Class Four is a Myth: Problems in YDS

Class Four is a Myth: Problems in YDS

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There is no such thing as ‘class four’ climbing

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.

Scrambling Toward West Granite
Scrambling toward West Granite Peak in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, my 'class 4' route followed the central crack system and involved about ten feet of 5.6 hand crack.

‘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?)


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JD - Apr 21, 2014 3:28 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Nothing wrong with class 4

I think Jacob has a point in that class 4 is fuzzy. It can be anything from tricky class 3 to 5.7. But that doesn't mean it isn't a useful grade. It's just fuzzy. You have to approach it that way, as an especially fuzzy grade. All grades are like that to a point and there are endless discussions about whether a route is 5.10c or 11a or class 2 or 3. That's the nature of grades because they depend on subjective evaluation. Even when there is a high degree of consensus there is still disagreement and inconsistency with other routes of the same grade. Fuzziness.

So on the one hand he has point. But ultimately his point is moot. You can get rid of class 4, change the system entirely or make it more detailed. But there really isn't much you can do about the fuzziness. To better understand a route one needs additional layers of description. For technical routes this usually takes the form of a topo and beta. For mountaineering grades like class 3 and 4 which are often too long and convoluted for a topo it's typically described with words. Adding prefixes or suffixes to numbers is confusing and will only get you so far anyway.

Someone asked me about a route I scrambled earlier this year in Australia. I couldn't remember what the locals rated it or if they even gave it an actual numerical rating. But I thought about it and told my friend it felt like class 3/4. Fuzziness! I looked it up later and the Aussies give it a rating of 5 on the Australian scale. Class 3-4 would translate to about Australian 1 or 2 whereas Australian 5 is about the same as our 5.2. So my estimate was a bit less than theirs, but pretty close. And if it's 5.2 it's a heck of lot easier than the 5.2 routes I've climbed in Joshua Tree but a lot further from the car. Fuzziness.


jacobsmith - Apr 21, 2014 12:56 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Nothing wrong with class 4

Just to clarify my position with regard to this exchange -
I do not believe that any rating is an objective attribute of a piece of rock, it describes a relationship, not a reality.
The problem with "class 4" is how I see it being used, both by the climbers I encounter and the instructional manuals I consult.
As I hope I have shown, its application is illogical, inconsistent, and dysfunctional. That is not to say that someone else can't disagree, only that I have increasingly found it more deceptive then helpful, i.e. the more I climb the less it makes sense; and I've done a shitload of class 3-4 scrambling (looking at you Sierra Ledge Rat).
In a wider sense, the problem with class 4 is the problem with any quantified grade, and it is a problem I see no easy way around. We need to be able to accurately convey the difficulty of a climb, yet we have no good way of doing this. grades as they currently exist work great on a small scale, individual crags, individual climbers, but they scale up very badly. What I have suggested is one way (actually two ways depending on how you define YDS) YDS might be made marginally less arbitrary and weird, it is in no way a perfect solution, or one that I fully believe should be implemented.

JD - Apr 21, 2014 4:30 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Nothing wrong with class 4

Jacob, all you've succeeded in showing is that class 4 is inconsistent. Your proposed solution of feature prefixes doesn't address that inconsistency. There is no real reason to believe it would clarify the confusion some have about class 4.


jacobsmith - Apr 21, 2014 4:32 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Nothing wrong with class 4

Indeed, the prefixes were a solution to the wider problem of grade ambiguity that, while related philosophically to the class 4 problem, is not the same issue.
My only solution to the class 4 problem is to stop calling things class 4.


asmrz - Apr 22, 2014 12:31 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: Nothing wrong with class 4

Let's go back to basics then:

Class 1 - up hill trail

Class 2 - cross country steep uphill

Class 3 - scramble up rocky terrain, use of hands required for balance and progress, exposure, fall will result (at a minimum) in an injury

Class 4 - steep to vertical broken terrain, use of technical climbing techniques required, significant exposure, fall would be deadly, rope might be required by some.

