"The leader must not fall"

11:05 a.m. on January 6, 2012 (EST)
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Ever hear that one before?  What does that phrase mean to you? 

Does that phrase evoke images of twisted ropes, wool knickers, hobnailed boots and a young Bill S?  Does it mean that your route is "tainted" if you took a leader fall while trying to send it?  Is falling on trad gear too risky for your taste?

The sport is called CLIMBING, not falling or jumping, for a reason.  Falling is the opposite of climbing and should be avoided, much the same way that crashing should be avoided in car racing.  I have talked to some climbers who tell me that when the leader stretches a rope or takes a whipper the fun is over.  Finishing after a fall is only an artificial win, not a real win in the best sense of the word.  Red Point the only worthy climb.  Are they more pure and wholesome for their ethics or are they just too timid? 

Not everyone follows this ethic:  To some, a route is still conquered after several falls as long as they get there eventually.  Swinging back to the rock is just a way of picking your self up after a setback and building good character.  Climbing routes above your skill level is a faster way to improve.  Modern gear and pro means that taking a brown point is okay because you get great experience fo the next time.  If you aren't falling you aren't climbing hard enough. 

Me?  I have yet to take a notable leader fall.  Not for my lofty ethics but just because I'd rather not fall and I try really hard not to. 

 

2:29 p.m. on January 6, 2012 (EST)
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There are several reasons for this (and no, I never climbed in hobnail boots - they were long gone when I started technical climbing, replaced by Vitali Bramani's rubber lug soles, the lugs of which bear a striking resemblance to the shape and arrangement of climbing nails). But I digress -

Number one reason was that in the days of manila ropes and soft iron pitons, a leader fall was frequently fatal, sometimes for the entire party. The old "natural" ropes were pretty much static and their strength was pretty low (something like 1000 pounds static breaking strength, a force easily generated in a fairly short fall). One remedy for this was the good old dynamic belay. Even the early synthetic laid ropes were pretty static (Plymouth nylon and Columbia Goldline). One of the all-time great "dynamic" belays was done by Spencer Tracy in the film "The Mountain" (1956, based on James Ramsey Ullman's book of the same name. Tracy is the grizzled old climbing guide, leading his younger brother, Robert Wagner, on their way to rescue any survivors of a plane crash in the Alps. Wagner is having a problem in a chimney, so Tracy gets ready to pull him up, taking the rope off his standing shoulder belay. Wagner slips and the rope slides through Tracy's hands, turning from white to blood red as it slides through his hands. Wagner gets it in the end, due to his greed in stealing the jewelry from the dead passengers, while Tracy hauls the beautiful young woman survivor down the mountain on the plane door. I saw this as part of a double feature with Tracy in "Old Man and the Sea", where he is a fisherman. In it he catches a huge fish that has been his nemesis on a handline. And guess what? The fish runs and hauls the handline through Tracy's hands, with the line changing from white to blood red. GACK! Two torn up bloody cord through the hand scenes in a couple hours!

Number two reason is a carry-over from a rule for professional guides in Europe - The Guide must never fall! The guide is responsible for the clients, and it is a matter of professional pride. Any guide who falls loses face.

Modern pro (bolts, cams, chocks, dynamic ropes that limit the maximum amount of force on the climber, belayer, and anchors, ...) have made it so falling is much less of a problem. At least as long as ledges don't get in the way..

These days, with sport climbing all the rage, it is common for someone working their project to take dozens or even hundreds of falls before doing the whole route. Doing the whole route with no beta is "flashing". Then there is the whole range of red point, pink point, etc etc etc. There have actually been some 5.14s that were flashed on the first attempt. Some of those were bolted on rappel, however - lots of ethical arguments over that sort of procedure.

Thankfully, I have only taken one leader fall on rock (40 feet from the lip of an overhang that I had the thank-god hold right at my fingertips) and one unroped slide on ice (80 feet vertical, but managed the self-arrest).

5:40 p.m. on January 6, 2012 (EST)
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Back in my climbing days, when I was able to lead easy 5.11, falling was part of the game!  I've taken so many leader falls I can't even begin to count them.  Two were over 40 feet, one of those on ice.

