Making the Grade Part 4

Thursday, 18 March 2021

Mark Cobb MTG pt4 Cover

Mark has never met a boulder he didn't want to defeat


Part 4 of 5


Part 1

Part 2

Part 3


My family have bouldered quite a lot in Tenerife, with very little knowledge or background to the areas we have climbed. We have descended, locust like on the rock, looking for fun lines, for doable family routes, for harder challenges, just by looking at the rock. No idea about grades or beta. There is a freedom therein. No pressure from the grade. No pressure to climb it a certain way.

Just climb!

I wonder if, without those damocletian forces weighing us down, do we climb more freely, without expectation and with greater sensitivity to the balance between rock and skin. Are we more receptive to the flow? Do we dive deeper into that unconscious zone of climbing ‘in the moment.’ I’ve talked to my son about this. He’s only 13 and wanting to prove himself and push himself. He admitted that given the choice between climbing a V3 or V7, he would always rather channel his energy into the higher grade problem. Perhaps it is human nature, to either want to climb the harder problem, or, depending on the individual, the easier problem. I would imagine, almost everyone I know, would choose the harder problem. I suppose we can all still do that without knowing the grade. Perhaps the grade is less important and it’s more about climbing to one’s own challenge. I’d always choose to climb something that looks hard or more towards the upper edge of my ability. (Or often, way above my ability.) Otherwise, always climbing something that we know we can climb….where’s the fun in that? Where’s the adventure?

A climbing Cobb

My wife has been trying for a while to climb a problem in Newbiggin in Yorkshire for a while. My son and I can both climb it. It has a horrible start, the first move being the crux, a sit start from extremely shadow less finger indentations, not big enough to be described as crimps. There is a definite technique for getting off the ground, pushing through the good foothold and merely stabilising on the finger holds, while throwing oneself upwards and inwards up to the next, good handhold. If the sequence and precision of those movements are in anyway interrupted or imbalanced, then that next hold proves frustratingly distant. Even having climbed this problem several times, I don’t always manage that move. (Although it’s always heart-warming when I do.) I have even set up a similar sit start on my home wall, using some horrible handholds, to try and replicate this boulder problem. My wife has been so close a few times. Perhaps our next visit will prove triumphant. Whether she wants to climb because of the grade, or just because it has a hard sit start is something only known to her, (it may be because the crux is low to the ground. If you fall off that first move, it’s only 6 to 8 inches back to the mat. Only one’s pride gets hurt!! Quite painful that though!!) but perhaps the grade is less important if one can climb it. Or…maybe equally less important if one cannot! (Ah... there’s the dilemma.)

Grades often seem more obvious when bouldering inside or maybe that’s just my perception. Perhaps it’s the lack of a view, or any effect from the weather. Perhaps there’s an extra focus, or different focus, as the holds are so obviously part of a specific problem. Niall Grimes told me, ‘If you’re a good climber then indoor grades feel much harsher than outdoor grades. That’s because they are just about doing pull-ups. I find indoor grades absolutely desperate, and outdoor grades really easy.’ I certainly prefer climbing outside, but still enjoy opportunities to climb inside. It’s a different beast and I often approach it differently. Simon Rawlinson, who sets at my local wall, Brookes Climb said ‘at Brookes we try to keep it quite realistic.’ This was in response to our discussion about the difference between indoor and outdoor grades. Simon wanted to keep grades at Brookes as close to bouldering outside as possible. I feel the grades at Brookes are pretty damn hard, but I’m glad they are. Personally I am probably more grade driven inside than outside. I think the reason is more aesthetic, than purely physical. Rock, and the way it feels beneath one’s fingers, can dictate the way one’s body responds, the way it adapts or attunes to the shape of the rock, almost like a wave moving across the beach. Indoors, I can see the holds and the shape they are and can predict how I need to climb the problem, based on those initial feelings. Outside, I feel my fingers searching for variations in the rock, slight ripples, shallow dishes or minute undulations. The movement itself can be the reason for trying a route or problem, rather than whether one can complete it. Katherine Schirrmacher added, ‘The actual grade of indoor climbs is often quite arbitrary, because of their temporary nature. Outside a grade takes years to settle as many people do or do not complete the climb, whereas an indoor climb may only exist for a month or two. Inside the grade reflects more the physicality of a climb, not that less technique is required, but it’s clearer ‘what to do’. Outside there are more variations and subtleties, meaning the final solution may be less physical, but it takes longer to reach that conclusion.’

Written by Mark Cobb, Climbing Ambassador for Brookes Climbing Wall. I would like to thank Simon Rawlinson, Niall Grimes and Katherine Schirrmacher for their wonderful contributions to this article. As ever, thanks to Johnny Dawes for his constant inspiration and motivation.

If you would like to have a go at climbing, why not contact our climbing wall at Oxford Brookes University Centre for Sport in Headington. For more information about climbing or email

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