Chasing grades, confidence and awareness

Created 5-14-2016

Tagged as beta so feel free to ignore spelling, grammar and logic mistakes for now.

I started climbing 7 years ago by taking an intro to climbing class at the Earth Treks gym in Timonium, MD. After learning the requisite basics of tying in and belaying, I continued to visit the gym with my girlfriend once or twice a week. While we both enjoyed the activity, climbing grew to become a much larger influence in my life and has heavily influenced many of my subsequent life decisions. Since I started climbing and to this day, my motivations, rules and asperations have significantly shifted so much that I find it hard to remember and understand just how I came to be the climber that I am today.

For the first 6 months or so of climbing, climbing and top-roping were almost synonymous in my mind. As my familiarity with top ropping increased, I took my first independent steps in the gym by showing up by solo and seeking out new partners: strangers! As a self-confirmed shy tech guy, this felt like a big step and further felt big as it lead to a small kurfuffle between me and my original and until then sole climbing partner: my girlfriend. Finding new partners was my first ventue into the wider climbing community. Now I was climbing with and learning from climbers with years of practice, vastly supperiour skill levels and significantly broader definitions of what climbing is. My world of top ropping felt like just the tip of the iceburg when I saw others lead climbing, heard about outdoor trips and occassionally even talked with people that ventured into the other half of the gym: the bouldering cave.

and sometime soon after began to absorb the one of the most universally objectional persuits as accepted by the climbing hive mind: chasing grades. When I started to climb, I was a skinny 27-year-old male with no , it bubbled up in conversations among resting boulderers and between cliques of rope climbers with fuzzy definitions that mutated between each circle of climbers but lived consistently as the bogeyman for keeping climbers motivations pure. Being new and timid, I never seriously questioned the idea nor felt the need to seriously question it. I would nod along to the criticisms levied and surely, from time to time, denounce the dark art. Yet somehow I justified my own gradual pursuit of improvement.

A grade chaser doesn’t get climbing. Climbing isn’t about the grade you climb. It’s about the experience.
My brain
The best climber in the world is the one having the most fun!

If a discussion on grades lasts more than 1 minute or risks being explored honestly, Alex Lowe's quote will inevitably make an appearance like some sort of deus ex machina. For a long time, I considered Lowe's quote as an answer that opposed grade chasing. It's a seemingly simple quote and can succeed in squelching the discussion but its reliance on "fun" makes it more of a path to more questions than a satisfying conclusion.

Two years ago, while grappling with a Northeast winter full of solitude and shoveling, I started hangboard training for the first time in an attempt to stay fit for climbing and just try something new. After a few sessions of hanging in my sister's freezing garage from little plastic edges and furiously scribbling self-obsessive workout notes, I found myself confronting the taboo topic of chasing grades and my slippery definition of fun.

What is a grade chaser?
Grade chasing is a bogeyman within the climbing community that occasionally exists in conversations but derives most of its power as a subjective, silent, internal roadblock. Prioritizing training over unstructured climbing time, setting ambitious goals and persuing those goals with actual dedication was grade chasing for me. Now that I do those things and find enjoyment and value in the process, my own idea of grade chasing has shrunk.
Will chasing grades make climbing less fun?
What the hell does fun even mean? Kelly Cordes makes some interesting points. In my training and general efforts to chase grades, I've gained a deeper respect for the minute details that can influence performance, found personal satisfaction in my own relative improvements and bonded with other climbers thru a shared desire to explore our limits within climbing. I still hesitate to call the process fun, but with that qualifier in place I'm now, at least, ready to say that I think it may be fun.
What the difference between training and chasing grades?
Personal definition and rhetoric. Want to chase grades but not bring too much attention to yourself? Just say that you're training.
Isn't technique the most important thing to train?
Technique doesn't solely exist in your feet and hips. Increasing forearm strength, lockoff power and endurance will increase your understanding of how to exploit the strength of your skin, the power of well coordinated full-body moves and the interplay between forearms, lungs and mind while hanging on during onsight attempts and redpoint pushes.
Shouldn't I just go rock climbing and not worry about grades?
Grades are present in all of the climbing guides that I've ever seen. Chasing grades confronts this near universal measurements with honesty and ambition. I'd rather address the subject openly and without fear than pretend that it doesn't matter while still be confined to its rules. That said: when in doubt, follow your heart.
I'm concerned about how others may think about how I go about persuing my new goals.
Fearing a negative reaction from others is my fear. My friends and climbing partners deserve more benefit of the doubt than that and if I do run into people who resent a persuit of progress then I'll have the opportunity to defend my motivations and make sure they still feel true.
I'm nervous to learn new ideas and methods that force me to be a beginner.
Being a beginner is humbling yet also encourages self confidence. I accept that often I am a beginner and that I can still add value to discussions with more experienced people. I aim to listen to feed the underlying motivation of learning for myself. Questioning practices and sharing my point-of-view is a contribution to the learning process regardless of the other participants level of expertise.
I don't want to set myself up to hate and eventually quit climbing.
For a number of years, climbing has not been just recreational for me. I'm not the strongest, but exploring the physical and mental opportunities of climbing represents an important outlet of passion. By chasing grades, I continue to hone my own version and vision of climbing.

What now?

I don’t need to be a hard climber to train or admit to being a grade chaser. I'll always project some someones warmup and flash someone else's project. There are non grade chasers that climb harder than me, but my approach is just that: mine. Among my persuits within climbing, I chase grades and in that chase I've encountered self confidence, optimism, discipline, humility, a desire to evolve and the breadcrumbs of fun.

Possible influential sources