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Rating Routes


Mountaineers must be able to assess a vertical obstacle, develop a course of action to overcome the obstacle, and have the skills to accomplish the plan. Assessment of a vertical obstacle requires experience in the classifications of routes and understanding the levels of difficulty they represent. Without a solid understanding of the difficulty of a chosen route, the mountaineer can place their life and the life of their party in extreme danger. Ignorance is the most dangerous hazard in the mountain environment.




In North America the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) is used to rate the difficulty of routes in mountainous terrain. The YDS classes are:

  • Class 1—Hiking trail.
  • Class 2—Off-trail scramble.
  • Class 3—Climbing, use of ropes for beginners (moderate scrambling).
  • Class 4—Belayed climbing. (This is moderate to difficult scrambling, which may have some exposure.)
  • Class 5—Free climbing. (This class requires climbers to be roped up, belay and emplace intermediate protection.)

Class 5 is further subdivided into the following classifications:

  • Class 5.0-5.4—Little difficulty. This is the simplest form of free climbing. Hands are necessary to support balance. This is sometimes referred to as advanced rock scrambling.
  • Class 5.5—Moderate difficulty. Three points of contact are necessary.
  • Class 5.6—Medium difficulty. The climber can experience vertical position or overhangs where good grips can require moderate levels of energy expenditure.
  • Class 5.7—Great difficulty. Considerable climbing experience is necessary. Longer stretches of climbing requiring several points of intermediate protection. Higher levels of energy expenditure will be experienced.
  • Class 5.8—Very great difficulty. Increasing amount of intermediate protection is the rule. High physical conditioning, climbing technique, and experience required.
  • Class 5.9—Extremely great difficulty. Requires well above average ability and excellent condition. Exposed positions, often combined with small belay points. Passages of the difficult sections can often be accomplished under good conditions. Often combined with aid climbing (A0-A4).
  • Class 5.10—Extraordinary difficulty. Climb only with improved equipment and intense training. Besides acrobatic climbing technique, mastery of refined security technique is indispensable. Often combined with aid climbing (A0-A4).
  • Class 5.11-5.14—Greater increases of difficulty, requiring more climbing ability, experience, and energy expenditure. Only talented and dedicated climbers reach this level.

Additional classifications include the following.

  • Classes are further divided into a, b, c, and d categories starting from 5.10 to 5.14 (for example, 5.10d).
  • Classes are also further divided from 5.9 and below with +/- categories (for example, 5.8+).
  • All class 5 climbs can also be designated with "R" or "X," which indicates a run-out on a climb. This means that placement of intermediate protection is not possible on portions of the route. (For example, in a classification of 5.8R, the "R" indicates periods of run-out where, if a fall was experienced, ground fall would occur.) Always check the local guidebook to find specific designation for your area.
  • All class 5 climbs can also be designated with "stars." These refer to the popularity of the climb to the local area. Climbs are represented by a single "star" up to five "stars;" a five-star climb is a classic climb and is usually aesthetically pleasing.

Aid climb difficulty classification includes:

  • A0—“French-free.” This technique involves using a piece of gear to make progress; for example, clipping a sling into a bolt or piece of protection and then pulling up on it or stepping up in the sling. Usually only needed to get past one or two more difficult moves on advanced free climbs.
  • A1—Easy aid. The placement of protection is straight forward and reliable. There is usually no high risk of any piece of protection pulling out. This technique requires etriers and is fast and simple.
  • A2—Moderate aid. The placement of protection is generally straight forward, but placement can be awkward and strenuous. Usually A2 involves one or two moves that are difficult with good protection placement below and above the difficult moves. No serious fall danger.
  • A3—Hard aid. This technique requires testing your protection. It involves several awkward and strenuous moves in a row. Generally solid placements which will hold a fall and are found within a full rope length. However, long fall potential does exist, with falls of 40 to 60 feet and intermediate protection on the awkward placements failing. These falls, however, are usually clean and with no serious bodily harm.
  • A4—Serious aid. This technique requires lots of training and practice. More like walking on eggs so none of them break. Leads will usually take extended amounts of time which cause the lead climber to doubt and worry about each placement. Protection placed will usually only hold a climber’s weight and falls can be as long as two-thirds the rope length.
  • A5—Extreme aid. All protection is sketchy at best. Usually no protection placed on the entire route can be trusted to stop a fall.
  • A6—Extremely severe aid. Continuous A5 climbing with A5 belay stations. If the leader falls, the whole rope team will probably experience ground fall.
  • Aid climbing classes are also further divided into +/- categories, such as A3+ or A3-, which would simply refer to easy or hard.

Grade ratings (commitment grades) inform the climber of the approximate time a climber trained to the level of the climb will take to complete the route.

  • I—Several hours.
  • II—Half of a day.
  • III—About three-fourths of a day.
  • IV—Long hard day (usually not less than 5.7).
  • V—1 1/2 to 2 1/2 days (usually not less than 5.8).
  • VI—Greater than 2 days.

Climbing difficulties are rated by different systems. Table 1-1 shows a comparison of these systems.

  • YDS (Yosemite Decimal System)—Used in the United States.
  • UIAA (Union des International Alpine Association)—Used in Europe.
  • British—The British use adjectives and numbers to designate the difficulty of climbs. This system can be confusing if the climber is not familiar with it.
  • French—The French use numbers and letters to designate the difficulty of climbs.
  • Brazilian—Brazil uses Roman Numerals and adjectives to designate difficulty.
  • Australian—Australia uses only numbers to designate difficulty.

YDS

UIAA

BRITISH

FRENCH

BRAZIL

AUSTRALIA

Class 1

I

easy (E)

     

Class 2

II

easy (E)

     

Class 3

III

easy (E)

1a, b, c

   

Class 4

III-

moderate (MOD)

1a, b, c

   

5.0

III

moderate (MOD)

2a, b

 

4

5.1

III+

difficult (DIFF)

2a, b

 

5

5.2

IV-

hard difficult

2c, 3a

 

6

5.3

IV

very difficult

3b, c, 4a

 

7

5.4

IV+

hard very difficult

3b, c, 4a

II

8, 9

5.5

V-

mild severe

3b, c, 4a

IIsup

10, 11

5.6

V

severe, hard severe, 4a

4a, b, c

III

12, 13

5.7

V+

severe, hard severe, 4b

4a, b, c

IIIsup

14

5.8

VI-

hard severe, hard very severe, 4c

5a, b

IV

15

5.9

VI

5a

5b, c

IVsup

16, 17

5.10a

VII-

E1, 5b

5b, c

V

18

5.10b

VII

E1, 5b

5b, c

Vsup

19

5.10c

VII

E1, 5b

5b, c

VI

20

5.10d

VII+

E1/E2, 5b-5c

5b, c

VIsup

21

5.11a

VIII-

E3, 6a

6a, b, c

VII

22

5.11b

VIII

E3/E4, 6a

6a, b, c

VII

23

5.11c

VIII

E4, 6b

6a, b, c

VIIsup

24

5.12a

IX-

E5, E6/7, 6c

7a

VIII

26

5.12b

IX

E5, E6/7, 6c

7a

VIIIsup

27

5.12c

IX

E5, E6/7, 6c

7a

 

28

5.12d

IX+

E6/7, 7a

7a

 

29

Table 1-1. Rating systems.

Ice climbing ratings can have commitment ratings and technical ratings. The numerical ratings are often prefaced with WI (waterfall ice), AI (alpine ice), or M (mixed rock and ice).

Commitment Ratings. Commitment ratings are expressed in Roman numerals.

  • I—A short, easy climb near the road, with no avalanche hazard and a straightforward descent.
  • II—A route of one or two pitches within a short distance of rescue assistance, with little objective hazard.
  • III—A multipitch route at low elevation, or a one-pitch climb with an approach that takes about an hour. The route requires anywhere from a few hours to a long day to complete. The descent may require building rappel anchors, and the route might be prone to avalanche.
  • IV—A multipitch route at higher elevations; may require several hours of approach on skis or foot. This route is subject to objective hazards, possibly with a hazardous descent.
  • V—A long climb in a remote setting, requiring all day to complete the climb itself. Requires many rappels off anchors for the descent. This route has sustained exposure to avalanche or other objective hazards.
  • VI—A long ice climb in an alpine setting, with sustained technical climbing. Only elite climbers will complete it in a day. A difficult and involved approach and descent, with objective hazards ever-present, all in a remote area.
  • VII—Everything a grade VI has, and more of it. Possibly days to approach the climb, and objective hazards rendering survival as questionable. Difficult physically and mentally.

Technical Ratings. Technical ratings are expressed as Arabic numerals.

  • 1—A frozen lake or stream bed.
  • 2—A pitch with short sections of ice up to 80 degrees; lots of opportunity for protection and good anchors.
  • 3—Sustained ice up to 80 degrees; the ice is usually good, with places to rest, but it requires skill at placing protection and setting anchors.
  • 4—A sustained pitch that is vertical or slightly less than vertical; may have special features such as chandeliers and run-outs between protection.
  • 5—A long, strenuous pitch, possibly 50 meters of 85- to 90-degree ice with few if any rests between anchors. The pitch may be shorter, but on featureless ice. Good skills at placing protection are required.
  • 6—A full 50-meter pitch of dead vertical ice, possibly of poor quality; requires efficiency of movement and ability to place protection while in awkward stances.
  • 7—A full rope length of thin vertical or overhanging ice of dubious adhesion. An extremely tough pitch, physically and mentally, requiring agility and creativity.
  • 8—Simply the hardest ice climbing ever done; extremely bold and gymnastic.

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