There is no such thing as ‘classfour’ climbing. Lets review the Yosemite Decimal System: according to theseventh edition of Freedom of the Hills,class one is hiking, classes two and three are scrambling, and classes four andfive are climbing. The difference between classes two and three being thatclass two involves only occasional use of the hands, while for class three arope is sometimes carried (perhaps the authors mean as a hand line or forrappelling). The difference between class four and five is that four often usesa rope while five always uses a rope. This system was created by the SierraClub Climbing Sections, which evolved out of a bay area group called theCragmont Climbing Club, to facilitate their qualification process and tripmanagement. It was a tool specifically designed to facilitate organizationalcontrol of the climbing community, exactly the kind of control that climbers inboth California and the Pacific Northwest would reject in the inter-war period.For more information on this process, see Joseph Taylor’s Pilgrims of the Vertical and my own “History of Climbing in theCascade Mountains.” The Sierra Club’s five part division of climbing became thenational standard because the climbers who came out of their training programspioneered the big-wall style of Yosemite Valley, which has had a formativeeffect upon all American climbing.
Although technical mountaineering in the western United States has evolved directly from the Californian climbing communities, the nature of technical ascent has changed radically since then and their system, the Yosemite Decimal System, is no longer an effective descriptive tool. What is ultimately needed is an overhaul of the system, and this will be considered later in this essay, but first the pressing issue – fourth class. The basic problem with ‘class four’ is that in the modern usage it overlaps entirely with class three and low fifth. The exact division between these categories is the most vague and blurred in the entire system, due in no small part to the upward expansion of fifth class. When all climbs were required to fit between the grades of class two and 5.9, class four could be safely called easy rock climbing, but with the advent of 5.10, followed in short order by 5.11(+), all grades began to skew upward and easy rock climbing came to be given the general designation of low fifth class, meaning somewhere between 5.0 and 5.5. This range is, in a sense, absurd. If the system is to be rigorous, which it must be to be useful, the differences between each number grade should be roughly equivalent – 5.8 should be to 5.9 what 5.10 is to 5.11. Yet as a climber who currently leads in the 5.9 to 5.10- range, I can’t even distinguish between the lower grades; the difference between 5.10a and 5.10b can be the difference between an easy onsight and a protracted struggle, but anything below 5.6 feels like exposed scrambling, which, if one recalls, is the official definition of classes three and four. This is not however, to be confused with the ways in which ‘class four’ is actually used, which reveals the full nature of the problem.
‘Class four’ is a lie we tell ourselves. We know what scrambling feels like, and we know what easy climbing feels like, and it relates basically to the overall angle of the slope. With short enough moves and large enough ledges a climb becomes a scramble, but there is this middle type of climbing that seems excessively easy, yet terribly exposed, and when we rope up for it we call it low fifth and when we solo it we call it fourth class. We do this because we were taught that the distinction between scrambling and rock climbing was the use of the rope, that if one is rock climbing one should be on belay. This is nonsense – whether one needs a belay has nothing to do with the difficulty of the climbing and has everything to do with one’s own skills; Peter Croft, John Bachar, and Alex Honnold are not violating any principles, they simply have, or had, the physical and mental finesse to climb un-roped at high grades. We do not need the consolation of the fourth class, rather we should face up to our own risks, assess our abilities as objectively as possible, and make the most informed decisions about rope use that we can. In short, what used to be called fourth class has become low fifth, and is treated roughly as fourth class once was; the term is just a misnomer.
The basic causative factor in this shift, and the changes it demands in our rating system, is advances in technology and methodology. Sticky rubber, passive rock protection, spring-loaded caming devices, and rappel-bolting have radically altered what lead climbing at any grade actually means, while innovations in training techniques and the now full acceptance of project climbing have allowed these new technologies to be utilized to their full potential. The age of ‘the leader must not fall’ is long over. The official definitions of the five classes then apply only to beginners; who else would carry a rope for class three? who else would belay a scramble? who else would actually be able to confidently distinguish between class four, 5.0, and 5.1? especially when one would be hard pressed to find a crag with any significant number of climbs at those grades. Yet if YDS is a system for beginners, why does it extend to the truly elite, the 5.14 and 5.15 that only professionals and the truly gifted reach? The ill-suited-ness of YDS for the upper grades is epitomized by the irrelevancy of the prefix – the ‘5’ means nothing, as, for the strong rock climber, classes one through four are essentially irrelevant.
The larger problem with YDS is one of relativity and conflation, and this is why the most commonly used system outside British North America, the French grades, would be no good replacement. YDS grades make it seem like there is an essential nature to the numbers, so that they would refer to something more objective than how difficult someone found the climb, but that is all they mean. All 5.10 meant when it was established was that some of the climbs they were calling 5.9 were much harder than others. Yet difficulty is utterly subjective – face climbs can be greatly altered by just a few inches of reach, while minute differences in hand and finger sizes can make all the difference in crack climbs. Guidebook authors like to point this out and claim with a weird pride that all the ratings they publish should be taken with a few grains of salt. What they don’t seem to understand is that the subjective nature of difficulty doesn’t just call some grades into question, it radically undermines the entire system. We need a way to distinguish and communicate the difficulty of routes; for sport climbers the dangers are minimal but on traditionally protected pitches there are real dangers to attempting something far beyond one’s abilities, the least of which is the abandonment of expensive gear. What this encourages is a retrograde conservatism, a mindset that exaggerates all reported difficulties just to be safe; a climber for whom 5.9 is the limit of what they can lead safely might restrict themselves to 5.7, so as to avoid winding up on 5.10 terrain.
Unfortunately, I know of no real solution to this problem. We clearly need to stop thinking about ratings as objective attributes of routes and start recognizing their personal basis, but as long as we give routes numbers instead of adjectival descriptions, which would be fraught with their own set of perils, we are going to find ourselves treating those numbers as if they exist in the rock alongside its texture and angle. Although it would not solve the primary problem, separating the fifth class from the other four would be a good start. With the elimination of the prefix ‘5’ could come a new set of style designations that would give some indication of what kind of climbing one could expect to encounter. This would solve the specialization comparison issue, where the only similarity between two climbs at one grade is that they are more difficult than two other climbs in respectively similar styles; i.e. a 5.10 offwidth route at Trout Creek has nothing whatsoever in common with a 5.10 face climb at Smith Rock.
One way of sorting climbs would be by the approximate size of the features being climbed: slab, face, crack (finger and hand), offwidth, and chimney. This would make sense because within each of these designations there is a continuously developing skillset that bears little relationship, besides one of general fitness, to those of other designations. A simple grade like 5.9 would then be marginally less opaque: approaching an S.9 one could expect friction moves at a certain steepness, while Cr.9 and O.9 would demand understandings of specific crack climbing techniques. Toward the bottom of the scale this would, of course, create problems – below 5.6 all climbs tend to be face climbs, and one could argue that true offwidth techniques are never really demanded below 5.9. This would however, be a logical problem rather than a practical one, for to actually try to adjust each scale to start at zero would be invite open rejection. The strength of this modification is that it would require no re-learning, 9 would still be 9, 10 would still be 10, more information is simply given rather than any information being reformatted. Over time these grades would come to mesh with the mixed, ice, boulder, and aid grades that they resemble, which might encourage the development of a truly relative system in which some of the grades did not bizarrely start somewhere between 5 and 9 (meaning that no one pretends there is a similarity between WI5, M5, V5, and A5, so why should F.5 be similar in difficulty to Cr.5?)