Why Does Sandbagging Occur

Sandbagged. (adjective) A sandbagged route is one whose grade belies its difficulty; an undergraded route. Derived from the idea that climbing the route would feel as if you were climbing with a bag of sand attached to your harness — i.e., the climb is much harder than it seems.

Sandbag. (verb) To soften the grade on a climb, or to describe it as being easier than it actually is.

Quite often, you will hear climbers in the gym use the term “sandbagging.” It means to soften the grade on a climb because they think it is easier than the declared grade. However, the original grade is usually the more accurate one. The question is, why do we sandbag climbs?

Very recently I was climbing on the second 5.13 of my life. After my session, I questioned the grade level of the climb because it seemed too easy — that is, I was sandbagging it. Note that I have very little experience at this grade , which makes me pretty unqualified to call the grade into question. And yet, I still did.

My questioning of the grade is something all climbers do when they first enter a new level in climbing, and over the years I have noticed some major trends. Strong climbers who have little outdoor experience have huge gaps between their physical strength and their mental strength. Outdoor climbing requires more mental strength, though the grades are only based off of the physical strength of the climb, generally speaking. This means that when a strong indoor climber goes outside, the climbs seem much harder than they actually are — their fear heightens the perceived difficulty of a route. Afterward, subsequent routes they climb will be compared to their first few benchmark experiences. Future climbs will seem easier to the climber because their mental game will be improving as they gain experience — and without accounting for this, the climber will in turn call them easy, thus sandbagging the climbs.

Climbing is a sport with very few well defined strength metrics — it’s not like a bench press where we can directly see our strength gains as the number of plates on the bar increases. In climbing, we often get stronger without realizing it, as it can be pretty difficult to compare different climbs against each other. This causes us to continue sandbagging climbs as we develop. Gains can be realized so subtly that we’re not even aware of them occurring. Moves that at one point would have given us a lot of trouble, become so easy we don’t even acknowledge them as hard moves — without us realizing it. We’re left thinking that the climb seemed easy.

This also feeds into our ego. We all like to strut our feathers by calling something “easy” after we complete it, because it makes us sound like a stronger climber.

To sum it all up, sandbagging happens all the time. My advice is to not care about the accuracy of the grade, just climb for the enjoyment of it. Some of the grades will be easy and others will be hard — but in the end, it’s all counted the same when you tick it off on sendage.com.

On a personal note, if you are at a crag and someone sends their personal best redpoint, respect their accomplishment. Don’t diminish it by calling the grade soft. Just congratulate them.

Happy Climbing!

Kevin Allen