Limits to Free Climbing in Yosemite


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Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
Topic Author's Original Post - Mar 14, 2005 - 03:24am PT
The historical progression of the most difficult free climbing grades saw a very large jump from 1960 to 1970, using modern ratings going from something like 5.9 to 5.11a. However, from 1970 to 1990 the grades only went to 5.13c for this 20 year period. This trend shows that the high end free climbing ratings top out at around 5.14a/b around now (2005).

This would be for all climbs in the Valley.

Is there a limit to the free climbing difficulty, a maximum possible rating? What sets the limit?

Will the Valley see route projects in the 5.15 and 5.16 range? what projects? what are these climbs like?

Boulder climber
San Jose, CA
Mar 14, 2005 - 10:14am PT
This sounds a bit like asking, "Will computers get faster?"

Trad climber
New Durham, NH
Mar 14, 2005 - 11:14am PT
I've raced mine three times, but it justs sit's there on the desk.

Trad climber
Slippery Rock, PA
Mar 14, 2005 - 01:50pm PT
Then you have to ask yourself which is more difficult, numbers aside:

Hill or the Hubers or any other El Cap free aces doing that voodoo that they do, or someone doing a 50-100' 5.15.

It seems to me that Valley climbs will always have the length working for them, which could, if it could be properly quantified, put them up there with the hardest sport climbs.

Farmington, Utah
Mar 14, 2005 - 04:18pm PT
The hardest climbing to be done in Yosemite is on the boulders, and I don't see any reason why yosemite bouldering can't or won't keep up with international standards.

As for routes, I would be a fool to say that 5.15 will never be climbed in Yosemite, so let's just say conditions in yosemite do not lend themselves to having the hardest sport routes in the world.
Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
Topic Author's Reply - Mar 14, 2005 - 05:10pm PT
F'ueco - there are physical limits to how fast computers can go, Moore's law cannot continue forever. The principal drive is feature size, and at some point you hit the quantum limit (a single electron). You can't drop below that limit, so something radical must happen, but is is beyond the current increase.

I am interested in discussing what the "physical limits" of climbing in Yosemite (and more widely) are. My contention is that there is a maximum limit thus a maximum rating, but it might be so high to be essentially unbounded. Progress in the Valley on pushing route difficulty has slowed down, why?

Euph - I didn't want to get into a discussion of route length or climbing style (rad, trad, etc). My experience is that lots of hard stuff gets done on boulders, then someone does a half pitch, then a link up to a full pitch, then has an idea of pushing an old route free, then a variation of an old route, then a new route.

So my feeling is that if it is possible to climb at a particular rating, it will be done, and eventually for long routes. The question here is what defines "the possible".

MikeA - I addressed the bouldering issue in the response to Euph... I may be a fool, but perhaps a fool with an idea - that climbing has a maximum difficulty limit which can not be exceeded. It is possible that what is left in Yosemite to develop is too hard to do. OK, I think we can all see 5.15, which is somewhere in the V15 range. Higher though?

My point is that perhaps there is a limit to the hardest climbs that you could do in an area. What sets the limit?

Mar 15, 2005 - 01:18am PT
What sets the limit?


If you want to develop the consciousness of a lizard then you can be one in your next life and climb un-roped free solo 5 dot unlimited numbers.

Ha,ha .... You knew, I just couldn't resist ........
Don't let go

Trad climber
Yorba Linda, CA
Mar 15, 2005 - 02:55am PT
When I first started climbing, I had the difficulty of a 5.14d+ described to me as a horizontal glass wall. Since only spider man can climb that I always thought that was the limit. I wonder how much it just is people saying how awsome they are and want to say they have surpassed all of the great climbers that have gone before us.

Trad climber
Durango, Co
Mar 15, 2005 - 01:05pm PT
well, we know that 14d or 15a or whatever is the current upper level of climbing is not a vertical glass wall. there has to be something to somehow hold onto in some way whether it's a crimp, open hand, smear, crack of whatever width, or nuance of some sort. i also do not think that 15a is the upper limit. however, i do think that there is some point at which humans are not physically possible to cling to whatever media the rock has to offer, regardless of tendon strength, finger/hand size (ever stuck your pinky in an open bolt hole in the gym?), height, mental ability, etc. it seems that the idea of climbing a vertical pane of glass is a pretty good point of reference. transfer the qualities of a pane of glass that make it impossible to climb to a rock wall, and you have impassibility. make it overhung and then even more so. there just has to be some thing to cling to; a place that the climber is able to manipulate in some fashion to resist gravity. i think that is the limiting factor. at some point, we are just not able to cling to the rock. i suppose that technology could play a role - stickier rubber, rubber finger condoms, finger extensions that fit into minute cracks like a rurp or other thin blade. but, stuff like that aside, just climbing with sticky rubber shoes and chalk, there is a definite limit.
i don't know what the upper limit of climbing in yosemite would me on a number scale, though. there definitely has to be one, though. our climbing abilities, and thus the rating scale, is not infinite.

