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Farewell to Alpine grades?

Ginat (Droites NF) used as example where traditional alpine grade fails to recognise seriousness. Source: . Credit: Chamonix Topo,  Licensed under: Public Domain.
Ginat (Droites NF) used as example where traditional alpine grade fails to recognise seriousness. Source: Chamonix Topo. Credit: Chamonix Topo, Licensed under: Public Domain.

Mont Blanc: The Finest Routes.Batoux, PhilippeVertebrate Publishing2013Mont Blanc - The Finest Routes is a collection of the 100 must-do climbing routes in the Mont Blanc Massif. Modern alpinism is a multi-faceted activity for which the Mont Blanc Massif is the perfect playground. Classic routes to which every mountaineer can aspire are surrounded by the towering rock faces, huge mixed walls, precipitous ice shields, serrated ridges and narrow gullies that define the massif's harder climbs. In order to attain these prestigious summits via the most interesting itineraries, this book presents a modern selection of 100 must-do routes, ranging from historic classics to more recent lines, described in order of increasing difficulty. Author and mountain guide Philippe Batoux provides a comprehensive account of each route, outlining its history and atmosphere and giving all the technical information needed to climb it. These written descriptions are complemented by photo diagrams and detailed topos. In addition, every route is illustrated with superbly evocative photos that make best use of the book's large format. The routes were chosen for the quality of the rock, the reliability of the in-situ gear, the beauty of the surroundings, the prestige of the summit and the enthusiasm the route inspires. Preference has been given to routes in the modern idiom, whether they are gullies that only form in winter, difficult free climbs on high-altitude cliffs, long ridge scrambles or traverses of major summits. There are routes here for all tastes, from famous classics such as the Cosmiques Ridge on the Aiguille du Midi, the American Direct on the Petit Dru, the Whymper Couloir on the Aiguille Verte, the Walker Spur on the Grandes Jorasses and the Kuffner Ridge on Mont Maudit to more recent gems such as Je t'ai conquis, Je t'adore on Pointe Lepiney, No Siesta on the Grandes Jorasses and Le Vent du Dragon on the Aiguille du Midi.97819061486459781906148645Guidebooken seem to have abandoned the alpine grades altogether. Instead they have introduced commitment grade which is used in combination with appropriate technical grade.

Sounds familiar? That is exactly the way North-American alpine grade (NCCS) works and how WI-grading of the ice climbing works. The same approach is used in snow and ice topos of Mont Blanc area by Francois Damilano (e.g. Snow, Ice And Mixed: Vol 1.Damilano, FrancoisJM Editions2005The first of a 2 volume set covering the climbing in the Mont Blanc range. Snow, Ice and Mixed Vols 1 and 2 replace the popular Neige, Glace et Mixte. Now published in English with full colour photo-topos through out it is a comprehensive guide to the show and ice routes on all the summits in the massif.Vol 1 covers eastern section of the Mont Blanc Massif from Tirent Orny Basin to Geant Basin.97829521881289782952188128Guidebooken and Snow, Ice And Mixed: Vol 2. From the Envers des Aiguilles to the Tre-la-Tete Basin.Damilano, FrancoisJM Editions2006To complement the first volume (CCE151) which covered the eastern side of the Mont Blanc massif, this second volume covers the western area, from the Envers des Aigilles to the Tre-la-Tete basin. As with volume one the guide is in full colour throughout and includes descriptions of 663 routes, shown on 232 colour photographs and also includes 11 maps. It should be noted that while these guides are not definitive the vast majority of routes are covered.978295188142978295188142Guidebooken) but is not used in rock topos of Michel Piola (Massif Du Mont-Blanc - Envers Des Aiguilles.Piola, MichelGinevra2006The Envers des Aiguilles covers a wealth of fantastic alpine rock climbing around the Requin Hut, the Envers des Aiguilles Hut and the banks of the Mer de Glace. This guide is in English throughout and features over 250 routes ranging from 5+ to 8a; all are easily accessible from the previously mentioned huts or from the Montenvers Railway or Aiguille du Midi telepherique.97828787120019782878712001Guidebookfr).

