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Ice and Rock Grades, A Review and Perspective

Date: 7th February 2017

As climbers we love grades. The bigger the number the better, the closer to the line of personally possible/not possible the better, and the harder we have to fight to succeed the better we feel. And we often set our challenges based on climbing grades. This is where things get weird – I’ve thrown an all-in wobbler when I failed to onsight a route I felt I should have. I felt ripped off when I onsighted my first 7c+ because it felt too easy, and I was sure I was on the wrong route. The route and grade was what it was, it was me that was all wound up. To understand ice grades it’s worth looking at rock grades first.

With time and work rock grades generally make sense to me, as long as a few basic ideas are understood. First, older routes and those graded under about 5.10 tend to be based on the onsight grade, while more modern and harder routes are usually based on the redpoint grade. A blind-dyno 12c will be a very very difficult onsight, but it’s still 12c on the redpoint. I like onsight climbing better than redpoint climbing, and routes with super-blind moves are usually where I get frustrated when I fall off onsighting. The redpoint feels like the right grade usually. I resisted this idea for years as I think onsight climbing is way cooler than redpoint climbing, but my resistance did not change the grading system or the stone. There is a lesson in there I’m still learning.

A 12a in France is going to feel roughly like a 12a in North America. But if a climber bred on granite cracks and crimps tries a French limestone pocket fest he’s going to get slapped down fast, and vice versa. But give someone a month or two of full-time work on a new type of stone and he or she will be back at the same level, and finding the edge of possible. A 13a crack is far more painful and mentally damaging than a 13a sport route, but technically they aren’t far off with equal levels of practice and skill. And the routes tend to stay the same; bullshit grades usually eventually get adjusted to fit the stone and consensus. I’m good with rock grades in general, except that fucking 11d I fell off in Smith Rocks in 1993, I’m still bitter about that one. And, while some areas have “soft” grades and others “hard,” overall I’m pretty good with rock grades, and trust the community to sort them out over time. There has been a lot of grade “creep” over the last 30 years, but it’s still a relatively believable system across different stone and geography.

Ice Grades

Ice climbing grades are another story. With the passage of each climbing team “fat” ice generally gets easier. The pick holes literally get pounded into the ice, and due to the increasing ice climbing traffic there are fewer and fewer routes that don’t have left-over pick holes. A “picked out” WI grade six will often be a lot easier than a fresh WI 4 on a cold day, and vice versa. This is very different than rock climbing; imagine if a route was 5.8 one day and 5.11 the next week based on number of ascents, temperature, refreezing, and how the rock formed that year. The spread is massive on ice routes, and if we approach ice routes searching for difficulty based on grade problems may result…

Ice grades developed in an era when most ice climbs didn’t see a ton of traffic, and they were based on having to swing into fresh ice hundreds of times on a pitch with radically inferior tools. Hanging onto your tools on a steep piece of fresh ice, locking off and swinging each time for one to five swings, is fucking physical, and the physical load spikes fast as the angle increases. Historic ice grades are therefore based primarily on angle, because it had an exponential effect on how hard it was to climb fresh ice. The difference between 80 and 90 degree fresh ice is massive when having to swing and lock off endlessly to build placements and clean fresh icicles. On a fresh, unclimbed “WI 6″ pitch of vertical ice with a lot of hanging icicles it often takes me close to an hour to lead it safely. But the same route with a hoard of ascents is a ten-minute romp. Steep juggy fun 5.9 vs. loose physical 5.11, often with bad gear, give or take.

Many people today climb a lot of steep terrain on rock, and if the holds are pounded in on ice then it’s not a lot different to climb 80 or 90 degree ice to the person used to much steeper terrain. Footholds also tend to get a lot better with repeat ascents, further easing the experience. The older ice climbers who lack steep rock climbing experience or power tend to view steeper as disproportionately harder, which further weights angle in the grading system.

So historic ice grades were often based primarily on angle, with ice quality part of that but not generally as big a factor as most climbs would require hard work to make placements for tools and feet. The work of putting in holds was an assumption inherent in the grade. Some routes with notoriously weird ice (Riptide, Curtain Call, Bridalveil in Colorado early season) did get a higher grade for the weird ice, but even with poor ice quality it’s usually a lot easier with the holes already in. With very thin or bad ice “head damage” also came into play in ice grades. Very thin pillars that could fall down were given WI7 or something, even though they often weren’t that much harder, just more dangerous. In the 80s and 90s we all spent time climbing ever-thinner pillars if we wanted “harder” ice routes.

