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: 41-56 of 56

mvs - Dec 17, 2010 7:26 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Well written...

Wow I really appreciate your comments, which include an embedded story that I can completely visualize. We also topped out at sunset on that route years was a great and eye-opening climb.


PellucidWombat - Nov 16, 2011 2:43 pm - Voted 10/10

I Can Relate

Great article! I had no idea you had such hesitations with exposure considering what you climb these days.

I think I've been bypassing the soloing fear by going more technical and getting used to the exposure & building confidence with my technique with the safety of a rope. Now I'm finding myself getting more and more comfortable soloing the easier stuff. I still say I wouldn't want to solo too much in exposed terrain, but there is growing pressure as a number of the long ridge routes in the Sierra require it to avoid a multi-day ascent.


mvs - Nov 16, 2011 3:27 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: I Can Relate

Hey glad you liked it! I think this is the modern path: hiking, technical rock climbing, and only then the sort of exposed, alpine scrambling and even soloing that used to come before overtly technical stuff. I wrote the article just to see if others might have felt the same way...a bit perplexed that this "middle ground" feels more uncertain and dangerous than harder stuff.

Overall I think a well-rounded alpinist needs to be able to solo moderate 5th class, if only as a tool that comes into play rarely. At any rate, it's nice to feel completely at home on 4th class terrain...

Have fun on those long ridges!


alpine345 - Jan 13, 2012 12:53 am - Hasn't voted


I've picked up the feeling, from the article, the responses,and my own experience that people go through a progression in their climbing as they mature and become more experienced. This is illustrated every time I try to explain class I - V to a n00b. I and II are easy to teach/understand but when they start to ask about III and IV, I say "lets put on a rope and I'll teach you some skills, first. Then we'll come back to those" Because invariably, on the first really exposed IV, when their eyes get as big as saucers, they're really glad to know what to do...THEN it clicks for them that the rope is to protect them while they're learning and practicing and acquiring skills and getting comfortable with exposure. THEN they're ready to learn to use class V moves and mental processes on class III and IV and all of a sudden it becomes easy and fun and not terror. I think the "middle ground" is the test because it requires the full set of skills(well not big wall)to move safely and efficiently. One foot on dirt, one foot on snow, one hand on rock, the other...who knows? Who cares! Lets go climb!


mvs - Jan 13, 2012 2:13 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Progression

Hi Alpine345 that is the case indeed! It's like, you need a toolkit of actual technical climbing skills from grade V in order to feel secure on III and IV (among other skills). Thanks for the insightful comment, which lends perspective and depth to the whole topic.


alpine345 - Jan 24, 2012 12:24 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Progression

Right you are. I was indeed using YDS class references. I just got sloppy with the syntax...lo siento mucho


alpine345 - Jan 25, 2012 12:29 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Progression

Yep, I've rafted and kayaked off and on since the '70s...


pookster1127 - Feb 8, 2013 9:21 am - Hasn't voted

Great reflections

It is so true that those who are trained in climbing gyms with strict protocall for safety have yet to develop the appreciation for the calculated risk of 3rd and 4th class climbing. Experience is such a good teacher. Each person evaluates risk from their past climbs. The problem is that the lessons "taught" may not allow a climber to return. I wonder how many actually are injured or die because of unprotected scrambles??


mvs - Nov 8, 2013 7:51 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Great reflections

Indeed. And yes, it is a serious business.

Sarah Simon

Sarah Simon - Nov 7, 2013 4:24 pm - Voted 10/10

My favorite quote

"Venturing onto steep rock was like doing repairs outside the space shuttle."

Fantastic, love it!


