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Nov 9, 2015, 6:09 AM

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New Canadian Ice Grading System
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So another winter approaches and the ice season is upon us. Thousands of climbers are preparing to attack the ice even as I write these words of unspoken truth. Something that I have noticed over the last few years (make that ten). The number of ice climbers has increased dramatically from year to year. I am sure this has to do with the availability of cool climbing images that social media and other digital formats provide in a effortless abundance. The other might be even more primeval. The 3 million year old instinct of trying to attract a mate. For instance in the metropolis of Calgary, AB there are thousands and thousands of climbers many of which hang out at various waterholes that specialize in selling adult beverages. In a room full (lets say a 100) of climbers the vast majority (9 to 1) are rock climbers. Of these one in ten will be a female of the species. As males do they will hover around trying to attract the potential mate by going on about the numerous hard sends the have under their belt. The incredible long 20 minute walk in to the crag which buts them a good 40 minutes from the nearest location where they can get a half caffe latte with extra foam and sprinkles. The kind of thing that shows just how primeval a creature this rock jock is and certainly has the female of the species thinking I want to have babies with this animal for surely they will be the strongest of the strong. Spartan in their perfection and surely anybody who can forgo a half caffe latte for so long a time must be a complete dominating animal in the sack. ( sorry to any women out there who are offended by my ability to read you basic instincts, but I have been a guide for far to long and it is my job to know what you are thinking even if you yourself don’t know you are thinking it) Now I shuffle up to the cluster of competing males and listen to their meaningless garble. As a ice climber it’s a lot like listening to a bunch of eunuch's smack talk about what they would do with a playboy bunny. I wait for the right time to drop in a nonchalant way that I am a “ ice climber “. Instantly the tone of the boasting changes. The Alpha male gorilla has just entered the room. Without fail the plastic pulling rock jocks give way no longer willing to meet my gaze lest I pull their arm off and beat them to death with it. For I am Tarzan, King of the Apes. The alpha (and beta) female of the vertical mobile species has a look that morphs from one of admiration to pure lust. Several megs of iPhone memory will be allocated to the numbers of future conquests. This is one of the great perks of being a ice climber.
However I fear that my dominance of the vertical tribe may be coming to a end unless I do something about it. Thirty years ago with straight shaft tools, hand crafted leashes and crampons that required 8 allen screws to adjust made ice climbers as rare as the proverbial hens teeth. However today with the introduction of leashes tools, razors sharp ice screws, synthetic clothing not to mention mono-point crampons you can’ swing a dead cat in Canmore without hitting a ice climber. As a result it is time to rethink the ice climbing grading system. To be honest it is a poor grading system to start with. Starts at grade 2 which I am not sure what that really is. The astronomical leap between grade 2 to 3 or 3 to 4 required a plus or minus clarification. The range was just too vast. The comparison to say rock grades is even possible but also not very accurate. Calling a solid WI4 a 5.9 might give you some idea but to some rock climbers transitioning to ice would be a sandbag for some and a give away for others. The actual 4+ or 4-does a pretty good job or did.
However it’s 2015 as Justin say’s and it’s time to face the facts. The very nature of ice climbing has changed. When I see a fully formed icefall today that has less then a two hour approach it reminds me of a scene out of the “Walking Dead” where you are running in front of the herd and as far as you can see are the living dead armed with ice axes. The poor icefall does what it can to protect itself. But no matter how cold it is or how much free running water the ice fall dies a slow agonizing death. All that remains are the picked out bones of a once nobel icefall. Within days of forming there are more holes in the ice then a rural Alberta deer crossing sign. Any climber to come behind the herd there remains nothing but fully formed pick holes and all the challenge of climbing a peg board.
This is where we have to add a third dimension to our grading system. Let me introduce
A herd is a social grouping of certain animals of the same species, either wild or domestic. The form of collective animal behavior associated with this is referred to as herding. The term herd is generally applied to mammals, and most particularly to the grazing ungulates that classically display this behaviour. to you the need for a PICKED OUT (PO) grade. This would compensate for the herd and give a better over all idea of just how difficult the climbing actually is. For example the Recital hall climbs in the Ghost . The guide book say’s that Fearful Symmetry is grade III 6 X and its companion climb Rainbow Serpent is III 6. This was a accurate grade when Joe Josephson’s Waterfall Ice guide book came out in 1994. The grade most likely held true up to 2005. Then came the herd!
Both these climbs have formed a couple times in the last few years and I have had the opportunity to climb these puppies. After climbing them it occurred to me that there are four to five hundred climbers out there occupying the adult waterhole attracting my potential conquest calling themselves ice climbers. Grade six ice climbers at that or so they are telling others. The thing is that the once nerve wracking, terror inspiring Rainbow Serpent was little more then a grade four plus (4+). I will give it a five minus (5-) out of respect for the climb. The same holds true for Fearful Symmetry. What once was one of the most challenging ice climbs on the planet is reduced to little more then peg board climbing. While a few kilometres away we did the years first ascent of Hydrophobia (WI V 5+) that taxed the courage and skill of three 20 year veteran climbers. Every pick placement hard won while crampon points scrapped through layers of chandler ice desperately seeking purchase. That day I prayed to every deity from Zeus to Buddha begging they spare me from death (or worse). In return I promised to give up everything from red meat to masturbation ( all of which went out the window as soon as the rope hit the ground on the last rappel. I’m only religious when my life is in jeopardy, otherwise I’m a diehard atheist.) What it had that day was the old school challenge that made ice climbing the sport that it was.
For the sake of fairness not just to the old school “I remember when” crowd but also to the smartphone carrying, leash-less herd we MUST introduce the “Picked Out” grade. So how is this going to work you wonder. I’ve given this some careful thought and I have the solution. First off waterfalls will now have a floating grade. On the first few ascents of a waterfall the original grade will naturally stand. Just like there was a time when the boats were made of wood and the men were made of steel we have to except that the revolutionary improvement of equipment has vastly decreased the difficulty of ascending frozen ice. It’s much like staring down a Viking, sword in hand and carpet bombing peasant villages from 10,000’. There is just no way to relive or compare those experiences. Today’s climbers will never challenge a grade 6 waterfall with a straight shaft Stubia equipped with a homemade leash. So be it, times have changed. Lets just reset and use 2015 as a baseline.
Lets use some of the more popular climbs as baseline for this grade. Those being Louise Falls grade (GR. 4+/5), Guinness Gully (GR. 4), Polar Circus (GR. 5). There are several others but these climbs get enough traffic that these poor icefalls die a death of a thousand chops. It has gotten to the point that if you don’t get on the easily approachable popular climbs within the first few days of forming you will never have the pleasure of climbing them in their natural state.

