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Alternative HST "Cross-country Pass/Route" Rating System

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Alternative HST "Cross-country Pass/Route" Rating System

Postby maverick » Tue Oct 28, 2014 1:56 pm

Fellow Members,

After hearing fellow members and backpacking friends voice their
displeasure with the current ratings of many cross-country passes
in the Sierra, would like to introduce a version of the current system
that is geared more towards the backpacker community.

The current Secor ratings, primarily for climbers, do not address the
needs of a backpacker adequately enough, they require a fine tuning so
it gives one a better understanding of the dangerous terrain will be
encountered on ones cross-country route.

We need to clarify that these ratings are intended for backpackers
with packs, during the mid-high season, from June to Sept, and not
the shoulder seasons, where snow and ice may make routes, and
passes more difficult.

Variables such a persons height, reach, weight (with pack), physical
conditioning, and experience, are not taken into consideration, since
this would make the rating system much to complex, and to variable
to be effective.

With all passes, the most important common factor influencing the
levels of difficulty, is the steepness of the slope.
Anything below the 50 degree level with one of the following hazards
listed below, will fall into the class 2 category, and anything above 50
degrees, into the class 3 category.

Hazards include: stable/loose scree, stable/loose talus, stable/loose
boulders, loose sand w/minimal or no handholds, snow, ice, difficult
route finding (negotiating cliffs), or any other hazard that may be
associated with a particular section of a pass.

It is important that you stay as close as possible to the so-called
"official route" when going over a pass, if you decide to deviate from
the official route, you must list it as a variation, and not the standard
route, for example: Dumbbell Pass Variation I.

These ratings need to be excepted as the standard, and backpackers
should base the passes/routes difficultly on this rating system, and
not their own experience, or feelings about it, since everyone's
experience levels, and comfort levels, on a particular terrain is going
to be vastly different.

Keep in mind when classifying a route/pass, you need to base the
whole route/pass on the most difficult section, not the route/pass
as whole. For example if there is a very short B/C3-1 section in a long
route, which you would have otherwise classified as B/C2-1 or B/C2-2,
you should go with the higher rating of B/C3-1 for safety reasons.

Here are the ratings:

B/C2-1: (Backpackers/Class 2, Level 1) passes under 50 degrees, with
stable scree, talus, or boulders

(Backpackers/Class 2, Level 2) passes under 50 degrees, with
loose scree, talus, or boulders

B/C3-1: (Backpackers/Class 3, Level 1) passes over 50 degrees, with
stable scree/talus/sand w/ handholds, large boulders, scrambling over
rock and talus where handholds and footholds are used for balance/
upward, or downward movement. Some exposure may also be involved
on some routed

B/C3-2: (Backpackers/Class 3, Level 2) passes over 50 degrees, with
loose scree/talus/sand w/minimal or no handholds, large loose
boulders or very large boulders requiring scrambling using handholds
and footholds. Some exposure may also involved on some routes.

M/C4: (Mountaineer/Class 4) at this level of steepness and exposure, the
usage of various climbing techniques and equipment are appropriate for
ones safety, these routes should would mainly be used by experienced

For comparison have added some of Secor’s rating descriptions below:

Class 2 is defined here as difficult cross-country travel. In the High
Sierra this is usually talus hopping, which requires the occasional
use of hands for balance. Talus can be unstable.

Class 3 is where the climbing begins. Hands and feet are used not
just for balance, but to hang on to the rock. Class 3 is more common
on steep faces or along ridges and arêtes. Holds are large and easy to

Class 4 is on steep rock with smaller holds and a lot of exposure.

As with all extreme outdoor activities, no ratings can substitute
proper judgment calls based on common sense. You should have
an awareness, understanding, of the difficulties, and dangerous
that you take on while pursuing any extreme outdoor activity.

My hope is, that you will us this new updated rating system, and
that it will make everyone's cross-country travel a little safer.

Please, enjoy and use.
HST= Wilderness Adventurer who knows no bounds, except for their own imagination.

