Ratings on Explor8ion - Thoughts on Scrambling


 

Every year the same topics start creeping up on climbing and hiking forums across the internet or in my email inbox. It usually starts with someone free soloing a low 5th class rock route like Edith Cavell or Willingdon or something like that. The comment or question goes like this;

I read that you went up the north ridge of Mount Assiniboine without roping up or using pro. This must mean it's just a scramble right?

or

The east ridge of Edith Cavell is just a glorified scramble - nothing more.

 

I think I understand where these assumptions, discussions and questions come from and I want to address the issue of rating hikes / scrambles / climbs here so that I can refer to it when folks ask me. 

 

Downgrading Climbs

First I want to address why I think folks (including myself) like to downgrade climbs to scrambles. and then I'll go into the different formal ratings for rock and alpine routes. I think there's a few reasons to downgrade climbs;

 

  1. To be macho. :) Let's face it. It sounds cool to say you "free soloed" something. It just does. And the bigger the number after it, the better right? For example to say you "free soloed 5.1" is a bit lame. To say you "free soloed 5.8" is way cooler. You rather call a free solo of 5.1 a "scramble" than a "climb".
  2. To be humble. The opposite of number 1 but you basically don't want to hype a route or trip. You don't consider yourself a formal or trained climber so you'd rather just call everything you do a scramble, no matter how difficult it may be. If you read the book on Don Forest (excellent read BTW), you will laugh at the routes he did without a rope in order to avoid being a "climber". He didn't think he qualified! :)
  3. To keep loved ones happy. My wife still calls almost everything I do a "hike". I had to laugh when she called Twin's Tower a "hike" to someone else. If I tell my wife that I scrambled Mount Edith Cavell she doesn't worry. If I tell her that I'm climbing Mount Assiniboine, she worries. I've tried telling her that roped climbing is much safer than free soloing and she's finally coming around after years of convincing.
  4. To keep ourselves happy. This is sort of related to number 2 but with a twist. If we can convince ourselves that the east ridge of Edith Cavell is nothing but a "scramble" than we can do it without a rope or an experienced rock climber or training. This opens up way more terrain! We know deep down that it's also opening up risk, but it's "only scrambling" right? So we keep ourselves happy thinking that we aren't pushing the risk factor when we certainly are.
  5. Being naive. There is, of course, a naive component to downgrading climbs - you don't realize you're doing it. After scrambling and climbing for a while you get more and more comfortable on rock and eventually a "difficult" scramble is so easy for you, you honestly don't think it's very "difficult" anymore and start calling anything up to 5.5 a "scramble". I would argue that if you're publishing comments like this in trip reports or blogs or online forums you should try to consider others and start using formal rating systems as I doing on explor8ion. It keeps the playing field level and safe - which is exactly what it's supposed to do!

 

Alpine / Mountain Rating Systems

Alpine rating systems are designed to avoid exactly the issues I'm describing above. Rather than relying on the climber or scrambler's personal comfort level and experience to rate a route subjectively, the rating systems are supposed to add an element of formality and objectivity to the difficulty and hazards of any particular route.

 

Recently I added a couple of fields to my trip reports.I added a YDS rating and an Alpine rating to the 'Trip Details' section. There are other rating systems (i.e. the French system) that are also suited to the task but I want to keep things as simple as I can without compromising too much on usefulness of the ratings. I've also been intrigued for a few years in the Rocky Mountain Rambler Association's rating system. With their permission, I've now added it to explor8ion as well. There is a risk that things get too confusing but better too much information than not enough I suppose! You are free to ignore any or all of my ratings. A summary of the RMRA ratings is given below, after the YDS section.

 

YDS Rating System

 

Marko Stavrik sent me a very interesting link to an article about the YDS system. Since it is often used, I will still reference it in my trip reports. There are actually 3 components to a YDS rating and they apply to the crux, the overall route and the level of protection on route as follows;

 

Class - 1 to 5 from hiking to climbing. There are sub-classes when talking about 5th class climbing.

