack routes are usually so well protected, I have come to mind falling not as much as used to, so I can push the grade harder. I realise in many cases the fear for a fall is as much limiting factor as the physical or technical aspect. While it is certainly true there are many situations in climbing you should not fall, too much fear is no good and counterproductive, either.
By 2015, my mantra is,
If I haven't fallen a single time during 2-days trip
of trad climbing, that means I haven't pushed myself hard enough.
I told myself that as long as I kept trying, I would get it eventually.
Sugar Cane Country
Sugar Cane Country is a modern uber-classic route in Pabbay. I had never heard of it, before I moved to Scotland. However, many Scottish climbers do know it and are suitably inspired. It is one of must routes E4 climbers should tick. Basically, it is the Scotland's answer to Resurrection in Cromlech, Wales: a face climbing on mostly positive fingery edges with a finger crack on a vertical to slightly-overhanging wall, on quality rock. More I heard of it, more attractive it seemed. Shall I try?
The boat hired by us climbers has just left Castlebay, Isle of Barra to Pabbay, in 2014.
Heavily overhanging Banded Wall, Pabbay. The first person (Alex) to abseil to the bottom needs place some pieces of gear to stay in contact with rock, then he pulls in the second (Emma), once she has abseiled level to the belay ledge. Amazingly, the easiest route to climb up from here is only E1, Spring Squill, one of the best E1s in the country.
Pabbay, being an uninhabited island in Outer Hebrides, is logistically not an easy place to get to, whereas the quality of climbing is arguably the best in the UK. I managed to join a group of like-minded climbers for the trip there in June, 2015. My climbing partner, Patrick Hanlon, and I ticked the mighty Prophecy of Drowning (E2), which was the route we wanted to do the most on the island, on the second last day of our stay, when the weather finally improved.
Now, all I wanted to do was to go to the crag Hoofer's Geo, where Sugar Cane Country is, on our last day and to see what would happen. Coincidentally all the other people in our group decided to go there on the day. The atmosphere with fellow climbers at the crag must be good!
The weather turned out to be OK on the day. As it rained every night, the conditions wasn't quite perfect, but the rock was reasonably dry. And, a bonus was, as other 3 parties had got on it before me, the holds were well chalked up. Only the downside was I had to make a conscious effort not to look closely while they were climbing so as not to spoil my onsight experience! Patrick kindly cleaned the gear a previous party left on the route for me (important to claim an onsight). The game was on.
As I climbed I found the climbing wasn't too bad. It was steep, but holds were reasonably positive. Also, there were some good rests. The gear wasn't straightforward, though, and a little strenuous to find and place. I used a load-limiting sling in one runner. But then this is an E4 6a, it was expected so. At least I didn't have to use my skyhooks or pecker.
Not before long, I managed to top out clean.
My first E4 onsight is accomplished!
Ry on Sugar Cane Country, Pabbay, Outer Hebrides.
It was an interesting experience. I really didn't find Sugar Cane Country to be very hard. I had seconded Left Wall (E2 5c) twice a few weeks prior to the time, and I didn't feel Sugar Cane Country was much harder than that, or rather thought it was fairly similar. However, according to Gary Latter's guidebook, Sugar Cane Country is not a soft E4 like Freak Out, but standard (and so is the popular voting in the UKC).
Also, I am not sure if I am any stronger when I did Resurrection and Fay (both E4 5c), where I took falls, as I was training hard at that time.
Having said that, there are several factors that may contribute.
First, I was very psyched to climb this route, prepared to encounter a hard climb but not to give up. If I end up falling, then so be it, but I would not give up, nor shout (to the belayer) to take — I was determined. When the mind set is like that, climbing may feel easy.
Patrick on Endorphin Rush (E3 5c, 5b), Pabbay.
I was psyched to get on this route — super-steep and sustained E3, according to the guidebook, and so did it look indeed. Then when I lead this route, I felt it was almost disappointingly easy and was more like middle E1. The popular votes in the UKC say differently, and confirm it is E3 (Note the only vote for
easy E2 at the time
of this writing is by me).
If I second the route another time, I may feel totally differently?
Undoubtedly, leading needs far more concentration than seconding, and so it can contribute, too, to the perception of the difficulty of routes. I do remember how I felt immediately after I had onsighted Left Wall — Direct Finish (E3 5c) years ago; I thought it was more like E1 5b. When I recently seconded Left Wall with the normal finish (E2 5c; the direct finish adds the grade a notch), I found it was nowhere close to E1, but solid E2. Such is how a human's mind works?