Have a safer backcountry experience by using the HST ReConn Form 2.0, named after Larry Conn, a HST member:

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Re: Alternative HST "Cross-country Pass/Route" Rating System

Postby ERIC » Tue Oct 28, 2014 2:57 pm

HST members should view this as just an alternative to Secor or other ratings systems, but not necessarily as a replacement. No rating system can anticipate all variables of backcountry exploration and Members should use caution in the level of trust placed in their accuracy. As always, HST members are encouraged to conduct adequate research and use extreme caution in any and all route planning.
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Re: Alternative HST "Cross-country Pass/Route" Rating System

Postby rlown » Wed Oct 29, 2014 7:42 pm

If you are off trail, and you pick different routes, how can you match that to your new "system?"

For sake of argument, I go one way and I don't have to take my pack off to get down the boulder pile, My friend picks a different path and suddenly gets cliff-ed out, takes his pack off and does ropes to lower pack.

I'm thinking Secor was "good enough."

trail: duh
scree/talus: you made a decision to go there.
loose scree/talus: ditto
a col crossing: pick your poison as well.

If you're touching rock, it's not a bad thing. It means you put your trekking poles away as appropriate and dealing personally with the landscape.

It's really still arbitrary at the end of the day. We don't need a new rating system. Just descriptions of the routes to help the navigation.

And i don't carry an inclinometer.


PS: nice thought though.
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Re: Alternative HST "Cross-country Pass/Route" Rating System

Postby richlong8 » Thu Oct 30, 2014 8:20 am

I think this idea has merit. Perhaps the best way to implement something like this is to write a book/guide, Maverick, based on your extensive travels in the Sierra, with some input from others, instead of making it available free on HST. Self-publish if necessary, or perhaps a low priced pdf/epub available through internet, smartphone, that can be read or printed. Andrew Skurka, Eric the Black, and others seem to do well with this approach, because there is a demand for good info out there, if you can market the info. I think it would be challenging for the average person to accurately determine the angle of a slope leading to a cross country pass, and to objectively describe the terrain based on one visit. This is just a friendly opinion on a different approach to consider, so there is no need for anyone out there to "tee" off on me! :)
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Re: Alternative HST "Cross-country Pass/Route" Rating System

Postby oldranger » Thu Oct 30, 2014 9:09 am

The problem with all rating systems, as suggested by Russ is that they are based on the routes taken by the rater. All you have to do is be a little "off course" and the route can be markedly easier or more difficult. I have noted several times in this forum where people have described class 3 moves on routes that I considered easy, and I'm a well known wimp. Also note the difficulty Rogue and Alpine mike had finding a described route and then found a much easier route that had not been described. I think trying to be too precise in route descriptions and ratings can be misleading. My experience has been that anything described as class 2 by secor is doable. More than once I have found that routes quite different than those described or "obvious" would have been much easier and on later trips tried those alternate routes and they proved out. Nothing takes the place of map reading and the the ability eyeball alternatives on the fly. Just because somebody publishes a route does not make it the best. When I am on the ground I always trust my own judgement over "the book" if I have strong feelings to overrule. I have also learned to trust markskors judgement in the few cases I ask for a second opinion (that is really hard to admit). I will also admit to sometimes taking a more difficult route because the entire route is visible and doable while an easier route may have a crux that is not visible and I decide the risk of needing to turn around is not worth the potential of less overall effort.


Who can't do everything he used to and what he can do takes a hell of a lot longer!
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Re: Alternative HST "Cross-country Pass/Route" Rating System

Postby markskor » Thu Oct 30, 2014 9:47 am

Thoughts -
1) You are off trail. Routes vary.
2) Why reinvent the wheel?
My understanding (Yosemite system?) of the current route-rating parameters...ones currently used - simple.
Class 1 - trail
Class 2 - off trail
Class 3 - at least one hand required - if you fall, probably ain't gonna die.
Class 4 - hand(s) required, exposure, if you fall, probably die
Class 5 - aid
(I could be wrong though) -
3) A "Sierra Passes Guide" - well-researched - pictures and arrows - new - accurate...
Yes, an up-to-date book of Sierra knowledge using current gear ... nice.
Mountainman who swims with trout
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Re: Alternative HST "Cross-country Pass/Route" Rating System

