A Class of Our Own

I grew up on the East Coast: in Northern Virginia right outside of Washington, DC. It’s one of the reasons I came to love mountains. The Appalachian mountains were part of the landscape where I grew up and I could even see the Blue Ridge in the distance from my childhood home.

As I got older, I came to enjoy hiking through these mountainous landscapes – mostly in Shenandoah National Park – where the Appalachian trail runs through North to South (or South to North depending on where you start).

The New River in West Virginia, May 2022. Much like what I was used to growing up, these mountains are like gentle rolling hills with lush vegetation.

I remember reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods as a teenager and imagining section hiking the Appalachian Trail, as I had already done a large portion of it. This never came to fruition but I still got to know that trail (at least the central portion of it) pretty well.

This sort of shaped my idea of what hiking was like for many years. I read about the treacherous northern portions of the Appalachian Trail in Bill Bryson’s book but never experienced it first hand. It wasn’t until I was an adult did I venture off to other places with different types of hiking and realize that the mid-Atlantic portion of the Appalachian mountains is pretty forgiving and – for the most part – quite tame.

Hikers generally break terrain up into Classes. These come from a rock climbing scale for difficulty called the Yosemite Decimal System (or YDS). The higher the Class number, the more difficult and dangerous the hike or climb (and Class 5 climbing is what is traditionally known as rock climbing and requires ropes and other specialized gear for safety reasons – of course you can ignore this suggestion if you’re Alex Honnold).

Class 1 is the easiest, and is consists of what most people think of when they go hiking with some hiking boots, a small daypack and some water. It doesn’t require specialized gear and trails are marked clearly. This is also the lowest risk class.

When trails are less clear or route-finding is required, and you may encounter loose terrain called scree (finer grained) or talus (larger rock fields), you’ve reached Class 2. While you may want a map for navigation purposes, you still don’t need any specialized gear here.

Class 3 is also sometimes referred to as scrambling as you typically need to use your hands and feet to traverse this terrain. Sometimes, the route may also be exposed or be close to large dropoffs where a fall could result in serious injury.

Summit attempt in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Colorado, July 2017. Rachel is hiking up a Class 2 talus slope up to some Class 3 scrambling which then becomes sections of exposed Class 4 climbing.

Class 4 is more common for bigger mountains where mountaineering know-how like how to use ropes for crossing sketchier sections is required. The hiking part of Class 4 is typically fairly easy and non-technical; however, there are other factors like a higher level of exposure and the potential for injury on unstable terrain.

As mentioned previously, Class 5 is technical rock climbing and is further divided into sub-levels of difficulty. If you’ve ever been to a rock climbing gym in the US you’ve probably seen the route ratings that also use the YDS.

So getting back to my experiences in hiking, I typically only encountered up to Class 3 hiking in my formative years. Class 4 came onto the scene when I ventured westward to places like Colorado and Wyoming where the mountains are a lot more rugged than the mid-Atlantic Appalachians I experienced. I also rock climb now and have on and off for about six years, so I have a lot of experience with Class 5.

In my next post I want to talk about the differences in what hiking was like growing up and what hiking is like for me now, here in Arizona mostly, as well as the geological reasons for the differences.

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