Back in September of 2008, James Pearson made the first ascent of a traditionally protected slab climb in England he dubbed Walk Of Life. At the time, Pearson proposed a grade of E12 which would be similar to someone climbing a sport route and calling it 5.15c or 5.15d. Basically, he felt as though it was the hardest traditionally protected climb out there.
Enter Dave MacLeod. It seems as though MacLeod was looking for some “therapy” for a nagging case of elbow tendinitis, which led him to try his hand at the slabby Walk Of Life. Somewhat surprising to MacLeod was that the climbing was not terribly difficult (for him) and also not terribly frightening (again, for him). After a few days sussing things out MacLeod did the 2nd ascent, and he is proposing that Walk Of Life is more in the neighborhood of E9. So it is hard and scary, but not that hard and scary.
This of course begs the question: how can two people have such different experiences climbing the same route? At the time of the FA, Pearson had this to say:
E12 7a is the point on the scale that I feel best reflects my experience, and what a crazy thing that is to say. Using two very inflexible numbers to try to sum up my thoughts and feelings at the final point of a 4 year journey seems ridiculous, and really takes something magical away from the route. There are so many things about The Walk Of Life that are special to me without even thinking about the grade, and any of these special parts explain the experience infinitely better than those 2 numbers ever could.
Ever the thinking climber, MacLeod offered some excellent in depth thoughts into the difficulties he felt he encountered:
The first reason the walk isn’t harder than E9 is there is no requirement to be fit. It’s possible to take both hands off on almost every move (not that you actually would, but the point is it’s not at all strenuous). Apart from the start which is rather sparsely protected, the remainder is pretty safe with many pretty good bits of gear, right where you need them. It’s also on a very non serious outcrop which is easily accessible with no logistical hassles. It’s kind of hard to give it a french grade but I would say about 8a/8a+ but I’m pretty sure there are harder granite slab routes in Switzerland and the US which are given lower numbers than this.
I don’t think it’s such a surprise that some that have been given the highest grades aren’t actually the hardest. There are too many aspects of human nature at play, never mind the fact that no-one has gone round and repeated them all. Climbers used to do this. Maybe they should do it again. It would be a shame if our hard E grade climbs, which really are great masterpieces of rock climbs and stories, implode into a black hole of sensationalist rubbish headlines and witch-hunts on ukclimbing.com.
Considering the fact that Pearson was the subject of anonymous internet criticism some negative online feedback when he first proposed the E12 grade for Walk Of Life, I’m sure that MacLeod’s thoughts will only add fuel to that fire. Should be interesting to watch…