Another important factor is my skill level has improved in the last couple of years, as I have climbed on real rock more than used to. Indeed, my feet didn't get cut loose at any moment while climbing Sugar Cane Country, and they were solidly placed on a hold(s) all the time, except flagging. I read the sequence well and executed the moves well in that sense. After all, climbing is such a technical sport pure physical strength is only a part of the elements (as Dave MacLeod well illustrates).
The fact I have been attacking my weakness in the last couple of years has helped, too. I have improved my jamming skill considerably as mentioned, as well as got better at very steep terrain, thanks to my winter-climbing training. I used to get scared of very steep routes or crack routes, but I am not any more. To be more rounded means there are less things to concern about for me.
I note that it includes the psychological aspect, too. Between 2011 and 2013, I had regular and many opportunities of mental training in martialarts, lead by the great instructor, Simon Ford-Powell. Whereas there is no doubt the physical aspect of techniques (body) is crucial, the psychological aspect (head) is as much a limiting factor as the physical, be it martialarts, climbing, or almost any other sport or else. Certainly, while I was leading Sugar Cane Country, my mind stayed at the right place, and I just did what was necessary to do, rather than worrying about it (too much), which could have messed up the things.
Finally, atmosphere and psyche created by my friends were, and has been, a real booster. When friends around me were casually climbing very hard (for me) routes, to climb routes at E3/E4, which is at my limit, yet is a couple of grades lower than their grades, would not feel like a big deal. Indeed, the statistics of my climbing log tells the yearly averaged grade of routes I climbed used to be VS for years, yet is E1 as now in 2015. The day was no exception, and to have witnessed my mates ticking off the hard routes on the day, as well as their warm encouragement, did help indeed!
I am sure I will get plenty of rather hard times if I get on E4 routes, rather than cruise them. However, the spell is broken now. I shall seek for a next adventure in E4s and above!
And last but not least, I would like to express my sincere thanks to all of my climbing partners over the years. Without you, nothing would have been possible!
(Masa Sakano, 13th July 2015)
Sunset at Banded Wall, Pabbay, Outer Hebrides.
The name of the route,
Sugar Cane Country, is actually very good
and memorable for me. To me,
Sugar Cane Country means one thing,
Okinawa, the south-western islands in Japan. Sugar canes in Japan are almost unique
in Okinawa, as the rest of the country is too cold to grow sugar canes.
There was a very famous anti-war Japanese song called
which had been composed a few years before Okinawa was returned to Japan
from the American occupation in 1972.
Okinawa suffered worse than anywhere else in Japan during the WWII, such as, many locals were practically forced to commit mass-suicide, before the American military's landing. Then after the WWII, it was kept occupied by the US for almost 3 decades before the administration was finally handed back to Japan (and the locals). Even now, 18 per cent of the land in the main island of Okinawa is used by the US military, and unsurprisingly, the crimes, including serious ones like rapes, by the US soldiers with impunity are quite common in Okinawa.
Okinawa is an extremely beautiful place in subtropical climate. But the history and even the current political situation are very sad. The song Sugarcane field is a good reminder of Okinawa, and so is the route name Sugar Cane Country for me.
朝陽と砂糖きぴの穂 (Morning sun and ears of sugarcanes — translated by Masa:). Taken in Okinawa. [© よしぼー]
A few weeks later I went to Glen Clova and got on the 3-star
Empire of the Sun (E4 6a).
In the end I topped out, but not without battle;
I lost a count how many times I took falls —
10 times or more? There were moments I was close to give up.
Indeed I did ask my belayer, Dave MacLeod,
at one stage to lower me down — he very kindly
Are you sure?, and I decided to give another go at the crux
and somehow made it.
Masa on Empire of the Sun (E4 6a), Red Craigs, Glen Clova, Scotland. Taken by Dave MacLeod, belaying. [© Dave MacLeod]
That does tell the fact I am not at all solid at the grade E4. But then, at least there is no reason to stand back from trying them, as long as the route is safe enough. The number of falls I had taken in Empire of the Sun was probably my record in those during a single push before topping out. The experience was priceless.
It has become increasingly the case nowadays I find E2s or even E3s to be easy, even though occasionally I do find even an E1 to be very tough. In that sense I should, and am willing to, accept the challenge of E4s now, and maybe even (safe) E5s. Browsing through guidebooks, there are so many attracting routes at the grades. That is a joy of entering the next level. More exciting experience must be waiting!
Nige on The Screamer (E4 6a), Reiff, Scotland. One of the best routes at the grade. A fitting challenge to face?!