Thoughts on 4th class terrain

Thoughts on 4th class terrain

Page Type Page Type: Article
Activities Activities: Mountaineering, Trad Climbing

Striving for elegance

News, summer 2008: Finally, a couple of years after I wrote this I went to climb the matterhorn with Theron. We had a great time. My imaginings about climbing the peak below seemed to be borne out. That is, it's true, there is no way you could pitch the whole thing out! And any who tried turned back.

This very appropriate quotation came up automatically on summitpost when I was editing this page, pretty neat!

"It's not safe out here. It's wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross. But it's not for the timid."

Gaston Rebuffat on the MatterhornElegant climbers on the Matterhorn
Recently I saw an old video of Gaston Rebuffat on the Matterhorn with another climber. It was beautiful. They seemed to turn the climb into a real gentlemen’s affair. Lots of relaxed walking, each climber holding a coil of rope. When it was steep, they dropped the coils and executed a standing hip belay. All very graceful, and then the look of satisfaction from the pipe-smoke at the top made me want to take up the filthy habit. These men clearly had “mountain sense.” They looked at peace with themselves, and were very much at ease. Plainly, they had long ago forged a kinship with steep terrain that was now such a part of them that it simply was them, or at least such a great part of their identity that they couldn’t shuck it off.

Despite our safer technology today, it’s not so easy to attain the true mastery that these older men of the mountains had. Many of us are master technicians, able to climb the steepest terrain imaginable, so long as it’s well protected. I remember my first ventures onto that fearsome terrain: “3rd-4th class,” as we’d say in the U.S., or maybe in the german-speaking countries it would be UIAA II-III. Having already led some 5th class pitches outside, I didn’t understand why I was qualing in fear on the ocean of loose, dirty, mossy, ugly mountainside that I’d climbed into from below. “There is no way to protect anything,” I complained to myself. “I hate this stuff.

On the summit of the MatterhornWell-deserved pipesmoke on the summit.

And that was my verdict, and remained so for some time. The desire to do better only came because I loved the mountains, and eventually found it odd that I would spend a glorious day on a climb, then come back to the valley and complain endlessly about the loose, dirty terrain that I’d dragged a rope across. My partners didn’t seem to have such trouble. Why were they always faster than me on this terrain? I seemed to knock more rocks off. Why? I hated that it was so hard to judge the difficulty. I really wanted to know, at that time, was I on 5.1 or 5.3? Was I on 4th class or 5.0? Measured so closely, these vague areas of the mountain seemed all over the chart. That left me to instantly regret whatever choice I’d made about the rope. Maybe I’d agreed with my partner that we could solo this 3rd class ground. But then, I’d hesitate at a short step because it was plainly 5.0, and it seemed unwise to continue without a belay. My partner would either rig a belay or cajole me into getting over the step. I’d only feel comfortable again when back to the “civilized” world of fixed belays and defined rope-length.

It was just too many degrees of freedom. Too many ways to fall and die. I loved rules. I’d read Freedom of the Hills at least 3 times, and many other books. It was an absolutely necessary phase, for me anyway. Venturing onto steep rock was like doing repairs outside the space shuttle. Rigid adherence to a set of rules was the only way to get started. Now, I’m not so sure. In fact, it’s the fluid shifting between belaying, travelling in coils, and soloing that are the most interesting aspect of climbing now. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I want to chronicle how I turned into a creature for whom ugly mountainside is not difficult, not even unpleasant. I have a friend who is early in this phase, and I feel him looking at me the way you’d look at a strange moth. I remember being where he is today, and looking at my partner the same way: “is he crazy?
Loose terrain on Mesahchie PeakUncertain terrain on Mesahchie Peak.

I vaguely remember the idea going through my head that if I was roped up at least I wouldn’t fall a thousand feet and die. The moment I was unroped, or (hyper) aware that we had no fixed belay, I would look down at the gravelly humps of rock and dirty tongues of snow below me and imagine hurtling down to an ugly death. Without actually realizing it, I slowed down dramatically, I hugged the slabs, worsening the chance that my feet would slip. I would lick my lips and paw the same slabby holds over and over. I couldn’t decide what to do! Hunt for protection? Look at the topo again? Go home?

The only thing that kept me going was that, well, every climb that I lusted after (is there any other word? ;-)) had at least some of this stuff. If not on the ascent, then a bucket-full of uncertain, uncomfortable terrain on the descent for sure. I hated this, but thought grimly that if one man could do it then I could too. Change happened by degrees so slight that I can’t really pinpoint when I turned into the guy who says “we can downclimb this,” when my partner says “no way! I’m gonna rappel!”

I do remember the descent from Snow Creek Wall in Washington State as being kind of a testpiece for me. The first time, not only did I hate every step, and have the images of hurtling bodies in my head the whole damn way, but it seemed to take hours. Maybe it did too. Little pebbles on slabs, no good handhold when you need it, everything seems to be downsloping. Why is my partner walking and I’m facing in and nearly crawling? Damn!

