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Rating of off-trail passes

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Rating of off-trail passes

Postby Wandering Daisy » Thu Nov 07, 2013 2:14 pm

The classic rating of class 1, 2, 3, and 4 has problems, in my opinion, when applied to backpacking over passes because it really is designed for scrambling/climbing. I contend that hauling a backpack is different from day-hiking/climbing. I want to focus only on backpacking.

Most people backpack over class 1-2 passes. The categories are simply too broad.

Trails. I would propose "maintained trail", "non-maintained trail", and "game trail" to describe all trail-like backpacking.

EASY (old Class 1). Travel that requires navigation, walking on smooth to rough terrain, with only occasional use of hands. I think a few lengths of easy talus should not bump a rating to MODERATE (class 2). A class 1 pass should "feel" easy to an experienced backpacker. There should be no significant exposure. A fall should result only in broken bones (or concussion) at worst. You should not feel that you are going to die or lose it! A You should be able to handle a heavy pack. No excessive bending down or weird shifting of balance. It should never be so steep that it is scary. There are some maintained trials that are exposed and steep- like Forrester Pass. But the trail itself is wide and walking does not require you to do complex maneuvers. You may have to step up and over things, but not bend over to use hands. If hands are used, the holds are big and easy to reach.

MODERATE (Class 2). This should "feel" moderately difficult to an experienced backpacker. I would call it easy scrambling with a pack on your back. You definitely have to slow down. Foot placements have to be thought out. Talus-hopping should be user-friendly. No excessively long actual jumps over huge voids. Steepness is OK as long as there is good footing. Handholds still big but you may have to bend a little to reach them. Nothing should make you feel that you have to take off your pack to get down or up. Use of hands and feet should be obvious. No specific climbing techniques required (although climbing skills would be make it easier). Scree OK if it only involves normal "scree-skiing". Exposure such that you would not tumble all the way down the pass if you fell. The terrain should be such that safety is not compromised - it may be a miserable pass but safe. Also the actual route should be very obvious.

DIFFICULT (Class 2-3). This should feel difficult. A larger degree of safety issues - loose rock, exposure, other objective dangers. It is likely that you would have to take off your pack to get up or down the more difficult sections. This of course is for very short distances- like lifting pack up to next ledge or lowering pack over a small cliff that you can easily down-climb were it not for the pack. Rock hopping could involve larger steps over deep voids. Still no Olympics style broad jumping! A possibility of tumbling down a distance (but not all the way). Again climbing technique useful but not required. Good route-finding abilities needed. Moderately steep friction slabs.

VERY DIFFICULT (Class 3). This should feel downright "scary" to the average experienced backpacker. Some basic climbing techniques required. Longer sections where you may have to lower pack or haul pack due to moves that require you to bend such that you cannot keep a pack on your back. A short rope required. Very exposed. Could fall and die. Dangerously loose rock. Very steep ball bearing hard dirt or sand. Excellent route finding needed. Perhaps a very short section of class 4. Hands used extensively. Steep exposed friction slabs.

I contend that continuous Class 4 is beyond backpacking.

My biggest gripe is that Class 2 is too broad, thus meaningless.

I just want to open the discussion. Any other ideas? I have not addressed snow because unless a permanent snow gully, the presence or absence of snow changes difficulty and the condition of the snow makes difficulty very variable.



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Re: Rating of off-trail passes

Postby maverick » Thu Nov 07, 2013 3:40 pm

Sierrabackper.com's descriptions of class 1-2-3 is pretty descent, and they are on
with most of their pass ratings. What would make the system a little more accurate
is maybe adopting the rockclimbing numerical system where there is a 5.10a, 5.10b,
5.10c, and then 5.11a. This would allow one to distinguish between a easy class 2
and a more difficult one which the current system does not due.
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Re: Rating of off-trail passes

Postby RoguePhotonic » Thu Nov 07, 2013 4:04 pm

Yeah the rating system is difficult. Class 2 can range from being so easy you do it without a thought or you feel with every step your about to die.

