I was a member of the Saturday ice climbing expedition, trekking deep into the heart of the Adirondacks and seeking the first Extreme Adventure Narratives ascent of the semester. After about half of the group had climbed the ice pillar without significant hassle, our focus turned immediately to the difficulty of the climb. On what scale are ice climbs rated? What are the criteria? But most importantly, how hard was this one? Our own subjective judgments about difficulty appeared insignificant until Sarah and Gabby informed us that in their opinion we had just climbed a 3+/4- out of a possible 7 points.
Every type of adventure accessible to ordinary athletes has a system to rate difficulty; be it rock climbing, ice climbing, skiing, etc. Some of these are more refined; the 5-scale for rock climbing, the color-shape scale for skiing and the aforementioned 1-7 scale for ice climbing.
I have two main issues with these ratings systems, the first is that they are entirely subjective and the second is that they have an upper bound. As someone who lives with many members of the Hamilton climbing wall staff, I hear debates rage about what ratings to assign new routes on the wall. The trail rating systems between east coast ski mountains and mountains out west are entirely different, yet they use the same symbols so people assume they are comparable. The point that I’m trying to make is that these ratings systems are based on people’s opinions of difficulty, which are inherently biased by their individual experiences, perspectives and skills.
Lastly, all of these rating systems have upper bounds. If an ice climb is rated a 7, does that mean it is the hardest climb in the world? That’s impossible because there are multiple 7-rated climbs. Are all double black diamonds the same? The answer is no and simply using rating systems to define adventure inhibits our abilities to judge adventures based on their individual qualities and forces us to view them as a conquest on which we can judge our skills holistically.