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Rock climbing and rock protection/anchors

Rock climbing in the U.S. began in the 19th century with such prominent figures as John Muir. In that day, climbers attempted to climb every peak they saw, beginning of course with the biggest and most spectacular. Peaks could be climbed with easy walking, or trickier scrambling, or if needed, ropes and rock protection was needed. Rock protection means some means of securing the rope to the rock. A gross generalization of rock climbing is that over time, more and more difficult climbs were sought out, which required more rock protection and anchors. Sometimes this meant leaving nothing in the rock, but often slings, pitons, and small metal bolts were left. Even today, all these are temporary in that they will fall off or rust away within a few decades, but are permanent in that they are left there from year to year. The ASCA mission is to replace deteriorating anchors on classic climbs in the U.S. and educate climbers and the public about climbing safety. See the History essay for a little more background and some good references.

U.S. Rock climbing rating systems

Overall commitment/time rating: the "Grade" system.

Grade I a short climb done in a couple hours
Grade II a short climb done in an afternoon
Grade III a climb which takes most of the day
Grade IV a climb usually done in one very long day
Grade V a climb taking two to three days
Grade VI a climb taking 4 days or more
Grade VII a Grade VI in an extremely remote location

Technical difficulty rating systems

ALL rating systems for climbing are HIGHLY subjective, depending on the skill and experience of the climber. Most climbers will never be able to climb 5.11 crack, yet some do so without ropes. Most climbers will never be able to climb El Capitan, and those that do usually take days to make it up a Grade VI climb, yet several of those climbs have been climbed in less than 4 hours by the worlds' fastest climbers, making them only a Grade II for those few superstar climbers.

Anyone attaching too much importance to any rating should remember that these are subjective, and climbing should be about enjoying the vertical world, not competing with other people over some little silly numbers.

The original Sierra Club rock climbing rating system, dating from the 1930s:

1st class - hiking
2nd class - scrambling and boulder hopping, hands are needed, but generally very little exposure or danger
3rd class - steep scrambling with exposure, ropes are needed for inexperienced people. An unroped fall on 3rd class terrain would likely be fatal.
4th class - steeper scrambling on small holds, ropes are needed for most people, but an experienced climber would normally climb an entire rope length without intermediate protection, then set an anchor and belay other climbers up. Inexperienced people may not be skilled enough to ascend even when belayed from above.
5th class - steep rock climbing where the leader must place intermediate protection, and in case of a fall, the intermediate protection would catch the leader (who will fall twice as far as the distance above the last piece of protection)
6th class - very steep climbing where the climber is unable to ascend the rock without pulling and stepping on rock protection

The Yosemite Decimal System (YDS; more properly known as the Tahquitz Decimal System), invented by Don Wilson, Royal Robbins, and Chuck Wilts in 1956, rated all free climbs on an initially closed decimal system:

5.0 easiest 5th class
5.1
5.2
5.3
5.4
5.5
5.6
5.7
5.8
5.9 hardest 5th class

After many very difficult climbs accumulated in the 5.9 rating, the decimal system was "broken" in that it was no longer a decimal system, and the 5.10 rating came in to existence, followed by 5.11, 5.12, 5.13, 5.14, and now 5.15. These upper grades were further subdivided into 4 "letter grades" to further refine the rating: the suffixes a, b, c, and d were associated with increasing difficulty (i.e. "easy 5.10" = 5.10a or 5.10b, "hard 5.10" = 5.10c or 5.10d). In addition, the popularity of bouldering (very short unroped extremely hard climbs) introduced the current standard "V" scale, which currently ranges from V0-V15. Boulder problems tend to be short and powerful, often requiring different techniques than roped climbing, and a separate rating system makes sense.

The use of outdoor rating systems in gyms is inappropriate and leads to safety issues

Modern climbers learning in a gym are often misled by the use of the YDS in indoor gyms. The use of the YDS inside is entirely inappropriate, as indoor gyms have little relation to outdoor climbing. Most people who learn in a gym and think they "climb 5.11" would likely DIE attempting a 5.0 chimney system first climbed in the 1930s. Because of this new generation of gym-educated climbers, the use of the lower 5th class ratings has fallen by the wayside, and modern climbing guidebooks typically condense all climbs formerly 5.0-5.6 into the 5.6 rating. A large number of accidents are directly attributable to the use of the YDS in climbing gyms.

Danger ratings

However, all the various rating systems do not describe the danger level faced by the leader should the leader fall (which is one reason why the YDS should not be used in climbing gyms). Various rating systems were introduced to include some description of the potential falls. These ratings which describe danger and psychological difficulty are not nearly as refined as the ones describing physical difficulty. Currently, the most widely used is the R, R/X, and X ratings. These crudely describe the danger level.

R runout, where a fall would likely result in serious injury
R/X very runout, where a fall at the wrong place will likely result in at least serious injury and possibly death
X extremely runout, where a fall at the wrong place will likely result in death

Some guidebooks also use a PG and PG/R system, in some guidebooks PG means partway runout, and in others means "Protection Good."

These ratings do not describe other hazards such as loose rock, which often can only be negotiated safely with a decade of mountaineering experience, and which regularly kill even the best climbers in the world.

Protection for the leader is a defining element of rock climbing

The amount of protection on a climb is traditionally determined by the first to climb the route, and while climbing is a fairly anarchistic pursuit, the one revered tradition is that later climbers never add additional fixed protection to an existing route. In other words, the addition of bolts or pitons to existing routes is not tolerated unless the first person to do the route adds the bolts to their own route.

Bolts are not regulated or certified and may break

Bolts used for outdoor rock climbing in the U.S. have historically not been regulated or certified in any way. Historical practice is to use bolts which are nowhere near any "reasonable" level of safety compared to the standards of modern society, and even the bolts used now to establish new routes and replace old bolts are not certified or regulated in any way. Limitations due to ease and speed and type mean that even many bolts used by the ASCA are nowhere near what would be considered acceptable safety margins in other walks of life such as the modern construction industry. The ASCA is a bit of a misnomer, because climbing is (obviously) not a "safe" thing to do. Old deteriorating bolts are potential death traps even for experienced climbers, and the ASCA seeks to replace them with well camouflaged stainless steel bolts which will not rust, and are easily removable/replaceable in the future. No bolt is ever guaranteed, and trusting a bolt with your life is always a gamble.

Avalanches, rock fall, incorrect installation, freeze/thaw cycles, manufacturing defects, and climbers attempting to remove the bolt with tools can all be the cause of messed up bolts. Bolts are technically speaking "abandoned property" and not regulated by any government agency or any organization.

Bolts replaced by the ASCA may break

The ASCA is an entirely volunteer effort to do maintenance and the bolts placed by the ASCA are in no way guaranteed and may fail.

If you are seeking security, DO NOT CLIMB. To quote Helen Keller, "Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all." Climbing of any type inherently involves the risk of death. Those hiding their unwillingness to take responsibility for their own actions behind the current legal system of the U.S. should never attempt to climb anything.