That is how it was originally described in the 1930's. What do you find wrong with that? Too soft? Too hard? Not clear enough?

Again there is nothing wrong with the system. The problem is with us, people.

Also using the Sierra Club California ratings elsewhere in the world and never having the experience of the original ratings, puts everything upside down, so to speak.

Same with YDS. If you don't really know what the original YDS ratings felt like, you have no real connection to the system.

I say if this "problem" bothers you, go climb at the source of theses systems, The High Sierra for the class 3-4, Tahquitz Rock in Southern California for YDS and early Yosemite climbs (up to 5.10) as well. That will, I'm sure, offer you some perspective.

And regarding the word "ambiguity", any technical rock climber must have the benefit of judgement which is one of the most important tools to have in one's pack.

With judgement, we can adjust to any conditions and situations we perceive to be out of "the norm". That includes 4th class that feels like a sure 5th...


jacobsmith - Apr 22, 2014 1:28 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Nothing wrong with class 4

Saying that there is nothing wrong with the system but that there is only something wrong with us doesn't make sense, the system exists for our use, if it does not work for us there is something wrong with it.
You cannot expect everyone to base their idea of YDS on one crag in California, there is no reason to privilege that area's standards over any others. I see no reason for that kind of historical dogmatism.
The problem, as I have describes it, is that modern ideas of low 5th and 3rd class meet without the need for an intervening grade, and therefore that grade has come to mean something else entirely, usually either "it was trivial" or "I was sketched out."
I am fully aware that this was not a problem when the Sierra Club created the system, but times have changed and our rating systems should follow.

What bothers me is mostly the whole idea of giving numbers to climbs, that's the ambiguity. "9" - what does 9 mean? it means harder than 8 and easier than 10, harder than what 8, easier than what 10? numbered grades encourage us to think of climbing difficulty as one linear scale, and with so many different types of rock, that simply does not work.


asmrz - Apr 22, 2014 8:01 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: Nothing wrong with class 4

There is nothing wrong with class 4

There are a few people who refuse to accept the plain fact. Sorry to have to tell you directly, it is people (the few of you) who need to adjust, not the system.

Regarding the second issue you raise:

In my 48 years of climbing, I met whole lot of good climbers from all of the world. After spending a few days here on Tahquitz and in Yosemite, the thing I hear quite often from the first time visitors is, "man these ratings are tough. I never knew 5.8 could be that hard"...The YDS rating of this climb is totally off...

But how can it be, when this is the crag, where these ratings were invented? It cannot be over or underrated, it is the original and true YDS rating. The response I usually get is, well if you put it that way...

If you never climbed in an area where the original ratings are in play, you have little to compare, let alone provide reasoning for your opinions. It is all theory or worse. It's like flying over Grand Canyon at 35,000' and later telling people that it is just a ditch...

Those Tahquitz and Yosemite ratings form our judgement about the YDS everywhere else in the granite world. If you didn't climb in those two places, what valid points can you offer about the YDS?

Lastly, your notes about the numbers and your confusion with them is really perplexing. I trust you are a climber, Jacob?

Most of us have absolutely no problem with the YDS and most of us know what .7 .9, 10 or 11b feels like. Some might even get instant sweaty hands thinking about that certain 10+ ...

We could invent another system. It might describe the climb more clearly:

A few sketchy boulder moves up a greasy grove, smearing move at the top followed by heal hook and an awkward mantle to a tiny ledge. A strenuous lie back moves followed by a wide overhanging stem in a corner gets you to a large overhang. Desperate thin crack leads up this to easier climbing. 50 meter pitch.

How hard?

About 5.5

P.S. I'm off to Scotland to sample their local YDS standards. I will be back in early August. Cheers and good climbing, Alois.


jacobsmith - Apr 22, 2014 8:27 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Nothing wrong with class 4

The basic difference between our positions is that I do not believe that YDS should remain static. 5.8 is just something someone made up, meaning that a 5.8 in tahquitz is no more "really 5.8" than a 5.8 anywhere else. same issue with class 4, I think the system should change if it is being used badly, regardless of its historical legitimacy.

