When John Long asked me to include a chapter on the concept of Grade VII for our book, “Climbing Big Walls” back in 1994, I hesitated to define a new standard that was beginning to develop, as my experience was with only one of the most serious big walls on earth. It was clear that when in 1992 when Xaver and I had climbed The Grand Voyage on the Great Trango Tower (a route with 6500 foot of total climbing, including a 4400’ vertical wall, at altitude in a remote area), we had done something which we respected too much to give it the standard highest big wall grade at the time (Grade VI). At the time, there were a few precedents in big wall climbing in terms of total commitment yet none were of Great Trango’s size, altitude, and remoteness. So naturally, for me, Great Trango Tower defines the experience of Grade VII.
Since then, paralleling the advent of the modern stormproof portaledge, many Grade VII’s have been climbed. Yet attempts to define the Grade in print remain elusive. Werner Braun defines it spiritually when he writes, “grade VII would be a route that transcends the vision and limitations of the ordinary”. Chris MacNamara further defines it: “Grade VII refers to extreme alpine big walls that require at least 10 days of suffering on a huge wall in poor weather in a remote area,” outlining all the elements (time, size, effort, conditions, and location) while keeping the definition quite subjective (smart man).
Defining each element individually is problematic; for example, the number of days spent on a major big wall is only relative to the team’s experience and ability: Xaver’s and my pace on the Great Trango Tower over our 15 days was equivalent in terms of effort and efficiency as an ability required to maintain a 3-day pace on the Pacific Ocean wall (so in terms of effort alone, it felt like climbing the PO five times back to back), yet some teams require 10 days on the PO. The fact that some teams have 35 days on a first ascent does not necessarily indicate a greater difficulty or commitment; in fact, less so since a lot of those days are spent hauling the provisions needed for the extended time. A faster ascent, in fact, generally shows more skill and commitment (including the taking of less provisions) than a slower ascent, so counting the days doesn’t define the grade.
The next concept regards the size of the wall. Again, it is difficult to define in terms of pure size, as I would readily grade Charlie’s Porter solo ascent of Asgard in 1974 a Grade VII in terms of sheer boldness and commitment, and Asgard is not as tall as some of longer routes on El Capitan, which are all Grade VI. Weather and remoteness? Without a doubt, these are essential qualities of Grade VII. But many routes in remote and stormy Patagonia were climbed with extensive fixed ropes, and with the safety and comfort provided by ropes leading directly to the ground (so base camp can be reached in any particular day that the weather turns foul or the avalanches get too close), such tactics (generally referred as a siege) drastically reduces the level of commitment.
So that leaves us with the nebulous concepts of style. In terms of style, I would reserve the Grade VII for routes which were first climbed Yosemite alpine style (e.g. no ropes fixed to the ground after the initial pitches), like we did on the Grand Voyage, where the level of commitment is extreme. Other factors are really in the eye of the beholder; as an additional overall grade given to sometimes a long string of ratings given to a modern remote wall (e.g. VII, 5.9+, A4 WI4+), the Grade VII rating belongs to the first ascentionists alone.
Representative Grade VII’s that stand out for me are The East Face of Escudo (first major big wall climbed in Patagonia alpine style without fixed ropes), the Book of Shadows on the north face on Trango, the Slovenian route on Bhagaratti III, and the newer wall routes on the South and East Faces of Cerro Torre. Of course there are many more, there has been an explosion of Grade VII’s from the mid-90’s to today. And there are a handful of routes done prior to the 90’s which must also be Grade VII's (even though the grade didn't exist back then), such as the already mentioned solo of Asgard, the American route on Thor, the original British route on Trango Tower, and of course the futuristic 1984 Norwegian Pillar on Great Trango, which unfortunately the first ascentionists never made it back to the ground to offer a rating.
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