But happily, if you want multipitch rock climbing in Washington, you’ll be back to Snow Creek Wall many times, and so eventually I got used to that descent. In time, beaten by sheer repetition I accepted such terrain. It is what It Is. In fact, most terrain on most interesting mountains Looks Like This. If you want to say you love climbing, or you love mountains, you finally have to make peace with this terrain. I don’t think there is any way to know this in your bones other than to be forced on it again and again.

I learned a few axiomatic principles. Always look over edges. It’s usually not as steep as it looks from standing on top of a bulge. Downclimb steep terrain by getting in a sitting position, look for foot holds and extend your feet. Then drop down to sit on them again. You could grade descents and feel justifiably proud of difficult ones. Because then slightly easier ones will by degrees get even easier. Don’t be intimidated. Breath, and go one step at a time.

Theron nears the summit of...Theron scrambling on West McMillan Spire

Had I attempted to climb the Matterhorn at my neophyte stage, I would have certainly been able to climb or even lead well-defined 5th class pitches. But on the “somewhat less than 5th class” terrain the gulf between me and those famous climbers of old would loom wide. I would insist on roped pitches, and fumble for protection. It wouldn’t irritate me when I walked for a long stretch on gravel while my partner belayed. On the contrary, I would think “that was an easy pitch!” That was my comfort zone: always roped means always safe. Only if I thought about it enough would it become clear that I wasn’t safer. I tried not to think about the nut that ripped out when I flipped the rope over a horn, and the sling over the barely-protruding horn that not even I believed would hold. Only then, and further contemplating the two-nut belay in rotten rock where my partner waited, shivering. Only then would the realization come that my rope, my security blanket was not much good at all.

The thought hangs there, in the air: climbing isn’t safe. It’s not technology that will prevent you from acting as a hurling body from your worst inner fears, it’s only your skill. This kind of skill is built in layers, of trips and then seasons. Should your excitement remain, then the skill will come.

That is my new security blanket. A highly complex mesh of interwoven experiences. Of scary descents in the dark. Of the unexpected liberation of traveling in coils and finding we finished the climb hours ahead of schedule. Of going down the wrong gully and climbing back up. Being stuck out overnight and surviving just fine.

The beginning climber, obsessed with rules, will say “yes, but what if you slip?” I hate the question because the inevitable answer is neither comforting nor offers any bridge of understanding.

You do need a bit of luck. Plenty of times I’ve had a hold break, but caught myself thanks to the hoary old “3 points of contact” rule. But what if two holds break at once? Some folks would conclude then, that the whole idea is madness. That is fine. Others will keep plugging on, believing that they are fairly lucky people. I like both of these choices. There is a third choice that I don’t like, and that is to shun traveling in coils, simul-climbing or soloing to try and answer the “but what if you slip?” question. To always use the rope in fixed belays from ground to summit.

I’m the first to say I could be wrong. And one day, finally, my experience may fail me, it is true. But with my small store of strength, I have only wanted to paint a good canvas in this arena. To strive for efficiency of motion and finally elegance.

What do you guys think?


Post a Comment
Viewing: 1-20 of 56

SLCompulsion - Jun 2, 2007 6:31 am - Voted 8/10


Excellent article covering a topic I've not read much about. It rings very true.

Sometimes I worry about getting TOO comfortable. I remember more than once "boot skiing" jump turn to jump turn down a scree slope then standing with a sort of smug feeling watching other inching their way down. And then wonder about who'd have the last smug look if I twisted an ankle - or worst.

Thanks for writing and summiting.

PS - GREAT old video clip! Makes me want to toss some coils over my shoulder and get out there. Nice find.


mvs - Jun 2, 2007 1:21 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Enlightening!

Thank you! Yep, my friend twisted his ankle on the trail down from Half Dome while making nimble moves around a party of slow folks. He hid his embarrassment pretty well, then we had to hurry down before his foot swelled up too much to get out of his boot!

Never be afraid to be slow, and do what you have to do is the lesson, I guess. I still sometimes "5-point" down things :D

Oh, BTW, since you said congratulations for summiting, I should say that I haven't gotten around to the Matterhorn yet. Maybe this summer, we'll see!

Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Jun 2, 2007 10:13 am - Voted 10/10

Hurrah for Class 4-- gets too little respect

Enjoyable read. Thanks for sharing. I thoroughly enjoy Class 4 but sometimes wonder if there’s really such a thing. It often seems to be either a tough Class 3 or an “easy” Class 5.

But I came at my attitude toward Class 4 a little differently. Because most of my hiking and climbing have been done alone, using rope has never been a reasonable option for me. But as Class 2 became boring (and too tiring on all that scree) and Class 3 became mostly too easy, I started gravitating towards harder routes, even getting into some 5.4 mountain routes without the rope. Some of my scariest but best experiences have been in such situations, and I find that I prefer a good Class 4 over almost anything else. That outlook has been dangerous at times, as I’ve embraced climbs that many wiser people would rope up for, but it is what it is. I’ve recently begun getting into roped climbing, and it’s opened up a world closed to me before, but it just doesn’t thrill me the way soloing some rotten Class 4 or 5.2 does; I feel less accomplishment, though I know I’m being much safer and smarter and engaging in “real” climbing, as some define it.