Postby richlong8 » Thu Oct 30, 2014 9:50 am

There is no substitute for experience. Be careful about following ducks others have made!
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Re: Alternative HST "Cross-country Pass/Route" Rating System

Postby Wandering Daisy » Thu Oct 30, 2014 10:51 am

Problems I see with your proposed ratings:

No account for "fall-you-die" exposure, vs garden variety of "fall-you-could-break-a-leg". Climbers add to the Yosemite system by using "G" "PG" "R" and "X" (borrowed from film ratings) to indicate very safe vs very dangerous.

Talus is not all the same, regardless of slope. Slope is not a defining criteria for difficulty. House size talus which requires class 3 moves, is class 3; easy user-friendly talus that is easily stepped from boulder to boulder is class 2.

Slope is not a defining criteria for difficulty in general. Steep passes with good wide connected ledges are easy. A uniform steep dirt slope is difficult. Where does the 50-degree come from? Angle of repose is about 33-degrees.

Snow can be easy or difficult - there already is a snow classification system used by mountaineers.

I do not think the Yosemite system is bad. It just needs an expansion in the class 2 category.

The problem most backpackers have with the Yosemite system is that it is rated by the climbing community. Climbers have lots of experience on rock and snow, special equipment, and know specific techniques. What is class 3 for many climbers can be impossible for the general public. If backpackers simply accept the Yosemite system, and acknowledge its source, they can use it better for their own purposes.

The Yosemite rating system, although well defined, is applied quite differently in different regions. The ratings in the Sierra are generally "sandbagged" - the terrain quite difficult for the rating. This is because the level of climbing in Yosemite, affects the level of climbing in the Sierra. Also, the Sierra has pretty good weather, for a mountain range. The same rating as applied to the Tetons or Wind Rivers seems to be a bit "easier". Historically, early pioneers of these climbs simply rated things a bit easier. Poorer weather is also a factor.

There is also an "ego" factor imbedded in any rating system. Norman Clyde rates some difficult pass as "class 2" (after all - he IS Normal Clyde!) and then subsequent climbers do not want to appear "wimpy" so they accept the rating and proceed to use this "sandbagged" attitude in rating any new terrain they describe in guide books. I do not think a new "Backpacking" rating system would avoid this all too human flaw either.

What probably is needed more is honest accurate route descriptions. Words seem to be able to describe the variations better than a numerical system.
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Re: Alternative HST "Cross-country Pass/Route" Rating System

Postby Wandering Daisy » Thu Oct 30, 2014 11:03 am

Also, Class 5 is NOT "aid". Equipment is only used in Class 5 for leader protection. The minute you use that gear to assist in climbing, it becomes Class 6. There is no one hand vs two hand rule in the Yosemite rating system. Class 3 is scrambling - all climbers KNOW what scrambling is! Class 4 is basically easy class 5 climbing without a rope for the leader - a rope is often used for the safety of followers if they are less experienced. When the Yosemite system was developed class 4 already had evolved to about 5.4-5.5. Some historical "class 4" was converted to the easier class 5.0 to 4.5, BUT some of the old ratings of Class 4 were not changed. So if you see Class 4 rating, it could be anything from true class 4 to 5.5. Much of the older class 5.0-5.4 was also put up before the invention of sticky rubber shoes. Footwear has a HUGE impact on the difficult of a move -boot, vs climbing shoe, vs hiking shoe vs tennis shoe. Pack weight is also a huge factor - not the weight itself, but more the bulk and how it throws off your center of gravity and reduces manuverability.
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Re: Alternative HST "Cross-country Pass/Route" Rating System

Postby Hobbes » Thu Oct 30, 2014 11:28 am

As others have already noted, the relative simplicity of the Yosemite system is a virtue. The problems lie in the subtle distinctions, characteristics and conditions of particular routes. The responsibility then falls upon the hiker to perform appropriate due diligence before their trip, and to also have enough presence of mind to judge conditions in real-time as they are confronted.

