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Class 3 vs. Class 4 -- What is the difference??

FAQ and threads for those just starting to hike the Colorado 14ers.
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Postby MtHurd » Tue Mar 20, 2007 7:21 am

The pic of Clyde Minaret would be considered low 5th in Colorado. Obviously that is just by looking at it, once on it I may change my mind. There is nothing on the 14er standard routes that is anything like that.

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Postby usfgal » Tue Mar 20, 2007 8:26 am

The climbing scale was initially developed by the Sierra Club in the 30s to rate peaks in the Sierra Range. At first, peaks were rated compared to other peaks, but often people were not familiar with the all of the peaks and could not make comparisons, so a standard and supposedly more objective coding system was developed. It is published in Freedom of the Hills:
• Class 1: Hiking.
• Class 2: Simple scrambling, with possible occasional use of the hands.
• Class 3: Scrambling, a rope can be carried but is usually not required.
• Class 4: Simple climbing, with exposure. A rope is often used. Natural protection can be easily found. Falls may well be fatal.
• Class 5: Technical free climbing. Climbing involves rope, belaying, and other protection hardware for safety.

Although it is certainly not objective, I don't think it is entirely relative or subjective, either. There is a definite distinction between hiking and scrambling, scrambling and climbing, climbing on steep slopes and climbing vertical rock faces, etc. Subjective judgments like how "strenuous" a hike or climb is should have little to do with classification. You can have a class 1, but very strenuous hike (Mt. Whitney) (or conversely, a class 5.1 move that is easy). Decisions to use a rope, down climb facing into or away from the slope, etc are also subjective and don't really define the classification (even though there is sometimes a correlation--if you're downclimbing facing into the mountain, it is probably not a class 1 or 2--but plenty of people downclimb class 4 stuff facing outward). Likelihood of dying from an unprotected fall - again, shouldn't be part of the classification definition. There are way too many subjective factors to consider. These factors should all be taken into consideration when deciding on whether to attempt a peak, which route to take, whether to continue going up, how to downclimb, what type of gear/equipment to bring, etc., few of them actually define the classification of the hike/climb. I also think that the distinction between a difficult class 2 and an easy class 3 (e.g., you are using your hands more than just occasionally, but not THAT often) is arbitrary. Calling it one or the other doesn't really matter--if you know what a class 2 is and what a class 3 is, you should have an idea of what lies between the two.
The 5.0 - 5.15a scale is more relative--initially, 5.9 was believed to be the most difficult accomplishment a climber could achieve, but as people have done more difficult climbs, additional numbers and now a, b, c... subscales have been created. I can only imagine how high that number will go.

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Postby CO Native » Tue Mar 20, 2007 9:03 am

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Postby denalibound » Tue Mar 20, 2007 9:03 am

thebeave7 wrote:Class 3: Hands are often required to make moves, a fall may result in injury, but rarely death. Akin to climbing a large steep flight of stairs. Class 3

Class 4: Hands are required to make progress, steep terrain, with plentiful holds. A fall will most certainly result in serious injury. Akin to climbing a ladder.Low 4th, High 4th class

Class 5: Vertical(or close to it) rock, hands and feet required, amount of holds begins to decline. Most will want to be roped, as a fall will result in serious injury if not death. The line between low 5th and high 4th is very blurry.

Like I and others have stated, the the result of a fall has little to do with the classification of a climb.

The Yosemite Decimal System (YDS), the class system we all are refering to, ONLY measures technical difficulty. There is no distinction about physical effort, result of a fall, how it's climbed or downclimbed, whether or not a rope is used, because those just don't matter. They may be helpful, and thus are often included when speaking in terms of routes, but they do not have any bearing on the classification of a climb.

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Postby CO Native » Tue Mar 20, 2007 9:23 am

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Postby Yog » Tue Mar 20, 2007 9:52 am

thebeav7, good illustration using photos for class III, low class IV and high class IV. I've never heard of "low class IV" & "high class IV", but I would agree with this system of low & high class IV. Not sure if I would climb in that high class IV photo of Clyde Minaret without a rope!

Then again, I wonder what the point in roping up for many of the Flatiron sections that I've been on other than the "failsafe" notion of "what if" happened, or psychological reasons.

Plus, rapping off is SOOOO fun :D

Great thread!
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Postby hikerguy0 » Tue Mar 20, 2007 10:24 am

Thanks, usfgal, for including the text from FOH. I actually looked it up last night, but was too wimpy to type it all in. :-)

Their class 3 definition is pretty darn blurry -- doesn't even mention the hands, although if you read it in the context of class 2 and class 4, then you have a pretty good idea that it must involve the hands. Interestingly, the definitions in "the bible" (FOH), DO include mention of exposure. (I thought that they did)

I agree that classification should be mostly about technical skills required and the physical nature of the route, but still, I think it fair to include some exposure factor into the classification.

