Thursday, April 19, 2007

The "P" scale

I've been on the road near-constantly for the last two months (Oz and Sweden and then LA) plus a bunch of writing projects, slide shows and other stuff that's reduced my writing time, but here's the quick report: The Sweden trip was insane, we climbed a lot of wild ice deep underground. There's enough underground, climate controlled ice in Sweden to keep the average ice climber happy for a very long time. It's sometimes difficult to access, but it's the future in a world that's warming up. Expect to hear more about these mines in the future, thanks to everyone on the trip, it sure was fun (most of the time, had a few adventures with falling ice that weren't so fun).

All of the underground climbing and some I've gotten done locally lately have made me realize that technical grades don't really convey the experience of climbing a route, or even just having adventures outside in general. Years ago I wrote a sarcastic article about a new grading system called "GAG," which stood for both how I feel about grades in general and also the acronym for Gadd Adjusted Grade. It basically combined technical difficulty with exposure/commitment etc, with "your couch" gettting a GAG of 1 and soloing 5.14 naked on the top of Everest a GAG of 20 or something. But I missed a few major components with the GAG scale, namely that the experience of climbing a route is really subjective and not at all about how hard or whatever. Plus I wanted a scale that covered all aspects of climbing that I do, from ice to bouldering to mountaineering to sport and some other stuff in there. So, in a slightly less sarcastic but still firmly less than serious effort, I'd like to introduce the "P" scale, which should both take the Piss as the Brits say and also define the important characteristics of any climb. These are "Position, Personal experience, Photographs, Partner, Posing and Post-trip posing," mostly all subjective.

"Position" refers to just how damn cool it is to be in the place or on the route. Routes with a high "P" score should make you stop and think, "Damn, this is great!" They don't have to be hard, just a really cool place. Anything from being 20 feet deep in an offwidth to standing on top of your local hill at sunset to looking down from halfway up El Cap get a high P rating. A gym generally gets a very low P rating.

"Personal" experience refers to how psyched you were with the climb. I give my first 5.11 (one of the Ski Track lines in J Tree, can't remember which) a very high "P" 'cause I fought through some some fear about the grade, gear, and was just so stoked when I got to the top. Same with some easy climbs that I had a hard time with, such as doing the North Face of Athabasca at -20 with my brother years ago. I give doing laps on a local training route a low P, 'cause it's just not that cool.

"Photographs" are just that--a great photo on the top of Mt. Alberta scores huge, a butt-shot on the local crag that's under-exposed gets nada. Photographs can be posed or combat, but they define the route in our own memories and often other's eyes. I have some photos from high school that are actually really good, and just evoke why I like to go climbing. Big helmet, Fire boots, rugby shirt, painter's pants, two-inch pink swami tied with a huge knot, yeah!

"Partner(s)" bring a lot to the experience of climbing. Good ones elevate the trip to something great (blasting into the desert and climbing Primrose with Nod Revils back in the day), bad ones the opposite (I still think about hunting down and killing the SOB who had me soling some Eldo slopefest in about '84, that was just wrong, sandbagging on a solo...). Partners are the only part of the scale that can be a negative number.

"Posing" is just that, and always involve photos or video. As a "professional climber," I've learned to split climbing into "climbing," which is what I like to do and live for, and "posing," which is work and what I have to do. I've climbed routes with very high grades but with lousy posing potential, and vice versa. I remember the first time I saw some of Wolfgang Gullich's climbs in Germany and realized that he was not only a master climber but also a master poser--I could have cleaned the entire route with an extendo brush on some of 'em, but I had thought they were at least a hundred feet high... Still rad climbs, but it was the Pose factor that made them well-known around the world, not just the grade.

"Post-trip Posing" is just that. This can take the form of "Dude, we climbed the Andromeda Strain at -20 with constant spindrift, sick!" to lengthy photos and editorial in a major manufacturer's catalog (OK, so I'm talking about Steve and Vince on the Rupal Face as portrayed in Patagonia's catalog--it was a magnificient post-trip posing piece as well as climb, and they deserved every word and photo). These are the stories about our climbs both verbal and in print, anything that makes the climb something speical to talk about publicly with friends or the world. Note that post-trip posing can backfire, as it did on Dean with his ascent of Delicate Arch (I'm not getting into that one, I respect Dean and just don't know what really happened, but it did definitely back-fire less than delicately).

Add all the factors above and you get the "P" grade. The "P" scale is fluid and adaptable to any climbing trip, or any sport really. It's also deliberately transient--climbs you did ten years ago perhaps aren't going to get as high a P grade because experiences since then knock them off the top of the list. My P scale goes from 1 to 10, but nothing says it can't get from 1 to 3 or 1 to 1,000, it's all about how damn cool it was based on the above. A "P10" from 1990 might only warrant a P3 now, because you're a better photographer and have reached deeper on other climbs.

Disclaimer: Many climbers seem congenitally unable to handle attempted humor--this handicap is a form of near-autism. The above isn't a serious grading system but should be.