• Chris Shotwell

Understanding taste in climbing

I’m leveling a simple charge. Taste in climbing is the single most important and least discussed concept in route setting today. Like Nicole pointed out in her last post, it is a simple enough idea: How do I feel about the experience I’m currently having?

What is taste?

See above…or read on if you want some more clarity. Basically, taste in climbing can be closely compared to taste in anything. Take coffee as an example. Ordering a cup of black coffee at Starbucks is a very different experience from going to a top tier specialty coffee shop and putting in the same order. One of them is serving a commodity grade product that has been roasted darkly for absolute consistency and maximum profit. The changes they make to their product are chosen to limit variance. The other is serving something carefully sourced and roasted to highlight specific flavors. It comes in hugely variable taste profiles and is typically seasonally rotated for freshness of crop. People that prefer one of these options often won’t consider the other to taste good.

Climbing experiences are wildly variable, so how do we determine if the things we are doing are as good as we think they are?

Why does this matter?

The important thing to understand is that it doesn’t matter to the customer that the coffee at the specialty store is better if they don’t like the way it tastes. The customer and the producers all have taste, but some people have developed a palette specifically calibrated to appreciate a higher quality end product. It isn’t necessarily productive to silo people into those that have good taste and those that have bad taste. It’s more helpful to think of taste as a journey without a defined end point. Some people will stop at different points because of particularly positive or negative experiences and no amount of supportive encouragement will get them to move forward. Because they like what they’re currently experiencing (or simply don’t dislike it enough to move forward) they’re happy where they are and should be encouraged to continue to seek out what they like or to take some very small steps forward.

I think it is helpful to get to a point where you understand what your own taste is, what you’re trying to accomplish, and how your taste impacts that. Because I personally believe that I have good taste, I push hard for concepts to meet my personal standards. This does lead me to push hard for routes that I know most customers won’t like. Why would I do that? In order to create a future where their taste can evolve and we can set more concepts that are better and self select the customers that want that experience.

How can we develop better taste?

Climb a lot. No, seriously, climb everything you can get your hands on. To start out, don’t even necessarily track or think consciously about whether something is good or bad. Go to the gym and climb everything you can do. Try everything you can’t do. Try moves halfway through a route that’s so hard you can’t get off the ground. Make up your own moves when you can. Go outside and tick everything in the guidebook you possibly can. Climb the down climbs like they’re real climbs. Sport climb. Trad climb. Builder. Look stupid.

After many months or years you’ll be in a position to really know what you like and don’t like. You’ll have the breadth of experience and the palette to not get off the journey in the infancy of your climbing career. It is hard to commit to taking this long to develop any part of your career. If you're in doubt, think critically about what your life would be like if you had stopped trying new foods at the chicken nugget stage of your life.

Now you’re at a stage where you can really start to assess quality in a productive way. I’d suggest beginning in an unstructured way. Simply stop paying attention to the star ratings in guidebooks or other people’s quality opinions at the gym and assign your own. Have a friend cover the stars if need be. Don’t discuss quality with other people before you climb something. Track loosely in a notebook for a couple of months until you feel like your tracking is consistent and accurate.

Should I calibrate?

Well first, a definition. In the coffee scene, calibration is a process to make sure that people can have a reasonably uniform understanding of flavor. For climbing, this would mean that the things you believe are good also are good experiences for the majority of other people with developed taste.

I actually started to write this article as a how to for calibration before I realized it wasn’t really the point. Consensus of quality really doesn’t matter. That isn’t what defines good taste. Millions of people like hamburgers that are modified and taste tested in a lab. Artwork sells at craft fairs because it all looks the same, not because it is different. Why would I write an article about defining your personal understanding of climbing quality only to tell you to go back and base it on what someone else thinks? That’s stupid.

Be you, take risks, and be honest about whether the product is good or bad. If it is actually good people will learn to like it. Boil the frog if you have to with small changes, but keep your eyes on where you want to end up.

How do I stay calibrated?

Huh? How can you stay calibrated if you’re not trying to base your taste on consensus? You have to keep yourself calibrated to…yourself. Basically, you have to figure out how to keep other people’s opinions from influencing your own. I keep a simple note of quality ratings for different climbs that remain consistent to calibrate against. Typically I’m using the Moon Board or heading back to some outdoor climbs that I've done some time ago to figure out where I’m at mentally. My taste always drifts, but I’m normally conscious of those shifts as they’re happening.

The next step is figuring out how to keep these notes in a more structured format. Scoring on a regular basis holds you accountable for your opinions and helps you identify trends. Over the next month I’ll be sharing some score sheets for the qualitative analysis of climbs. What components of the experience do you want to see on the sheet?

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