One thing you are almost always guaranteed to hear in a climbing conversation is a debate on grades. Some people firmly hold strong to the meaning of grades, some people think they are more subjective. There are always talks on what is soft, what is sandbagged, and what might be right. People are constantly disagreeing or agreeing about certain ones.
Grades are complicated because so much goes into determining your personal success with a climb. You could argue whether body types make a difference in climbing ability, but they certainly do make a difference in how hard or easy you personally will find a climb. If you need to dyno to a move that someone else can reach up to, it might take you more tries to figure it out. If you can crimp easily, a crimp climb is going to feel much easier to you than it will be for someone who can’t crimp well. If you have strong shoulders a shoulder intensive compression is going to feel much easier to you than someone who has weak or untrained shoulders. We all have personal differences that make particular climbs hard or easy.
Therefore, it really is important for people to take the ego out of climbing grades and realize that they are just tools to help mark progress and establish some sort of point system in competitive climbing. It is similar to grades in school. I’m sure you all know that one kid, maybe you even were that kid, who didn’t ever need to study or try hard but could get straight As. In college, there were kids who never even came to class except for test days and passed. Then there are those who study for 10 hours straight, study all year, work for extra credit, etc. They get the same grades for very different amounts of work and difficulty. If the level of difficulty of a school test was determined by individuals you’d get a lot of argument as well. Of course that genius will think it was easy, and that kid who might be stuck in an environment that doesn’t cater to his/her learning needs will find it hard. School grades are a bit easier though considering they have a basis of wrong and right answers. Perhaps comparing it to an essay test would be more likely.
In climbing there are some things that work towards selecting a grade. Most go by consensus. Usually a few people agree before a grade is written down. Then there is the idea that certain moves or holds would be hard at a certain level of climbing. A V0 climber is probably not going to be throwing a heel hook over their head for instance. Still it can be hard to establish grades since most beginner climbers are not setting and developing. Therefore, beginner climbs are often established by people who climb too hard to know the difference between V0 or V3. Then climbs set at the level of the one developing may have bias due to what that person hopes it is. We all want to succeed on hard routes. There can be grade debates that unfortunately revolve around egos. Some people want to claim one they did easy so others feel bad when they can’t also do it, or they may want to boost it up to look like harder climbers. It might be easier if all climbers graded like Chris Sharma and just said things like “It was hard for me, but it could be anything.” That is not a word for word quote, by the way, just the essence of what he typically says.
When you look at climbing grades, sometimes you will feel they are right, sometimes you will hate what they say. It’s best just to find what is or isn’t challenging to you. Do things that you need to work on and solve whether they are V4 or V8. Some people might be able to flash a crimpy V4 on flat wall, and then project a V2 in a cave for days. Your strengths and weaknesses may not match the grades. Do what you like to do, have fun, and work at it. Use the grades merely as the tool marker they are. If a year ago you could only do one or two V5s and now you can do a handful of V8s, then you know you got better. The grades help you track process, but you need to figure out how to use them for yourself.
For instance, I know that to do a cave climb for me, it will be a much lower grade than my flat wall climbs. I struggle with core. So instead of hoping on a V5 in the cave because I can do one on flat wall and then feeling disappointed, I feel proud when I am able to get that V2 in the cave. I don’t see it as my getting weaker but rather notice I’m getting stronger in an area that I am weaker. It is okay if certain types of climbs make certain grades for you. I can use the grades of different styles as my markers for improvements. I can also decide if I can get 5 crimpy V4s, and then struggle on this one crimpy V4, then maybe it wasn’t graded fairly and I should focus on the fact that I can get a majority so that grade is still where I am. If I have never even done a V5, but can do a V6, maybe that was a little soft as well. We can determine how to use grades as a tool based on ourselves.
When it comes to competitive climbing, it can be a little harder. We cannot tell the judges that we know a route was graded unfairly. However, competitions often go by points instead of grades for one thing. For another, they usually offer enough variety that we can get some harder ones and pick and chose. If you are at pro level, you don’t necessarily get to pick it out, but at that point you got to suck it up and just give it your all. Competitions might not have the grading of each individual route right, but they do seem to work well at coming up with who truly was first place compared to second. In the end, it does seem reasonable.
Don’t let grades rule your life. Just use them as a tool and keep in mind they are a bit subjective in measurement. This will help you a great deal. You don’t have to be a certain grade to be a great climber or to show you’ve made progress. If you are doing well, people will notice and be impressed regardless of what grade it is on. When you do something that was once hard for you with ease, you are going to feel on top of the world regardless of the grade. That’s the stuff that matters.