Ski Mountaineering Ratings
By Andrew McLean

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Originally published in The Chuting Gallery

Ski Mountaineering Ratings

Ratings. Love ‘em or hate ‘em. It can be argued that they have ruined the soul or climbing, or added a new life to the sport. The same can be said about ski descents. In any case, I’ve rated all of the descents in this book to give people an idea what they are getting in to.

This rating system, The S System, was formalized by Mimi & Bela Vadasz, refined by Lou Dawson, and is based on the existing European 1-7 system. 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 done objectively - how steep the slope angle is and how hard it is to get there. Snow conditions are not a factor, similar to rock climbs being rated assuming dry rock. If you attempt to ski something in gnarly 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 Rating - Roman numerals I-VII
I Access from a chair lift or by driving. Little to no effort involved
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 multi-day. (The Tetons)
IV Longer approaches yet, with technical difficulties & logistics (Glaciers, roped travel, multi-day).
V All of the above, yet further, harder and longer - roped climbing, glaciers, higher altitudes 
VI Close to a full expedition - high altitude, roped climbing, crevasses. (Denali)
VII Could die on just the approach - oxygen, technical climbing, altitude, etc. (Everest)

Steepness Ratings 0-7 with +/- qualifiers
S0 Flat terrain. A golf course.
S1 Low angle - possibly poling in places.
S1+ Beginning terrain at a ski area. Safe run outs.
S2 25 degrees slopes. “Intermediate” terrain at a ski area.
S2+ Slopes at or near 25 degrees with some terrain features
S3- Slopes up to 30 degrees. 
S3 Slopes up to 35 degrees. “Expert” runs at ski areas. 
S3+ Slopes at or near 35 degrees with terrain features that require maneuvering
S4- Slopes 35-45 degrees with safe run outs and little to no terrain features
S4 Slopes 35-45 degrees with dangerous fall potential and terrain obstacles
S4+ Slopes just under 45 degrees that are continuous, have fall consequences and terrain obstacles
S5- Slopes that are continuously at or near 45 degrees or slightly over
S5 Slopes between 45-55 degrees. Falling est forbotten.
S5+ Slopes at or around 55 degrees. You’d be lucky to live through a fall.
S6- Short sections that are steeper then 55 degrees, yet continously above 50 degrees.
S6 Slopes continuously steeper than 55 degrees. Slow death from falling highly likely.
S6+ 55ish degree slopes with major obstacles - cliffs, trees, crevasses
S7 60 degree slopes. Just plain ol’ steep as hell.
S7+ 60 degree slopes with nasty obstacles. A quick and certain death if you fall.
S8 The future. Scary.

Aid Ratings - “A”
An “A” denotes Artificial Assistance - down climbing, rappeling, belayed skiing, rope shinanagins and such. Contray to what some puritian might think, there is nothing wrong with any of these tactics and I whole heartedly encourge them. The only time they cause any problems is if people forget to mention that they rappelled or belayed sections. That would be considered lying and very bad style. So, an “aid” rating is denoted by an A at the end of the ratings, ie: II S6 A. As in climbing, part of the allure of an “aid route” is the possiblity 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 canidates for future new wave ropeless descents.

Here’s an example of how the rating system works. Without ever having been there, you hear that the East Col of Mt. Nutscrubber is rated III S2. The III tells you it’s going to be a long approach and the S2 tells you it’s going to be mellow terrain once you get there. Likewise, if you hear the West Col of Mt. Widowglisse is a I S7, you can expect a short approach to a steep and committing line.

Copyright - Andrew McLean Back to Writings Index