The Yosemite Decimal System
The Yosemite Decimal System is a set of numeric ratings
describing the difficulty of climbs. It is not the only
rating system used by climbers, but it is the one preferred
by most of the people who use Climber.Org. According to two
contributors, the european rating system
is less useful because it is too subjective and the
alaskan rating system
is more useful because it is less subjective.
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Five classes of climbing difficulty
The Yosemite Decimal System consists of five general classes,
the fifth being subdivided with a decimal notation, but it is
generally accepted that some ratings are
too high or too low because people
want to brag or because the standards among climbers has
changed over time, and many people have
editorial comments about the YDS.
The class of a route is derived from its "crux" or hardest move.
If you hike a class 2 trail from point A to point B, and are
required to scale a 20 foot wall of rock (class 4) along the way,
then you hiked a class 4 trail regardless of the normal exposure.
The argument that exposure has nothing to do with the class of the climb is not
supported by the history of YDS. Exposure was implied in the definition of 4th
and 5th class by the use of a rope.
Starting in the 5th edition of Freedom, exposure was included in the class
descriptions, probably because of the wide variety of techniques being used on
the same climbs. In the 6th edition of Freedom, the wording has changed again.
Here are the five classes, where each bullet represents a
different opinion as to what the class actually represents.
When you are reading a route description or trip report, keep
in mind that there may not be general agreement on ratings.
The astonishing thing about the email discussion which prompted
this expanded definition is that almost everyone thought that
almost everyone ELSE agreed with them!
class 1 (used for some peaks that do NOT have trails)
- hiking on trail
- walking, preferably uphill
- walking along a clear, well established trail (sidewalk)
- cross country, requiring route finding skills
- cross-country, using hands for balance
- hiking trail (goes with class 1 is a bike path)
- difficult cross-country travel (thick brush, climbing over and around fallen trees, and big talus - hands are used for balance)
- the trail is either non-existant or very uneven or intermittent and you may need to put your hand down once in a while for balance
- scrambling on rocks using hands as well as feet
- requires use of hands for climbing, rope may be used
- I need my hands but might survive a fall
- hands? Maybe. (goes with class 1 is a bike path)
- rope is necessary only to provide comfort
- MUST use your hands for progress but don't need to search for holds nor do you need Real Rock Climbing(TM) techniques
- climbing on steep terrain requiring roped belay
- I would die if I fell
- hands? Yes! (goes with class 1 is a bike path)
- exposed climbing such as a ladder going up the side of a water tank (belays should be used)
- use a rope, but don't place protection
- rope required to prevent serious injury if a fall occurs
- why don't we just ditch Class 4 and call everything 5.0 that used to be Class 4!
- you are leading along and it is not too hard and when you get to the end of the lead you notice that you haven't felt motivated to place any protection
- climbing involving technical moves and protective hardware in case of a fall
- safety rope (goes with class 1 is a bike path)
- thin, exposed climbing, requiring skill (the holds are not obvious to a novice - this is where weird moves such as laybacks, underclings, and evangelical hammerlocks come into play_
- leader places protection along the way
- Real Rock Climbing(TM) where most people will use a rope (but where some very experienced people won't feel the need) and where serious injury or death is very likely if you take an unprotected fall
class 6 (not actually part of the YDS)
- the rope bears the climber's weight on purpose
- rope ladder (goes with class 1 is a bike path)
- use equipment for aid
Editorial comments on the YDS classes
Hal Murray editorializes:
I'm an old fart. I started climbing when everybody still used pitons.
Back then, class 6 meant pitons were used for aid, class 5 meant
pitons were used for protection, and class 4 meant you didn't need
them but you still used a rope.
But you could use trees or horns and still claim it was 4th class,
so sometimes class 4 routes were pretty difficult - another branch
of the game.
Another description is that on a class 4 route, there is usually
somebody in the group who is happy to lead everything without placing
Steve Eckert editorializes:
The "I would die if I fell" approach never made sense to me. I've
done a lot of climbing that I call exposed 3rd where I surely would
die if I fell off, but it was actually pretty easy because the holds
were good and the rock was solid. Maybe I was just feeling good that day.
Warm sun and a gentle breeze helps a lot.
The problem is that class 4 and class 5 are not different except in
the degree to which the route scares people. You use a rope for both,
you set protection for both, and most people think you need a dynamic
climbing rope for both. Class 4 is basically 5.0, and Class 5 goes all
the way up to 5.13. In fact, the distinction between class 3 and
class 4 is hard to draw uniformly because it's mostly based on whether
people think they need a belay or not (which includes how loose or how
exposed or just basically how scary it seems). This decision may change
with experience, and formerly class 4 routes may become class 3!
Andy W editorializes:
Trying to lump everything (size of holds, looseness of rock, exposure)
into a single axis is, IMHO, not optimal. The Yosemite Decimal system
excels at differentiating how hard various technical climbs are, but
it often fails to accurately describe mountaineering climbs. If you take
away the handrail on an outside stairway, it is fatally exposed but still
only class 1 in either system. As you narrow the width of the stairs, at
some point a rope is required for safety but you still don't need your hands.
The rating system varies with each climbers perception of climbing, based on
their own personal abilities. What one climber thinks as being "hands
required", may be "done with a stroller and inline skates" by another.
Attitude certainly affects rating. From what I understand, 5.10 used to be
6.0. That is, a route that could only be done as "aided", became "technical"
as improvements in equipment and technique evolved.
James Schaffner editorializes:
I don't think the original question was concerned with the difference between
5.9 and 5.10, but rather the difference between hiking/scrambling/climbing
classifications of all number grades. IMO, I believe it is quite subjective.