Bill pretty much covered all the reasons I was thinking.

8:17 p.m. on January 6, 2012 (EST)
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JimDoss said:

.... easy 5.11,....

 Now there is a non sequitir!

9:55 a.m. on January 7, 2012 (EST)
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Also, back in the day the line was attached by running it around one's waist, which later was replaced by what was called a swami belt - usually a length of wide nylon web wrapped several times around the waist.  Neither of these attachment system were forgiving, and being yanked by only one's guts after a good fall (read bad) could cause internal injuries.  Furthermore the fall could end with the climber upside-down, sometimes slipping out of his belt, a primary reason why the chest harness was invented.

I had a few falls, mostly choss collapsing under foot.  The worst fall for me wasn't the farthest; it was about a 15 foot vertical, twenty five foot horizontal pendulum swing across a face of Joshua Tree's course monzogranite.  I ended up with a good (read bad) case of road (read rock) rash; instantly the most popular attraction for flies and yellow jackets for miles around.  Some of the scars from that fall took about fifteen years to disappear from forearms and knees.  In any case leader falls are no fun to me; I also recall a few falls where the swing back to the wall was more like being a test crash dummy smacking into a barrier.  No fun.  Besides who really wants to test the integrity of their protection, or stretch their line?  For all these reason I still think no leader falls is still a good credo. 

Ed

11:37 a.m. on January 7, 2012 (EST)
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I have seen a few leader falls. Only one that was of any consequence. It was a guy who was climbing a route that had that little rating code that means, if you fall, you will get hurt. We were on routes further over on the rock and i was belaying a friend when out of the corner of my eye something moved. We all turned (one guy had a camera going) and the rock fell out from under the climber. He pendulum-ed across the rock, bouncing off his unprotected, helmet-less head all the way. When he stopped swinging he confirmed he was alright. He was being belayed from above so had to get up the rock to get down. When he arrived back at the base, his head was a polka-dot pattern of bloody scrapes. Bet he felt real cool about not wearing head gear then. My friends don't like to fall and we don't belay anyone without a helmet on their bean.

11:11 p.m. on January 7, 2012 (EST)
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Bill S said:

JimDoss said:

.... easy 5.11,....

 Now there is a non sequitir!

 LOL!  It's all relative!

1:16 a.m. on January 8, 2012 (EST)
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JimDoss said:

Bill S said:

JimDoss said:

.... easy 5.11,....

 Now there is a non sequitir!

 LOL!  It's all relative!

Relative to what, a difficult 5.11?  That’s like saying an easy double diamond ski run.  I always get a kick when people apply such qualifications to a rating system.  I thought YDS and all other such rating systems implied whatever relativity was necessary to connote, making adjectives like "easy" and "relative" both unnecessary and misleading - or that the given route was improperly rated.  In any case if one finds the level of precision of YDS insufficient to describe the route’s level of difficulty, perhaps they should steer clear of using the rating system and just go with the vagueness of easy, hard, nut buster, etc.    To drive home this point, stating falls were part of the game, leading a 5.11 pitch kind of contradicts the notion of easy, doesn’t it? In any case most would consider 5.11 requiring at least very solid skills and strength (really not easy at all), and beyond 5.11 to be in the realm of experts; thus describing any  5.11 YDS as relatively easy is contradictory.

Ed

1:26 a.m. on January 8, 2012 (EST)
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whomeworry said:

JimDoss said:

Bill S said:

JimDoss said:

.... easy 5.11,....

 Now there is a non sequitir!

 LOL!  It's all relative!

Relative to what, a difficult 5.11?  That’s like saying an easy double diamond ski run.  I always get a kick when people apply such qualifications to a rating system.  ........thus describing a 5.11 YDS as easy is more blustering about one's own prowlness than any attempt to objectively describe the route by its own merits.

Ed

I know that sometimes a feature or two of a route will bump it. So there can be harder and easier within the particular rating. Also a persons body size relative to hand/foot holds may make one person feel the route easier than others. It isn't a perfect science and the variable are so numerous. I don't find it odd at all. Unless every element can be controlled by the human, then there will be relativity in the ease and difficulty of a route.

