I first saw the potential for Trial two years ago with Daniel Martian, while we were climbing in southern Ontario, Canada. I wondered what it would go at, and the architecture of the route got me thinking: about the unspoken intricacies of the ice-grading system, and possible changes we could make to ensure a more clear and straightforward way of grading ice.
I understand that the climbing community doesn’t always readily accept major changes like this, but considering the immense and rapid development of the ice climbing discipline, I think it’s time to consider some new ideas.
As we looked at Trial, we realized going ground up wasn’t an option in the conditions it was in that season; the line wouldn’t accept gear. The “chicken” way of rappelling and drilling bolts looked like the only option, so we started to work on this right away. Bigger, wilder projects in Quebec distracted us, so we finished bolting Trial only last year.
The first part was okay: quality mushroomed ice with some decent options for protection. The rock part consisted of a very cool overhang with some little ice ledges and questionable feet—typical for this wall. We couldn’t climb it though, because the key to the line—the final dagger—wasn’t long enough to move onto, and the holds on the rock faded away. Not willing to spoil such an amazing line by drilling holds, we decided to wait patiently. The line would still be there next season.
Finally, this year, our patience paid off. The dagger was in—and fat! The traverse around it proved tricky, but doable, and we managed to bag the first ascent. In the opinion of both Daniel and I, Trial is the best mixed line in southern Ontario. We want it to become a well-trafficked classic, so we added additional bolts to make it more accessible. We graded it M9+, FH WI 6.
What is “FH” you ask? It is an invention of my own creation. Let me explain: The old WI (“Water Ice”) grading system does not accurately reflect the variety of ice formations and conditions that climbers encounter; we all know that two or three days of constant water in good temperatures can drastically later a climb. (I witnessed a 15-meter-long free-hanging dagger grow almost into the ground and break twice in just one week!) The grade given upon first ascents reflects the difficulty of the route only at that given moment; it does not account for the conditions another party might encounter the very next day. This makes the whole system of ice grading extremely unreliable and subjective. How can you grade a medium that is ever-changing?
While it doesn’t solve all the problems, this new qualification of FH—for “free hanging”—or FS—for “free standing”—provides more information than the classic WI grade. Imagine the different worlds that are climbing a fat WI 5 flow plastered to a wall versus WI 5 pillar—this is why the grading scale calls for the variations that I suggest. While FS is super subjective, always changing and extremely hard to grade, FH is pretty straightforward. Free standing ice can be anywhere from very stable to very unstable, while free hanging ice is clearly never stable.
There clearly is still room for more improvement in the grading system even beyond this. But I offer this as a start!
Stas Beskin is an ambassador for Verti Call.