In the book author Philippe Batoux explains that the failure to recognize seriousness of a route by traditional ifas system as the reason for his decision on grading system. He gives example of Le Marchhand de SableTour Rouge2899mTD+/II 6a+300m and La GinatLes Droites4000mNorth faceIV ED1; IV/WI5/Sco V,51050m. Both of them get the same alpine grade (TD+). The Batoux book is ordered by seriousness, in which Marchand route is #17 and Ginat #85. Which is to say worlds apart.

Although placement of some of the routes in the book is quite peculiar. I personally have a hard time understanding the logic on placing with a number #12, well below routes like North FaceTour Ronde3792mNorth faceII AD+/D-; II/AI2/Sco II/60° (avg.52°)°, IV (Direct Finnish variant) 350m/10-12 pitch 4h (3-5h) and Chèré CouloirMont Blanc du Tacul4248mTringle du TaculII D+/II WI4; II/WI4/Sco IV/85°350m, 3-4h to the top of the Triangle. Neither Tour Ronde North face or Chèré Couloir is remote, big or serious. Instead they both are well frequented, have plenty of in-situ gear, even in situ anchors, often have track and do not have too complicated descent. So I have a hard time seeing how those could be considered to be even in the same ball park than multipitch WI6. Any multipitch WI6. Each and every WI6 is quite a serious proposition as WI6 is by definition serious due to less than bomber gear caused by invariably funky ice.

That said, the point he makes is a very valid one. Batoux commitment grades are as follows:

Short climb, safe belays, easy descent. No commitment, no objective dangers.
No objective dangers, or only for very short sections of the route. Abseil descent possible (routes on the south face of the Aiguille du Midi, climbs on Aiguilles Rouges).
Several pitches or long approach. Expesiure to objective dangers limited or short-lived (gullies on the Triangle du Tacul. Editors note: Should probably be gullies on East face of Mont Blanc du Tacul, Batoux has graded the ones on Triangle with II whereas the ones on east face have been graded III).
Objective dangers during the approach or the climb. Long descent or obligation to continue and descent by a different route (North face of Les Droites).
Long climb at high altitude requiring excellent mountaineering skills and great commitment. Descent difficult, retreat uncertain (one-day routes on the North face of Grandes Jorasses).
Long climb on an alpine face involving one or more bivouacs. Logistical difficulties due to altitude and remoteness. Exposed to seracs and stone fall during the approach or the descent (north and east faces of the Grandes Jorasses, south face of Mont Blanc).

The shortcomings of ifas grade are well known and Batoux system is not the first attempt to solve the issue. In his book Sommets Du Nepal.Grobel, PaulGlénat200797827234539509782723453950Sommets du NépalGuidebookfr Paolo Grobel introduced a system with some similarity while keeping the traditional ifas grade but adding commitment grade to it:

A route with no high altitude camp on a summit less than 5600m (Normal Route on 5587m Mardi Himal: I/F, snow)
A route with no high altitude camp on a summit between 5600m and 6800m, where the factors relating to commitment as defined above are relatively straightforward (Normal Route on 6165m Island Peak: II/AD, snow)
A route with one high altitude camp on a summit between 5600m and 6800m, where factors affecting the commitment can be straightforward or complex (Normal Route on 5903m Paldor: III/PD+, snow arête and easy rock. Normal Route on 6476m Mera Peak: III/F, snow. Normal Route on 6119m Lobuje Main (East) Summit: III/D, snow)
A route with several high altitude camps on a summit between 6500m and 7500m, where commitment factors can be straightforward or complex (Normal Route on 6814m Ama Dablam: IV/D, mixed. South Ridge of 6501m Singu Chuli: IV/TD, snow ridge. Normal Route on 7246m Putha Hiunchuli: IV/F, snow.)
As for IV but with complex commitment factors (Normal Route on 7152m Baruntse: V/PD, snow. Normal Route on 7126m Himlung Himal: V/F, snow: West Ridge of 6966m Dorje Lhakpa: V/AD+, snow)
A route with several high altitude camps on a summit between 7500m and 8500m, where commitment factors are relatively straightforward (Normal Route on 7678m Makalu II: VI/PD, snow: Normal Route on c7999m Xixabangma Central: VI/F, snow. Normal Route on 8188m Cho Oyu: VI/F, snow).
As above but with complex commitment factors (Normal Route on 8167m Dhaulagiri: VII/AD, snow. Normal Route to 8012m Xixabangma Main Summit: VII/PD+, snow and rock.
Reserved for peaks above 8500m, though the immense popularity of, and fixed equipment on, Everest make it difficult to fit the world’s highest mountain into any category.

