Excellent job dismantling the YDS. I agree with most of your assertions. The suggestions in the last paragraph are especially thought provoking. The one thing most of us should be able to agree upon is that there is no distinguishable difference between 4 and 5.0 or 5.1. Either 4 and 5.0 are the same, or one of the two doesn't exist.
Nice article on a very old question/argument. I don't think the problem is with the validity of YDS. I think the difficulty rating has a lot more to do with how good the climber is. This also applies to 4th class and low 5th class climbing. There was a time that I couldn't tell the difference between anything under 5.7. This reminds me of what Scott Franklin, the first American to climb a 5.14, said- "climbing 5.10 is like vertical hiking."
Its interesting that the phenomenon goes the other way too, based on my experience following 5.11s, I can imagine what 5.12 would be like, but I can't really conceive of 5.13 or 5.14, and if I was on them I probably wouldn't be able to tell a difference, they would all just be equally impossible for me.
What seems to be going on then is that the range gets magnified right around what you are capable of, which sort of explains the letter grade concept. Notice that they only exist for the grades that were invented on the go, as it were.
That said, I still think YDS is inherently flawed due to grade conflation (two routes given the same grade having nothing in common). No matter how good you are, 5.10 face climbing has as much in common with 5.10 offwidth as it does with any grade of mixed climbing; and before anyone says, 'but with one you are using your hands and feet while with the other ice tools and crampons,' I would posit that should one design shoes specifically for offwidth, they would probably be as different from high-end sport climbing shoes like the Miura or the Shaman as they would be from fruit boots.
The real question then, is whether my claim that class four is a myth is any different from a 5.14 climber claiming that 5.10 is indistinguishable from hiking. I think if you look at it historically, what has actually changed is the definitions on low fifth class ratings. When the scale ended at 5.9 there was more reason to use 5.0-4, but now that 5.7 basically means, in many circles, the easiest thing you can imagine, it is they that have melded into fourth class and not the other way around. The reason I claimed that it is 4th class, and not low-fifth, that is a myth, is that I think that the existing class 5 scale is the more useful of the two. There is a reason Peggy Goldman had to invent her own rating system when she wrote her book, 75 Scrambles in the Cascades, and it's that the 2nd-3rd-4th distinctions just don't indicate enough (class 4, after all, can mean anything from a scrambler got sketched out, to a 5.9 climber didn't rope up, to Fred Beckey did it half a century ago and every bit of rock he touched has likely fallen off the mountain since).
Someone from the RCS once said that "climbing a vertical ladder on a multi story building is akin to Fourth Class unroped climbing. Not difficult, but fall would be deadly". That statement was issued about 60-70 years ago. Made sense then...
I was around many of the people from the LA section of RCS who invented the YDS on Tahquitz Rock here in Southern California.
One thing I can tell you about that bunch. They were, as a group, very competent and very compatible with the activity. In those years, climbers were few in the US and those who took up the sport, were all very good athletes.
They invented the scale to suit their very small group whose ability was quite close. Today, we try to use the YDS for extremely dissimilar activities, for extremely large group of people and in incredibly geographically wide area. I don't think that was the intent of the Tahquitz and Yosemite climbers of the early 1950s.
BTW, I mentioned this before, climbing on Tahquitz Rock where the system was invented will open your eyes, the original ratings for granite were tough.
And if the 1950s climbers could climb those original ratings on Tahquitz, they (rightly so) felt they could climb similar ratings anywhere else.
The Trough on Tahquitz was rated for many years 4th Class and people routinely down climbed it unroped to get to Lunch Rock. Today, that's unheard off and the ratings inflation reflects it.
Those years ago, class 4 meant something to those who invented it, today because of tons of issues, class 4 is indeed anything between 5.0 and 5.11...
I don't think it's that alarming or a serious problem that the difference between 4 and 5.0 and 5.1 is practically impossible to parse. Just because it's on a whole number boundary it seems like a big deal. The ratings have a degree of arbitrariness, but they are sufficiently information-rich to help us characterize a rock climb. In Europe I use UIAA and French ratings too, and I can't say they are much better or worse.
And I wouldn't exaggerate...to say "class 4 is indeed anything between 5.0 and 5.11..." really? I'd say between 3 and 5.5, and I don't include 5.6 because in my experience 5.6, like 5.7 slightly beyond is the grade at which some specialized technique (ie, chimney/crack/etc) is asked for.
Regarding the exaggeration, I was just trying to illustrate that "4th class" can mean anything these days
In January 2014, Alex Honnold soloed El Sendero Luminoso, 1,700' face climb in Mexico rated 5.12 D.
