Ratings Explained


Pinball Alley - II S5
Mount Superior, Utah

photo: Brad Barlage

Ratings—love ‘em or hate ‘em. It can be argued that they have ruined the soul of climbing or injected a new life into the sport. The same can be said about ski descents. Either way, all of the descents in this book have been rated to help give you an idea what you are getting in to.
The rating system used in The Chuting Gallery, The S System, originated in Europe, was formalized by Mimi and Bela Vadasz in California and was then further refined by Lou Dawson of Colorado. It’s an open-ended system that currently tops out at 7+ and describes 21 levels of steep skiing as well as the effort required to get to the scene of the crime. The ratings are objective: how steep the slope angle is and how hard it is to get there. Snow conditions are not a factor. Like rock climbing ratings, which assume the rock is dry, ski ratings assume the most common skiable snow conditions. If you attempt to ski something in heinous conditions, it will be correspondingly harder. The ratings are merely a common denominator for comparing ski descents from one area to another. Here’s how it works:

The Approach Grade (I–VII)
This rating is an effort to define the magnitude of the overall undertaking and the line to be skied. Similar in theory to alpine climbing ratings and the class 1–6 rating for technical rock climbing, this system works better in theory than in practice and is usually omitted due to obviousness.

I ....... Access from a chairlift or by driving. Little to no effort involved. (Out-of-bounds skiing at a resort, Teton Pass)
II ...... Approaches that are easily done in a day. May require some mountaineering. (The Wasatch)
III ..... Longer approaches with more vertical or technicalities. Could be multiday. (The Sawtooths, Colorado or Tetons)
IV ..... Longer approaches yet with technical difficulties and logistics such as glaciers, roped travel, multiday. (The Tetons)
V ...... All of the above, yet farther, harder and longer. Roped climbing, glaciers, higher altitudes. (Mt. Rainier)
VI .....Close to a full expedition. High altitude, roped climbing, crevasses. (Denali)
VII ... Could die on just the approach. Oxygen, technical climbing, altitude, etc. (Himalayas)

Note: Unless otherwise designated, all approach ratings in The Chuting Gallery are class II—basically non technical day trips. To help simplify/clarify the ratings, the "II" has been dropped.

Steepness Ratings (0-7 with +/- qualifiers)
..... Flat terrain. A golf course.
S1 ..... Low angle. Possibly poling in places.
S1+ ... Beginning terrain at a ski area. Safe run-outs.
S2 ......25° slopes. “Intermediate” terrain at a ski area.
S2+ ... Slopes at or near 25° with some terrain features.
S3- .... Slopes up to 30°.
S3 ..... Slopes up to 35°. “Expert” runs at ski areas.
S3+ ... Slopes at or near 35° with terrain features that require maneuvering around.
S4- .... Slopes 35–45° with safe run-outs and little to no dangerous terrain features.
S4 ..... Slopes 35–45° with dangerous fall potential and a few terrain obstacles.
S4+.... Slopes just under 45° that are continuously steep, have serious fall consequences and multiple terrain obstacles.
S5- ... Slopes that are continuously at or near 45° or slightly over.
S5 .... Slopes between 45–55°. You’d be lucky to live through a fall.
S5+ .. Slopes at or around 55°. Falling est verboten.
S6- ... Short sections that are steeper than 55°. Most of the run is continuously above 50°.
S6 .... Slopes continuously steeper than 55°. Painful death from falling highly likely.
S6+ .. 55°ish slopes with major obstacles – cliffs, trees, crevasses.
S7 .... 60° slopes. Just plain ol’ steep as hell.
S7+ .. 60° slopes with nasty obstacles. A quick and certain death if you fall.
S8 .... The future.

Aid Ratings – “A”
An “A” denotes Artificial Assistance in respect to pure skiing, such as downclimbing, rappelling, belayed skiing, rope shenanigans and such. An “aid” rating is denoted by an A at the end of the ratings, i.e. II S6 A. As in climbing, part of the allure of an “aid route” is the possibility of “freeing” it, or doing it au natural and eliminating the points of aid. Descents like The Great White Icicle, while fun to do in almost any style, are prime candidates for future new wave ropeless descents.

Ratings in Reality
Here’s an example of how the rating system works: Without ever having been there, you hear that the East Couloir of Mt. Nutscrubber is rated III S2. The III tells you it’s going to be a long approach (possibly multiday) and the S2 tells you it’s going to be mellow terrain once you get there. Likewise, if you hear the Kevorkian Kouloir on Satan’s Peak is a I S7, you can expect a short approach to a steep and committing line. Ratings are subjective at best and are only useful for generally comparing descents to one another. Like rock climbs, ratings are assigned by group consensus and can be up- or down-rated over time.

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