Some thoughts on beta

One characteristic of my latest climb, the first ascent of Evil Wears No Pants (30) at Mt Coolum was that I didn’t have any beta (information) on the climb, and had to work out all of the moves myself. I hadn’t seen anyone on the climb, and the only pointers I had was some telltale chalk on some of the holds.

The majority of hard routes I have done in the past few years have been climbed in tandem, with another climber also trying the route. You work as a pair, sharing beta, watch the other person climbing and generally feed off each other’s energy and experience. Moves get refined and the easiest sequence is solved much more quickly than working alone.

Sport climbing cliffs with dedicated locals and regular traffic often lend themselves to the beta feed phenomenon. The cave at Mt Coolum is a case in point. The contributing factors are a limited selection of routes, few easy climbs, highly specialised and abstract moves required & enthusiastic locals keen to share their knowledge.

There is no doubt that having the beta fed to you as you climb makes the process of sending a route much easier. Fewer shots are required. This is great on a roadtrip when you have limited energy to expend, and want to return home with a bulging scorecard of ticks. But what does this do to grades?

We can roughly equate Mt Coolum’s development to that of Rifle Mountain Park, America’s preeminent limestone sportclimbing area. During the 1990s, as increasing amounts of kneescums, kneebars and other “trick” techniques were brought to bare on the routes, the grades across the board began to be “condensed”. This has occurred at Coolum with routes such as Wholly Calamity (27) and Grazed Anatomy (28) each having a grade knocked off recently.

So do we grade for the onsight, or the worked redpoint? And more topically, do we grade for the seasoned local, or for the new, unfamiliar climber? My impression would be that routes up to grade 25 (7b or 5.12a) are graded for the onsight by the new, unfamiliar climber. And routes 26 (7b+ or 5.12b) and up seem to be graded for the worked redpoint by a person with some experience at the cliff.

So what does all this mean? Well, routes are easier with beta. That being the case, you cannot compare the first ascent to a beta-riddled repeat of the same route. The circumstances are entirely different, and the former far eclipses the latter in difficulty. Some cliffs provide more onsightable routes than others, particularly those with easy to read, generic, gym-like pulling. The more unusual the climbing, the more chance of downgrades by savvy locals. And if you’re climbing at Mt Coolum, it’s de rigueur that you’ll switch your brain off and plug in to the beta stream.