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By Q.-Tuan Luong, © 1994-96
Explanations on the commonly used systems for rating difficulty of ice and mixed climbs, with a detailed description of the canadian system. Note that the bulk of this article was written in 1994 and it largely ignores all the high-end development in mixed climbing of the subsequent years.
It consists of two numerals, like II-5:
In particular, a "seriousness" rating (different from the commitment grade) has been introduced. R: runout (difficult to place pro), and X: danger of collapse.
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The difficulty of climbing an ice pitch is related directly to the steepness of the ice and is complicated further by the nature of the ice; whether it is brittle or plastic, offers good protection or little protection. Although the overall angle of a pitch does not change greatly, except on occasion when vertical ice eases to 85 - 87 degrees in late season, the nature of the ice can vary considerably from years to years, even from day to day on many falls. Except in rare instances, grading has not been affected by the introduction of mixed climbing. Because ice climbing in Canada involved so many variables and intangibles such as weather, avalanche danger, changing ice conditions and remoteness, a pitch by pitch, blow by blow description is inappropriate. In this guide, therefore, climbers will find only the basic information to help them select a route within their capabilities. Grading The grading system used in this edition (Water Fall Ice, 1988) is different from the one used in the old guide. A two-part system has been adopted which give an seriousness grading indicating the overall seriousness of the climb and a technical grading for the single most difficult pitch. The seriousness grade (I - VI) takes into account the length, continuity, seriousness, commitment, remoteness, hazard and difficulty of descent. The seriousness grade is not, however, entirely unaffected by the technical grade, since a climb of sustained technical difficulties is a more serious undertaking than one with little technical difficulty. For example, although Weeping Pillar could be expected to be graded seriousness IV, such a grade would misrepresent a climb with so much technical grade 6 climbing. I A short climb close to the highway with bomb-proof belays and an easy descent. No commitment. II A 1 or 2 pitch climb within easy reach of a vehicle, little objective danger and easy descent by rappel or downclimbing. III A multi-pitch route at low elevation which may take several hour, or a route with a long approach on foot or ski demanding good winter travel skills, or a route subject to occasional winter hazards. Descent usually by rappeling. IV A multi-pitch route at higher elevations or in remote regions requiring mountaineering and winter travel skills. May be subject to objective hazard such as avalanches or rockfall. Descent may present difficulties and usually involved rappeling from bolts or conduit. V A long climb on a high mountain face requiring a high level of competence and commitment. Subject to hazards of bad weather and avalanche. May have long approach or difficult descent. VI A long, multi-pitch route on a high alpine face which only the best climbers will complete on one day. May include the logistical problems of winter alpine climbing; avalanche danger, falling seracs, high elevation and remoteness. A serious undertaking for good climbers in top shape. VII No grade VII has yet been climbed in the Canadian Rockies. However, this author thinks it may be possibility and would refer to a climb with all the caracteristics of the grade VI, but long enough and technically difficult to be a grade harder. The technical grade (1 - 7) grades the single most difficult pitch, taking into account the sustained nature of the climbing, ice thickness, natural ice features such as chandelier or mushroom ice and overhanging bulges. 1. Walking up ice with crampons - not used for climbs. 2. A pitch of 60 - 70 degres ice, reasonably consistent, with few short steep steps. Good protection and belays. 3. Sustained 70 - 80 degres ice, usually thick and solid. May contain short, steep sections, but will have good resting places and offer good protection and belays. 4. Sustained 75 - 85 degres ice, separated by good belays or a less steep pitch with significant vertical sections. Generally good quality ice, offering satisfactory protection. 5. A noticeably more strenuous pitch of good but steep (85 - 90 degres) ice. May be considered the equivalent of 5.9 rock in term of relative technical ability required. 6. A very steep strenous pitch with few resting places and often a hanging belay. The ice may not be of top quality and protection may be dubious. High level of technical skill may be required. May be considered the equivalent of 5.10 rock. 7. A pitch of near vertical ice which may be thin, of poor quality and doubtful adhesion to the rock. Protection difficult or non-existent. May be considered the equivalent of 5.12 climbing in terms of technical expertise and neck required ("avoir des couilles en acier" in french :-)). Steepness and length estimations In the past, both steepness and length of the climbs has been overestimated. The term vertical has been reserved for ice that is close to or actually vertical, since a pitch of such ice is a much more serious undertaking than a pitch of sustained 85 degres. Length is difficult to estimate in the case of a climb such as Polar Circus, which has long easy sections. On the other hand, Lower Weeping Wall has consistently steep grade 5 climbing all the way. In the guide book, length should be taken to mean the total vertical gain from the bottom of the pitch to the top of the last one unless otherwise indicated. Details on the type of climb will be found in the rest of the description.
