Monday, March 10, 2014

Rating Systems & Perception of Difficulty

In Trevanian’s The Eiger Sanction, Jonathan Hemlock’s climbing coach, Ben Bowman, manipulates Jonathan’s perception of the difficulty of Big Ben Needle. While Jonathan is initially unsure about the Needle, Ben encourages him and tells him that he’s “more than ready… You’re overtrained, or trained too fast. You’re getting a little skitterish.” Throughout the ascent, Ben replies to Jonathan’s questions about route choice with vague responses: “Is this the way [route] you started up, Ben?” … “It’s one way, I guess”. Upon first inspection of the towering rock needle, Jonathan is hesitant and says: “Looks hard, Ben. Especially the top flange.” Ben replies “it ain’t no bedpost… I’ve stumped up it once before.” I felt this gave Jonathan the drive to reach the summit – it was now feasible. Only once they reach the summit, Ben says: “I never thought anybody’d climb this needle”. Ben instills the confidence in Jonathan to reach the summit. Rather than tell Jonathan that a number of “fair country climbers have taken shots at the needle” and failed, the Needle is viewed as an attainable goal from the start of the ascent.

Instantly, this led me to think about student’s perception of difficulty at the Hamilton rock climbing wall and the Yosemite Decimal System (rating on routes - i.e. 5.6, 5.7, 5.8, etc). While discussing climbs with another student last week, we talked about how climbers with different skills, body types, and experience have totally different perceptions of difficulty. She was having a hard time getting up a “beginner” route set by Will Johns (one of the taller route setters) simply because she happens to be on the short side and can’t reach the same holds as Will. Once we moved to a different route (with the same rating!), she quickly made it to the top. One of the climbing wall employees joined the conversation, and now over spring break he’s going to set new routes without a rating, and let climbers assign their own rating. I’m excited to see the wide range of ratings, and I think it will encourage students to try to send something they never thought they could complete.


  1. I agree that difficulty is subjective, as is risk. It's like what Honald says in the video I posted at the beginning of the semester. Me walking up steps is as risky as him climbing something I couldn't even manage to start climbing. I like what you're saying about it being obtainable since you think it has been done already. Women can climb mountains because we have seen women climb mountains. Tying this to my own experience, I have spent a lot of time watching beginner ice climbers this season. There is almost a tangible change in heart/confidence when a beginner sees another beginner climb a route he was uncertain about. Once you see someone you think of with equal talent do something, you "know" you can do it too. Before that though it's too uncertain and you can fail calmly with the knowledge that no one has yet to succeed. You have greater expectations or hopes of succeeding when you know someone like you did it.

  2. This question of difficulty and how ones perception of difficulty can be more important than actual difficulty is something that truly stood out for me. It was especially apparent on the final move of the needle, this move appeared to be more feasible since Jonathan knew Ben had already done it. Speaking from my own experiences when I believe something should be easy I approach it significantly differently than if I believe it to be difficult. I also have a competitive edge that contributes in situations like these. If someone I know is able to do something, I want to be able to accomplish this task. Reading The Eiger Sanction this became apparent when Jonathan said that getting 95% of the way up was still called failing. In the case of Jonathan's climb I was unsure if his drive came from the knowledge that it was climbable, a competitive desire to keep up with Ben, or some combination of both.