3:40 a.m. on January 8, 2012 (EST)
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(Note to all: Karen has not mis-quoted me, she replied before I was able to restate portions of my reply to more accurately represent my sentiments.  Thus the discrepancy between her attributions and the content of my post.  My apologies for any confusion this caused)

giftogab said:

I know that sometimes a feature or two of a route will bump it. So there can be harder and easier within the particular rating...

There are ways of addressing such subtleties without calling a route a relatively easy 5.something or other.  For starters the orthodox application of a rating observes the crux moves.  If the line is a 5.8, except for a crux that is 5.11, then the line is 5.11.  There is nothing "easy 5.11ish;" either you can muster the crux and complete the line or not.  Saying there is harder or easier 5.11s either means you don’t think the more than two dozen breakouts of the 5.XX YDS are insufficient to communicate level of difficulty, or that one misunderstands how to apply the system.

..Also a persons body size relative to hand/foot holds may make one person feel the route easier than others...

Of course body types are differentially affected by the physical circumstances of the route.  Likewise what passes as a 5.11 in one part of the country may be assigned a different value if the route were located in a different region.  Experienced climbers know this, and good route guide books attempt to communicate a generic, regionally accepted rating that lets the individual experienced climber apply his own handicap, versus leaving him wonder if your easy 5.11 is his easy 5.11, etc.  The is nothing more aggravating than guide books that use overly subjective rating descriptions, except maybe such media using ratings that are not in sync with the local prevailing conventions.

It isn't a perfect science and the variable are so numerous. I don't find it odd at all. Unless every element can be controlled by the human, then there will be relativity in the ease and difficulty of a route.

You may be correct observing these systems seem highly relative at first blush, but that is due more to misapplication or misunderstanding of the system.  Sometimes it is due to unintentional bias, other times out of ignorance, while still other times it is a climber who consciously embellishes or understates his first ascent experience.  But that is more an indictment of how much people know about properly applying the system than the ambiguity of system itself.  For example very few understand the difference between a 5.11 and 5.12.  Route rating systems are going through a phase similar to women’s clothing sizes, where ulterior agendas drive purposeful misrepresentations, such as flattering a customer into thinking they are a perfect size 2, when perhaps she is more like a Marilyn Monroe size 8.  Likewise there are lots of so-called 5.11 lines claimed by climbing gym rats that dirt baggers are more likely to see as only 5.9.  Vainity is of little use among the crags.  I maintain we avoid such misrepresentations, as they offer no benefit to the community in general.

Ed

10:48 a.m. on January 8, 2012 (EST)
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I am sorry Ed, but I just don't think you have the answer here. Too many high level climbers that I know would call your assessment so much horse pucky. I'm talking about hard core climbers, not gym rats. I enjoy your analysis of a variety of topics here, but this time I think you are more devoted to your outcome and the associated prose than reality. I have seen highly experienced climbers look at a route after they have both done it and have the same reaction....one looks at it as an easy 5.11 and the other not so much. The thing is they are simply enjoying the day and not relegated to having no reaction to their experience because the rating books said so. It can expand to being skeptical of the rating itself but there are plenty of conversations about what happens within the rating. To suggest that those who do so don't understand is actually a bit arrogant, with all due respect. People I know climbing that attain any real ability are pretty devoted to understanding the system.

Furthermore, your characterization of a size 2 v 8 is actually pretty exaggerated. There is not a women I know that is in the 2/1/4 size range that sports 2's and should be sporting 8 and never has been. Nor is the comparison apples to apples given the nature of the two topics. I do agree that some manufactures sizing is completely different than others, but when climbers are vetting a new route it seems more pure than the clothing industry where the makers get the money. Climbers that are out climbing the routes don't get money from me dong the route.