There's a Sting song that seems applicable:
And yes, I am indeed a climber.

Most people do think they know what various ratings feel like, and then they start climbing and it's a constant barrage of "easy for the grade," "hard for the grade," "no way that's 5.X". This really bothers me, and I do it as much as anyone. As I have said multiple times, I don't have a good replacement for YDS up my sleeve, but I do think there is room for additional, qualitative, aspects in our grade system.
One of the most significant problems with the system is that it equates climbs that have nothing in common. It's not just difficulty level, on 5.9 crack one can expect a certain variety of moves, one 5.10 crack a different variety, but the moves required for a 5.9 crack have nothing in common with the moves required for a 5.9 face climb, or a 5.9 slab. Thus the changes I proposed.

In essence, I think grades are kind of stupid and I wish we could do away with them, but we can't, so all I'm trying to do is find a way of making them less frustrating. If you or anyone else doesn't find grades annoying as hell I envy you, but I don't think I am alone in wishing we spent more time talking about climbs themselves and less about the abstracted numbers we attach to them.

JD - Apr 22, 2014 9:28 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Nothing wrong with class 4

I think you expect too much from ratings.

Your prefix idea isn't well fleshed out; would it apply only to the crux of each pitch or to sections? Would the first pitch of Hardd in Yosemite be C.11a or P.9/OH.10a/F.10c/C.11a? Modern topos are already information rich.

I could get on board replacing class 4 with 5.0-5.2 or something like that. I don't think it will make you less frustrated with grades though. Perhaps the solution for you is to ignore grades; some people do this.

Robbins tried to change the system 50 years ago and got nowhere.


midi510 - Nov 13, 2019 7:18 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Nothing wrong with class 4

I've read a lot of these comments and tend to agree with you. I didn't actually know anyone used a rope on "Class 3", but have read some class descriptions indicating so. I always (been climbing 40 years; led .10s, followed .11s, tr'd some .12s) thought Class 4 (easy climbing, pulling with hands) was a little more technical than Class 3 (scrambling, hands now and then, for balance), but mostly more exposed. Class 3 is more exposed than Class 2 (technical hiking?) just because it's steeper and only people with an issue with heights would be seriously concerned. I think the difference between 4th and 5th becomes more a matter of technique, where one needs to actually think about or consider where to put hands and feet. 5th is where you might fall because of a mistake in technique, whereas if you fall on 4th, it's probably because you're sketched.

These days, I'm way more into snow and ice couloirs and alpine routes where I don't need to carry a rack and rope. Two weeks ago I solo'd the North Couloir on North Peak and because I read that it was a 3rd class scramble to the summit after that, was super stoked. If I read that it was 4th class, I probably would have traversed over to the SW slope and walked up. Now on the other hand, on Bear Creek Spire two months ago, I was on the East Ridge, mostly 2nd and 3rd, but finding some easy unexposed 5th class moves and moved right of the route to intersect the upper North Arete and finish on 4th. I think I know fairly well what to expect when I read route descriptions and I'm thankful to have access to them.


ExcitableBoy - May 10, 2014 2:02 pm - Voted 1/10


It seems you are having a difficult time grappling with grading. First calling Godzilla sandbagged, and now this? Why all the consternation? There are hard climbs at every grade, the grades are subjective by nature and this is something most of us who've played the game awhile have just learned to accept.

Matt Lemke

Matt Lemke - May 10, 2014 5:16 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: Hmmm

EB but why is this something we all just have to accept? I think it would be better if we completely did away with ratings altogether. If I am talking to a friend at home or whatever and I ask him about a climb he did that I haven't even heard of, I would rather hear that it is a vertical and sustained hand to wide hands crack with a couple rest stances on some chicken-heads rather than hear "oh...its just a 5.9"

Can you understand our point here?


midi510 - Nov 13, 2019 6:21 am - Hasn't voted

More Complication

Another complication is, how do you prefix a route that starts out slab, then has face climbing, then a nice finger splitter, and finishes with an offthwidth?

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