A prominent US magazine had a headline to the effect that
Honnold 4th classed the route....
The Honnold thing epitomizes the essential problem with 4th class: there is what it technically denotes, and then there is how the term is used, and they don't really have much to do with each other.
"oh that's totally 4th class," means nothing other than "I thought it was trivial." Where i think the two are truly interchangeable are in the low 5th realm, which I agree with MVS is probably 5.0-5. 5.6-7 seems to be where routes begin to be something other than easy face climbs, i.e. low angle hand cracks and simple chimneys.
MVS - I am curious how you think YDS is "information rich." You say grades have a "degree of arbitrariness," but I don't understand how they are anything but completely arbitrary, and therefore meaningless. What exactly, after all, do grades characterize? When I see "5.7" in a guidebook I should be able to expect that it will be roughly as difficult as other 5.7s I have climbed in a similar style, but as I discovered at Smith Rock last week, that is not the case in the least, and I wound up on some pretty hairy "warm-ups."
It just strikes me as absurd how we have these long debates about whether something is 10a or 10b (Tatoosh), and then throw around 4-5.5 like they mean nothing.
That we can expect so little from our number grades implies that we should stop using them, and stop lying to ourselves that routes have objective difficulty.
Haha, "4th classed the route," that is awesome :D. But we get the point, the quote is just a way of saying that he treated the route as something to be careful on, but one that didn't warrant a rope.
Well, Jacob, I think you expect too much. We've all been surprised by a 5.7 in a new area, and have to adjust the mental map to realize, "oh, Red Rocks 5.7 is spot on or easy," but "Gunks 5.7 will include roofs." I doubt that you were completely run out of the park. In truth, it was rational of you to go there with a pile of 5.7's under your belt and expect that you could do the 5.7s there. The YDS *did* allow you to go to a new place (new State? new region?) and become a participant, modulo some adjustments.
I think it goes too far to "stop using them...stop lying to ourselves that routes have objective difficulty." What possible system could eliminate all subjectivity?
Please do try, and succeed in finding something better. I just...I mean, to me ratings are actually quite useful.
Jacob, I think that it is our collective responsibility to rate and grade new climbs/routes in a way that closely reflects their "true" difficulty. That itself requires not a small level of courage, also level thinking and maturity.
Rating a FA is an exercise in fairness, compassion to others and safety toward those who will climb the route later.
Often that clashes with our ego and the results can be "sandbags".
Most areas have climbs that are "known" to be completely miss-rated. Some people find pleasure from down rating their creations so they can be known as "hard men".
There are examples of these climbs (and names that go with them) in every climbing area of the nation and in fact, the world.
There is nothing wrong with the Y.D.S in these cases, there is something very wrong with us, people.
When it comes to 4th class, it could be said that 5.12 climber will see 4th or low 5th class route differently than I will. But it is the 5.12 climber's responsibility when rating something low, to remember me, the average climber and rate the route objectively. That's the trick, right there.
The small differences in difficulty persisting even after an honest assessment of a given route, could and should be (with some courage) dealt by most of us.
And BTW Guide Book authors have the responsibility to revisit older routes ratings in their NEW (today's) guide books even if it means upgrading routes that are in today climber's language "easy", but originally were not rated correctly. That happened here on Tahquitz with many old but sustained routes.
Ask a hiker what the toughest part of the mountain was, and he will say "Oh, that section right below the summit. It was Class 4." Ask a hiker with good rock skills and they will tell you the same section is exposed Class 3. Now go ask a rock climber, and they will tell you it was Class 5 easy.
After you get done overhauling Class 4, Class 2 needs some help too. In one context it means easy (one-handed) scrambling. In another it means hiking on broken terrain without a trail.
On Sunday, I saw a couple taking turns sport climbing short 5.7 routes in Red Rock Canyon (NV) using only one hand. So I guess those need re-rated as Class 2 now!
ETA: FWIW, I have drawn the line between exposed Class 3 and Class 4 based on the beta I have read. If most parties are needing to use a rope, either to belay seconds or to rappel, I would call it Class 4. If parties are using a rope and belaying the leader, then I would call it Class 5. But I agree, it mostly a matter of opinion, ability, and risk assessment.
So a skilled party might well free climb (i.e. use Class 3 style) a section another party does Class 4 style with an unbelayed leader belaying the others up. But if the pitch has traditionally been labeled Class 4, most would still consider it as such regardless of how it was climbed. Now give this same pitch a YDS rating of 5.5 and publish it somewhere, and a party doing the same thing in the future would be calling it a free solo ascent rather than Class 3.
