The Numbers Game

Posted on: March 1, 2005


Herb Swedlund, spry sexagenarian, gray hair protruding in tufts from his temples, leaned against the glass countertop in the rock gym. As usual, his eyes flashed mischievously as he glanced around the room. Their twinkle could mean only one thing: another bon mot was in the works.

Herb had guided and climbed in the Tetons for years. One of his better outings occurred in July 1961 when he made the first ascent of the Enclosure's Black Ice Couloir (it has since melted out; Herb received the news with enthusiasm: "I outlived it!"), followed, four days later, by the first ascent of Mt. Moran's brilliant South Buttress Right. He now held forth on the differences between sport climbing and mountaineering. "On alpine climbs," he began, his hairwings rising in anticipation, "you can't just lower off for a milkshake and a blow job." To a wide-eyed audience of one, he proceeded to describe guiding the North Ridge of the Grand Teton. "The Slab Pitch: you know, you're up there with a client; it's dark; it's cold; there's ice on the slab; you work your way up, frictioning with your Galibiers, chipping the ice off the holds with a hexcentric...."

Chipping ice off holds with a hexcentric? How hard is that, I wondered? I was new to the Tetons, and had yet to venture onto the north side of the Grand. A quick thumb through the guidebook revealed the grade: 5.7. Only 5.7? But what is 5.7 like on a dark, cold, icy slab? And for that matter, what are Galibiers?

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Herb's slab grew in my imagination until I climbed it the next summer. After a long day punctuated by route-finding errors and creative decision-making, my partner and I reached the beginning of the pitch. My lead. I tiptoed up the verglas, weighed down by my pack and too much thinking. I overgripped and hesitated and shook my way through the moves. It felt steeper than a slab, and harder than 5.7. When a thin crack presented itself beneath a small roof, I promptly stuffed it with cams. Quaking with adrenaline, I continued to a belay, where I contemplated this inexact science climbers call grading.

We give grades in Alpinist whenever possible, not as a definitive summary of a route's difficulties but as a context for the climb and an indication of what prospective ascensionists might expect. However, our readers should note that the alpine grades we publish are subjective. Rock climbs are one thing. If a route is good and even remotely close to a parking lot, it will be climbed often enough that a consensus grade is soon reached. Alpine climbs are more fickle. Conditions often dictate their difficulty; the culprit is usually water, in any of its various forms. The Slab Pitch on the Grand may be only 5.7, but wet 5.7 is different from dry 5.7, and as Herb pointed out, verglassed 5.7 is another proposition again. Add a pack, boots, hunger, thirst, fatigue and a healthy dose of intimidation, as my partner and I found out on our climb, and a 5.7 can become rather distressing.

We try to contact first ascensionists directly for both route lines and technical details of their climbs because we value accuracy and secondhand information is often inaccurate. This issue's Mountain Profile features Ama Dablam, and we wrote to the first ascensionists of as many routes as we could.

Glenn Dunmire, who, in December 1990, established a new route on the west face of the mountain with Chris Warner, promptly emailed back.

"We couldn't agree on a rating difficulty at the time," Dunmire wrote. "Chris led the first rock band, which he graded 5.4 and I thought was closer to 5.8. This of course [was] in crampons, double boots, and mittens with ice tools hanging off them...."

Dunmire gave the team's route, which they called the American Direct, a grade of VI 5.6 AI4, and estimated its length at 5,000 feet. The route has not been repeated—none of the routes on the west face have—and until it has, no one will know for sure if the grade is accurate. The subjectivity of alpine grades is echoed by Hooman Aprin, who established Ama Dablam's Lagunak Ridge in 1985: "We encountered rock up to 5.7 [or] 5.8, Alpine ice and snow [to] AI4. So for us [emphasis ours] the climb was VI 5.7-5.8 AI4." The two-man team that repeated the Vanja Furlan/Tomaz Humar route on Ama Dablam's northwest face found a different climb altogether from the one Furlan and Humar experienced; rather than a desperate outing, they encountered conditions that made the route downright enjoyable. "Someone ought to go and repeat it with the styrofoam conditions we had," one of the climbers wrote. He went on to call the climb "a classic."

There is also the matter of the various rating systems employed around the world. It's one thing to discuss a route's difficulty with a fellow American; it's another to try to piece together a grade from an email conversation with, say, a Kazak climber who gives the rating for his route as Russian 6A. While climbs in North America or by North Americans can often be summed up with a variation on the V 5.9 A2 AI4 M6 theme, French or Scottish or Uzbek climbers are usually more comfortable couching their achievements in their own rating systems. As often as not, such grades resist translation, and we publish them as we receive them. For readers perplexed by a French ED+, a Scottish VI, 7, or a Russian 5B, we present a guide to the world rating systems on our website at www.alpinist.com/grades.

Above all, understand that the grades we publish are meant to be suggestions of what the climbers encountered, nothing more. The next time you venture onto an alpine route, you'll undoubtedly find your own challenges, the nuances of which you can discuss afterward over a pint of your favorite libation. Have fun, take care to make it back in one piece, and let us know of your adventures. Do keep in mind, however, that the route as you found it may have little in common with what the first ascensionists encountered, or what subsequent parties will experience.

Oh, and those Galibiers? I confirmed it with Herb recently: they're Italian camming devices, perfect for icy cracks. He said to mention he's selling his set cheap.

—Christian Beckwith



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