Gym climber
City by the Bay
Mar 15, 2005 - 02:57pm PT
The cieling for climbing has barely begun to be touched. As the sport gains in popularity the gene pool for an elite level of climbing will develop as well as more advanced training technigues. A look at the most elite climbers in the world show they do little training, compared to other athletes. Currently there are a number of climbers who are able to perform at elite levels not because they are talented but merely because of their level of commitment. As climbing progresses the climbers who have worked their way to fame through tenacity and commitment will end an an emergence of geneticallyh gifted climbers will become the sole inheritants of the most elite climbing. We are however at the cusp of this phenomenon. With genetic mutants such as Chris Sharma and a number of other young guns the scene for those of us who have less talent are screwed.
Keep trying and maintain ignorance-it's blissful. Maybe a free el cap will go down for you.

Boulder climber
San Jose, CA
Mar 15, 2005 - 04:31pm PT
F'ueco - there are physical limits to how fast computers can go, Moore's law cannot continue forever. The principal drive is feature size, and at some point you hit the quantum limit (a single electron). You can't drop below that limit, so something radical must happen, but is is beyond the current increase.

I am interested in discussing what the "physical limits" of climbing in Yosemite (and more widely) are. My contention is that there is a maximum limit thus a maximum rating, but it might be so high to be essentially unbounded. Progress in the Valley on pushing route difficulty has slowed down, why?

Computers have a long way to go before they catch up with the physical limits of the components. I think that there will be 1 TB iPods within the next decade, and internet access will become, for all intents and purposes, instantaneous. Computers will continue to get smaller and faster, until what today's supercomputers can do will fit into a PDA (and continue past that). Nanotechnology is just beginning to become a reality.

There are physical limits in how far people can push themselves in any sport. Are we close to reaching them? Who knows.

In climbing terms, it seems that the higher the upper gets, the softer the ratings become (especially in the upper middle of the range (5.11-12, currently). So to say that we are limited to climbing 5.16 is short-sighted, since what we now are calling 5.13 may be called 5.15 in a few decades.

The Valley itself has the limiting factor that the aren't that many holds between the cracks. Also, there are not many featured overhangs in the Valley. You can only climb slabs with no holds up to a certain angle. Past that, the friction of the shoe rubber must give out. There is also only so small of a hold that the human hand can hold before the friction is just not there. Where that limit is depends on the weight the hold must carry (which is why the top climbers are generally so small, and why Cicada Jenerik is a glimpse at the future of top-end climbers).

Trad climber
Fort Mill, SC
Mar 15, 2005 - 06:43pm PT
Whatever the limit may be weíll need one of those super wristwatch computers to gather enough data to figure it out. Many data points of mental and physical attributes would have to be crunched into some complex array of statistical algorithms. Regardless of the results I only dream of being able to climb half as well as my dog can run.

A thought about workout regiments... if many of the top climbers don't prescribe to the acceptable training techniques that the rest of us call "dedicated" then maybe there's something wrong with our perception of what elite training really is. The only way to measure the effectiveness of a training regiment is by results. The results are out. Two of the strongest climbers who ever lived (Gullich and Sharma) fall on 2 different sides of the training discipline. One worked his way to the top by traditional means, training very hard and loving every minute of it; the same way the rest of us mortals approach it. The other seemingly touched a rock, a dove descended down from heaven and blessed him with the spirit of climbing. Who more adequately represents our human potential?

Now there are two other athletes we can talk about; Ruth and Bonds. One was blessed with skill beyond measure; his training regiment consisted of living a hard and fast. He was an orphan and had very little else going for him, but he sure could play ball! The other was born into professional baseball; molded as a supreme athlete from day one. He may very well be the most honed slugger in history. Who more adequately represents our human potential?

I donít know, and I donít think we will ever know, but itís a great question to think about. We all agree on one thing though, normal people must workout to climb hard stuff. I wish you good results and safe passage.

Trad climber
So. Cal.
Mar 15, 2005 - 07:23pm PT
Numbers aside....
In theory one could always find a climb that is just a little teeny tiny bit harder if not limited by naturally occurring
So if the current free climbing god capable of climbing the currently hardest route in existence, could probably climb the same climb if it were just a little teeny tiny bit harder.

5.13 seemed impossible 20 years ago!

It may only take some lizard/human gene splicing!

Social climber
N. California
Mar 16, 2005 - 12:55am PT
I ask; how hard is 5.13 at Suicide Rock in So Cal? When did that go up?

Isn't the upper end of the scale just a series of 5.13 moves?

Is there such a thing as a one move or even two move 5.14? I don't think so.