I am glad you brought this up - good topic for discussion. Some of my hiking and climbing buddies seem to think this stuff is far more objective than it really is.
It does come down to an issue of experience level, scramblers are accustomed to differentiating between classes 2-4, while rock climbers tend to ignore anything under 5.5.
The formal definitions of those lower classes are exactly what is so problematic. The whole class-2-one-hand thing is pretty random, anything you can do with one hand you can probably do with no hands if you have good balance. Those definitions of class 4 also have little to do with the rock in question and much more to do with the particularities of the climbers - if one member of the group can lead it w/o gear but the others want a top rope, that member must be significantly more experiences than the others, and if you can't down-climb a scramble you are simply bad/unpracticed at down-climbing.
I guess when it comes down to it, I don't think we need grades for scrambling, even more so than on steeper climbs, scramble routes tend to wander and fork, difficulties tend to be height dependent, and tolerance for exposure is the difference between running up the route and backing off.
When I go for a scramble, I don't care if its class 2 or class 4, I am much more concerned about things like rock quality, vegetation, and seepage. Talking about technical difficulties on routes without any simply does not make sense.
Blaming YDS is not quite fair. YDS was not designed for scramblers or non technical climbers and not for bad rock either. Remember where it was invented, on super solid high angle granite in Southern California. It was designed for technical rock climbing only.
Just because (over the years) it became used for rating any-kind of terrain, it does not mean that it can do everything for everyone.
YDS assumes (at least in my definition) a pretty solid level of rock climbing ability and judgement. It is not scramblers rating guide and it never will be.
You are correct, YDS assumes fairly high level of individual and group ability. But terrain has little to do with it. Ability (or lack of) to cross that terrain, is where it's at.
YDS ratings make all the sense to people versed in it, those who understand the beauty of its progression and are comfortable with it. It is a subjective rock-climbing rating system best used on solid granite such as California, Colorado, Wyoming etc.
So if more and more people enter this mountain and peak climbing activity without proper rock-climbing training, one can expect the kind of problems you talk about.
When I was young, it was said, learn how to rock climb on local crags, learn how to use rope, how to lead. Only after you mastered that, go to the mountains and add snow, ice, bad rock.
Competency is the answer to your article's dilemma.
I understand your sentiment, but I have to take issue with a couple of your claims.
"It is not scramblers rating guide and it never will be."
- Then why are there classes 1-4? The majority of the system, technically speaking (4 of the 5 classes), refers to nontechnical terrain.
"YDS assumes fairly high level of individual and group ability."
- BMS914 was correct in his identification of the common markers of class 4 (at least according to my reading of FOTH), and as I think I demonstrated, those are basically beginner techniques. I have not read early Sierra Club manuals, so they could define things differently, but the standard definition of class 4 basically amounts to rock climbing for people who don't know how to rock climb.
"YDS ratings make all the sense to people versed in it, those who understand the beauty of its progression and are comfortable with it."
- This is, of course, a valid opinion, but in my experience the better of a rock climber I become the less sense the whole thing makes to me. I didn't come from a rock climbing background so I didn't learn to climb at a crag, and consequently my early experiences were all class 3-4 scrambles on snow and questionable rock, and at the time it all made sense. Only now, having acquired a preference for clean granite, am I coming to question the system.
Higher up in our conversations on this subject I posted a definition of 4th class from one of the Sierra Club well known climbers of the 30s.
I have the SC Mugelnoos newsletter copies all the way from the start of the RCS (Rock Climbing Section) and somewhere in this incredible newsletter (which BTW is printed to this day) was this note:
"climbing a vertical ladder on a multi story building is akin to Fourth Class climbing. Not difficult, but fall would be deadly".
I would not call the terrain described in this statement as non-technical and I would not ask someone who does not know how to "climb" to get on that ladder with me...Would you?
The people who invented the Sierra Club class 1-4 were climbers, not hikers. Most of the early High Sierra climbers were the ones who used this system. Class 4 ratings by these people were tough and some of the early climbs even today require rope and belaying. That's how good these early climbers were. But the important word is, they were technical climbers...
So, I completely disagree that 4th class was created as a non-technical rating. Some of the early High Sierra ratings of 4th class prove my point. Those routes were and are technical.
And that system was created years before YDS.
In the early 50s, the YDS followed up on that old Sierra Club system by further defining the 5th class. They left the class 1-4 system alone.
But both systems were designed by technical climbers for movement over increasingly difficult technical terrain.
You also ask why class 1-4?
