Climb Ratings- Birth of NCCS Leigh Ortenberger Summit 1963

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Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Topic Author's Original Post - Dec 19, 2009 - 04:32pm PT
For those folks that are curious about the origins of climbing ratings and grades, Leigh Ortenberger first proposed such a National Climbing Classification System in Summit magazine May/June 1963. Tahquitz was a very influential area in establishing a comparative rating system that oddly became the Yosemite Decimal system or YDS. Many other areas developed grading systems in relative isolation with all the historical idiosyncrasies one would expect.

This is the first attempt that I am aware of to establish comparative ratings on a national scale. The initial article had some typos in the tables so what is posted here are the corrected ones to help avoid confusion.











jogill

climber
Colorado
Dec 19, 2009 - 09:45pm PT
Interesting effort, but the YDS was well on its way by then. The NCCS was technically in use in the Tetons, but when climbers talked of a route, they usually used the YDS. Going from 5.9 to something called "5.10" was a minor intellectual faux pas, but few paid any attention, and the designation made perfect sense in the context.
Eric Beck

Sport climber
Bishop, California
Dec 19, 2009 - 10:28pm PT
Back when the first Yosemite guide was under construction, I remember Roper receiving a letter from Ortenberger imploring him to adopt the F system. That whatever was used in the Yosemite guide would become the national standard.
JuanDeFuca

Big Wall climber
Peenemunde
Dec 19, 2009 - 10:34pm PT
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F67JhKT5bxU&feature=related
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Topic Author's Reply - Dec 20, 2009 - 04:51pm PT
So, it sounds like Ortenberger's efforts were mostly a case of regional (Teton) pride attempting to assert itself on a national scale. Do you recall if he had any other sources of support from the AAC or what was left of the Sierra Club rock climbing sections? Did the F system have any advantage to offer other than its wide use in alpine areas and a few places like J-tree and Devil's Lake?

I bet Roper would have embraced the NCCS if it had been the F-ing scale rather than just the F scale! LOL
Chiloe

Trad climber
Lee, NH
Dec 20, 2009 - 04:57pm PT
Have we had a post about the alternative rating system that Harvey Carter developed,
and promoted in some early issues of Climbing? I don't recall anything about it except
that it came and went.
Mighty Hiker

climber
Vancouver, B.C.
Dec 20, 2009 - 05:06pm PT
Proponents of a national or even an international reating system sometimes seem out of touch with the mainstream of local climbing philosophies. Idealistically, an international system is as desirable as Esperanto, a fine, doomed idea.
 Steve Roper, Climber's Guide to Yosemite Valley, 1970
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Topic Author's Reply - Dec 20, 2009 - 08:58pm PT
Classic Roper! Too funny, Anders!
Fritz

Trad climber
Hagerman, ID
Dec 20, 2009 - 09:29pm PT
Steve: Fascinating topic. After looking at the list of "big climbing names" that Ortenberer asserts have endorsed the NCCS: I'm amazed that it did not gain wider acceptance.

Maybe Roper "took it down."
rgold

Trad climber
Poughkeepsie, NY
Dec 20, 2009 - 10:43pm PT
The best technology doesn't always win. Just look at MS Windows for perhaps the most glaring example.

The NCCS system was identical to the decimal system from 5.7 on up (F7 on up) and compressed some of the lower grades that no one can tell apart anyway. From a purely logical perspective, it made much more sense. I think A1 - A5 was also an NCCS innovation, but maybe those grades had already come into use and Ortenburger just adopted them.

But the really useful feature of the NCCS system had nothing to do with the format of the numbers. It was an attempt to create grade-defining example routes on a national scale, so that 5.10 or F10 would actually mean the same thing in, say, the Tetons, which had about the softest grading in the country, to, say, Devil's Lake Wisconsin, which had about the severest.

Perhaps that effort was doomed by the fact that climbing and climbers were far more regional then. With much less traveling, climbers identified far more with their home turf and perhaps were unwilling to make any modifications to the local standards as part of an alignment effort. They also saw little or no need for national standards since they had no need for grades outside the neighborhood, so to speak.

Or perhaps it was just too hard. In spite of the obvious need for examples to define the meaning of grades, most guidebooks I've seen have not managed to compile such a list for their own little restricted locale, even as the authors add no end of other details, diagrams replete with all kinds of symbols, color photos with detailed topos superimposed, stars for quality, protection ratings, etc. But nothing defining the difficulty ratings for the area, presumably because everyone "knows" what, say, 5.10 means---Ha! precisely what everyone doesn't know, as it turns out.

So I think that Ortenburger's task was made Quixotic by entrenched provincialism. Too bad for all of us, ultimately, we got a Windows grading system.
Clint Cummins

Trad climber
SF Bay area, CA
Dec 21, 2009 - 12:32am PT
> Do you recall if he had any other sources of support from the AAC or what was left of the Sierra Club rock climbing sections?