I think the point someone made about comparing a set amount of a given class, say 100', is the way to go. Obviously, incorporating exposure into the classification of a move that's 4 feet off the ground isn't useful.

Note however my earlier post: there are so many factors that effect the difficulty and danger of a given route, that no single number will ever encompass all of them. Discussion and rigorous pre-climb intelligence gathering are perhaps far better for making route decisions than a (somewhat subjective) single number

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Postby denalibound » Tue Mar 20, 2007 11:02 am

hikerguy0 wrote:I think the point someone made about comparing a set amount of a given class, say 100', is the way to go. Obviously, incorporating exposure into the classification of a move that's 4 feet off the ground isn't useful.

That's great in theory, but the YDS Classes don't measure 100 feet of sustained anything. They measure the single most difficult move on a route. Because of this a class 4 route may contain 10 miles of class 2 and only a 10 foot section requiring class 4 moves. If the class 4 move is a slight bulge on a face that's tops out at 10 feet above nice soft tundra, then there really isn't any exposure, but it is still class 4.

That's why it all needs to be seperated. If a route requires class 4 climbing at any point the you say the route is class 4. If the class 4 climbing involved is continous then you can say sustained class 4. If a fall from this section will likely kill you then you can say sustained class 4 with extreme exposure.

The class never changes, only the terms in which you use to describe it.

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Postby Devin » Tue Mar 20, 2007 12:03 pm

Interesting thread. I always enjoy discussions on the rating systems. I just wanted to re-emphasize that it is very subjective. I took a look at the "high class IV" photo posted above. That isn't what I call class IV. That is class 5 (albeit low class 5) in my opinion. Now maybe the camera is doing something funky to the angle. But, it pretty much looks vertical to me. The lower guy in the picture looks like he is going to have to pull a class 5 move to proceed, IMO. But again, the picture could be deceiving. All I can say is that based on that picture, I would never climb it without a rope. I have been on class 5.5 climbs around this area that don't look that technical.

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Postby hikerguy0 » Tue Mar 20, 2007 12:30 pm

That's why it all needs to be seperated. If a route requires class 4 climbing at any point the you say the route is class 4. If the class 4 climbing involved is continous then you can say sustained class 4. If a fall from this section will likely kill you then you can say sustained class 4 with extreme exposure.


That makes a lot more sense to separate it out like that. I don't know how consistently this separation approach is used (it's not in at least one of my guide books), but it seems like a good approach. Far more descriptive than a single digit (i.e. "4").

If one combines the (sustained), number, (exposure) with the Roach Points (or something to that effect), that might actually begin to be something fairly descriptive and useful that could be listed in the titles portion of a guidebook. In a perfect world. :-)

Until then, I'm going to stick with my guide books (or internet), topos, weather reports, and forums. :-)

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Michael Reardon

Postby malcolml1 » Tue Mar 20, 2007 12:44 pm

At the risk of saying what most know but haven't not yet said , and in reference to the great photo posted above showing Michael Reardon in action:-

"There are bold climbers and old climbers but no old bold climbers."

I have 2 further comments on "difficulty.
Crossing boulder fields at Class 2 can be very dangerous on account of boulder shifting and throwing you or trapping a leg or arm. I treat Class 2 with considerable respect.
Above Class 2 exposure comes into play for example Crestone Needle. If one has a tendancy to vertigo, or nervousness with heights, for example climbing onto a 2 story sloping house roof, then the difficulty is much greater. If one can treat exposure as fun then often the technical difficulty almost vanishes and becomes the same as boldering.
Hence route difficulty is very much an individual matter, which will probably change with experience.

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Postby rider » Tue Mar 20, 2007 1:23 pm

Hikerguy --

I live in CA also, and I've had the same question regarding ratings in CA versus CO. I do a lot of solo climbs, so it's been really important for me to avoid getting on routes that are over my head ... plus, no one likes to put in the effort of a climb only to turn back because it's too demanding or too exposed (but that's part of the adventure and excitement of climbing).

My best answer to the dilema has been to do internet searches for trip reports and route photos. I have found some great links to photos for routes on some of the Class 3 14ers in CA, and I've been able to use the photos and reports to determine whether I should make an attempt.

I can say from experience Split Mountain which is rated Class 3 in CA would be Class 3 in CO (I summited Split, and highly recommend this peak climb for a great experience). I suspect Mount Russell which is Class 3 in CA would be Class 4 in CO (I failed on a attempt on Mount Russell since we turned back due to the exposure).

I have some good links for photos of Class 3 California routes for Muir, Williamson, Russell, and the Whitney via the Mountaineer's route. If you're interested, I could send the links. The photos show the crux's well enough ... at least well enough for me personally to decide if it's a climb that I could pull off solo given my ability and experience.

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