Vertical is 90 degrees, not 85 degrees. This seemingly unsignificant
difference is actually quite important. When you are on 85 degrees ice
you might have the feeling that it is overhanging, because of your
position, but in fact there is not that many formations which are strictly
vertical, except free-standing columns.
There are only a handfull of grade 7 pure ice climbs in the world,
to the best of my knowledge:
The first grade 6 climbed in the world might have been Bridaveil Falls,
Telluride, in the mid 70s.
In the Alps, it was Les Viollins, although the first ascent,
solo, by Chantriaux in 1982 is somewhat controversed.
Another way to rate the mixed climbs is to give a rock-climbing
rating for the rock moves. This method is prefered by the Canadians,
who seem to be somewhat doubtful about all the M9 climbs :-).
The problem here is that you have ice
climbing gear, so usually the rating is not "absolute" but relative
to how it feels with crampons, and therefore easier than a normal
rock rating, but again there is no real consensus on this.
One of the problem with the NEI ice system was that it used to be a
closed system. For this reason the difference between the climbs at
the top of the difficulty scale using this system are not very clear,
to say the least. Another problem is that it partially takes into
account the multi-pitch nature of the climbs.
What about mixed grades ?
They are a generalization of the established system for rating
ice described above. There is no consensus.
However in the method which seems somewhat dominant in Colorado
(home of the most desperate mixed climbs, probably due to lack of ice
:-)) and championned by Jeff Lowe,
the letter "M" is added to the technical grade. A "M5" is supposed to be
as hard as a "5" in pure ice (the equivalence is obviously hard to
establish) but involves dry-tooling and
similar maneuvers. Sometimes, the grade is detailed into the
pure ice part and the mixed part, ie Octopussy is "M8 WI5"
since there are extreme dry-tooling moves to reach the free
hanging stalactite, but once established on it the ice is not
However, usually the latter part will be omitted since
it is not the crux, leaving only "M8". The global rating could
read something like an algebraic formula:
"II M8 WI5 X" (X in my opinion: I think all the free-hanging
stuff can easily
collapse, as some climbers have experienced in the early 90's. i would
be cautious with the
current fad for this sort of climbing).
Rating ice is useless because of the changing conditions ?
First the rating refers to average conditions.
It doesn't take too long to discover that the conditions are worse
than this (the icefall is not formed for example). Second, within
approximatively normal conditions, the variability of conditions are
perhaps worth one degree rating at most, and I would say for the hard
climbs, half a degree. A "6" is a vertical pitch. In extremely good ice,
it might seem easier, but will remain vertical and will never become as
easy as a "4+". Something which forms as a free-standing column will
almost always form this way.
How does this relate to other systems ?
The New England Ice (NEI) system is comparable, to the canadian/french,
although a little less precise. It has also a "commitment" grade which
describes the length of the route (comparable to the YDS system), and a
"technical grade". From my limited experience, the NEI scale and the WI
are roughly equivalent. The question whether one of the system is
"easier" than the other is largely controversial.
Provided by Steve LaSala:
From Don Mellor's "Climbing in the Adirondacks, 1988:
"The New England Ice System (NEI) was adapted from the
Scottish system principally by Rick Wilcox and Peter Cole for their
New England ice guide, "Shades of Blue".
NEI 1: Easy, low-angled ice. The easiest ice for which a belay rope
could be used.
NEI 2: Harder, low-angle ice. Still climbable with ten-point
NEI 3: Steeper ice. Some continuous front-pointing with perhaps the
assistance of a hand tool in conjunction with the ice axe in places.
Generally allows protection screws to be placed from comfortable
NEI 4: Difficult and sustained with vertical sections. Requires two
tools and usually demands that screws be places while on vertical or
near vertical ice.
NEI 5: The hardest category. These routes are usally several pitches
in length and sport sections of vertical ice in excess of 50'.
(A plus or minus sign may be added to further delineate the grade.)
There are only a handfull of grade 7 pure ice climbs in the world, to the best of my knowledge:
The first grade 6 climbed in the world might have been Bridaveil Falls, Telluride, in the mid 70s. In the Alps, it was Les Viollins, although the first ascent, solo, by Chantriaux in 1982 is somewhat controversed.
Another way to rate the mixed climbs is to give a rock-climbing rating for the rock moves. This method is prefered by the Canadians, who seem to be somewhat doubtful about all the M9 climbs :-). The problem here is that you have ice climbing gear, so usually the rating is not "absolute" but relative to how it feels with crampons, and therefore easier than a normal rock rating, but again there is no real consensus on this.
One of the problem with the NEI ice system was that it used to be a closed system. For this reason the difference between the climbs at the top of the difficulty scale using this system are not very clear, to say the least. Another problem is that it partially takes into account the multi-pitch nature of the climbs.
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