Garon Coriz

Garon Coriz - Nov 15, 2013 2:29 am - Voted 10/10

Sleep Deprived Rantings

Great read! I'm a little tired from a 15-hour workday and just couldn't help but barf all over this thread. There are so many questions as to why we do the things we do and how comfortable we are while doing them. I often ask myself who am I as a mountaineer? This is one of the key topics that have rolled around in my head through the years. Over the course of a lifetime, is it more common for a mountaineer to venture from 3rd/4th class terrain into 5th class roped climbs or the other way 'round? There are sport climbers that fall in love with scrambling mountain adventures, and peakbaggers that dive into the roped, vertical world to attain more difficult summits. I often wonder about the patterns to it all from what effect the surrounding mountains and climbing community play on the growth and development of a fledging mountaineer. Do the volcanos of the Pacific Northwest breed a different type of mountaineer than the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico? In Utah, a lot of weight is placed on what type of climber a person is - sport, TRAD, ice, scrambler, hiker boulderer, skier, and more. Do people that start off on crappy 3rd/4th class terrain value the aesthetic and spiritual experience of the mountains more? Is it the individuals that start from sport/bouldering that value more the difficulty, feel, and movement on the rock? Are we more true to the idea of mountaineering if we can be comfortable on 4th class terrain? I'm not really sure about any answers for these questions, but I will leave you with this. While on Grosse Zinne during the downclimb and rappels, guys who had climbed the stiff north face were shaking with fear and moving embarassingly slow. I respected their successful climb of that route, but I found it completely odd that they should be so out of place in the mountains while unroped - I have to admit, though I was a far weaker climber, I felt somehow superior. Yet, this was only after a couple climbs with you, MVS, when I was the trembling pika on the rocks high on Sella Tower.


mvs - Nov 18, 2013 8:21 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Sleep Deprived Rantings

Stream-of-consciousness defined! I also notice the arbitrary way people value one kind of mountain experience over another, and the way what you value affects what you are capable of.

In this debate I can see the true requirements of the mountain shimmering behind our different value systems. The problem of "4th class" is illustrative, showing up as a border between modes of travel, alternately denigrated as trivial or regarded as very risky.

In fact, it seems to fall into a category which shouldn't be discussed. For example, you'll find a dozen books about rope technique and hiking technique. But many fewer about this "gray zone" in between, and the author is tempted to refer you (very unhelpfully, I think) to a professional guide service. If you were willing to use a guide service to learn mountain skills you probably wouldn't be searching so diligently for information on this mode of travel! So that's why I wanted to talk about it.

I wished I'd gone with you guys on the Grosse Zinne climb, that was truly a classic way up and down, a real school on this kind of travel! Your desire got you over these problems quicker than most! (took me longer!)


JRB - Nov 15, 2013 2:22 pm - Voted 10/10

Glad this got featured again

My son showed me this article when he commented in February this year. I must admit after many years of climbing I have not progressed from my reluctance of 3rd and 4th class terrain. I am with you in that I would rather be tethered to a rope, however sketchy the protection. False confidence somehow makes it all better.

I read the TRs from some SP members and note that time and experience seems to help overcoming the mental obstacles. Some of their pics cause me to break out in sweat.

This summer we are planning a trip to climb the Grand in Wyoming and the easier routes cause me more pause than some of the tougher technical climbing. I'll check back after we spend most of the day with wild exposure and the rope in our backpack.

I can say that falls from 3rd and 4th class terrain make up a large percentage of serious injuries from the stats I have seen.

Be safe and thanks for such a well written article.


mvs - Nov 18, 2013 8:26 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Glad this got featured again

Thanks JRB. Your perspective is realistic yet you are willing to engage and learn ever more. Teewinot is a great one for hours in 3rd/4th class, unsuitable for belaying. My personal talisman there was to have rock shoes in my pack, which I knew I could use on solo downclimbs if I'd gotten myself into the wrong terrain. Maybe I had a sling or two as well. You really are on your own much more, which is both a negative and a positive. Let's call it an "enlarger" of the experience :^). Have fun out there!


CEIGE - Aug 3, 2015 10:33 pm - Voted 10/10

Excellent article

As someone who really is new to climbing and just beginning to tackle the class 3-4, I find this article refreshing. My experience last week, I got a really good dose of class 4 and possibly some easy sections of 5, and though scary at the time, and will be scary in the future, it was a blast. Now class 2-3 just sound boring. Getting in to unroped climbing, I have really learned that you can't expect safety, comfort, or ease. It really is all about facing fears and thinking things through, and coming to terms that you are going to have to deal with that fear if this is what you really want to do.

Thanks for a great read and easily understood thoughts.


mvs - Aug 17, 2015 4:20 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Excellent article

Thanks for your comment! Yeah, there isn't that much talk about this terrain...I wanted to fill in what seemed like a hole in our conversation. If you look at accident reports, this overlooked terrain level accounts for a lot of the trouble. In general, dudes tweaking a 5.12a crimp don't fall in an unsafe way. This branch of terrain requires the most real embrace of the paradox of climbing precisely because it's immune to our technology.

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Thoughts on 4th class terrain

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