Difficulty: A Matter of Perspective?

The concept of difficulty in climbing is not easy to fully comprehend, and even harder to quantify. It is as elusive as it is prolific among our thoughts and forms the impossible justification of many climbers’ motivations, and yet clearly it is there, defining the nature of the sport. ‘Difficulty’ is a somewhat vague term which is almost contradictory; it encompasses the amount of physical, technical, and mental effort and proficiency required to achieve something, and yet it is entirely subjective and can not be shared. I want to try and discuss the idea and the extent to which perceptions of difficulty can influence progression, how those perceptions originate, and their pervasiveness at the local and national scales. This is very much exploratory for me, and I’d be really interested to hear some of your thoughts on the subject, so please comment.

Absolute difficulty can broadly be described as the amount of effort required to do something, or the amount of energy required. This is problematic for climbing because it doesn’t account for efficiency or relative ability. If it was purely based on energy required then, in order to climb the ‘most difficult’ thing, you’d have to do it least efficient way; this is clearly not the case, and explains why bouldering in particular is so hard to explain to non-climbers. Also, a relatively better climber will be able to climb a certain problem with less perceived effort than a relatively worse climber, so it will seem less difficult to the former, but that doesn’t change the absolute difficulty of the problem.

Therefore, difficulty is deeply personal and very subjective, and as I said earlier, it can’t be shared. The difficulty, and the effort required, to do any given thing is determined by your personal ability, moreover, the perceived difficulty of that task is also determined by personal ability in addition to your personal definition of what constitutes ‘difficult’. Or, in other words, the scale of difficulty that you use. For example, some people will try problems that they can barely pull onto and regard it as completely impossible, or way to difficult, whereas others view it as something which just requires more effort. The same applies in training: for one person a session could have required a lot of effort and feel extremely difficult, but for another person of the same ability, so the session had the same absolute difficulty, the session was not as high up their own personal ‘difficulty scale’. These perceptions of difficulty can’t be shared because its not measurable and because no two people will have their scales of difficulty calibrated equally, so there will always be a degree of misinterpretation.

So are perceptions of difficulty likely to influence progression? It would be reasonable to assume that those who perceive the difficulty of something to be less would have the potential to train harder and so could improve more, provided the training is appropriate. That would imply that there is an optimum perception of difficulty which is perfectly aligned with your bodies needs – you will train at an intensity high enough to stimulate improvement but not so high that you injure yourself. In reality, this is unlikely to occur, and I’d be tempted to say that most people probably perceive the difficulty to be higher than it is, or they don’t fully understand the difficulty required to stimulate improvement – which is, of course, specific to each person.

I would argue that these perceptions are not inherent at birth but evolve over time as a result of your experiences through childhood, especially, and as a reflection of other peoples’ perceptions. At an individual level a myriad of factors likely contribute to your perceptions of difficulty: prior involvement in sport and the degree to which it was pursued, coaching at a young age, work ethic of immediate family and friends, education and schooling, who you climb with, and development of the sport at national and international scales. I would be hard pressed to evaluate the relative importance of each of these, but one which I want to go into a bit is the level of development of the sport at national and international scales, and resulting national perceptions of difficulty.

The development of a sport, or more importantly, the current limits and records set in that sport, play a considerable role in defining perceptions of difficulty as they have a significant psychological influence on individuals. As a sport evolves the limits are pushed, but the improvements are incremental, until eventually the old limit is commonplace. This is particularly evident in climbing, which, being a relatively undeveloped sport, has seen its limits raised dramatically over the past few decades – It’s not that long ago that 8c was the cutting edge, and now its not even very hard.

However, changing perceptions of difficulty do not seem to have occurred equally everywhere as climbing has progressed. In fact, perceptions at a national scale seem to be influenced much more by relative improvements of that country, rather than by the development of the sport itself, although that does have an influence. This has been apparent over time; as British climbers led the improvement of the sport in the 80’s and 90’s the perceptions of difficulty at a national level rose with it, then as other countries have experienced another wave of improvement culminating in ascents of 9b+ routes and 8C+ boulder problems, the perceptions of difficulty for the countries experiencing  the developments have risen with it. For example, in Spain, climbing anything less than 9a is not newsworthy, and even the magic grade is losing its aura, unless you’re very young or new to climbing. The likes of Daniel Woods and James Webb have begun to redefine bouldering, where 8B is only newsworthy if its flashed. Other countries might be fully aware of these developments, but their perceptions as a whole seem to remain calibrated against the current limits of that area.

