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.