There are, in climbing, certain analytic truths. An analytic truth is something which is true by definition. A statement like, “Dan is tall”, refers to some fact external to the criteria for Dan and height. The statement depends on Dan’s relative height, and is not an analytic truth. On the other hand, “A unicorn has one horn” is an analytic truth. It doesn’t require any supporting facts. In the United States, climbing’s analytic truths pertain to the Yosemite Decimal System, or YDS, as its devoted followers refer to it.
The YDS is one of several numerical rating systems for climbing difficulty. All of them would make Francis Galton proud, because they are all consensus systems. Numbers get assigned based on the collective experience of those who have travelled the route. But unlike Galton’s casual survey of fair-goers, the YDS has normative power as well as statistical power. Nobody wants to be the arrogant prick who over-rates his route. Nobody wants to be the arrogant prick who under-rates his route, or worse, downgrades someone else’s route. Because the number-ratings themselves are synthetic – they refer to facts in the world regarding rocks and people – the moralizing can only go so far. The internal consistencies of the system have no rails, though, and frustrated moral instincts often seek fulfillment among the system’s analytic truths.
Some of climbing’s more problematic truths include: “5.11 is harder than 5.10.”, “A 5.9 climber can climb 5.9.”, and “A 5.9 climber cannot climb 5.10”. Now, the latter two statements may appear to refer to some actual climber or climbers, even if they are hypothetical. Admittedly, the statements could be interpreted that way. For instance, if Dan says that he is a 5.9 climber, then his colleagues may reasonably expect that he can get up a climb rated 5.9. But that interpretation is rarely used. Instead, the statements are taken to be strictly consistent. At best, the definitions have to be realigned to fit. In other words, if Dan fails on a 5.9 climb, then he is not a 5.9 climber.
At this point, some examples are in order.
This is 5.9:
This is 5.9:
You got it, 5.9:
Let me emphasize the human factor in these photos. Some of the people shown climbing some of these routes have absolutely no hope of climbing any of the other routes (not me, of course, as I am a 5.11 climber).
But, if I am a 5.9 climber, shouldn’t I be able to climb 5.9? If I don’t climb that 5.11, am I still a 5.11 climber? Is there something wrong with me, or is there something wrong with the rating? Or am I equivocating between a synthetic category and its logical extensions?
The YDS axioms do not really sort climbers, nor do those truths-by-definition really sort routes. Yet the climbing community still takes the YDS formulas seriously, as prizes, urine marks on the wall and occasionally, inspirations.
As inspirations, logical consistencies are particularly treacherous.They can be like the funny little man at the rollercoaster entrance with a big smile and beatific expression, his finger pointing at an invisible line in the air.
“You must be this tall to ride”, he says, “and if you can’t make it today, maybe come back a little later and you will be up to it.”
But formulaic aspirations can flip without warning. The little man can turn nasty. He can suddenly point his finger at you and screech, “This is how tall you are, bitch. This tall and no more. Now go away!”
In the end, the climb goes or it doesn’t. Paying attention to the numbers themselves can help a person figure out what is worth the effort. Sometimes, the numbers can even keep a person out of trouble.
The truths about the numbers’ internal consistency are another story. Those get gummed up with ambitions and insecurities in no time. They are, like all analytic truths, entirely uninteresting in themselves, be they ever so ripe for projection.