Here are a few classic examples of potential variables that can turn a veritable walk in the park into a nightmare with just a few changes to the scenario eg sunny skies turn to rain/hail/snow:

1. South side of Forrester - PCT/JMT class 1 trail, except if the notch is still covered in ice/snow, which then presents class 4 exposure (basically, 80+ degrees).

2. Top out @ Shepherd pass - class 1 trail past the Pothole, then pseudo-class 2 scree/trail, which then becomes class 4 exposure (80+ degrees) at the very top if there is still an (extensive) ice/snow field blocking the way.

(This field was minimal during the HST meet-up, but I had to traverse it a few years earlier during the 1st week of June. Richard P, the hiking phenom over @ the Whitney board [can pull off 40+ mile dayhikes in the highest regions of the Sierra], had confronted it a few days before me, and had decided to climb straight up the remaining distance, hand over hand, to crawl over the ledge of the pass. I got lucky, because someone else had just kicked in boot steps, so I very, very carefully followed their path.)

3. Ditto for (Old) Army pass - goes from regular class 1 trail to class 2 pseudo-scramble at the top, to serious class 4 exposure if still covered in ice/snow

4. Ebersbacher ledges - class 1 trail becomes class 2 because trail is no longer maintained, yet is still quite evident, then presents class 4+ exposure.

#1 and #2 are scary in their own right under the conditions described, but I'm not aware of any mishaps, while #3/4 are known killers.

It would be impossible to incorporate all of these potential variable into a rating system. Besides, why be confined to any kind of system that was created before information was widely available? Why not use the power of the 'net, HST specifically, to allow people to flesh out route particulars on a more interactive basis?
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Re: Alternative HST "Cross-country Pass/Route" Rating System

Postby oleander » Fri Oct 31, 2014 10:37 pm

I like Mav's proposed rating system.

Here's why. 75% of the off-trail passes I'm considering doing in a given area of the Sierra are going to be rated (by Secor or by our community) as Class 2. The problem is that there is WAY TOO WIDE a variation in difficulty and danger between and among various Class 2 passes. To the point where a Class 2 designation is nearly meaningless!

I want it to be further broken down.

Think about it. You see that a pass is rated Class 2-2. If you don't like "loose" - and I sure don't - that shorthand allows me to immediately zone in on which passes to research with extra attention or to reconsider entirely, before I even include them in my planned route. Some examples of notoriously loose Class 2 passes that would definitely qualify as 2-2 regardless of current conditions/presence of snow, etc.:

Snow Tongue Pass,
Ritter Pass,
Kaweah Pass

Frankly, I'd see the Class 2-2 designation and I'd know to re-plan using a different pass. I just don't want to do very loose Class 2 with a full pack, or only rarely and with great care.

Likewise, the breakdown of Class 3-1 vs. Class 3-2 is instantly useful shorthand. Personally, I won't do a Class 3-2 pass with a full pack. I see the Class 3-2 designation and I can just cross it off from consideration. Boom. That just saved me a lot of work.

Here's another public benefit: Safety. Caution. I think the breakdown will discourage not a few people from taking on passes that are actually above their pay grade. "It's just a Class 2; how hard could it be?" - says a relative newbie to cross-country travel, about to do Kaweah Pass. Whereas if that same person manages to see the 2-2 rating, perhaps that alone will be enough to make him/her pause and reconsider.

Forcing a rating does not preclude one from also inserting detailed narration, the kind that helps us understand what the pass really looks like. We don't have to choose between the one and the other. Let's have the narratives AND the better rating system.

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Re: Alternative HST "Cross-country Pass/Route" Rating System

Postby sparky » Sat Nov 01, 2014 1:05 am

I like the idea of PG, R, X, where it is needed, especially when it comes to traction.
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