Similar idea has been used for quite a while by CampToCamp.org. However, factors that constitutes, say grade IV at CampToCamp is not the same as grade grade IV according to Batoux or Grobel.

Panico and Topo.verlag approach the same issue with fundamentally rather similar approach , however they have decided to use different scale and slightly differing factors in their E-grade (Ernshaftsbewertung, seriousness grading, see here: Leseprobe). It is used on combination with traditional alpine grade (albeit it could just as well be used in combination with just the pitch grades).

Relatively short outing. Retreat is possible from where ever. Not too exposed. Objectively quite safe. Simple route finding. E.g. Normal routeLes Diablerets, Normal routeWildstrubel, West flankAllalinhorn South RidgeSilvrettahorn via W Flank & NW RidgePiz Buin.
Longer route. Retriet is always fairly easy. Several exposed sections. Objectively relatively safe. Route finding requires experience. E.g. Gältehore-Arpelistock, NordgratFerdenrothorn, Traverse E-WBreithorn, Traverse Pollux-Castor W-ECastor, TriftgratWeissmies, Normal route from Cabane de VignettesPigne d'Arolla.
Long outing. Retriet unproblematic only from few places. Terrain often exposed. Short dangerous sections (ice fall, stone fall) possible. Route finding requires experience. E.g. Traverse of TschingelhörnerTschingelhorn, GalletgratDoldenhorn, Y CouloirAiguille d'Argentière, Traverse W-ELyskamm EselsgratPiz Roseg East flank and South faceAgo di Sciora.
Big, long and exposed route. Retriet problematic and involves risks. Sudden bad weather can have dramatic consequences. Partially objective dangers for longer sections. Route finding requires experience. E.g. GitzigratBalmhorn, NordgratBietschhorn, HörnligratMatterhorn, Migot SpurAiguille de Chardonnet, ArbengratObergabelhorn, RothorngratZinalrothorn, North ridgePiz Badile, Kuffner PillarPiz Palü, BiancogratPiz Bernina.
Very big and long route. Terrain is very exposed and has unforgiving character. Retriet is practically not possible or only with great effort and involves big risks. Sudden bad weather can have dramatic consequences. Certain level of ice or stone fall danger are unavoidable. Diffucult route finding, a lot of experience in route finding and perfect rope handling necessary. E.g. S-rippeMorgenhorn, SichelgratWetterhorn, SchaligratWeisshorn, Marinelli CouloirDufourspitze, South FaceObergabelhorn, FerpéclegratDent Blanche, Cassin RoutePiz Badile, Gaiser-LehmannPiz Cengalo, SellagratPiz Roseg.

It'll be interesting to see if any one of these approaches takes off, the idea behind them is certainly sound enough and there's a real problem in alpine grading system (utter and miserable failure to give proper recognition to seriousness and scale of the climb).

Personally I feel that there should be some form of commitment element added to alpine grade to make it more informative. In principal, CampToCamp and Grobel systems make perhaps most sense, particularly as they are more or less backwards compatible. The reason why I prefer their solution to Batoux solution is that they offer means to make distinction between routes with short crux and the ones with sustained difficulties. While some of the technical grades (french and YDS rock grades as well as WI ice grade) consider how sustained climbing is within a pitch, none that I am aware of are affected by other pitches. Yet 15 pitches of WI5 is clearly way more demanding than one. Granted these factors have some effect on Batoux system as well, but if a cruxy route is serious at the same time, then it would look similar to one with sustained difficulties, yet have different demands for the prospective aspirant.

Grobel system makes sense in the case if big mountains but doesn't readily lend itself to lower altitudes. However, the routes in, say, New Zealand can still be very big and remote without going very high. Altitude certainly affects the commitment, but it is not the only thing affecting it. The same goes for the length of the route. Perhaps altitude and possible high camps could be combined to Batoux factors so that the criteria would be similar to Batoux but the grade would be bumbed if the route requires high camps or goes to great altitude. On the other hand, these factors are easy enough to understand, therefore they could be omitted from grading system and expressed as separate factors which would make the commitment grade simpler which might actually make it more expressive.

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