Modern gear has also had a disproportionate effect on the ice climbing experience compared to gear in rock climbing. Modern tools, screws, gloves and ropes have all made things a lot more fun, but less difficult. The biggest difference in perceived grade I’ve ever experienced on rock was doing Supercrack, a classic 5.10 handcrack I first climbed in the 80s, on hexes and one cam the first time I led it vs. loading up with a triple set of cams and plugging at will as I did ten years later. That difference is meaningful, but relatively minor compared to ice climbing in the 80s where you had to crank screws in with a third tool while hanging on a POS tool with picks shorter than the screws you were trying to crank on. Interestingly, the modern gear often climbs relatively better on steeper angles than the old gear did, so again climbing angle was much much more important with the gear used when WI grades were defined. Flick a Cobra into vertical ice is very different than struggling to get an early-80s Stubai into the ice…

So we have fitter climbers (steep gym and rock trained) on well-travelled routes (so many more climbers) with far superior gear. I can take a solid 5.11+ rock climber and give them a half-day of instruction and they can follow pretty much any ice climb I can lead. But to safely lead a fresh, steep ice climb still takes a tremendous amount of knowledge, knowledge that is increasingly difficult to gain because there is less fresh ice to gain it on. This is part of the reason I’ve seen a rash of bad accidents this season in the Rockies: Today the challenge of ice climbing often isn’t defined by the grade or angle, but the nature of the ice, and how well the leader understands ice climbing. The grade and angle are both less relevant today than they were when the grading system was created, but the quantity of ascents far more relevant.

There is no longer any remotely consensus grade on ice routes as they simply aren’t the same difficulty for the first and last climber. This is all OK and I’m very stoked on ice climbing, but it causes problems for rock climbers coming at ice climbs with the same mindset they use on rock. If a rock climber hikes a well-traveled “WI 5″ in Ouray then the assumption might be that a WI4 in Canada might pose no issues. But if the WI 4 in Canada has seen little traffic, has some bad ice due to the big temperature fluctuations, and is in avalanche terrain… Some adaption is going to be called for or it will be handed out by the climb.

Some here in Canada have taken to giving routes, “picked out grades.” I think this is often more about the ego of the person wanting to climb “Real Grade Six!” than actual useful information sharing, so I don’t use this system, nor do I think it’s relevant. Even WI 6–for a competent ice climber–when it’s super fresh is more a game of patience and burning calories while using craftsman-level skills than pure technical difficulty, so looking for “hard” on ice is silly. I look for “hard” on rock climbs where it make sense, and search for competency, craftsmanship the endless amazing positions and joy I find on ice climbs. Rad wild mushrooms and features are just cool to climb, like surfing a wave or deep powder skiing. Love it.

The bigger point is that questing after absolute grades and defining the challenge of ice climbing by the grade is like defining the experience of skiing solely by the angle of the slope. If a slope is very steep then that is useful information, but it doesn’t tell you shit about how the skiing is going to be. A WI6 was probably rated for the angle in the 80s, and is simply an indicator of likely steeper climbing. Yes, there are exceptions, but big picture here.

So here’s my 2017 view of ice grades: they are increasingly based on irrelevant information, and seldom reflect technical difficulty or the climbing experience in the same way rock grades do. River grades as a number are also increasingly irrelevant today. The description and photos of rivers and ice climbs is more useful: Length, number of pitches, angle, avalanche hazard, exposure to sun, recent conditions reports. These are all far more relevant pieces for successful ice climbing than just the grade.

Mixed Grades

These are in a worse mess than ice climbing grades, I’ll deal with that in the future…

Posted in: Blog


  1. Elwin   February 7, 2017 2:33 pm

    You say it there Will. Grades are an indication. The feel of achievement is purely personal. Let’s enjoy the climb for it’s challenge, not as a figure. Cheers, Elwin

  2. Serge   February 7, 2017 2:57 pm

    Nice one again Will! Why not adding the G/PG/R/X rating, an indicator of variability of the route and keeping the number for the angle? I’ve often heard old timer saying that the grades should be reflecting all of that… but as you said, it’s too much subjective… like WI5 R – A for something that has a good runout section, could change rapidly and is mostly 90deg. Soooo even if you have or don’t have to pound in your tools in fresh ice, you can interpret how the physical difficulty will be in light of weather and “freshness” of the climb…

    I’m just thinking here ;P

  3. Polishbob   February 7, 2017 4:58 pm

    I think there are only 2 grades for ice routes- something I can do, and something I will not get on. There is really very little in between.

  4. John Arsenault   February 7, 2017 6:34 pm

    Reading your lastist post Will
    And as sit here in my hospital bed recovering from having both knees replaced due to arthritis
    My singular motivation is to one day to return to the sport I Love
    I surround my room with pictures of my climbs, I call this my motivators.

  5. Gerry   February 7, 2017 8:18 pm

    Hey Will! Relevant read on a subject I’ve been interested in lately. Just wondering what your thoughts are on the Green/Blue/Black ratings for the “Icefalls” guide book are, the system ‘Mike Barter’ has been trying to implement.. Also the WI12 rating for Helmken Falls as per Tim Emmett ?

  6. 11-12/02: Un week end a Lappago – "Molla tutto!"   February 17, 2017 6:01 am

    […] Attenzione però, che i gradi in cascata sono sempre un’indicazione di massima, spesso imprecisa e da valutare sempre cum grano salis  (qui un articolo ben scritto, da Sua Maestà Will Gadd) […]

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