Thoughts on 4th class terrain

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Thoughts on 4th class terrain
Created On: Jun 2, 2007
Last Edited On: Oct 8, 2008

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?


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Viewing: 21-40 of 56

weeds19 - Jun 5, 2007 9:13 am - Voted 10/10

Superb Article

Well written and thoughtful! It touches on that delicate balance between speed, safety, and elegance.


climber46 - Jun 5, 2007 11:42 am - Voted 10/10


Great article. I also agree that it reflects my view towards scrambling-type terrrain. Here in the east, I do not get much chance for Class 4 terrain, but I enjoy it very much when the opportunity arises, even if it is only on a small mountain. I still remember very fondly a route a friend and I did in Acadia N.P. last fall in which the terrain became harder than my friend and I expected, but we were able to problem-solve and climb a significant bit of class 4 terrein. It was an exhilarating challenge, and I felt a great sense of fulfillment upon reaching the top, where an easy hiking trail was available for the descent. I will also always remember scrambling up a knife-edged ridge to the summit of Mount Alyeska, Alaska. Minute for minute, the most enjoyable scramble I have ever done!


mvs - Jun 8, 2007 3:58 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Well-spoken

Thanks a bunch! Well it occurs to me that Alyeska gave you a great gift: minute by minute you wondered what would come next, and the excitement to be in an exposed place with just enough safety to keep you going up. With your two sentences about it I'm already living vicariously! :D

Jay Ewing

Jay Ewing - Jun 6, 2007 1:14 pm - Hasn't voted

Thank you

I am very interested in the history of mountaineering and have read a good number of books over the years particularly on the "Golden Age" of climbing in the Canadian Rockies. I am encouraged to hear this discussion on SP with all of the hype lately on grades and sport climbing. It is truly refreshing to see the recognition for those who have opened the doors to us in the mountains. They truly were "mountain men" and I have a great deal to learn from them. Thank you for your brilliant article.


mvs - Jun 8, 2007 3:40 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Thank you

Thanks Jay! The previous generations applied significant intelligence and experience to their journeys, it is great to learn about them.


cp0915 - Jun 7, 2007 3:26 pm - Voted 10/10

Great article

Very thought provoking, and well-written. Thanks for taking me on that journey.


Charles - Jun 8, 2007 7:23 am - Voted 10/10


´Thainks for thinking out loud. You cover quite a few of my emmotions when on such routes. One thing that never ceases to impress is that these IIIers which we now consider easy althugh dangerous were often first climbed by people who were really pushing the limits of those days..amazing people!



mvs - Jun 13, 2007 1:09 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Interesting

Thanks Charles! I know, in like...smooth-soled shoes and a static rope around their chest (shiver).


arturf - Jun 9, 2007 7:48 am - Voted 10/10


I am lucky, as I've had an old teacher almost from the beginning, who have tought me the principles of relaying on myself on the route. I love principles: "Use belaying, but don't rely on it" and "The leader must not fall". Of course, it is all about mountaineering, not sport climbing :)

Dave Daly

Dave Daly - Jul 12, 2007 7:11 pm - Voted 10/10

4th Class.....Always An Eye Opener!

A compelling article! It shed a diffrent light on how I manage with 4th class terrain and the insights of others and their contributions rounded things out a bit. Nice article!!


caputaka - Sep 28, 2007 10:39 pm - Hasn't voted


Wow! That is the most insightful article I've read in a long time and definitely made sense. As a rock climber I recently did a traverse of Mt. Colin in Jasper, (III 5.7), the 5.7 pitch was the easiest part, its the knife edge ridges that take a long time to get used to!


mvs - Sep 29, 2007 2:28 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Awesome!

Thanks, I'm glad you liked it! Sounds like a beautiful climb too.


Element - Nov 9, 2007 2:26 pm - Voted 10/10

My thoughts exactly!

It was like you were reading my mind. Good job!


mvs - Jan 7, 2008 5:15 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: My thoughts exactly!

Great minds think alike...thanks Element!


highlandvillager - Jan 6, 2008 2:24 pm - Voted 9/10

Great Article!

Just returning to mountaineering after a long time away, I'm anxious to regain the scrambling skills I learned climbing class 3 as a kid, and would like to progress to class 4. Striking the right balance between adventure and safety, and gaining the expertise to shift that balance, are important parts of our pursuit.


mvs - Jan 7, 2008 5:17 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Great Article!

Enjoy the journey Highlandvillager! It'll be even more fun the second time...


baloodh2000 - Apr 30, 2008 1:30 am - Voted 10/10

Perfectly Written

You nailed this right on. I feel like this explains my inner feeling of climbing. There is something higher to climbing that you elude to here. Honestly I don't think it really has anything to do with climbing at all actually... Maybe your article doesn't even directly take a stab at it. When you climb I think the uncertainty is the excitement. I think a good point here is we have an urge to play the higher role. We like when we take our lives into our own hands. If I die on this rock its because I chose to climb this rock. If I live on this climb its because I possessed the needed skill to accomplish the climb. Doesn't matter how many anchors could have failed. Doesn't matter how many times you back clipped / Z-Clipped / Cross Clipped / Side Clipped / Used the side of the quick draw with the rubber piece in it in the bolt instead of the other way around (or vice versa if you are in that camp...) Doesn't matter how little you knew about Cam Placements. Doesn't matter about you should have used the next size nut instead of the one you chose. The fact is that you conquered that climb. It is neat to climb with beginners (people we are slightly less experienced than yourself... i.e. I can climb 5.9 and someone else has a hard time with 5.5...) because it gives us a keen retrospect into where we started. I always want to be a beginner at heart because that is where we learn the most about ourselves in those trying situations. I think everyone has had those moments where we honestly thought that was it, only to look back on it after your skill increases and think about how far you were from what you were thinking. Great article. I couldn't agree with you more. Thanks!


mvs - Apr 30, 2008 5:20 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Perfectly Written

Thanks for your detailed comments! There is an element of magic to the whole activity, that's what we bring to it. Beginners are people starting on a magical journey. Will they come as far as we did? I love when someone new at the end of a day is full of tiredness and pride in accomplishment, and they suddenly "get" what they've been missing by not doing this every weekend! Definitely, beginners are a gift to old-timers because they reflect and renew that sense of wonder. God love'em! :).

I think you are right, it is that you have your life in your hands that really makes the experience great. That's what adds a mystical dimension. It's "the thrill of the lead," and once you know it, you have to walk that path.

Thanks again, happy climbing!

recoverysoftware - Apr 16, 2010 7:15 am - Hasn't voted

Fabulous stuff

It is cool to view such informative article post where i come to get more new knowledge of comments..
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alpinpete - Dec 17, 2010 3:03 pm - Hasn't voted

Well written...

and thanks for the enjoyable movie! Moving over rock with the fluidity of water – this is the style I imagine the pioneering climbers used during the golden age of mountaineering in the Alps. For me, I think it was the West Ridge of Stuart that provided the wakeup call on how 4th class rock is supposed to be handled; we free and simul-climbed as much of these sections as possible and we still managed to top out just before sunset, largely because what happened when pitching out the last few hundred feet. The lost time meant we didn’t make it back to camp at Ingalls Lake; instead, we dove down Ulrich's in the dark, battled through a slide alder bushwhack from hell and finally crash-bivied in our backpacks near Ingalls Creek. Our experience would make some educational reading, but this article captures the essence of how to climb certain terrain with speed and safety as well as anyone ever could!

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Thoughts on 4th class terrain

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