Clearly then, perceptions can be changed, all that is required is the experience of progression as well as awareness. Personally, I’m excited about the future of climbing in Britain, I think that a wave of improvement is approaching, and that will influence perceptions of difficulty. It might not be significant at a global level, but it will be a step in the right direction.

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3 responses to “Difficulty: A Matter of Perspective?”

  1. Sam says :

    Difficulty and one’s own personal scale changes as ability increases – this is my experience. I used to think of 7A boulders as HARD and, therefore, when I climbed one I felt a huge sense of achievement. The downside, however, is that now I am a better climber and my perception of what is difficult has changed, I get less satisfaction from climbing a 7A boulder as I did when I had to fight for every move.

    That said, I do still love climbing an aesthetic line, either great rock in a beautiful formation or requiring a series of unusual and superb movement, no matter of the grade. I would not put off climbing something simply because I didn’t perceive it to be HARD anymore. Besides, one 7A that felt easy for the last guy could feel HARD for me based on body size or mental fortitude. High-balls being a weakness, for example, would make a 25ft 7A feel much harder than a 10ft one, despite the individual moves and climbing likely to be more physical on the smaller boulder.

    As you suggest, difficulty takes in a number of factors and it’s impossibly to truly, universally quantify, despite our best efforts with numerous grading scales employed all over the world.

    In the Peak District this year, at the start of this Grit season, there has already been a flurry of HARD trad climbing activity – either climbed traditionally or as high-balls. What was previously considered the epitome of hard, scary climbing is seemingly being ascended with relatively little effort by a large number of climbers. Climbs like the The End Of The Affair are getting relatively large amounts of traffic, despite once (arguably still) being considered as one of the hardest trad routes in the Peak District, if not the UK. What has caused this shift? One can only assume the increasing average ability of climbers around the Peak District. A shifting difficulty scale based on average ability.

    It’s going to be an interesting winter… providing the weather plays ball!

    • bendavison says :

      Thanks for your comment Sam, you’ve raised a couple interesting points. I completely agree that the amount of satisfaction you get from a grade is subject to change, unfortunately, I think this only gets worse! I’ve found that I’m sort-of-a-bit pleased doing something not quite at my limit, but only really satisfied if I’ve had to invest in it. I climbed with someone last winter who said something along the lines of, “I’m only really happy if I climb 8c or harder now”, when their max was 8c, but trying 8c+’s.

      With regards to aesthetics, I agree that they are a factor in determining how much satisfaction I get from a route. But if I’m honest, the line normally just initially grabs my attention, and its only on things where I don’t have to try at all that I actually notice the line and the setting when I climb. So the movement is probably more important to me than the line. To illustrate, I wouldn’t want to climb something bad just because its a good line, e.g. el delfin in Rodellar, is, by all accounts, really bad climbing, but its a great line.

      It’s been a pretty good season so far on the grit! Grit trad is a great example to illustrate shifts in perspectives of difficulty. This is because in terms of the actual climbing, most grit routes aren’t actually very hard – remember when team America came? But they are considered hard, and I think people are realising that if they headpoint them then they’re not actually that bad, just a bit scary…

      • Sam says :

        Grit is a strange one. The physical aspect of the climbing may not actually be that hard – but that is more dependent on the weather than any other rock type… at least that I’ve climbed on. I think if you try a “cutting edge” trad grit line in good conditions it can feel easy, but the opposite is true if its warm and muggy – it can feel impossible. This adds another element to the difficulty perspective. Grit climbing is an entirely different undertaking in the winter. If someone climbs an E1 in the summer and deems it HARD, someone weaker can climb it in the winter and claim it EASY for the grade. Difficulty in flux with the weather.

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