As one can see from the discussions here, everyone seems to have an opinion.
Even guide and instruction books can't seem to agree
(even among different editions of the same book).
The business about exposure probably has little to do with the rating,
as it appears we're talking difficulty, not risk of injury with a fall.
As they say, you can drown as easily in 8 inches of water as in 8 feet,
and you can kill yourself hitting your head on a rock if you fall down on
a trail as easily as if you fall 1000 feet off a big wall.
(Assuming you're as clumsy as I am and would actually fall down on a trail.)
Eric Beck quotes Joe Kelsey, author of the Wind River guidebook:
"I'm not sure I can explain the difference between class 2 and class 3,
but I know which peaks my dogs have climbed."
RJ Secor quips:
- Class 1: you fall, you're stupid.
- Class 2: you fall, you break your arm.
- Class 3: you fall, you break your leg.
- Class 4: you fall, you are almost dead (i.e., you
can't breath and move your arms, legs, and head).
- Class 5: you fall, you are dead.
Quoting Tom Patey:
"A solo climber: a man who falls alone.
A roped team: climbers who fall together."
Subdivisions of class five climbing
In Mountaineering, Freedom of the Hills,
author Ed Peters explains the subdivisions of class 5:
"The experienced climber, having accomplished or attempted free
climbs of varying degrees of difficulty in the YDS class 5 range,
gains an understanding of the level of difficulty involved.
To the beginner, however, these ratings are simply a set of
numbers, understandably, easy if rated 5.0 and impossible if
rated 5.13. To provide a slightly better understanding within
the class for the beginner the following tongue-in-cheek
description is provided:
- 5.0 to 5.4
There are two hand- and two footholds for every move;
the holds become progressively smaller as the number increases.
- 5.5 to 5.6
The two hand- and two footholds are there, obvious to the experienced,
but not necessarily so to the beginner.
The move is missing one hand- or foothold.
The move is missing two holds of the four, or missing only one
but is very strenuous.
The move has only one reasonable hold
which may be for either a foot or a hand.
No hand- or footholds. The choices are to pretend a hold is there,
pray a lot, or go home.
After thorough inspection you conclude this move is obviously impossible;
however, occasionally someone actually accomplishes it.
Since there is nothing for a handhold, grab it with both hands.
The surface is as smooth as glass and vertical.
No one has really ever made this move, although a few claim they have.
This is identical to 5.12 except it is located under overhanging rock."
Ratings are established on lead; the follower has a somewhat easier climb.
Don't believe every climbing rating
In Mountaineering, Freedom of the Hills,
author Ed Peters warns against putting too much faith in published ratings:
It can sometimes be helpful to know who rated the climb;
since ratings are give by humans and not by computers,
human frailties can be interjected into the system. For example,
some climbers will intentionally underrate climbs so that
those who follow later will be impressed. Fortunately
most climbers do attempt to give accurate ratings, and by
the time a route is in a guide book, enough people have made
the climb to show the rating as a concensus of opinion. Also
remember that ratings are given for ideal conditions; unfavorable
conditions can cause considerable change in a climb's difficulty.
The Angeles Chapter Rating System
The Sierra Club's Angeles Chapter Safety Committee has established
classifications for outings that involve different levels and areas
of skill but do not relate to the strenuousness of the outing.
Very generally, I trips are Class 2, M trips are Class 3,
E trips are Class 4-5, but there are many exceptions.
|C||concessionaire|| For events under external control of a non-Sierra Club entity.|
(e.g., ranger, concessionaire)
|O||ordinary|| Applies to uncomplicated outings such as hikes on trails or equivalent. |
|I||intermediate|| Includes outings involving off-trail travel that require navigational skills. |
|M||moderate|| Applies to outings that include moderate snow climbs and/or class 3 rock climbing. |
|E||extreme|| Applies to outings that involve more severe snow climbing. |
|T||technical|| Applies to outings that involve specialized technical activities.|
(and will usually be combined with one of O/I/M/E)
The European Climbing Scale
From: Karl Habermeier
Date: Wed, 23 Aug 2000 17:00:08 -0400
That's in fact how the old European I to VI scale defined it:
II: Not difficult
III: Moderately difficult
V: Very difficult
VI: Extremely difficult
This is of course highly descriptive and informative. Grade I corresponds to
U.S. class 2-3, and Grade VI is about 5.9, with the rest of the ratings
falling somewhere in between. The scale has since of course been extended
upward to VII, VIII, IX, etc. corresponding to the higher U.S. difficulties
5.10 and up. No names have been given to most of these, as far as I know
(such as "super difficult".
But I agree with some of the earlier writers that defining class 4 is the
most trouble. At least one earlier Sierra guidebook rates the summit block
on Cathedral Peak as class 4.
The Alaskan Climbing Scale
From: Steve Eckert
Date: Mon, 21 Aug 2000 20:09:15 -0700
I prefer (but don't use because no one who climbs with me uses) the
Alaskan rating system, which doesn't pay any attention to anything
except the specific techniques needed:
class 1: can be done with wheels (may still include boulder hopping!)
class 2: can be done without using hands (maybe SHOULD, but don't HAVE TO)
class 3: "climb as a child" - no counterforce, vertical pull with hands only
class 4: real climbing with counterforce - stemming, laybacks, jams, etc
class 5: weight is put on the rope - aid climbing
Note that only class 5 is defined by the use of a rope. In all other
cases it's up to the climber whether one is needed. Routes are described
as "loose class 3" or "exposed class 2", with modifiers to describe all
the things that get lumped into the one Yosemite number.