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Bivouac Trip Difficulty Levels #4737
Back To Discussion List Written: 2016.11.09 by: Robin Tivy

I just spent a day overhauling the definitions of the "difficulty levels" we use in trip reports. "Difficulty Level" for peak climbing trips boils down to the familiar classes used in guidebooks, or alpine club trip schedules. Although some clubs have 2 separate numbers to reflect "technical difficulty" versus how strenuous the trip is, in our case we just want a single number. I'm not attempting to break down class 5, my main concern is to define classes 2,3 and 4. What we want is a simple number that tells people how hard the climbing is likely to be on the hardest parts of the trip.

It turns out a really good method of determining classes is to write out a list of climbs of varying levels of difficulty, then put them in order and decide which are in each class. I call these "reference trips". So I created a system that links reference cases to each level. You can click on each "reference case" and see a discussion of what "factors" were involved in it's classification.

Here are the levels or class definitions for Hiking/climbing trips. Here is a list of Reference Cases for Hiking/Climbing trips.

Ski trips have their own definitions. See Ski Trip Difficulty levels.

See also the discussion Attempt to Define 4th Class a thread started by Drew Brayshaw 15 years ago.


#1862 - 2016.11.21 Serguei Okountsev - Class 4 is just a steep class 3
Exactly! Leave no-holds (technical) routes to class 5, regardless of the angle - or it will be messy. I was rather disturbed to see "dynamic moves" being thrown in the definition of class 4. Class 4 is just a steep class 3, and class 3 is just a steep class 2 - all with plenty of foot/handholds - no more, no less. That's how the climbing community grades the rock routes and I see no practical reason to change it.

#1861 - 2016.11.21 Klaus Haring - Black Tusk more than class 3
In Robins example list of peak difficulties Black Tusk is rated 2-3. While most is a hike the chimney is vertical! However angle is definitely not the only criteria. Good footsteps at 45 degree is a staircase and little more than a hike, while a smooth slab may be low class 5. Difficulty is a combination of angle and hand and foot holds where for most the best holds near 90 degree would be more diffcult than marginal ones at 45.

#1860 - 2016.11.21 Serguei Okountsev - Angle is the main factor
In my experience, class 4 differs from 3 mostly by one single factor - the angle of the rock, provided both have enough foot/hand holds. Up to 45 - class 3, above 55 - class 4. What's in between is "transition" - what they call "stiff class 3" or "low class 4". Exposure, ropes, experience and other such subjective stuff must never be considered: some climbers are known to prefer rappel class 3 (e.g. Mountaineers Route on Cathedral Peak in Yosemite) even though they speed climb "The Nose" on El Capitan, yet some climb class 5 unroped with a beer bottle in one hand, so...

#1859 - 2016.11.21 Robin Tivy - Scope is just 5 classes
First of all, I want to clairify that the scope of this current discussion is to distinguish between only 5 levels (Class 1,2,3,4 and 5). There are 7000 trip reports in Bivouac which are ranked according to these numbers. In addition, on many mountain pages are route records which give a class plus keywords describing the difficulty. Of course, if you really want to know about a given climb, then you should look in the verbal "Difficulty" field. After discussing it with Klaus Haring today, it again sticks in my mind that the key distinction between 2 and 3 is use of specific handholds, and between 3 and 4 is need for a certain level of gymnastic skill and balance, plus more exposure.

Secondly, today I reread the old thread started by Drew Brayshaw titled Attempting to Define 4th Class. It is a lengthy thread but stumbles on a lot of the same issues you always get. The innitial issue was whether the grade should depend on the experience of the party. This idea was rejected. Also rejected was tying the levels strictly to use of rope. One useful comment in the old thread was a comment by Drew to clairify his initial article, by giving a graded list of example climbs:

Mt McGuire standard route class 2
Black Tusk class 2-3
Needle Peak SW ridge class 2-3
West Lion "tourist route" Class 3
South ridge of Welch class 3
West ridge of Sky Pilot class 3
CoPilot standard route class 3-4
Castle Towers central summit via W ridge class 3-4
Rexford standard route class 4
SW ridge of Uto Peak class 4-5
NE ridge of Needle Peak class 4
NW ridge of Shadowfax class 4-5
NW ridge of Sir Donald low class 5
Kain route on Bugaboo Spire class 5.6
Using a list was also my conclusion when I made up the list of reference cases. The only thing I did was go one step further, and give a few words for each one the things that put it into that class. I would be interested in more discussion of this list, or other key examples.

