Making the Grade Part 5

Friday, 19 March 2021

Mark Cobb MTG pt5 Cover

The final installment


Part 5 of 5


Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4


For me, grades inside are a guide, they show me which problems are harder and which less so. There is so much variation across different bouldering centres, that the grades really take a backseat in significance. The Project in Poole, doesn’t grade its problems. One can still see which are harder, just by looking at the holds or how they’re set. One can still find plenty of problems to fall off!

Outside, there is an adventure to be had in finding the holds, or how to position oneself in response. The tiniest of variations can bring about huge changes in how one climbs the problem and ultimately how difficult they may be. Stone Farm Rocks, near East Grinstead, another favourite area, looms large when I think of the relative significance of grades. The first time we went there, full of confidence, ready to lay waste to all the lower grade problems, was a true eye opener. The whole of that first visit was a fruitless search for friction, for holds, for footholds, all those things that seem obvious inside! We were spat off V1s, strained up seemingly impossible V2s and felt strangely triumphant actually staying on the rock.

Sandy, slippery, tenuous, downright hard.

After a few visits, this early desperation evolved into a respectful need for excellent footwork, thoughtful technique and occasionally, a forthright and assertive climbing style, tempered with a need for subtlety.

So, do we climb harder if we know the grades or if not? So many variables can affect one’s climbing experience; different types of rock and how much experience we may have on each type, types of holds, relative friction and how the weather affects it, and then the individual components, like height, reach, mind-set. I’ve always climbed my best when having fun. I’m more likely to be adventurous and try harder if that’s the case. My highest grade problem (at The Cuttings on Portland, a much cherished bouldering area), was strangely after I’d had some sad family news, which seemed to put me in some kind of zone, during which I felt temporarily and unusually unbeatable. Needless to say, this visit from the bouldering master didn’t last long and I was soon back to straining and scrabbling up scratchy handholds on the sharp Portland rock. I’ve never quite reached such lofty heights again, grade wise, but have happily managed many hard boulder problems and am very privately pleased with myself for having completed them. Hopefully, I have many more to go!

Another climbing Cobb

Another strange example was bouldering at Mini walls at Curbar. Years ago, I tried the very thin, Seams Simple Enough which was graded 7a or V6. I tried frantically to get some purchase from the tiny cracks and the non-existent footholds, but to no avail. On our next visit, the weather was too wet, so we couldn’t get on the problem. However, on the next visit, it was dry, albeit absolutely arctic! Good friction, but I could only try the problem for short bursts as my fingers turned to ice as soon as they were on the rock. A delicate balance of climbing and hands in pockets!

At last though, I managed the route. After many tries and numerous aborted attempts, the problem was bagged. Amazingly though, when the next peak District guidebook came out the problem had been downgraded to a V2.


Had it suddenly got easier?

While I was committing all that time and energy to trying to climb it, the problem had got 4 grades easier, without me knowing it.

What an eye opening example of how little the grade really mattered. I was really pleased when I finally latched the top and clambered over on this problem. It still felt hard and I didn’t downgrade it in my mind when it changed.

Did it matter?

No, not really. It was still a good problem, still great to get it and at the current time of writing, my son hasn’t yet managed to complete it. So, for a short while ahead, I’ll still be one up on him! (Not for long though!)

Nowadays, I’m happy to be less defined by the grade I climb, and more by the types of problems I climb or try to climb. My son pushes me to keep fit and as strong as I can be, while as a family, we are always looking for fun, safe and adventurous places to climb. The grades are a nice guide, but not the be all and end all. It can often be nice to say I got that V7 or V8 at the weekend, but it has a deeper resonance and greater significance when I can talk about the place, the rock, the movement, the feelings, the sensations and the whole picture. To be honest, it tends to boil down to 2 types of climb; those we can do and those we can’t do yet!!

I’m just happy to still be out there, enjoying the grazed shins, the grit rash, the bloody elbows, the pumped forearms and the fantastic satisfaction of being on the rock!

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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