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R’ is for Rant

The ABC’s of Rating Dangerous Climbs.

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In 1981 John Bachar established the Bachar/Yerian (5.11c R/X) on Medlicott Dome, Tuolumne. The 450-foot, three-pitch knobby line, with a total of nine bolts including anchors, instantly became a testpiece for the world’s elite. Unbelievably, it remains a testpiece even today, 26 years later, when the climbing scale is well into the 5.15s.

During the winter of 2006 I made the second ascent of From Switzerland with Love, a steep finger crack in Indian Creek rated 5.13+ R. The climbing was brilliant—a touch sandy but, hey, it’s Utah. For two days, I stuffed my bloody fingers into the continuous fissure and swung my feet from side to side. I placed seven cams and fell onto most of them at least once. On my third day, I clipped the chains. As I lowered and cleaned my gear, I wondered why the route’s rating included a capital “R” I didn’t recall any runouts.
Later, I watched some gripping video of the first ascent and realized that Didier Berthod had skipped an obvious gear placement to reach a better stance, thus climbing hard above fairly threatening territory. I was impressed by Berthod’s willingness to pull down like that above gear, but still, my question remained. Did simply skipping an obvious cam placement warrant an R rating?
I respect both Berthod and the climb. But as trad climbing continues to progress—with recent ascents such as Rhapsody (E11 7a) and The Promise (E10 7a), both in the U.K., and China Doll (5.14a R) in Boulder Canyon—the relationship between difficulty ratings and danger ratings deserves reexamination.
Danger grades are just as important as YDS numbers. First, consider the obvious issue of safety. It’s not fair to grade a climb R when it is clearly X-rated, or, on the flip side, completely safe. In both instances, all you’re doing, besides feeding an ego, is misleading later parties by putting them at great risk or keeping them off an otherwise enjoyable climb. Danger ratings require just as much respect as any other grade, yet they are one of the least discussed and most misunderstood topics in North American climbing.
How hard? How high? How scary?
Answers to these elusive questions arrive in the form of ratings. We use the letters R and X to determine the safety factor of a climb. These letters apply to anything involving a rope, but they are now sneaking into highball bouldering as well. They are also pretty easy to understand. To wit:
R equals runout or restricted (depending on whom you ask). A fall from an R-rated climb would produce a lot of force, possibly resulting in injury. Big fall; decent gear; small chance of hitting the ground or ledge.
R/X steps up the danger. A fall from the wrong place would mean an injury, possibly a serious one, or even death. Big fall; second-fiddle gear; a chance of hitting the ground or ledge.
X marks the spot—pure poison. The climb is either extremely runout or slightly runout over totally crap gear, and either way the result is the same: serious injury but most likely death. Big fall; atrocious gear; excellent chance of hitting the ground and/or ledge.
See, I told you it was a breeze.
From Switzerland with Love offered no obvious runout—the crack ran cleanly from the ground to the top. Technically, you could place bomber gear every two inches. Therefore, this route is not R. It’s an incredible line but it lacked something I and many others enjoy: the intense experience of being scared and uncertain—elements often found in alpine climbing, free soloing and hard trad.
Like Bachar, I believe that climbing is equal parts mental and physical strength, but the modern climbing scene places more importance on the latter. I want the strength of Wolfgang Gullich, the confidence of Peter Croft and the tenacity of Lynn Hill. I don’t climb R (and sometimes X) rated routes because I am a master—I climb them to become a master, a lifelong pursuit. My most memorable moments are not of the sport climbs I had dialed into submission, or of tiny crimps on tiny boulders, but the very brief indescribable seconds of climbing through the runout on a dangerous line.
During those sublime moments under pressure, the mind simplifies and becomes inwardly focused. The chirping birds are gone. The encouraging words yelled up from below, gone. The cold wind on your face is gone and the fear of falling, gone. There is nothing but breath and energy.
And when you get to the next piece, or the safety of a belay, it’s over. All that is left is the blood on your fingers, the pain in your arms and the fire in your eyes. It’s actually a funny paradox that we spend nearly all of our energy getting strong, squeezing, crimping and holding on, yet we find the real joy of climbing once we let go.