Class 3 always involves some sort of more complex scrambling but the same goes here. I have felt much better on class 3 or even things that are class 5 compared to some class 2 things I have done.
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Re: Rating of off-trail passes

Postby sparky » Thu Nov 07, 2013 6:07 pm

another thing rock climbers do is to add an R or an X to a rating to indicate loose rock.

I think attatching a class 2 rating to a pass that doesnt use hands or minimal hands, but requires route finding is apropriate.


On the other hand, I have been over a few Secor rated class 3 passes and barely used hands. Route finding can make or break a rating on some passes it seems.

How often do these passes change?
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Re: Rating of off-trail passes

Postby Wandering Daisy » Thu Nov 07, 2013 9:12 pm

The list on sierrabackpacker.com has numerous outdated descriptions. For example, there now is a distinct use trail over Rockwell Pass and I would call it class 1. In most years now, Frozen Lake Pass does not require an ice axe except for early season. Because of the popularity of the Sierra High Route, quite distinct use trails are becoming made as time goes on

American 5th class rock climbing ratings have three components: the grade (I,II,III,IV,V,VI) that rates overall length and sustained difficulty. The numerical (5.8 etc.) rating is for the most difficult move on the route. And the G, PG, R, X rating is an added (but not official) rating developed mainly by sport climbers that indicates the potential for injury (due to objective dangers and degree of protection that can be placed). There an additional rating for snow and ice. Other countries have different rating systems.

The pass ratings in Secor's guide, are based on climbing, not backpacking. Many have been rated by people who day-climb a nearby peak and who have NEVER carried a full pack over the pass. Maybe some backpackers can equally manouver with or without a backpack, but I sure cannot. Many very simple climbing moves require a body position that, for me, cannot be done with a pack that weighs a quarter or more of my body weight. There will always be some subjectivity to rating passes, but at least the person rating the pass for backpacking should be carrying a fully loaded backpack.

I agree that the most useful thing to do would be to further break down the class 2 designation. Not sure you would need a decimal system, but at least 3-4 categories.
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Re: Rating of off-trail passes

Postby SSSdave » Mon Nov 11, 2013 2:28 pm

Assigned class ratings have been controversial even in climbing communities since they were invented. Most pass class ratings were designated by climbers not backpackers or day hikers. And many climbers have always not liked over-estimating the difficulty of peaks or passes because some other experienced climbers are certain to ridicule them as though it is some kind of one-upmanship macho game. Like they don't want their public image tarnished by admitting difficulty was as hard as they know some others would size things up. Reality is there are quite a number of high end climbers that free climb difficult slopes with exposure quickly all the time that this person would be going very slowly on. With a backpack, the main problem is with steep rock, the pack tends to pull one backward off rock. Shifts a bit this way and that are magnified by the mass times velocity squared.

One can size up some passes rather quickly by merely looking down. But that is not always the situation. My story on day 3 of the below trip is an example with images of hauling a heavy pack over a moderately difficult pass. One thing we saw on both sides of the pass were considerable boot tracks that descended straight down. Those are due to the considerable numbers that rarely use a map and instead amost always do their route finding by sight alone. And on both sides of Silver Fox Pass the direct descents are quite a bit more difficult and loose though still under class 3, with the better routes not obvious by visual sight alone. On the north side looking down from the lowest part of the saddle shows short drops through a few narrow chutes where one could use boulders to monkey down through and boot prints show not a few when down. The better route IF one looked on the map is to climb up a bit east of the saddle where a large wide chute is much easier and far more used. But then unseen from above though very obvious on the topo, after dropping maybe a couple hundred feet is terrain knee that falls off steeply. Yet there one will see boot prints from many simply kept going straight down instead of moving to the right east where the gradient remains modest, talus is smaller, and an escape out of the talus is sooner.

