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A Brief Explanation of the ALASKA GRADE SYSTEM

Submitted by polarwid on 2004-11-04

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The Alaskan Grading system is based on Boyd N. Everett, Jr.'s 1966 paper "The Organization of an Alaskan Expedition." He felt that a grading system unique to Alaska was needed because of the severe storms, extreme cold, and altitude. Realize that conditions can and will change daily, which accounts for wild swings in the subjective difficulty of a route. Remember, that 5.7 climb in the Valley might feel 5.10 if you are carrying a heavy pack, high on Denali during storm conditions.

The highest grade commonly in use is Alaska Grade 6 (not to be confused with UIAA GRADE VI), which is reserved for the toughest and most severe routes, such as Hunter's Southeast Spur and Denali's Southwest Face. The Cassin Ridge on Denali and Foraker's Talkeetna Ridge are Alaska Grade 5 because they have sustained and difficult climbing, but DO offer the option of a retreat (as opposed to Grade 6).

The Alaska grading system is also a means of comparing one climb with another. You can compare the "easy routes" on Denali and Foraker, and find that Foraker is much harder. The West Buttress and Muldrow Glacier routes rate Alaskan Grade 2, while the West Ridge of Foraker comes in at Alaskan Grade 3+. Thus you know that the "easy" route on Foraker is quite a bit harder than the "easy" route on Denali. Sometimes the grade is higher on a route with no technical difficulties just because speed and avalanche awareness are keys to success on the route. The Canadian Route on Denali's gigantic 14,000 foot Wickersham Wall has no technical difficulty on it, but rates an Alaskan Grade 3 because of the continuous danger from avalanches and the length of time you are exposed to the danger. Cornice problems and technical difficulty with long stretches of easy terrain are usually given Alaskan Grade 4 (such as Foraker's Archangel Ridge).

Each grade has the elements of the previous grade:

    ALASKAN GRADE 1--An easy glacier route, only necessitating crevasse awareness and rescue.
    ALASKAN GRADE 2--Moderate, with no technical difficulties besides knife edges, high altitude, and weather difficulties.
    ALASKAN GRADE 3--Moderate to Hard, mildly technical climbing with occasional cornices and the odd short, steep section.
    ALASKAN GRADE 4--Hard to Difficult, like Grade 3 but offering more sustained technical difficulty.
    ALASKAN GRADE 5--Very Difficult, sustained technical climbing needing a high level of commitment and having very few bivouac sites.
    ALASKAN GRADE 6--Severely Difficult, poor to no retreat options, hanging bivouacs, constant exposure to spindrift, and the highest standards of sustained technical climbing for over four thousand feet.


These recommendations are based on the number of items climbers have carried in relation to the Alaskan Grade of their route. Although you may take more or less equipment, the following guidelines represent a minimum for two climbers:

    ALASKAN GRADE 1--Basic ice axe and crampons, rope, and a couple of pickets and flukes.
    ALASKAN GRADE 2--Axe, crampons, rope, 4 pickets and flukes, and 2 ice screws.
    ALASKAN GRADE 3--Axe, spare ice tool, crampons, rope, 4 pickets and flukes, and 4 ice screws.
    ALASKAN GRADE 4--Axe, set of ice tools, crampons, 2 ropes, 4 pickets and flukes, 6 ice screws and most likely a small rock climbing rack.
    ALASKAN GRADE 5--Axe, set of ice tools, crampons, 2 ropes, 4 pickets and flukes, 10 ice screws, 10 nuts (various sizes), 3 Friends, and 6 pitons.
    ALASKAN GRADE 6--Axe, set of ice tools, crampons, 2 ropes, 12 ice screws, 16 nuts, full set of Friends, and 12 pitons. (also helps to have a TON of skill and YEARS of experience!!!)

In addition to carrying the necessary hardware (including carabiners, a set of ascenders and a pully), each climber should have prior practice, knowledge and a plan for crevasse rescue.

Snowshoes are invaluable on remote routes with high plateaus, such as Denali's East Buttress. Although there is other essential gear, possession is not a substitute for experience and knowledge. Read the book Surviving Denali by Jonathan Waterman for a comprehensive list of expedition and personal equipment necessary for climbing in the ALASKA RANGE. The website for ALASKA MOUNTAINEERING AND HIKING also has an excellent list of needed items, as does the National Park Service website for Denali National Park.


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I easily summited on the West Buttress twice; three times I have only sniffed the summit from the north,once from Katishna,once from Eilson center and once from Broad pass on foot.I consider the technical difficulty of Kartens and the icefalls a much greater challenge than the West Buttress.The approach is the killer on northside giving any route on the northside some serious sourdough points

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