Times change, the sport of climbing evolves, the materials we use are constantly improving: climbing shoes have extreme sensitivity and precision, with incredible advances in rubber. Chalk has gotten better, we have ultra light harnesses, light and specialized ropes. Again, everything improves.
Knee pads have experienced great progress, too. I first used the knee pads in 2013 when I sent Chilam Balam (9a+/b 5.15a/b [KP]). I personally like to climb without knee pads when possible, so I started trying Chilam Balam without them. In less than a week my knees were a bloody mess, scraped and cut all over. The wounds made it impossible to keep climbing. So I decided to get in touch with Send, an American company producing knee pads.
I am now an Ambassador for Send—so clearly I am in favor of using knee pads. But we need to be aware that if we use them, depending on the route, the game we play changes significantly.
The knee pad used to be a specialty, optional piece of gear. A decade ago, it was not nearly as common as today to see climbers using this tool in areas like Siurana, Montserrat, Yosemite, Albarracin. Knee pads were used in a very specific climbing style, usually on rock with lots of tufas and columns. When I sent my first 9a (5.14d), Kinematix, in the Gorges du Loup, France, in 2003 at 17 years old, some climbers had homemade knee pads that they used on their projects to maximize specific rests, but still it was quite rare to see.
Grades are inherently subjective: opinion can vary widely, and grades can change after more people climb something. As such, particularly at the high end of the grading scales, the more people that share their opinions, the more weight the consensus view will hold. A few years ago, most sport climbing involved four primary points of support—two hands and feet. Today, thanks to the evolution of the knee pads, we can climb with six support points: two knees, two hands and two feet. This evolution allows us to find easier methods, to find rests where it was almost impossible to imagine them before.
In my opinion, progress with two more points of support often make the game a little easier. It is also true that not everyone yet has the skill to use knee pads on limestone, but more people are learning to use them and reap the benefits. Today, using one’s knee to solve the crux or to rest is often a crucial part of the game. On some climbs, we use our knees in almost every movement to save energy and make climbing easier.
There are many climbers today who carry two knee pads in their pack, as indispensable a part of their kit as a harness, chalk bag or shoes. The use of these tools is becoming the standard.
This makes sense: as I said at the start, climbing gear is always improving, and we should embrace it. That being said, there are some things to consider. What happens if a climber does the crux of a previously established 5.14b with knee pads? And what if that climber finds a no-hands rest at the crux that wouldn’t be possible without the knee pads? Should we downgrade? I didn’t use knee pads on La Rambla (9a+/5.15a) when I did it back in 2006. Now climbers almost always use knee pads on the crux of La Rambla. Should we downgrade it to 9a? Another 9a+ which was first climbed without kneepads but is now frequently climbed with them, was Chris Sharma’s Catxasa.
There are recent routes that are already graded with knee pads. Adam Ondra did the first ascent of Silence (9c/5.15d) with knee pads, and I did the first ascent of Valhalla (9a+) with knee pads. These grades already factor in the benefit received from knee pads. Easier beta may be found for these routes, or new knee bars, but the basic premise—that the grade is how difficult the climb is with knee pads on—remains.
[To learn more and support Marin’s documentary film about his journey to climb Valhalla, visit his Kickstarter!]
So what about those routes not originally graded with knee pads in mind, such as La Rambla? Should we need give it a lower grade, and do the same to all of the routes that are now more frequently climbed with knee pads? While downgrading is one option, it does not seem fair to me that climbers who have invested years of work to achieve these projects will now see them downgraded by other climbers who use knee pads but do not note the difference.
In my opinion, another option is to add a new piece of info to the grading system, something that explains whether knee pads (KP) were used or not. The grade for a climb like Catxasa, for example could be either “9a (KP)” or “9a+ (no KP).”
The climbing areas are my office, and seeing this evolution daily has led me to ponder this topic. That is why I now pose the question to the whole community. We cannot look the other way or inflate our logbooks with hard routes without talking about the subject openly and honestly.
Times change and improved gear and materials should be embraced, but the community has to consider the effects of these new trends. This is clearly a decision that has to be made by the community, with more opinions offered, but from my point of view we cannot just turn a blind eye without discussing the issue.
So what do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments!