American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

National Climbing Classification System

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  • Publication Year: 1964

National Climbing Classification System

Leigh N. Ortenburger

Two years have now passed since efforts were initiated to establish a single climbing classification system for use throughout the United States. The intention was to devise a logical and simple system to classify the difficulty of all American climbs. Only through some kind of compromise between various existing systems could universal agreement be obtained. The immediate stimulus was the impending publication or revision of several guidebooks of important climbing regions. It was hoped that all of these would utilize the same system. There was little disagreement concerning the desirability of a national system, since it would promote safety and understanding among American climbers. And for perhaps the first time in the history of American mountaineering, a substantial group of climbers was well acquainted with several climbing areas in the United States. Such a group was a prerequisite for the establishment of any national system; otherwise there would be no valid method of making comparisons between climbs in different regions.

There was less agreement about the essential characteristics of a national classification system. A strong argument, not yet seriously challenged in print, indicated that such a system should have the following: 1) simplicity, since complexity would defeat the intention of universal usage; 2) a clear distinction between different types of “difficulty” — free-climbing difficulty distinguished from artificial-climbing difficulty, and individ- ual-pitch difficulty distinguished from overall-route difficulty; 3) an adequate number of categories to convey all the available information about difficulty on which agreement can be consistently obtained, and yet not so many that it is not clear to which category a climb belongs; and 4) objective lists of example climbs — this requirement of objectivity, together with that of universal applicability, eliminates the use of equipment as a basis for the definition of difficulty.

A considerable amount of effort was directed toward the compilation of sets of “example climbs” from all the climbing areas in the United States. It was recognized early that the only objective method of defining difficulty is to point and say, “That route (or pitch) is what I mean by a certain level of difficulty.” The adjectives which have appeared in climbing literature since the beginning of alpinism, while suitable for prose, are differently interpreted by different climbers and therefore are not precise. The fundamental error of introducing equipment as a basis for defining difficulty was recognized many years ago by one of the most distinguished names in the history of roped climbing in the United States, Robert L. M. Underhill. In an article on page 156 of the December, 1950 issue of Appalachia, he makes the following observation: “The definition of the various grades of difficulty is a major problem, which deserves far more attention from American climbers. Many false definitions have been attempted. For instance, the need of the rope should never be offered as the definition, or part of the definition of any such grade, say the second, for this need is not determined by difficulty but by danger ...”

Many experienced climbers contributed time and information, and the initial set of example climbs was published in Summit Magazine of May and June, 1963. These lists demonstrated a second aspect of the classification problem which had been recognized at least as early as 1955, but which had received little written attention. This is the problem of separating the overall difficulty of an entire route, including such factors as average difficulty, length, weather problems, and ease of escape, from the difficulty of the single hardest pitch, or move, of the climb. Previous systems had been limited severely by using just one symbol, a number or letter, and it was impossible to make the desired distinction with such a system. Although such a distinction requires listing two symbols for each climb, it is generally agreed that the additional information more than compensates for the added complexity. One final aspect, a result of the modern trend toward emphasis on the techniques of climbing (especially rock climbing), has led to the careful distinction between free and artificial (or direct-aid) climbing, and the application of a separate nomenclature for each. This line between free and artificial climbing is often rather fine indeed and in different areas is defined differently. In the 1920’s and 1930’s probably few ever considered that help from a second’s knee or shoulders, or even an ice axe jammed in a crack, represented “artificial” climbing. In parts of Europe climbing is not considered artificial until slings or stirrups are used along with pitons or expansion anchors; the mere use of tension from such ironmongery is not recognized as something above and beyond “free” climbing. And in recent times in our own country, how many “free” climbs have been made through using either for pure safety or for support while resting before moving on “free”, pitons placed by previous parties? A certain maturity in understanding artificial climbing has been achieved in the United States, however. It was a common misconception, in the days when sling and tension were novelties, to believe that all artificial climbing was more difficult than any free climbing, and the systems which were developed reflected this belief. In recent years it has become universal knowledge that many pitches are very much more difficult to climb free than with direct aid from rope or piton.

It has been questioned whether it is even theoretically possible to establish a classification system to cover all the types of climbing to be found within the United States, such as crystalline rock, sedimentary rock, winter snow, and summer ice. Some have suggested that it is not possible to compare snow climbs with rock climbs. The problem is more involved than the simple comparison of rock with rock, and snow with snow. Yet on any mixed snow and rock climb, one naturally considers one section either less difficult or more difficult than the last, and this comparison is made without consideration of whether it was rock or ice. Individual opinion will undoubtedly differ; the answer will depend on the level of experience and ability of the climber on the two different types of terrain. In a similar manner, an expert on steep sedimentary ledges might consider trivial a pitch which would terrify a typical hard-rock climber accustomed to pitoned safety. But these differences do not imply that comparisons cannot be meaningfully made by those who are equally experienced on snow, ice, solid rock, and loose rock. The result may well be that one climber whose experience is mainly on rock would not feel safe on a snow and ice climb whose difficulty rating was two levels below the level of rock difficulty which he could easily lead. This situation implies an imbalance in his mountaineering training rather than any inherent defect in a classification system which covers all forms of climbing. Whether this type of disparity will prove so disturbing to a sufficiently large number of climbers as to require separate nomenclature for these two main types of climbing — snow and ice, and rock — time alone will tell.

It is a result of unfortunate geography that rock climbing is so segregated from snow and ice climbing in our country. In the Alps where most of the major peaks present a variety of mountaineering problems, one is led more naturally into a balanced development of techniques. Only a small percentage of American climbs and climbing areas present more than one type of difficulty in abundance. And, as has been clearly demonstrated in recent years in the United States, the technique of rock climbing has been developed and practiced much more intensively than the corresponding technique of snow and ice work. A single national system in which all climbs receive equal attention should make this problem apparent, and allow a truly national understanding for the first time. How many Tahquitz rock climbers have an understanding of and an appreciation for the snow and ice work being done in the Northwest? How many Northwest climbers know of the level of rock work being done in Colorado? In the past there was no way of judging this, even by studying the mountaineering journals assiduously, since there was no common ground for comparison. A national system would provide this basis.

How far have we come in the past two years? Part way. The initial sets of example climbs, although requiring corrections and additions, did represent substantial progress, indeed a breakthrough, in the sense that for the first time an accurate comparison of the difficulty of climbs from different areas was presented in print. The hoped-for unanimity of guidebooks has not come to pass: of the three important guidebooks which will appear in 1964, one will definitely use the new national system, one will definitely use the old decimal system, and the third is perhaps still undecided. Five or ten years hence, when revisions are necessary, perhaps greater uniformity can be obtained. Until then, the compilation of additional sets of example climbs (especially for the snow and ice climbs, and for the local practice climbs), the refinement of those which have already been prepared, and the active use of the national system by individuals and their clubs, represent the direction of progress. The still evolving nature of the lists of example climbs indicated that another year’s refinement would be desirable before publishing them in anything approaching final form, such as in this Journal. With work, however, such lists should be semi-complete by 1965 and ready for publication at that time.

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