I like the way you detail thoughts we have all had out there, especially in our earlier days on the mountains. And yours is an interesting and unexpected perspective—I appreciate the honesty. Climb on, and safely, and thanks again for articulating what so many of us have thought and felt.


mvs - Jun 2, 2007 5:35 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Hurrah for Class 4-- gets too little respect

Thanks for your long and thoughtful reply Bob! Unlike many of us, you are embarking on roped climbing from a solid base that will serve you well as the routes get longer.


rasgoat - Jun 2, 2007 7:25 pm - Voted 10/10

Class 4

Nice subject and article.

I learned to climb class four long before I learned roped climbing. I always gravitiate towards the class four for the same reasons Bob described. It is free and fun, the exposure is thrilling and these types of climbes have been my favorites. Recently I have been learning roped climbing and I now wonder how I will feel on my next super exposed class four route. Will I enjoy it as always or miss the new found comfort of the rope. I feel I will still love the class four, I can't wait to do Capitol, and the Maroon bells traverse as well as the Wilson-El Diente traverse. There is a fine balance of climbing, exposure, and comfort in a class four route that I just crave!


mvs - Jun 4, 2007 3:30 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Class 4

Thank you, I always wanted to see the Maroon Bells sometime, have fun there!


darinchadwick - Jun 3, 2007 1:46 pm - Voted 10/10

Never alone on 4th class

You are not alone on that journey to happiness on 4th class my friend. I've found myself more attracted to the long airy ridges of low difficulty and high exposure, where one constantly must choose how to most effeciently (speed) and safely (sanity) climb. For me the worst part of all is being paralyzed, and not knowing what to choose. Conversly, what is more satisfying than almost wordlessly deciding with your partner when to belay, simul, or solo. It never gets boring. Great article, glad it's getting read.


mvs - Jun 4, 2007 3:32 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Never alone on 4th class

I totally agree, thanks for the comment. Hey if I can get to the artic north, I will call you! Looks beautiful there.


darinchadwick - Jun 6, 2007 5:53 am - Voted 10/10

Re: Never alone on 4th class

Sure, contact me before you come. An hours drive takes you to the Lyngen alps, which are sedimentary chaos, very exciting and loose in the summer, or, driving the opposite direction takes you to Kvaløya, clean steep hard granite, so you can have a bellyfull of whatever type of climbing you are in the mood for.


eggheadsherpa - Jun 4, 2007 12:08 am - Hasn't voted

Informative Article

I am experienceing this exact phenomena right now in my climbing career and can relate to many of the feelings you expressed here. Thanks for taking the time to type this up!


mvs - Jun 8, 2007 3:46 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Informative Article

You are welcome, it's my pleasure. The fact that the subject strikes a chord with you and other folks kind of validates my experience too. Thanks!


camerona91 - Jun 4, 2007 12:56 am - Voted 10/10


I think 3rd and 4th class climbing is definitely understated and underappreciated by climber. Personally, I am at the point now where I feel safer leading vertical rock on a mountain thatn I do with the loose scree and wet rock. It is an interesting dilema and is highlighted nicely in this article.


mvs - Jun 4, 2007 3:40 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Great!

I totally know that feeling :-D.


mvs - Jun 4, 2007 3:27 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: This

You are welcome, Tazz, all the best over the summer!


Little_Mole - Jun 4, 2007 1:57 pm - Voted 10/10


Thank you very much for this almost philosophical article! At this time I am at the point you are describing at the beginning: more and more I'm bored with the easy ground and I want to get higher and start with more difficult "ways", but at the same time I'm afraid to slip ...
With your article you are giving me some good thoughts to think about, and I'm sure I will read it more than once because a lot of truth is in your words.
And besides, I think this article could change some things in my head. To become a better climber. And to become a climber who is happy and free.

Thank you very much!


mvs - Jun 4, 2007 3:23 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Philosophical

I couldn't hope for any more positive reaction. Thank you so much!


MoapaPk - Jun 4, 2007 11:18 pm - Voted 10/10

low maintenance

I just don't like to carry all that stuff. So if I can't get there (and back) with 50' of tubular webbing, a carabiner and two 10' slings, I'm not going.

EDIT: I must add that I am grateful to some people -- such as CP0915 -- for leading me up sections that are a little beyond class 4.


mvs - Jun 8, 2007 3:49 am - Hasn't voted

Re: low maintenance

You can still do a heck of a lot with that mindset. Once I did a long 5.0 ridge with 20 feet of A0 bolt ladder. I took what you took, and threw in 2 alpine aiders. Viola!


tonyo - Jun 5, 2007 8:39 am - Voted 10/10

Excellent article

Thank you for this thoroughly enjoyable article. Your assessment is right on. I stopped several times to think, "Hey, that's how I feel" or "That's so true". You are an excellent writer, and I could have pulled any of several quotes from your article, but the line that kind of puts it in a nutshell for me is "Breathe, and go one step at a time."
Thank you for posting.


mvs - Jun 8, 2007 3:53 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Excellent article

Thanks for the compliment! My wife told me I have to do the dishes, and I read this to her to justify lazing at the computer more. didn't work :-(. Happy climbing!

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