#1858 - 2016.11.12 Serguei Okountsev - one number only?
One number is all there is to grade an alpine route? Like judging a person's health by his body mass (underweight, normal weight, overweight) - it might be OK in very simplified cases (e.g. "Scrambles in Southwest BC" guide book - all there is - difficult, moderate and easy), but certainly more richer set of (standard) metric types is expected in what is called an Encyclopedia. Ideally, every peak would have all classic routes with corresponding grades (all that apply - ). The database should be searchable and filterable by any selected metric type too.

#1857 - 2016.11.10 Robin Tivy - System depends on a single number
The system in use for Trip Difficulty the past 15 years depends on their being a single number 1,2,3,4,5. The scope of what we are looking for is a single number by which trips can be rated. So we don't try to separate class and grade.

#1856 - 2016.11.10 Serguei Okountsev - YDS class + YDS grade will do
>>and does not sufficiently address the overall difficulty of the route

It does: the combination YDS class + YDS grade will do. First suggested by Alex Lowe and has been used ever since. Nothing prevents you to using class 3+ or class 4- for finer gradation.

For many examples check any serious alpine guide book e.g. "The High Sierra: Peaks, Passes, and Trails" etc. Or online: e.g. Mt. Temple SW Ridge route - Difficulty: I, Class 3 ( )

#1855 - 2016.11.10 Serguei Okountsev - What's wrong with YDS?
I wonder why yet another grading system? What's wrong with YDS? By the way, technical grading only makes sense when applied to a particular route, not to the peak. Also, there is no class 2 route on Mt. Temple - the regular (easiest) is SW Ridge class 3/4- : with rappel bolts installed, for a reason.

#1854 - 2016.11.10 Robin Tivy - Overall Trip Difficulty versus class of a particular feature
The pure Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) does not make sufficient distinction between class 3 and 4, and does not sufficiently address the overall difficulty of the route. There has always been a difficulty level field in Bivouac trip reports, right from the beginning. And several previous discussions to define the levels. If you look in the Trip Lister you can see the difficulty levels for a wide variety of peaks.

The Bivouac system is based loosely on the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) system, but adapted to the kind of mountains we have in Canada. And we pay much more attention to the difference between class 3 and 4 than I have seen in any Yosemite definitions. Class 3 is fairly straightforward with easy footholds and handholds. Class 4 involves dynamic moves that involve planning out a sequence of footholds and handholds. And class 5 there are distinct pitches, and belays, protection, special rock gear.

Yosemite system is based on the "hardest move". But in rating alpine mountain trips in Canada, we also want to take into account more than just the technical difficulty of the hardest move. A peak with sustained exposure, loose rock, route finding challenges, and objective danger from cornices would be level 4 even if all the moves were actually only class 3 moves. Or ascending a steep icy slope with crampons where a slip would be fatal would be class 4.

One of the most reliable ways to define level of a trip is to look for certain keywords. For example, look at Dreadnought via the North Face. The words you see are "couloir, ice chute, belay station, overhanging cornice, protection, pickets..." OK right away those words put it into level 5 route.

Consider Klaus Haring's report Search for the Class 2 route on James Turner. He got the idea from a report by Fred Touche report Soaked to the Bone on James Turner. Klaus says the following:

"I thought that if it took Don Funk half an hour to descend the class 2 route it could not have been that easy! I know that the description of class 2 and scrambling varies widely, but James Turner was well above my definition of class 2 or even class 3. Disappointed we returned to our camp."

So I looked into Fred's report. Sure enough he has a photo of a "class 2" gully. But when you read the whole report, I quickly conclude that James Turner as a whole could not be rated class 2. It is even doubtful it could be rated class 3. I note that Fred's trip was rated at level 4. So perhaps the "class 2" gully was not the whole story. I climbed James Turner years ago, but my memory was it involved going up a steep rock face and if someone asked me, I'd say class 3 or 4. It is long approach over several glaciers, and then the final rock climb is steep and exposed.

talking about a class 2 gully. Right away, I say there is no such thing. Class 2