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Ice climbing FAQ, Part 1: ratings

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.

What is the prefered system for rating ice ?

The most rational rating now is the Canadian/French one. This system is being used in Canada and the Alps, which account for probably 75% of the the known ice climbs in the world. US climbers who travel like Jeff Lowe tend also to use it to rate their own climbs.

It consists of two numerals, like II-5:

The system is quite informative, because it distinguishes between two different types of difficulties. However, the two figures are not totally independant, ie a technically easy climb is not considered to be very commited (since in particular you can downclimb it). There are several other systems in use. The NEI (New England Ice) system is very similar, except that the top of the technical scale is 5+, and the seriousness grade refers only to the amount of time required to complete the climb (like in the YDS). The WI (Water Ice) system is basically like the technical scale.

Here is a quote of Albi Sole, "Waterfall Ice", Rocky Mountain Books, Calgary, 1988, ISBN 0-921102-00-3, where the system was first introduced. There are some imprecisions in these descriptions, which have been fixed latter. The new version of "Waterfall Ice" by Joe Josephson gives a slightly different, and more precise meaning, to these ratings. If someone is going to scan or type in the new description, please send it to me.

In particular, a "seriousness" rating (different from the commitment grade) has been introduced. R: runout (difficult to place pro), and X: danger of collapse.

provided by cyrd@ere.umontreal.ca

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.


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

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.

Some comments: My interpretation of the ratings (technical grade): Although Albi Sole refers as grade 5 as the "5.9 of ice climbing", don't kid yourself. A grade 5 lead is a quite serious undertaking, more comparable in my opinion to a 5.10 trad lead. I am once of the only person that I know (:-)) who has been able to lead grade 6 ice while being only a 5.10- climber. You will see that grade 5 ice is actually rather difficult to find. For instance a guidebook like the one for Western Ontario or Western British Columbia has 140 pages, but lists only a handful of grade 5 climbs. There are no grade 6 at all in well established areas such as New England, Ontario, British Columbia (well, I must say was, until 1996, when The Theft was climbed in BC). This is because a grade 5 climb has to have about a half-pitch vertical, and a grade 6 a full pitch vertical, which brings me to the second point.

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:

A part from those, there are a handfull of one-pitch climbs which are mixed, and which have received a grade 7. T. Renault in France (L'aventure, c'est l'aventure next to Glacenost in Northern Alps, France) and J. Lowe in the US (Terriebel traverse, Seventh Tentacle, Octopussy 8??, in Vail CO) are the authors. While Thierry climbed "L'aventure, c'est l'aventure", the chunk of ice when he was standing collapsed, and he had to do a one-arm pull-up that he though he was not capable of. Jeff's climb are free-hanging statactites which are reached through a dry traverse. Protected on the rock and with a preplaced screw from what I have heard. The second ascent party said that one climb was over-rated.

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.

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 that hard. 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).

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.

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.)

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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