Here is the breakdown for the grading system
PO-0; This is a virgin ice climb that has yet to taste steel and/or has heeled itself to the point that it leaves no trace of a prior ascent.
PO-1; Here the may be nothing more then a couple usable pre-made tool placements but a bit of the chandelier ice has been cleaned and perhaps a few of the hanging icicles that you could have dropped on your partner are no longer present.
PO-2; This is really an extension or PO-1 but to a slightly greater degree. Signs of travel are present and former ice screw placements may be present and possibly utilized.
PO-3 This is the point where the handicap system really takes place. You can now freely utilize the drafting mechanism. 20% of your hand tool placements are a gimme requiring almost no swinging to build a firm purchase. When you feel the need to place a screw you can choose from one or two of the pre-placed holes that other climbers have constructed for you or build your own. Foot placements have become slightly obvious.
PO-4 You have pretty much entered the realm of peg-board climbing! You have to build no more then 1 or 2 placements and thats only because your glass eye’s have fogged up. The main issue is that one in every 10 moves may require you switch tools from one hand to the other. Foot placements are obvious to the point that you have a very distinct feeling that you are on a ladder. The only exception to the rule is that if your 4 foot nothing or seven feet tall you may have to shuffle things around a bit to get to that optional foot placement you are searching for. The standard right hand screw placement is nearly (if not) impossible. Lefties may still be left with this option.
PO-5 Here it no longer matters what your shape/size is. You can no longer place a new pick hole as there is no possible place to put one. The main challenge here is to choose between the seemingly endless amount of pick holes. The foot placements are so well defined that if you place your front points against the ice it suddenly feels overhanging. You also no longer have the option of placing a screw into fresh ice as the is no possible way you can get one in on either hand placement.

There stands the newly introduced supplemental grading system. Much like our present ice grading system a plus or minus sub grade can be helpful in describing the type of climbing that one is likely to encounter.
Now we come to the beef of the problem so prepare for a little methane gas. What is the mathematical formula to figure out the actual grade of ice that you are climbing. This will be subjective of course but that can be true for all grading systems be they rock or ice. The Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) that we use here in North America is a classic example. The 5.9 a number of years ago was a sandbag grade. This was because for a few years nobody wanted to destroy a perfectly functional decimal system. For some unexplained reason they did not simply move on with a pure numbering system and introduce the logical 6.0 followed by (you guessed it) 6.1. I see no need to explain further the point being that grading systems are not a static thing as much as we would like them to be. Evolution in the sport of ice climbing requires that for the sake of accuracy the grading system evolve with it. So I will give a couple of examples of climbs at various ends of the spectrum.
So lets say Rainbow Serpent a solid grade six when formed and has a PO-0 to a PO-2 with it being just slightly easier at the PO-2 end but not so much that it has diminished the nature of the overall “out there” experience. We can still say that it is a easy 6 or perhaps a 5+. A respectable grade still the same and worthy of some bragging rights at the afore mentioned adult beverage dispensary. However I have climbed this same route when it was a PO-4 possibly a PO-4+. The route was really no harder then grade 4 in it’s difficulty. There was a certain physiological factor in that it was a sustained vertical column of ice but i did not have to go through the effort of actually creating placements. A couple moves off the deck I realized this and sailed up the climb in a tenth of the time it would have had it had a grade of PO-1.
Guinness Gully in Field, BC is another classic example. The herd attacks this one early in the season. The first two pitches are often are the PO-4 grade within weeks of the climb forming. Making those two pitches a exercise in decision making with there being so many potential placements to choose from. The third pitch however often heals itself and can remain a PO-1 well into the middle or end of the climbing season depending on the weather and the amount of free flowing water. There is often the option of choosing a drier line which may be in a PO3 to a PO4- condition. So when describing a climb to another climber be they a newbie (noob) or a seasoned veteran one is able best describe the overall condition or the route on a pitch by pitch bases.
I am pretty sure that this easy to adopt system will not require a whole lot of overthinking. In fact it is so easy that sports enthusiast from lesser disciplines such as snowboarding or bouldering who have recently taken up ice climbing would be able to understand it. So there it is! I have said what everybody else has been thinking for quite awhile. It is for you the seasoned vets and the enthusiastic noob’s to to embrace this and become part of climbing History. Once we have implemented this perhaps we could consider the Straight Shaft Before Leash-less Tools ( SSBLT ) grading system.

(This post was edited by mikebarter387 on Nov 10, 2015, 5:55 AM)

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Post edited by mikebarter387 () on Nov 10, 2015, 5:55 AM

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