If you and I lived in the ERA of no system at all, we would have extremely difficult time describing our activity in the mountains.
How hard was it? Hard? Really hard? Well, how hard? Really, really hard.
Does not get you far, does it?
So the early climbers set up a system describing increasingly difficult terrain up to technical climbing. In that system, class 3 is already including an element of technical climbing because both hands and feet are required for movement and exposure is present. A fall from 3rd class would result in injury then and today.
So that's why class 1-4.
These 1-4 classes are today used by all mountain travelers technical or not. That's because the system became universal and its true meaning was lost.
I maintain that when you teach me how to rock climb, use rope, belays and gear, teach me how to lead 5th class, the YDS becomes clear. It was designed for rock climbing. It all started there.
And (I'm adding this later) I might have missed some point earlier.
4th class is not part of YDS.
YDS was designed as a stand alone system for 5th class climbing only.
So I may be misunderstanding you, but it seems like you are saying that 4th and low 5th intersect because they were developed separately. Which, while illogical in current use, does make sense historically.
I hope what I've said don't come across as insulting to the early Sierra Club pioneers, who were truly inventing a discipline and climbing as well as anyone in the world. I just feel that today, taking scramble grades seriously is a sign of inexperience.
Jacob, we might have to look at this "problem" from different point of view.
The class 1 to 4 system is TODAY used by non-technical mountain travelers only. People who hike, scramble and sometimes even make a few moves of fourth class, are the typical users of this system.
They are inexperienced, if your measure of experience is 5th class rock climbing ability.
In other words, the class 1-4 system means little to technical alpine climber. Technical rock and alpine climbers scramble up something which could be 4th, easy 5th, or hard 5th, and as long as they don't rope up, call it fourth.
So the YDS and the Sierra Club class 1-4 systems have different meanings to different groups of outdoor enthusiasts these days.
Back in the early days, there were not these various groups of mountain visitors which made the grades quite easy to interpret.
Not so much today. We see thousands of tired and stressed city people escaping the urban mess and heading into the hills. Some don't have the knowledge and some don't want the knowledge that technical training brings. The results are wild swings in rating routes, assessing difficulty ratings and explaining the activity.
There is little agreement among us these days, because there is such a varied interest and experience range in the world of mountains.
Personally, I would urge every young person interested in the mountain world, to learn the ropes so to speak and become technical climber. Everything will be clearer and safer that way. And the mountains will open up to much wider range of adventures.
I think we are finally in agreement, although I still find the whole idea of numerically quantified grades really problematic on a metaphysical level.
"Personally, I would urge every young person interested in the mountain world, to learn the ropes so to speak and become technical climber. Everything will be clearer and safer that way. And the mountains will open up to much wider range of adventures."
Could not agree more. I spent years wanting to get into technical climbing and was very frustrated because I didn't know the right people (and didn't want to take a class) and I do not understand those who lack the same aspirations. Technical alpine climbs are the logical conclusion of all mountaineering and crag climbing, how you can be interested in the latter without the goal of the former baffles me.
A long time ago, mountaineers seemed to be far less specialized, most were experts on any/all ways of getting up/down a mountain, or at least aspired to be. The Sierra Club types were trying to help share experience (i.e. beta) in an age when it was far tougher to get it, on whatever might be part of the experience.
I agree with the YDS being developed as a climbing rating system expanding the Class 5 of the Sierra Club. For the most part I think it makes sense, but is not perfectly clear; as I don't really think there is any difference between a 5.2 and a 5.3 for example, at least not one I can perceive, or that anyone seems to be able to explain. Higher up, it is usually pretty consistent, though I do think some degree of individual ease/difficulty with certain techniques can play a role.
Many have tried but few have succeeded... To improve YDS. It's a challenge on par with creating a system to judge the beauty of women. It's small wonder there's not much difference between a 2 and a 5. Too many people don't consider them worth talking about.
asmrz is an authority and he rightly pointed out the flaw in the title. D means decimal so this clearly excludes 4th. Nonetheless your main points are valid if not original. I also don't have any grand solutions. My only contribution is I don't support letting FA parties set grades. They get naming rights but difficulty should be by community consensus.
There's nothing wrong with class 4. It is a real grading that covers a very real gap between class 3 and class 5. As someone who's favorite realm was class 3/4 alpine climbing, I have no difficulty calling something class 3 or 4 or 5 -- because they're all different. You say that "‘Class four’ is a lie we tell ourselves." No need to overhaul a grading system because some people can't tell class 3 from 4 from 5. Climb more, and the differences between 3, 4 and 5 become obvious.