4th class

The east exit chimney in Rock Canyon in not 4th class.  I’m fairly Steve Allen first called it that, in Canyoneering 2, but Allen’s notorious, egregious overgrading can be justified as he was usually the first person publicizing these things.  What is less easy to justify is the use of that rating in the Hayduke Trail beta, whose routing through the Red Benches has popularized this little chimney, and led to much amusing, hyperbolic chatter.

The west, upper exit chimney in Rock Canyon (pictured above, at left, with the crap camera I had back in 2009) is emphatically 4th class.  Allen calls it easy 5th, and even at that I discounted his rating, and had to back down and pull all the guylines off my tarp for a solo pack haul up the final stretch.

Ratings aren’t a elegant thing to get excited about,and at the risk of being venal I’ll say that in cases like this they are important, and their general integrity should be maintained.  In the case of the Hayduke, you have the internet fashion of the thruhiking “community” running out of objects, and turning to routes like the Hayduke Trail and Sierra High Route.  The later was first publicized by one of the better rock climbers of the 1960s, and the later was pieced together using beta from folks like Steven Allen.  In both cases the technical background of the originators is substantial, while the technical background of the average thruhiking blogger seems to be just barely this side of non-existent.  Simply put, if folks hike the Hayduke and use that standard as a guide for 4th class (“one step below real rock climbing!”) they might well get themselves in trouble in the future.

In the Sierra Club/Yosemite Decimal system, 1st class is hiking, on or off trail.  2nd class is rugged hiking with the occasional use of hands.  3rd class is scrambling, with the near constant use of hands.  4th class is scrambling where all but the exceptionally experienced will want a rope due to exposure.  The translation of exposure means that if you fall off, you’ll probably get hurt.  You’d probably get hurt swan-diving off the top of the east chimney in Rock Canyon, but that’s a scenario whose improbability prevents it from counting towards the rating.  If you slipped off the upper moves in the west chimney, which in trail shoes is easy to imagine, you’d likely bounce off the upper ledge and ricochet a further 30 feet down to the bottom.

While technical difficulty isn’t supposed to influence the transition from 3rd to 4th class, it inevitably does, and this is the tricky bit when you have someone coming from trail hiking to route hiking, rather than from climbing to route hiking (and eventually, as maturity set in and attention span lengthened) to trail hiking.  Physical skill and more importantly experience builds mental strength, which beyond a very basic athletic ability is the only relevant thing when it comes to scrambling.  Climbs like Moonlight Rib are within the physical ability of just about every non-obese or disabled member of the human race, if they can sublimate the experience of exposure well enough to move at their physical potential.  Oversimplifying the mental aspect of scrambling (and easy climbing) doesn’t just get backpackers in trouble, the American Safe Climbing Association writes that

Modern climbers learning in a gym are often misled by the use of the YDS in indoor gyms. The use of the YDS inside is entirely inappropriate, as indoor gyms have little relation to outdoor climbing. Most people who learn in a gym and think they “climb 5.11” would likely DIE attempting a 5.0 chimney system first climbed in the 1930s. Because of this new generation of gym-educated climbers, the use of the lower 5th class ratings has fallen by the wayside, and modern climbing guidebooks typically condense all climbs formerly 5.0-5.6 into the 5.6 rating. A large number of accidents are directly attributable to the use of the YDS in climbing gyms.

Distinguishing between 4th class and 5.3 is, should be, and will remain a problematic task.  Ratings aren’t, and can never be, objective.  But that doesn’t mean that discussion of the details and differences, and attempts to maintain distinctions between concepts, is of no value.  I enjoy reading about hikers more experienced than me getting initiated into, and occasionally beaten down by, comparatively mild off-trail terrain.  Trails are awesome and convenient, but the way stock needs to move through the wild has so completely shaped how contemporary backpackers experience the world, and in the lower 48 the chances to experience major swaths of land totally free of human-built trails so rare, that the collective vision of backpackers is very narrow.  Being able to actually scramble and manage exposure, just liking being willing to get your feet wet, opens important doors.  Hopefully places like Rock Canyon can do that for plenty of folks, lets just make sure they have an accurate picture of what they’re doing.

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