Interpreting and Revising the Yosemite Decimal Route Grading System
Insofar as I can tell, the Yosemite Decimal System, which is by far the most widely-used climbing route grading system in the United States, works extremely well provided you stay within the bounds of the Class 5 designation.
It is generally understood that climbs in the class 5.0-5.4 region involve trivial climbing, albeit fatally-exposed, and that fit individuals with little real rock climbing experience will probably manage to scrape by on say 5.5 and 5.6-rated climbs (provided they’re not leading!), and that those same fit and eager neophytes will begin to find themselves flummoxed by climbs in the 5.7-5.9 range, and thwarted entirely by climbs on or about 5.10 and higher.
To recap: for class 5 terrain, YDS works great, conveying well-standardized and useful information about what to expect. The problem, of course, is that same YDS is divided into four distinct categories below class 5, classes 1 through 4, also used ubiquitously to grade climbing routes in the U.S., but which suffer from two key deficiencies:
- lower numbers are not necessarily easier than higher numbers
- no one really agrees on what any given class actually looks like
These are not minor liabilities. Take any of the first four grades, and you'll find wholesale disagreement on interpretation. Class 1 logically includes hiking on a well-established trail, but often goes on to include any hiking, trail or not, where hands are not required for climbing.
You may need your hands to hack your way through brush with a machete; you may get torn to shreds by thorns; you may get hopelessly lost; you may snap both your ankles on talus--it’s all given exactly the same rating as walking a jeep road across an open meadow.
Fine you say: let’s call that rougher, off-trail stuff class 2. Here, in the official version, hands may occasionally be needed for balance.
Despite that modest definition, class 2 routes can be fiendishly difficult. Steep, loose talus fields--like the east couloir on Mount Whitney’s Mountaineer’s Route--are usually designated class 2. Challenging, to be sure, but change that same ground to hard steep dirt, with sharp rocks sticking out, and you’ll find things suddenly get a lot more dangerous even though, strictly speaking, hands aren’t required at all.
A truly brutal class 2, like for example Waucoba Mountain’s east face, easily crushes many classic class 3 routes (like Mount Russell’s excellent east ridge) when it comes to the metric most climbers care most about: how likely am I get to hurt on this route?
That’s because class 3 is actually a climbing grade, not a measurement of risk. Class 3 is supposed to mean “hands are required”. In the most logical interpretation, class 3 has no fatal exposure potential (that’s what class 4 is for), and it should be the most trivial of trivial climbing: anyone who can climb a tree should waltz their way up any class 3 climbing.
Note that class 3 is meant to refer to the single most difficult portion of the entire route--one single spot. So if you are walking along a road, and you come to one and only one big step that forces you to use your hands to surmount it, that road is now a class 3 climbing route.
If this sounds a little vexing, the real punchline of class 3 climbing is that it often tends to be much, much harder than you expect. Class 3 climbing occurs in exactly the same steep, exposed, cliff-bound places where you find vast expanses of class 4 and class 5 climbing.
There may well be a class 3 passage through all that fatally-exposed rock, but if you don’t happen to find it, you’ll abruptly find yourself staring at deadly-serious technical climbing, with no way to proceed and, if you’re especially unlucky, no way to go back.
This very phenomenon has given rise to the derisive “Sierra Class 3” rating, which refers to the route graders’ tendency, in the Sierra, to call everything--and I mean everything--class 3 unless forced otherwise at gunpoint. Perhaps I exaggerate, but only just.
For every good argument in favor of the existence of the class 4 rating, there’s probably a better argument against it. Class 4 has the most zen-like definition: it occurs at exactly that moment where you ought to be using a rope, or perhaps find yourself wanting a rope, or perhaps refuse to go any further unless you’ve got a rope, which you don’t.
Class 4 might logically include exposed class 3 climbing, but really that’s well covered by the class 5.0 rating, isn’t it? Alternately, class 4 might be thought of as being modestly but still fatally exposed--say, taking place over heights of 30 to 60 feet--but that's like borrowing a rating from a completely different system and arbitrarily sticking it into the middle of the YDS.
Writing about the Yosemite Decimal System in his guidebook, High Sierra: Peaks, Passes, and Trails, RJ Secor notes, "The system is complex and illogical, and can be confusing to beginners and experts alike." (the entire passage is well worth reading)
Unfortunately, the YDS is now well locked in when it comes to use, flaws and all, and you’ll simply have to adjust to the idea that a YDS rating, excluding the class 5 category, cannot be used alone as a reliable means to set your expectations.
Can it be fixed? No, probably not. Still, for posterity's sake, let me leave you with my own (imperfect) recommendations for revising the scale:
- Class 1: hiking on an established trail. You should have no great trouble staying on the trail, even at night (with a headlamp)
- Class 2: hiking off trail, hands not required. I’ll extend the rating via the class 2+ designation, noting that anything rated 2+ is likely to really, really suck
- Class 3: any steep talus or boulder field where hands are used often; also any trivial climbing in any context provided there is no fatal exposure
- Class 4: any class 5 route that is too short or otherwise not impressive enough to motivate people to haul a rope and gear rack to the base of it
- Class 5: all other climbing, ranked by difficulty as per YDS standards