The statement that an 5.11 is an easy 5.11 seems to be better analyzed, not by the 5.11 but by the word easy and that easy is the relative term here, not 5.11

2:40 p.m. on January 8, 2012 (EST)
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Ummm, the Yosemite Decimal System (as defined by Bridwell, nee Tahquitz Decimal System as defined by Wilts) is intended to rate moves, not the overall climb. That is, "5.11 climb" refers to the hardest move on the climb. There are climbs that are a dozen pitches long, with only one pitch having the 5.11 move, the remainder of the climb being 5.5 or easier. There are other climbs that are continuous 5.11 with no respite. The YDS has several auxiliary qualifiers (grade I, II, ...V,.. for overall difficulty which used to indicate roughly how long time duration, "R" for runout, "X" for for protection so poor that a fall would result in almost certain death, ....)

A 5.11 crack is not the same as a 5.11 off-width is not the same as a 5.11 face. 5.11 is different on Yosemite granite from Castle Valley (UT) sandstone is different from limestone is different from quartzite. And, as both Karen and Ed said, 5.11  in one climbing area is different from 5.11 in another climbing area.

Plus, as new guidebooks covering an area are published, the ratings of climbs are changed. Sometimes because the actual route has changed due to rockfall. But sometimes (as witness the changes in the generations of Tahquitz and Yosemite guides) "grade inflation" (I have posted on this point before).

YDS is only one climbing rating system. That's why many climbing guidebooks include a comparative table for climbing rating systems among various parts of the world.

The only reliable system is the one I use - "easy for me today", "hard for me today", and "NO WAY for me today".

9:23 p.m. on January 8, 2012 (EST)
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All good points.  Having been a climber for most of my life, rating a climb is, as mentioned, sometimes a personal experience.  There were climbs in Yosemite that I had a very difficult time getting up, only to flash them on another try.  It really does depend on how you are feeling on any particular day.  There is one climb there rated 5.10b that I've NEVER been able to climb.  It's just not my style and requires a lot of upper body strength.

Also, climbs rated harder than 5.9 (using the YDS) are broken down into sub-groups using a, b, c, or d.  An "easy" 5.11 would be rated 5.11a, and a hard one at 5.11d.  And trust me, there is a big difference between a 511.a and a 5.11d.  I was rarely able to even follow a 5.11d, let alone lead one.

Also, as mentioned, a climb is rated by its hardest move.  The very first 5.11 in USA was put up at Suicide Rock, near Tahquitz.  It is several pitches long, but only has a couple of 5.11 moves on it.  The rest is 5.10 or easier and has great resting stances.  It's a great route, worthy of the 5.11 rating.  I know, I've led it.

But there are also routes rated harder than any actual move on it.  Reed's Pinnacle in Yosemite is a classic example.  It's rated 5.9, but has no single move harder than 5.7 (I think - it's been a long time since I've climbed it).  But the route is a sustained 5.7 with no real resting places, so it got a harder rating.

Bill makes another good point stating that different types of climbs (face, crack, off-width, etc) rated the same "feel" different.  One might require more upper body strength, the other a totally different technique.  You may be good at one, bad at the other.

Still, other locals rate differently.  A 5.9 in Joshua Tree is a lot harder than a 5.9 in Yosemite.  When I used to climb there, I down-rated by ability one grade, just to be safe.

I don't agree that routes are rated harder than they really are just to pad the climb so someone thinks, or thinks they feel like, they are climbing harder than they are.  The climbing community is a strange bunch.  If a route goes up and is rated 5.11c and subsequent parties think it's more like 5.11a, that climb will be down-rated.  Son of Sam in Yosemite is an example here.   For the first couple of years after its first ascent, it was rated 5.10a.  Later climbers thought it was rated too hard and it was down-rated to 5.9.

As mentioned, gym rats might be able to climb 5.11 inside, but rarely can they climb that hard on rock.  They haven't learned to place protection, or to lead a climb.  Are they rock climbers?  Not really, IMHO.

Bottom line, for me, though, is to just get out there, be safe, and have fun.  Hard climbs are stressful.  I've had, and still do have, the best times climbing more moderate routes, say 5.6- 5.7 or so.