  • 1 : Walking.
  • 2 : Simple scrambling, occasional use of hands and low chance of injury.
  • 3 : Scrambling with increased exposure. Falling on the crux won't always kill you on class 3, but could.
    • ​Easy to Moderate scrambling
  • 4 : Simple climbing with exposure. Rope can be carried but isn't always used. Falls will likely kill or injure badly on cruxes.
    • Difficult scrambling
  • 5 : Technical climbing with rope and pro usually carried. Unroped falls on crux will kill or severely injure. Subclassed as follows (this is up for some debate and / or sandbagging but you get the gist...);
    • 5.1-5.4 : There are roughly 2 hand and 2 footholds for each move, the holds getting smaller as the grade increases.
    • 5.5-5.6 : The 2 hand and 2 footholds are still there somewhere - but not obvious to the inexperienced climber.
    • 5.7 : The move is missing 1 handhold or 1 foothold.
    • 5.8 : The move is missing 2 of the 4 holds - or missing only 1 but very strenuous.
    • 5.9 : The move has only 1 reasonable hold for either foot or hand.
    • 5.10 : No hand or footholds. Pretend a hold is there, pray a lot or go home. :)

 

Grade - I call this the Alpine Rating, basically from Grade I to Grade VII, indicating the length and seriousness of the route and usually applies to mountaineering routes. This rating doesn't apply to class 3 sections or the approach / egress but only to the exposed climbing / scrambling sections with the most risk.

  • I : 1 to 2 hours of climbing
  • II : Less than half a day
  • III : Half a day
  • IV : Full day
  • V : Two day
  • VI : Multi day
  • VII : A week or more

 

Protection - I ain't good enough to use this rating yet. :) It indicates the level of protection the route offers, from "good" to "no protection".

  • G - Good protection
  • PG - Pretty good
  • PG13 - Not bad but falls will result in minor injury due to length between pro
  • R - Runout. Falls could injure due to distance between good pro placements
  • X - No protection and extremely dangerous. Don't ever fall!

 

If you're still confused, here's a quote I love from RJ Secor;

  • Class 1 : you fall, you're stupid.
  • Class 2 : you fall, you break your arm.
  • Class 3 : you fall, you break your leg.
  • Class 4 : you fall, you are almost dead (i.e., you can't breath and move your arms, legs, and head).
  • Class 5 : you fall, you are dead.

 

RMRA Rating System

The following is a summary of the Rocky Mountain Rambler Association's rating system (used with permission).

 

Trip Category - What type of trip is it? Technical Difficulty Levels (1-9) - How technically difficult is the most difficult section of the trip (note: it might be short or long)?

 

TL - Trail Hiking (non-winter ratings)

  • 1 - Well maintained, easy terrain suitable for running shoes (i.e. Upper Kananaskis Lakes circuit)
  • 2 - Purpose-built, graded with switchbacks if necessary (i.e. Healy Pass)
  • 3 - Sections of trail, few purpose-built sections, non-bridged streams (i.e. Prairie Mountain)
  • 4 - Hiking poles are a definite asset, rougher sections of trail that could be slightly overgrown (i.e. Memorial Lakes)

OT - Off-Trail Hiking (non-winter ratings)

  • 1 - Flat, easy gradients on firm, open ground (i.e. Alpine Lakes with no trails but a good shoreline, West Coast Trail - beach sections)
  • 2 - Moderate slopes, pretty easy terrain with some stream hopping possible (i.e. Alpine meadows with no trails and little bush)
  • 3 - Steeper slopes, rougher terrain, hiking poles an asset (i.e. Whaleback)
  • 4 - Sustained steep grassy or wooden slopes, hiking poles required for balance (i.e. Kent Ridge)
  • 5 - Steep slopes including grass, wood and scree. Little use of hands required but some exposure on route (i.e. Opal Ridge)

SC - Scrambling (rated for dry or optimal conditions)

  • 5 - Kane "easy" - YDS 1 - rocky gradients slightly more serious than OT5 (i.e. Grotto Mountain)
  • 6 - Kane "moderate" - YDS 2 - steep, exposed sections with moderately loose rocks and exposure, route-finding (i.e. Mount Temple)
  • 7 - Kane "difficult" - YDS 3/4 - very steep, exposed sections with slabby or loose rocks and lots of exposure and/or tricky route-finding in an alpine setting (i.e. Mount Chephren, Smuts, Northover)

MN - Mountaineering (in dry or optimal conditions)

  • 6 - Low angle glaciers, under 20 degrees with minimal crevasses (i.e. Saskatchewan Glacier)
  • 7 - An SC7 scramble with simply glacier terrain or snow slopes added to the mix (i.e. Mount Patterson)
  • 8 - An SC7 scramble with slightly more complex glacier travel and steeper snow slopes or extreme exposure where most folks would find a rope reasonable (i.e. Mount Victoria)
  • 9 - YDS 5.0 to 5.4 - equipment to protect the leader from falls is good practice, extreme exposure on steep but easily climbed rock, possible snow and / or ice couloirs used on route (i.e. Mount Assiniboine north ridge, Mount King George south glacier, Mount Harrison ice couloirs)

