What exactly is an ice grade? They seem so subjective.

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
Marc Twight

November 20, 1995

What tortures your soul and why do you write?
Can you recommend a fun climb in North America?
Are you really that angst-filled, or is it just an image?
What exactly is an ice grade? They seem so subjective.

What exactly is an ice grade? They seem so subjective.
Question: Marc, I saw your show out here in New England at the IME Ice Fest last Feb. and loved it. I hope to see you again if you're out this way with a new show sometime soon. You have many steep-ice fans out here who can identify with the dark, painful side of ice climbing.

Here's my question: What do you feel constitutes an ice grade? Yeah, we all know the ice conditions vary, and that we shouldn't climb for numbers and that in the end it's only the fun and suffering that matters. But the question is valid, I think, because of some differing ideas on what ice climbing is and what it will be. For instance, do you think it's just the single hardest move or section, as on a rock climb? Or is it the overall length and stamina factor of the climb, which combines the Roman numeral commitment grade and the difficulty into one measure? If it's the later, how do the relatively short climbs in Colorado and Wyoming get 6 and 7 ratings? Is it possible for New England to have 6s and 7s? Or are the floes just too short and uncommitting out here? Your most tortured, informed, and spirited reply would be appreciated.

Ian Springsteel

Marc Twight: Finally, an interesting question. Ice grading (in Canada) has been logically split into two systems: the technical grade (2 to 7+ at this time) and the commitment grade (I to VII). The NEI system common to New England tries to communicate both technical difficulty and commitment with one number, similar to the French alpine grading system. And herein lies the problem. Ice routes are complex enough these days that one number cannot accurately communicate what a climber should expect from a route.

Ice conditions do vary, but most grades are consensus grades, established after many ascents and average conditions. In John Barstow's new "Cold Mountain" calendar, there's a picture of Scott Backes on Oh Le Tabernacle in the Canadian Rockies; its consensus technical grade is 5/5+. But on the day I shot the photo you could wrap your arms around the pillar and hold your hands, and it was like that for 15-20 feet--definitely not grade 5. So we gave it a 6+ that day because of the fragile and overhanging nature, lack of protection, etc. It's a one-pitch route.

It would be hard to grade ice routes by their single hardest move, because the leader will change the nature of the move and the medium by climbing past it once. The technical grade rates overall technical difficulty, so a short, vicious route might have the same grade as a long, vicious route. An example would be Riptide, which sports a technical grade 7 for five pitches of climbing and Legal at Last (one of The Fiend's routes in Cody) which merits a grade 7 but is simply one pitch long. The telling number is the commitment grade where Riptide gets 6 due to its long approach, complicated retreat, sparse protection opportunities, and proximity to seracs. Legal at Last probably should get a commitment grade of 4 since you have to do the Moratorium to get to it, and the pitch involves the possibility of serious injury if you fall, but the approach and "deproach" are mellow and there's no avalanche danger.

There are, no doubt, technical grade 7s in New England--routes with gymnastic technical moves, free-hanging stalactites, and thin ice or patches of it on overhanging rock. But there'll never be the big committing routes that exist mostly in the high mountains and offer all the dangers of hard alpine climbing along with the technical difficulties of hard waterfall climbing. The questions of the future will be: When does a route merit a mixe" grade and when an ice grade? Should Jeff Lowe's "M" grading system be adopted or is mixed climbing too transient to rate? Was Octopussy really an M8 and should grades go down if the route is rehearsed in the way the sport climbs are rehearsed?

I'll be giving an all-new presentation at the Ice Fest in North Conway this February. Be there.

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.
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