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Re: Rating of off-trail passes

Postby giantbrookie » Mon Nov 11, 2013 4:04 pm

Yes, I believe there needs to be something more than the Yosemite decimal system when it comes to ratings of pass crossings. Perhaps there is a combination of factors that can be used. As noted previously the grade system takes into the account the duration of the climb and number of difficult pitches. Perhaps there are ways of incorporating a somewhat different overall difficulty rating into off trail passes. A class 1 approach with a short, easy 3rd class move of 10 feet can be way easier than 1500' of loose class 2 scree and talus with a full pack on. 10 feet of easy class 3 can also be much less dangerous than 200' of loose, steep, large talus (see below).

As noted by WD much of the difficulty here comes with the huge variation in class 2. Class 2 can be rather pleasant scrambling on slabs with big benches, or solid talus blocks, but it can also be very dangerous loose talus where there is a genuine threat of having a damaging rockfall (ie crushing the hiker): Kaweah Pass comes to mind instantly and many would put the upper northern side of Lucy's Foot in that category, too. Having barely escaped from being killed traversing the toe of a rock glacier (very foolish move, yes), I am particularly sensitive to "lethal class 2". In addition to hazard, there is a big difference between gaining 1000' on nice firm talus or slabs, versus 1000' on treadmill scree. The latter is not dangerous but it takes far more energy than the more pleasant solid stuff. The loose kind of stuff, be it scree or the scary big stuff, is much more of a problem for a backpacker than a dayhiker owing to the reduction of agility for a loaded-down backpacker. Also much more of an issue for a backpacker than dayhiker is climbing over giant talus boulders (mostly non-moving variety) which is also class 2 terrain.

Finally, there is the complexity of route finding. Some passes have optimal routes for which the route is very easy to pick out, whereas others can go easy class 2 if you nail the route, but get into very serious 3rd class climbing (or even worse) with relatively subtle route finding errors. This issue is more acute for cross country passes than for climbing because climbing is off trail by its very nature. Accordingly, route finding skills develop by necessity among climbers, whereas an off trail backpacker who evolves from a trail bound hiker is unlikely to have developed route finding skills and judgement as climbers have.

Can a rating scale of sort be developed to encompass the various degrees of difficulty and potential hazards of off trail passes? Perhaps I'm not sure we should be looking for numerical or limited category ratings rather than simply being explicit in descriptions of the array of difficulties which include: difficulty of hardest move (ie standard Yosemite decimal system), length of harder moves, hazard (looseness, etc), physical sweat factor (height of steep part, type of terrain), and route finding complexity. I think that the more explicit folks are with their descriptions, the better, so that the reader may more completely judge. I will not buy a wine simply because it's rated 90+ and the price is right. In contrast, I will buy an unrated wine if I am convinced that detailed tasting notes match what I like.
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Re: Rating of off-trail passes

Postby Wandering Daisy » Tue Nov 12, 2013 9:22 pm

I agree that specific descriptions (objective measures) would help. For example, elevation gain, max slope, average slope, size of talus, orientation (aspect), etc. Honesty would go a long ways too! And photographs are worth a thousand words. I hope we are getting some good descriptions in our off-trail pass reports. I know we have some really good photos. Also as more people go over a pass and add to the description, the "rating" tends to be more accurate because you eliminate the "outliers" and get a rating more suited to the average backpacker.

Everyone has a bias - I happen to do well hopping talus. However I hate steep ball-bearing dirt. I freak out every time I have to do one of those. Having climbed a lot in the Pacific NW and Rockies I have a lot of experience on steep snow, so feel I can make a good call regarding the safety and am pretty good at reading snow. Rain is another issue- some passes are about the same in rain; some become treacherous. There are a whole lot of variables that a simple "class 2" cannot cover.
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Re: Rating of off-trail passes

Postby BSquared » Mon Nov 18, 2013 12:52 pm

Excellent discussion, and I completely agree that (a.) it would be great to break down the class-2 group into more precise grades, and (b.) there's no substitute for a good, thorough route description, preferably with pictures. Secor is, of course, extremely variable in this respect, but the descriptions on this board are usually really good. As a (mostly) trail-hiker myself, I find particularly useful "avoid this" kinds of directions from people who have struggled over a pass and then found a better route.
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