Yesterday Caroline climbed Chillax in Glendalough. This is a mega classic boulder problem in Ireland and justifiably so. It requires power, fingerstrength, flexibility, core strength and a fair bit of technique. It's the perfect boulder problem at the grade. For Caroline it marked the beginning of her return to form 10 months after giving birth to Matilda. Being a parent has brought a lot of changes to something simple like going climbing. Ease of access to the boulders becomes a major factor. Conditions can be too cold for the baby. You've got to bring so much more stuff to the crag. It's not just the return to fitness issue, it's the logistics of managing another little person. Spotting becomes more difficult too. Anyway - it was a great send and seemed way too easy for her in the end.
I've been doing a lot of bouldering lately and I keep coming back to the same thought. Wicklow grades are a mess. The Irish scene seems to be stricken with a few character flaws that have acted to provide an impenetrable glass ceiling to all but a few who have the benefit of a broader outlook or supportive peer network. I'm not advocating soft touches but I think it would be more productive and beneficial for climbers improving if the scene was at least as open to upgrading as it is to downgrading. Seems fair doesn't it?
As far as I can tell a lot of the development of the Wicklow boulders was done by a few with the mentality that "I had to try really hard on this thing so it's 7A". These were super psyched and strong climbers, doing fantastic work in cleaning and establishing first ascents all over the place.
But either through misplaced modesty or sheer ignorance of their own strength their ascents got recorded as 6C's and 7A’s and so the seed was planted. These sandbags lay at the foundation of all subsequent boulderers thoughts on grades and Wicklow became the home of nonsense grades and conversations such as: Sandbagger “Yeah, I worked that for 6 months but once you dial the body position it’s easy. Has to be 6C. A girl climbed it so can’t be 7A. My fat mate climbed it, can’t be 6C+.” Onlooker “But didn’t you flash a 7B every day last week in Font?” Sandbagger “Yeah, but what do THEY know about Font grades?!? They’d have been 6B at a push at home… they were just technical” Haa! Exaggeration? Yes, but you get the gist. Do grades matter? Not to the quality of the climbing or to the personal challenge each problem presents to the individual. But if they’re going to be used at all they should relate to the accepted standard at each grade and not be based of those initial bashful suggestions by strong early activists not wanting a rep as a grade whore. Am I a grade whore? Possibly. Or more likely I’m just displaying my OCD tendencies about something that doesn’t make sense from my experience and perspective.
A lot of areas have benchmark problems. North Wales for example. Popcorn Party, cave route, the gnasher - all benchmark 7A's. Crimpy, pumpy and a precise snatch. Jerry's roof, Bus Stop, Rock Atrocity - benchmark 7C's. Used as grade landmarks when grading new additions.
I think the harder problems are spot on the money in Wicklow. Most things 7C and above seem about right and have been confirmed by ascentionists. It's the 6C to 7A+ range that hides the best selection of quality Font 7B problems in Wicklow :) and this traces back to those early ideas that 7A's were at peoples physical limits.
For my money the following grades apply
Dark Angle Sit 7A
The Cherry 7B
2.4 Pascals 7B+
Afro Left 7A+ (harder for the short)
The Fin 7A+
BBE Sit 7B
Andys Arete Sit 7A+/B
White Stick 7A
I think the shortspan and 27crags websites are great and useful tools in building a consensus of opinions and will sort things out anyway through increasing information availability, encouraging discussion and getting more people out into the boulders.
I'll hold my hands up to a fair few sandbags in my time too by the way. In hindsight they were a combination of not wanting to propose too high a grade for the bouldering population to downgrade and falling into the same trap of viewing myself as a weak boulderer. Probably my worst sandbag was Mother in ravens glen graded 6A in an effort to attract more ascents and opinions. Realistically 6C/7A if topped out along arete? but worth three stars all the same. I know, I know... hypocrite!! But I'm trying to own up to it and I admit it :) I'm learning and rethinking all the time...
Did I mention I love the bouldering in Wicklow?!? :)