Route setting – To sandbag or not to sandbag

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Before I even start I should explain what sandbagging is to readers who do not know what it means.

Sandbagging – a route that is way harder than the stated grade. This is because the climber who establishes the route had intentionally or unintentionally graded the route easier than it’s supposed to be. Think of it as you are climbing with a sandbag strapped on your back figuratively speaking.

Why are routes sandbagged?

There are a few reasons why routes are sandbagged be it setting gym routes or natural crag.

1. The route setter is super strong

If the route setter is a climber that sends 8a ish routes like a walk in the park, it is quite hard for him or her to tell the difference between a 6a and a 6c. A good crimp for him can be an impossible hold for us mere mortals.

2. Body physique

Some climbers say that if you are good it doesn’t matter if a route has big moves. There isn’t such a thing as moves for tall climbers and moves for small climbers. It’s just a matter of finding a unique way to solve the problem. I say F them. In the physical universe that we exist in span, the difference is real.

A tall route setter may set routes with moves that are well within reach for them, but for those of us who are both vertically and horizontally challenged “well within reach” may be many inches too far. So for tall climbers, a route may be an easy 6a but for a short climber, the same route may feel like a 6c.

3. Mystery moves and hidden holds

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Ever found yourself stuck on an easy route. Not because the moves are hard but you have just no idea how the route goes. No matter what you do you just can’t seem to find a way past the “crux” until the route setter points out a simple beta or a hidden hold which makes the move easily doable.

4. Exposure

Your body and mind respond differently in face of fear. A seemingly easy move can be undoable because of the exposure of the route. Or when bolts are few and far apart inexperienced climbers may find the route harder than it really is. Hence routes may seem under-graded in such situations.

5. Climbers’ ego or a lack of

This was made known to be a fact by the great man himself Adam Ondra. The world’s hardest route Silence established and sent by him. Adam Ondra graded Silence 9c after a lengthy consideration because he fears other climbers might climb the route and downgrade it which would be embarrassing and he does not want that to happen.

Even a climber like Adam Ondra has fear of his route being downgraded. This is not something unique as most route setters have a tendency to under-grade routes they set. No route setter wants climbers to say their route is easier than its grade. This is the reason why most gym routes are graded through consensus by a group of route setters.

Why do grades vary from place to place?

The general difficulty of routes in a gym or an outdoor crag will attract climbers of different skill levels. If a gym has lots of routes that are easy and over graded it will attract more climbers that are less experienced or climb at an entry level because it is less intimidating. While gyms with routes that are generally harder and sandbagged will attract stronger and more experienced climbers.

So in a way, how routes are graded can also be attributed to the type of climbers the gym wants to attract.

Is sandbagging good?

This is a loaded question and there will be many climbers with very contrasting views. First of all climbing grades are subjective. So for those who have a strong opinion about sandbagging feel free to comment at the end of the article.

Let’s look at it this way. If you score straight As for your school exam because your questions are significantly easier than that of other schools that doesn’t mean you are smart. Yes, it makes you feel good. But you’ll lose that feeling very fast when you take exams elsewhere. So if you are too used to over-graded or “accurately” (there is no such thing) graded routes you will find it difficult to climb at places where routes are sandbagged. However, if it is the other way around things will be very different.

setting routes
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I am not advocating for crazy and ridiculous sandbagged gradings. But I do think that slight to moderate sandbagging is good, in fact, it is necessary. Making things feel easy does not make us better. So how do you know if a route is sandbagged or you had been living in a climbing grade bubble at the gym you frequent? When you show up at a new gym or crag and you can’t send a grade that you would have normally sent with ease, while everyone around you is able to walk up the same route. This is how you know you had been in a climbing grade bubble.

Sandbagging is a good way to put you in your place. Just when you thought you are good…. but you are not. I too know the feeling. After working for months on a project, when I finally sent it I was told that it should be a grade or 2 lower…. 😑.

How to Sandbag the right way

Be it you are setting or trying out a new route. You should always give the route the lowest grade that it can possibly be as if you are climbing it on a good day. Get a few other fellow climbers to try and go through a few rounds of debate on the correct grade but always the lowest suggested grade will be the correct one.

Poll – Sandbagging what’s your take

So do you think that sandbagging route is good practice? Let us know your opinion by leaving a comment.

Share with your friends and find out what they think of sandbagging.

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