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The Numbers Game

Herb Swedlund, spry sexagenarian, gray hair protruding in tufts from
his temples, leaned against the glass countertop in the rock gym. As usual,
his eyes flashed mischievously as he glanced around the room. Their twinkle
could mean only one thing: another bon mot was in the works.

Herb had guided and climbed in the Tetons for years. One of his better
outings occurred in July 1961 when he made the first ascent of the
Enclosure’s Black Ice Couloir (it has since melted out; Herb received
the news with enthusiasm: “I outlived it!”), followed, four days later, by
the first ascent of Mt. Moran’s brilliant South Buttress Right. He now
held forth on the differences between sport climbing and mountaineering.
“On alpine climbs,” he began, his hairwings rising in anticipation,
“you can’t just lower off for a milkshake and a blow job.” To a
wide-eyed audience of one, he proceeded to describe guiding the North
Ridge of the Grand Teton. “The Slab Pitch: you know, you’re up there
with a client; it’s dark; it’s cold; there’s ice on the slab; you work your
way up, frictioning with your Galibiers, chipping the ice off the holds
with a hexcentric….”

Chipping ice off holds with a hexcentric? How hard is that, I wondered?
I was new to the Tetons, and had yet to venture onto the north
side of the Grand. A quick thumb through the guidebook revealed the
grade: 5.7. Only 5.7? But what is 5.7 like on a dark, cold, icy slab? And
for that matter, what are Galibiers?

Herb’s slab grew in my imagination until I climbed it the next summer.
After a long day punctuated by route-finding errors and creative
decision-making, my partner and I reached the beginning of the pitch.
My lead. I tiptoed up the verglas, weighed down by my pack and too
much thinking. I overgripped and hesitated and shook my way through
the moves. It felt steeper than a slab, and harder than 5.7. When a thin
crack presented itself beneath a small roof, I promptly stuffed it with
cams. Quaking with adrenaline, I continued to a belay, where I contemplated
this inexact science climbers call grading.

We give grades in Alpinist whenever possible, not as a definitive summary
of a route’s difficulties but as a context for the climb and an indication
of what prospective ascensionists might expect. However, our
readers should note that the alpine grades we publish are subjective.
Rock climbs are one thing. If a route is good and even remotely close
to a parking lot, it will be climbed often enough that a consensus grade
is soon reached. Alpine climbs are more fickle. Conditions often dictate
their difficulty; the culprit is usually water, in any of its various forms.
The Slab Pitch on the Grand may be only 5.7, but wet 5.7 is different
from dry 5.7, and as Herb pointed out, verglassed 5.7 is another proposition
again. Add a pack, boots, hunger, thirst, fatigue and a healthy
dose of intimidation, as my partner and I found out on our climb, and
a 5.7 can become rather distressing.

We try to contact first ascensionists directly for both route lines and
technical details of their climbs because we value accuracy and secondhand
information is often inaccurate. This issue’s Mountain Profile features
Ama Dablam, and we wrote to the first ascensionists of as many
routes as we could.

Glenn Dunmire, who, in December 1990, established a new route
on the west face of the mountain with Chris Warner, promptly
emailed back.

“We couldn’t agree on a rating difficulty at the time,” Dunmire
wrote. “Chris led the first rock band, which he graded 5.4 and I
thought was closer to 5.8. This of course [was] in crampons, double
boots, and mittens with ice tools hanging off them….”

Dunmire gave the team’s route, which they called the American
Direct, a grade of VI 5.6 AI4, and estimated its length at 5,000 feet.
The route has not been repeated–none of the routes on the west face
have–and until it has, no one will know for sure if the grade is accurate.
The subjectivity of alpine grades is echoed by Hooman Aprin,
who established Ama Dablam’s Lagunak Ridge in 1985: “We encountered
rock up to 5.7 [or] 5.8, Alpine ice and snow [to] AI4. So for us
[emphasis ours] the climb was VI 5.7-5.8 AI4.” The two-man team
that repeated the Vanja Furlan/Tomaz Humar route on Ama Dablam’s
northwest face found a different climb altogether from the one Furlan
and Humar experienced; rather than a desperate outing, they encountered
conditions that made the route downright enjoyable. “Someone
ought to go and repeat it with the styrofoam conditions we had,” one
of the climbers wrote. He went on to call the climb “a classic.”

There is also the matter of the various rating systems employed
around the world. It’s one thing to discuss a route’s difficulty with a fellow
American; it’s another to try to piece together a grade from an
email conversation with, say, a Kazak climber who gives the rating for
his route as Russian 6A. While climbs in North America or by North
Americans can often be summed up with a variation on the V 5.9 A2
AI4 M6 theme, French or Scottish or Uzbek climbers are usually more
comfortable couching their achievements in their own rating systems.
As often as not, such grades resist translation, and we publish them as
we receive them. For readers perplexed by a French ED+, a Scottish VI,
7, or a Russian 5B, we present a guide to the world rating systems on
our website at

Above all, understand that the grades we publish are meant to be
suggestions of what the climbers encountered, nothing more. The next
time you venture onto an alpine route, you’ll undoubtedly find your
own challenges, the nuances of which you can discuss afterward over a
pint of your favorite libation. Have fun, take care to make it back in
one piece, and let us know of your adventures. Do keep in mind, however,
that the route as you found it may have little in common with
what the first ascensionists encountered, or what subsequent parties
will experience.

Oh, and those Galibiers? I confirmed it with Herb recently: they’re
Italian camming devices, perfect for icy cracks. He said to mention he’s
selling his set cheap.

–Christian Beckwith