Style of climb as a criterion of difficulty
Cliffs and rocks which have ceased to be mere training locations and have become a location for sport achievement have played a significant role in the developing of evaluating performance according to complexity levels, and their wider use has led to an increased focus on the method by which a climb has been achieved. The AF (All Free) style was developed in the Alps as the first recognised sport style of free climbing, where the climber uses only natural points for advancement and overcomes the route with his/her own strength. From the perspective of top climbers the rating is diminished by the fact that the climber can use any point of protection for rest. A newer, and more sporting (meaning more complex) method was implemented by Kurt Albert, who began marking all routes climbed AF without resting and in one go with a red dot at the approach. Thus the RP style (Red Point) came about. Certain climbers do not consider a route as having been climbed if it was not climbed using RP – that is, without falling and without rest. Often this requires extensive practice and preparation before such a route can be climbed by the climber. Even more highly ranked is the OS method (On Sight). OS assumes that the climber, without knowing the route, having trained or carefully examined the route using rappelling, simply comes and climbs – understandably using RP style. OS and RP are uncommonly difficult, and therefore for the average climber the RK style (Rotkreis) is more common, which allows falls and unsuccessful attempts without leaders having to retrieve their rope and begin again after every fall.
When free climbing without protection at height, this style is called free-solo. It is of course very dangerous. It is necessary to bear in mind that even the best preparation for an ascent can never completely eliminate such events as the crumbling of a handhold or other occurrences. Only an experienced and cool-headed climber can dare to climb using such a method, as the consequences in the event of a fall are fatal; the risk of death is clearly quite imminent.
It is entirely understandable that mountaineering like any other sport must have rules established for rating performance. Mountaineering performance has two parts: on the one hand complexity, or an expression of how exhausted we will be after a climb, and then difficulty, which designates what sort of obstacles we will need to overcome on the route. A basic tool for assessment are rating systems, of which there are many, and which were developed separately in different regions at different times. When combined with details about the style of climb, a relatively accurate picture of the complexity of the ascent itself and the capabilities of the climber can be achieved.
The process of classifying ascents itself is a very subjective matter. The degree of difficulty is proposed by the first ascentionist, and other climbers then confirm or modify this according to their own opinions. It is therefore a long-term process. Subjectivity is expressed primarily by the fact that if a climber contributing to the rating of a route is strict towards himself, he will create a so-called hard classification (a more complex ascent is rated with a lower grade); while if they overestimate their ascents, they will create a so-called soft classification (the ascent has a higher grade than it deserves).
The actual construction of a rating system can be one of two types, either a closed or an open rating system. A closed system has a maximum level of difficulty established, and if a climbed route is more complex, an older ascent route must be reassessed at a lower level. In comparison an open rating system always adds another, higher grade to its range when an ascent is climbed that is more difficult than has existed thus far. Closed rating systems were used in the early days of mountaineering when it was thought that the complexity of an ascent could not be increased any further. And yet the stormy development of mountaineering overturned this notion, and repeated increase of performance brought the realisation that the boundaries of human ability are inestimable, and to this state an open rating system is better suited.
The UIAA international mountaineering organisation attempted to compile a unified standard rating system. While this system is not used exclusively everywhere and while original local systems are retained in some places, “conversion tables” always exist applied primarily to the UIAA rating system. Other propagated methods of classifying ascents are the French, American, Russian, Saxony and British rating systems.
But the territory doesn’t always have to be a decisive criteria for the peculiarity of a rating system. Often rating systems are also part of disciplines (e.g. a bouldering rating system) or according to terrain (a rating system for ice and mixed climbing).
The UIAA rating system is based in structure on the Welzenbach rating system, used particularly in the Alps (it can be found especially in older guidebooks, named after its founder, the prominent Austrian mountaineer W. Welzenbach). The Welzenbach rating system had six numerically designated grades starting with the easiest, grade I. Later it followed the Italian model of marking each grade with subgrades using the symbols plus (+) and minus (-), which results in a total of 12 options for differentiating difficulty levels. The rating system thereby defined was called the Internacionale Alpenskala in the year 1947, and became a direct basis for creation of the UIAA rating system, whose final version was definitively approved in the year 1971.
UIAA rating system
I – Easy. The simplest form of rock climbing, however not terrain only and exclusively for walking. Hands are necessary to ensure balance.
II – Moderately difficult: Beginning climbing, during which the technique of three fixed points is required.
III – Fairly difficult: Intermediate protection recommended on certain exposed places.
IV – Difficult: Climbing experience is essential, sections of this grade usually require more intermediate protection.
V – Very difficult: Climbing now places significant demands on the training of the climber. Often this already involves overhanging sections.
VI – Unusually difficult: Good technique and reliable protection is essential.
VII – Extremely difficult: High exposure often associated with few protection options, even excellent climbers need special preparation for each type of rock in order to climb ascents of this grade without a fall.
VIII through X – Grading of previous complexities, requiring very specific training. Usually this complexity level is inaccessible to climbers who do not train on artificial climbing walls and who do not devote a significant part of their training plan to specific strengthening. Regular climbing at these complexity levels is exclusive to top athletes.
XI – Current boundaries of climbing capability. As a rule, the prior practicing of the route is essential, and not even top climbers are capable of repeating sections at this grade frequently. Ideal conditions, excellent form, and complete concentration on performance are essential for success. This grade of complexity tends to be often completed with previously placed protection.
The UIAA rating system is upwardly open. For more precise differentiation the signs plus (+) and minus (-) are added to the numerical grade, where plus means increased difficulty. According to UIAA principles the ascent should always be described by the author or drawn in a unifying method using topographic marks. The UIAA rating system distinguishes between free climbing, expressed by a rating system, and aid climbing, designated by the grades A0 through A5. The use of expansive pitons (bolts) is designated with the letter “e” (e.g. A4e).
Details of the UIAA classification system: The basic data includes the date of first ascent and the names of the authors, the classification of the hardest climbing spot, a description and diagram of the ascent.
More in e-book.
Mountaineering Methodology – Part 1 – Basics
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