Is it a hike? Is it scary? Is it tougher further up where you can’t see?
Thinking of heading into the mountains for a great outdoor challenge? My experience is in the Rocky Mountains where most of the very high mountains in the continental U.S. are, the highest of which are over 14,000 feet called fourteeners. But a mountain doesn’t have to be that high to be challenging, fun, or in some cases even more difficult and dangerous than many of the fourteeners.
So how can you get a feel for whether attempting a particular mountain is right for you? Researching a mountain is extremely important. Read climb stories of others who have done it and note what route they chose. Another important clue is the Class rating of a particular route up a mountain. I use the word “route” loosely. Sometimes there is a trail, but other times no such luck and you will use landmarks, cairns and other indicators to follow the route you want.
This post is about the Class ratings of mountain climbs. “Class” designations are used regularly in describing the climbing difficulty of the toughest pitch for each way up a mountain. Class ratings are helpful because they tell you something about what you can’t see when you’re at the start of a climb. Much of the early stages may seem easy enough, but if further up there are sections that get more difficult, the Class rating of that whole route is based on the most challenging portion.
This refers to a good trail all the way up. Easy underfoot that is – but there are still the heart rate, oxygen saturation and physicality issues to ascend thousands of feet of elevation gain. However, a Class 1 route is a hike and should not present exposed sections that can frighten some.
This is a broad category of under-foot conditions. In places the trail might disappear altogether. Expect rocks, boulders, even steep and loose scree such as you find in many gullies. You can get hurt falling on Class 2 hikes because the rocks can be sharp, so fitness and balance are imperative. Hiking sticks, which I especially advocate for new, average, or older hikers, can help with balance.
Class 2 Difficult
This typically refers to rocky pitches that are quite steep, sometimes exposed to drop-offs, and otherwise more challenging terrain that warrants the “difficult” rating to warn those from thinking the trail is just a hike. You might even need to use your hands in a few places to get up or down a Class 2 Difficult pitch, but any significant amount of hands and feet would push the rating to the next level.
This is what most people would call climbing. Some call it “rock climbing” although rock climbers call it “scrambling.” Class 3 signifies steeper routes and entails climbing with both hands and feet. Hiking sticks need to be collapsed and stowed on your pack.
More technique is needed for scrambling and some increased upper body strength, but it is super fun – a bit like being inside a giant 3D puzzle. There are techniques to learn including planning out your handholds and foot placements. You need to practice and go with someone who knows what they are doing for some teaching and coaching. Descending is more difficult than the climb up because you can’t see what is below as well as you can when going up.
Think Class 3 but even steeper and with significant exposure. “Exposure” is defined as life-threatening drop-offs inches away from where you need to go. Class 4 includes nearly cliffs but with handholds, chimneys, narrow ledges, tilted slabs – any kind of formation that can get the heart pumping and will surely scare off anyone with the slightest acrophobia.
You need to be OK with looking down and seeing a drop-off of hundreds or a thousand feet or more. Loose Class 4 pitches can be particularly harrowing. Some people will rope up for safety on this kind of pitch, but there are handholds – if there weren’t, the rating would move up.
Near-vertical rock climbing almost always requires technical equipment including ropes, harnesses, pitons, karabiners and perhaps more. Some conservative climbers would opt for using equipment on some Class 4 pitches too. For casual hikers and climbers, I would highly recommend staying away from Class 5 routes unless with experienced and responsible experts.
Even so-called “easy” mountains that are a hike to the top (Class 1 and some Class 2 mountain ratings) are not to be taken lightly. They require fitness, attention to weather (oncoming storms, high wind, cold temperatures and even bright sun in thin air), altitude sickness and getting lost. Foreknowledge of the route is mandatory as it is easy to get lost, and the right equipment, food and water are critical, not just for comfort but also potentially for survival. Go with a friend.