My hypothesis is that current 5.13 is just relabelled 5.12s of years ago, and the upward float of grades as a by-product of gym climbing by relative novices since the 80s that don't have the experience of years of exposure to traditional 5.2s and 5.3s at Tahquitz don't understand what it means to climb 5.9, or even 5.10.

Consequently the same applies to 5.14. 5.14 is really just a series of lower grade moves, and doesn't represent a separate grade unto itself. The scale is open ended to accomadate advances and a younger generation of Sharma elites, but most of the new elites never tried climbing out of that pod of that classic 10c on the Cookie Cliff. Keep in mind Sharma doesn't grade his stuff these days and the hype around 5.15 is really a commercial hype and hyperbole that keeps us glued to our information sources. Our infotainment, if you will.

For those that have climbed 5.14 can you say that from your experience the hardest climbs you have done are tangibly different than the hardest 5.12s of years prior? And yes, I think bouldering ratings and cracks and sport climbs are comparable on 3 fronts.


TPE rating scale (C) MungeClimber Enterprises 2002

Please post up describing how a hard climb you did is tangibly harder than 5.12s of yesteryear.


Mar 16, 2005 - 01:14am PT
I remember when Kauk told me a long time ago before all this hard grade stuff. He had this vision then. He said it will be many boulder moves put together to make a hard climb that we see today. We put some labels and numbers to them to give some idea to their effort.

The spirit in itís ascension becomes some rating. If your spirit can become light enough you will be able to float.

The spirit is not bound by gravity.

Boulder climber
San Jose, CA
Mar 16, 2005 - 01:19am PT
Right on, Mungie.

That's why we need to go back to the B scale for bouldering.

Boulder climber
San Jose, CA
Mar 16, 2005 - 01:26am PT
And there are definitely single moves on boulder problems that are harder than 5.13. Doing moves on lead is a whole new game, though.
Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
Topic Author's Reply - Mar 16, 2005 - 03:20am PT
My initial post discussed grades because they are the most universal way we talk about the difficulties. A whole other thread could be created to discuss the imperfections of the grading system. Ratings change with time, just look at all the 5.9's in the Valley and try to sort through that mess. Compare some of Mac's SuperTopo ratings against the historic ratings... controvery there for sure! in the other direction. Eventually the climbs get done by enough people who have climbed a lot of other climbs and comparisons can be made.. it's just that not many people climb at the elite grades, it takes time to sort out the ratings... the difficulties are known soon enough.

As for training, I think James has a point that future climbers may be able to take advantage of improved training technique... the big jump from the 60's to the 70's was due, at least in part, to a concerted effort to "train" for climbing, though perhaps not as an olympic athelete. But there are climbers throughout the history of climbing that have trained and have accomplished difficult climbs, John Gill stands out as an early proponent of training for climbs, a number of climbers, Gullich was one, also trained for specific climbs. However, there are physical limits for any sport beyond which the body cannot be pushed. So there are limitations, I might agree with James that we don't actually know the boundaries there.

The development of technique, and the practice of that technique is also important. In some sense this area has the most potential for advance, bouldering is the engine of invention, along with hand-dogging, rehersing, etc... working routes in general. As climbers learn to do things in well controlled environments they can take those things on high. Kauk has pursued this direction for some time, as have others.

Werner is of course correct, much of the perceived limits are a product of the mind. Being able to break through and "see" what could be possible, and unlocking the secret of a climb is one of the very big limitation.

Thanks for the thoughtful responses, even a duffer like myself can benefit by thinking about ultimate limits... I have my own personal ones and it's always nice to figure out how to push them out just a bit further.

Social climber
N. California
Mar 17, 2005 - 01:50am PT
I think we need an open ended scale for longer an longer routes, of hard moves stacked on hard moves. I've never seen a full 70 meter pitch that is as sustained as the crux moves of Too Be or Not to be. When that day comes we may have come really close to human endurance. But power and technicality have been done.

Fueco, can you name some examples that have single moves harder than 5.13? And by 5.13 I mean compared to something old, otherwise the 5.13 is just lots of 12 moves and might be seen as part of the upward float of grades.

Ed stated something interesting; that grades change over time. But maybe they should not. Once a grade has been established, then that becomes the measuring stick of sorts, or at least a series of routes at the grade.

Someone that has the patience and logical capacity can argue my hypothesis and this recent proposition into a linguistic corner, but how is that we can still talk about grades. I can still relate generally how hard something is?

Are there any treatises on the climbing rating systems? What a wonderful book that would be to write. filled with paradoxes and parables.

JL? Put those creative juices to work. A comprehensive insiders guide to ratings of the TDS.


Mar 17, 2005 - 01:57am PT
But what is the end point? Harder, harder and still harder. Then what? You still have to die. I thought the end point was to transcend Birth and death?
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