For some years people reported grades in the AAJ with the F ratings, even for Yosemite.
Maybe what was missing from the NCCS was the F prefix, which is how people actually used it. If people just said Class 1 to 10, it would get confused with the old Class 1 to 6 system.
Overall, it didn't add anything new, except the compression of the lower 5th class grades (which few probably cared about), and the comparison table of the different areas.
And it subtracted the pride people had in saying "Five-nine" and "Five-ten".
Only the Australians were smart enough to use something like it!
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Topic Author's Reply - Jan 14, 2010 - 11:17am PT
The arrogant, the innocent and the insecure...Bump
Alan Rubin

climber
Amherst,MA.
Jan 14, 2010 - 11:50am PT
I know that Fritz Weissner was involved with the creation of the NCCS and a big proponent. For several years it seemed like a toss-up between the NCCs and YDS as to which would become the national norm (if either), with various guidebooks (and the mid-'60s was the time period when rock climbing guidebooks began to proliferate)using one or the other or both. This period lasted into the early '70s, at which time, as noted by an earlier poster, Harvey T. Carter tried to introduce yet another, incredibly complex, grading system(I think he called it the Universal Grading System or something similar) through Climbing Magazine which he published. This last system was still-born because of it's complexity, and by the mid-'70s the YDS had been accepted in most areas(Devil's Lake with it's own twist on the NCCS was an exception). It was at around this time that "seriousness" ratings were added to the YDS, I believe initially by Jim Erickson in his Boulder guidebbok Rocky Heights.
Alan Rubin

climber
Amherst,MA.
Jan 14, 2010 - 12:36pm PT
Believe it or not, rereading this article brings me a sense of nostalgia, as it was one of the earliest climbing articles that I ever read--quite possibly in the first issue of Summit I obtained at the dawn of my climbing career. Here I was still learning the basics of what one did with the rope (7/16th Goldline), reading this article and trying to figure out what the heck this grading thing was all about!!!!Once I deciphered it a bit and realized that it contained a list of "famous" climbs across the country,I began to dream of climbing all the listed routes--even though I really didn't have any idea of what that really entailed--I guess my first "ticklist". Looking back on it I'm pleased to see that I've managed to tick a fair number of the listed climbs--and there is, hopefully, still time for the remainder!!!!
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Topic Author's Reply - Jan 14, 2010 - 11:18pm PT
Al- Do you recall anything else about Harvey's Universal Grading System? Was it related to the continental european alpine grading system or something altogether new?
hhhhhhhhh

climber
Jan 14, 2010 - 11:48pm PT
I remember John Wolfe's early Joshua Tree guide book used the NCCS.
Alan Rubin

climber
Amherst,MA.
Jan 15, 2010 - 09:35am PT
Steve, Carter's grading system was indeed something totally "unique". If I remember correctly it contained several "characters"--either numbers or letters or, I think, some of each, for each climb in an effort to quantify (overquantify)the varying elements that make up difficulty. While in theory it may have made sense, in practice it was way too complicated to understand--I recall that there were 4 or 5 or more "characters" to make up each grade. He too had a list of comparative climbs to explain his system, but often quite apparantly similar routes would have very different grades for reasons that I, for one, could never decipher. I'm sure that someone on this forum will have the early issues of Climbing that attempt to explain and utilize his system, and also the ability to scan them onto here.
Thinking back to Ortenberger's article and the NCCS, it was obviously quite a task to compile that comparative list as during that time period there were far fewer climbers and there tended to be less travel and communication between climbers from different parts of the country than became commonplace within a few years after the article appeared.So there were very few, if any, climbers who had the basis of experience in many of the different areas to make the actual comparisons.
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Topic Author's Reply - Jan 15, 2010 - 10:01am PT
Unfortunately, I don't have the earliest issues of Climbing in my collection otherwise you'd be reading Harvey's fantasy already! Perhaps he just wanted something to talk about at parties...LOL

The crux of Consensus is a no-hands leg press on a slippery sloper just off the ground!!! Not sure it has been repeated yet since the webbing at the single anchor is sun bleached bone white!
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Topic Author's Reply - Jun 12, 2010 - 11:31am PT
Another article on ratings that appeared just before the OP in the March 1963 issue of Summit.



I recently saw an issue of the AAJ from around this time that featured a Tetons aid pitch reported as a 6.8! It is rather hard to put yourself in the midst of this process from where we all sit now but the details all had to be worked out since the European rating system just never caught on to copy directly.
Mighty Hiker

climber
Vancouver, B.C.
Jun 12, 2010 - 12:33pm PT
The first Squamish guide, written by Jim Baldwin in 1962, graded aid climbs from 6.0 to 6.9. Following the TDS. Perhaps Hamie or Tricouni can say more.
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