TS - Track-Set Skiing

  • 1 - Easy
  • 2 - Easy / Moderate
  • 3 - Moderate
  • 4 - Moderate / Difficult
  • 5 - Difficult

TL - Trail Skiing

  • - Easy
  • - Easy / Moderate
  • - Moderate
  • - Moderate / Difficult
  • - Difficult (Elk Lakes via Elk Pass)

OT - Off-Trail Skiing

  • - Easy - Low angle slopes with minimal avalanche hazards, on partial approach roads or easy summer hiking trails (i.e. Elephant Rocks, Healy Pass)
  • - Easy / Moderate - Low to moderate angle slopes, some avalanche hazards, partial trail on approach (Burstall Pass, Bow Summit, Parker Ridge, Simpson Pass)
  • - Moderate - Follows established winter routes with avalanche terrain and possible navigation issues in certain conditions (Crowfoot Glades, Dolomite Circuit) 
  • - Moderate / Difficult - Proceeds a bit further off-trail than a moderate route, requires more stable snow and more exposure to avalanche hazards, may require boot packing to the summit (Bow Peak, Citadel Peak, Ramp Peak)
  • - Difficult - Completely off-trail in severe avalanche terrain, requires very stable snow conditions and good weather (Spray Traverse, Crowfoot Mountain, Jimmy Junior, Snow Peak)

MN - Ski Mountaineering

  • - Fairly low angle approach on established winter routes, avalanche hazards and easy glacier travel requiring crevasse and avalanche rescue gear (Mount Rhondda, Gordon, Thompson, French / Haig / Robertson)
  • - Moderately hazardous approach through crevassed and avalanche or serac-exposed terrain, usually requires overnight winter gear along with crevasse and avalanche rescue gear (North Twin, Mount Baker)
  • - Hazardous approach, severely crevassed terrain, large avalanche slopes, usually requires overnight winter camping (Mount Balfour, Mount Columbia, Mount Resplendent)
  • - Hazardous approach, hazardous winter, cornices and/or glaciated terrain to the summit, severely crevassed and avalanche-exposed slopes on route and usually requires overnight winter camping (Mount Collie, Twin's Tower, South Twin, The Helmet)

TL - Trail Snowshoeing

  • - Easy (Kananaskis Village area)
  • - Easy / Moderate (Rummel Lake)
  • - Moderate (Rawson Lake, Elk Pass)
  • - Moderate / Difficult (Chester Lake)
  • - Difficult (Elk Lakes via Elk Pass)

OT - Off-Trail Snowshoeing

  • - Moderate angle slopes with some avalanche terrain (Mount Fortune)
  • - Moderate to steep snow slopes with avalanche terrain (Big Bend Peak)
  • - Steep snow slopes with avalanche terrain and possible glacier travel (Castleguard Peak, Commonwealth Ridge)
  • - Extremely steep snow slopes with severe avalanche terrain and / or glacier travel with crevasses and / or cornices (Mount Wilson, Mount Olive - both summits)

 

Conclusion

Notice one thing about the ratings above? They never include whether or not someone actually uses a rope or not. They might talk about using a rope, or the need for using one - but whether or not a climber actually takes out the rope and places pro doesn't impact the rating of the route at all. The RISK and SERIOUSNESS of the route determine its rating. The experience, naivety or cockiness of the CLIMBER determines whether or not he or she actually pulls a rope on the route.

 

So, when you're describing a weekend outing for others to read and possibly emulate, I would argue that the safest, most reliable method of rating what you did would be to learn the basic rating system used in North America and apply it to your description to avoid confusion or misunderstanding. If the route you're on already has a rating, make sure you highlight it with a comment like, "due to the great rock quality and conditions we soloed the 5.3 climbing sections..." or something like that. Obviously there is still some subjectivity when rating 4th class terrain (scrambles) as "easy", "moderate" or "difficult" but I think it should be fairly obvious when you are on 4th or 5th class terrain.

 

  • If a fall will almost certainly kill you, you are NOT scrambling anymore and should use 5th class ratings. Don't be a sandbagger
  • If a fall will likely kill you but not certainly, you might be scrambling and should use descriptors like "easy" or "difficult" to relay the seriousness and length of the scramble.

 

​YMMV of course, but this is how I'm rating my outings from now on and will be going back over old trip reports to modify them as needed.

 

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