Is an Everest Climb “Technical”?

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One measure of climbing difficulty is the rating and climbing has aterminology of it's own. You read that she just redpointed a 5.12c andwonder if this was something from NASA, or Congress.

I have seen Everest described as a simple “walk-up” meaning that noactual climbing is involved so I thought a quick review of what definesclimbing might be helpful. I will use the South Col route as theexample.

One point to keep in mind that the base definition of “technical”often means that climbers must use crampons and an ice axe. Thisimplies skills with snow travel, crevasse rescue and self-arresttechniques – all of which are needed for a safe Everest climb from basecamp to the summit; and back.

There are many ways of grading climbs but I used the YosemiteDecimal System (YDS) since many people are familiar with it. Howeverusing the Alpine Grade might be more beneficial. I will discuss this atthe end.

A final preamble item, one word: altitude. This makes all thedifference and more complicated with snow and ice. Walking on flatground at 20,000' is vastly different than walking on flat ground atsea level – obviously. Please keep this in mind as you read thesedescriptions relative to Everest.

Class 1:

Trail hiking. Mostlygroomed trails that are easy to find in the summer and relativelysmooth. You walk upright without using your hands for balance. It canbe a little steep at times.

The trek to Everest Base Camp is mostly class 1 intermixed with brief class 2 sections.

Class 2:

Simple off-trailhiking. Some scrambling may be required on the route with an occasionaluse of the hands for balance. Down climbing is straightforward.

Kala Patar at 18,192' (remember altitude) would be a class 2 routewith some scrambling required near the summit using hands for balance.

Class 3:

This is actual”climbing” since you frequently scramble using your hands. Handholdsare easy to find. You can down climb facing out from the route.

This picture show climbers at the top of the Geneva Spur at 26,200'using the fixed rope. Some of the route from Camp 2 at the base of theLhotse Face to the South Summit is class 3 but mostly class 2 via thefixed ropes.

Class 4:

Simple climbing, withexposure. You must look for handholds and test them that they will holdyou before using. You use your upper body muscles. A rope is often usedfor down climbing (rappelling). Falls may result in serious injury oreven death.

Climbing a ladder is considered class 4.  Some climbers feel that class 4 is really entry class 5. Confused yet?

I would rate the Khumbu Icefall overall as class 4 due to thecrevasse danger and the need to use hands and feet on ladders andclimbing over ice formations. However, a large part of the Icefall ison somewhat smooth terrain which would be rated class 2, however at19,000'. Remember the most difficult section drives the overall rating.

Sections of the Lhotse Face and Cornice Traverse would be class 4 due to the exposure. The Hillary Step is class 4 at 28,740'.

Class 5:

True technical climbing normally using ropes, carabiners, anchors(protection), harness, etc. Climbers often belay one another. In thewinter you use an ice axe and crampons. There are sub-ratings for class5 ranging from 5.0 for “easy” climbs with frequent hand and foot holdsto 5.13 that has smooth surfaces, narrow cracks and vertical rock on anoverhang.

With the route fixed, almost none of the South Col route meets thesedefinitions even though an axe and crampons are used. However,obviously, there are much more difficult routes on Everest thatsignificantly exceed the South Col and Northeast Ridge difficulty.

All of this discussion uses the Yosemite Decimal Systemwhich was designed primarily for rock climbing. There are other systemsfor alpine climbing, ice climbing and alternative rating systems fromthe European rating system and the Alaskan rating system. See this link for more information.

So no matter how you rate Everest, it is a lot of fun and test all aclimber's skills. This video shows me rappelling in the Khumbu Icefall.

Climb On!


Arnette is a speaker, mountaineer and Alzheimer's Advocate. You can read more on his site

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