Why is grading on the high side “risky”?

In Seb Bouin’s recent post on Instagram, concerning his multi year (250ish attempts) project, he says that 9b+ is safe and 9c is risky because his route might be downgraded.

Why has our culture demanded that we either get our grade suggestions spot on or undergrade? I’ve even had a guidebook author downgrade a route of mine simply because he was afraid my suggestion would get downgraded by A LETTER. This was after he expressed his concern to me and I told him I didn’t care, that the grade I gave was my honest assessment in the moment.

So if something feels hard for us, but then feels easier to someone else, why do we take that personally and feel like our grade suggestions are “risky”??

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I think it’s related to the Bibliographie downgrading. These are professional climbers and their personal brand is very important to them. Sadly, I think some people in the community (reddit, low-invested people, etc) might consider a downgrade from 9c a negative mark on Seb’s resumé, like he was bragging or being cocky. I think that another aspect is that Seb is a lot less established than Megos, so any negative press could hurt him more than Alex.

Also consider that in this time, opening a new 9c is a big financial opportunity in terms of sponsorships etc, so I think it’s quite different from us who are not pushing word class grades getting downgraded. Plus, he knows that once he sets the 9c grade, a lot of the pro climbers are going to come and try his route and I can imagine the social pressure of that, feeling worried that there are going to be big downgrades.

I also read his comments a sort of “humble” way to propose 9c, by really emphasizing that it’s a proposal, thus softening the blow if he gets downgraded.


I agree he was making an effort to show that it was a humble suggestion. But it’s always a suggestion, no matter how sure you are.
The framing of downgrading as risky is the actual risky part, in my opinion. It’s that feeling that, when new beta is found, causes us not to give actual grades, and then make the scale even harder to parse out. Someone experienced uses 4 new kneebars on a former 5.14, bringing it down to 13b, but takes 5.14 because downgrading is taboo. Then a newer climber repeats it, assumes experienced climber knows best, and the consensus remains exaggerated. Happens all the time, even though the original intent is to keep grades “stiff “ (ridiculous to think we have such granular control over something so subjective).
I think the only way we’ll ever get past this is if people work to stop taking grades personally, or at least as personal indictments. Easier said than done, I know.


You know, when I started climbing I was perfectly able to estimate a grade based on my honest opinion at the time. I didn’t know much, so it was difficult but at least my mind was clear. Over time, I got more experienced and got better at estimating grades. But at some point, things got more complicated. The better I’m getting, the more I’m surrounded by climbers who are REALLY good, and that makes me feel less confident about my own abilities. As a result, I’m putting more emphasis on what I think others think. I can only assume this external pressure is a lot bigger for the biggest fish in the pond, which would explain some of this stuff

The solution might be if we can change our mindset from trying to get “the right grade” to one that is more focussed on exploring and discovering. Because then, getting it “wrong” is no longer an issue.

Anyway, I find the psychology behind this stuff fascinating. But I tend to overcomplicate things :slight_smile:

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I think we all go through that to some degree early on. Classic Dunning-Krueger maybe.

That said, the “get it right” mentality is flawed largely because there is no right. I’m all for giving your honest opinion. When I do an FA, I give my honest opinion in the moment and move on - because it’s absolutely going to be different for the next person who will find different affordances that weren’t available to me. And so on and so on forever.

I don’t think we should throw grades out entirely (though I still think there is a better system we haven’t found yet), we just shouldn’t make them so important that we find them “risky” to suggest.

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Don’t think it’s the Dunning-Kruger effect though, I think it has to do with identity. The more I identify as a climber, the more I care what other climbers think. And I can see how that could make people feel vulnerable and therefore try and play it safe.

This could help explain why such a fear would be bigger with elite climbers… But now that I think about it, it doesn’t quite explain why the fear of being downgraded is there in the first place.

I don’t care at all what other people think, but I’m positive I know less about grades than I thought I knew 20 years ago. Definitely Dunning-Krueger in my case.

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I’ve been routesetting for nearly a decade and I’m less sure than ever about what grades actually are.


Is it the communitys fault? I mean instead of beeing supportive it seems like everyone is watching critically what happens next. (Lots of „soccer-dads“ out there…)

The critical element certainly doesn’t help, and then it doesn’t help that the community or their understanding of grades to read him saying it’s risky to grade something high when you actually believe that’s appropriate.

Vicious circle.

I think it’s a bit sad to read what Seb wrote mostly because of what it says about the community. Because he fears some kind of repercussions if he gets the grade “wrong”. Well, wrong in the sense of too hard.

I disagree that it’s a huge deal monetarily whether you can claim a 9c or just some 9b+(s). The sponsorship equation is not that simple.

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Ego fragilus.
Ego giganticus

One of the two.

I have a work around. Send it, name it, walk away.
Check all my feeds and my language, I tend to not talk grades.

Something about the lopsided way the climbing “elite” are perceived and talked about.

We know that Bob climbs differently than Bobbi. Bob is 5’1" & Bobbi is 6’3". When sessioning in the gym together they do not downgrade or upgrade the bloques. The differences are celebrated and laughed at. “Bloody hell Bobbi, how can you compress there❓” “oh my word, Bob, how can you crimp that❓”

Grade first is the overriding aesthetic in climbing. Although a nod here to the WC which does not publish grades. (Unless it does and I missed that Info)

Identifying as a climber​:thinking::question:if you gauge any of your worth by how well you climb you are wrong.

Anybody has such consternations of grade with mates❓