10:56 p.m. on January 8, 2012 (EST)
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OTOH, a number of climbs in the Sonora Pass area are rated sometimes as much as 2 grades below what most people consider them to be. Even the guidebook author agrees. First time I went there to climb, Brutus of Wyde (the late Bruce Bindner, who used to be a regular poster on RCU) suggested I try The Prow, saying I would find it to be one of the more interesting 5.8s I had ever done. After I thrashed around at the crux section (4 or 5 moves in succession) and got lowered by my belayer, he (Royal Robbins) went up and thrashed around at the same spot, then said "5.8 %#@&*! Lower me!". The general consensus is that it is at least 5.9+ (old trad rating scale), and probably 5.10a or b.

By contrast, several climbs at Tahquitz which for years were the standards on which Wilts based the original Tahquitz Decimal System have higher ratings in the last few editions of the guidebooks. The Trough was the canonical 5.0 (now 5.4). There was some discussion that the rock that broke loose at the ledge on the Trough, killing a woman, made the move onto the ledge harder, though most of us who were regulars there felt that, while the move was different, it was no harder than anywhere else on the route. It certainly felt no harder to me when I was last there about 7 or 8 years ago and had just discovered that the new guidebook had upped the rating to 5.4. White Maiden's Walkway was the standard 5.1 (now also 5.4). Fingertip Traverse was the standard 5.2 (now also 5.4). Switchbacks was the standard 5.7 (easiest variation is listed now as 5.9). But the Skitracks, the standard 5.6, is still listed as 5.6.

12:00 a.m. on January 9, 2012 (EST)
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Interesting, Bill!  Just goes to show that the rating scale isn't based on anything exact, just people's opinion.

Your story reminds me of a climb I did in Laramie, WY.  The climbing area was on the river and you had to rappel down to the water level, establish a hanging belay, and the leader climbed back out.  There was no way out, other than up or to swim.  Anyway, we rappelled down this 5.9 something and struggled for about an hour to get back out.  We flailed around, fell a lot, and generally cursed ourself for being such wimps.  We later discovered that the route was actually 5.11.  It was misprinted in the guidebook!

On a slightly different note, I did notice many climbing routes (particularly in Yosemite) were downgraded with the invention of sticky rubber-soled climbing shoes.

11:09 a.m. on January 9, 2012 (EST)
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My view is that my ability and skill went up by two grades when I put on my first pair of sticky rubber shoes. (8=>D

11:55 a.m. on January 9, 2012 (EST)
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Bill S said:

..There was some discussion that the rock that broke loose at the ledge on the Trough.. ..made the move onto the ledge harder, though most of us who were regulars there felt that, while the move was different, it was no harder than anywhere else on the route...

I was actually up on Tahquitz the day that accident happened.  We saw all the EMS activity down in the parking lot, but could not determine its exact nature.  Only later did we learn the details on the trail back down Devil's Slide.  That happened to be my last "let's climb rocks just to take the hard way up."  I was having doubts about pursuing this any further as a sport.  At that time I was pushing myself into some sketchy stuff, just because others found it scary.  And that's the problem, it wasn't scaring me, and this was compelling me to up the ante further still.  I could see this attraction did not hold out a bright future for me, what with my preoccupation with adrenaline.  In any case I had been buzzed too many times for my own piece of mind by rocks passing by fast enough to make them sound like streaking hummingbirds.  Something about the events of that day sealed the deal for me.  I will climb rock when necessary to attain a desired summit or as a necessary aspect of the route to Point B, but I long since have grown to favor the easiest/safest way up. 

Ed

 

1:38 p.m. on January 9, 2012 (EST)
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I agree that a rating is based upon the opinions of those that have climbed the route. The more that have climbed a route, perhaps the better chance that the rating will be more accurate for the average person. On a  somewhat related note, I climbed Cutthroat Peak in the North Cascades in the mid eighties. Fred Beckey had said it is a great alpine climb(correct). To get on the main ridge, you climb a two pitch 4 class lead out of a notch. OK, but just because Fred climbed it without protection didn't mean it wouldn't be good to have some protection. The rock however, was so rotten, there wasn't really any place to put protection. 

1:30 p.m. on January 16, 2012 (EST)
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