In 1897 the inimitable Owen Glynne Jones produced his description of the rock climbs to be found in the English Lake District. In an appendix, the author, a scientist, decided to subdivide these climbs into four separate categories of Easy, Moderate, Difficult and Severe and within each category or class he listed the climbs in ascending order of difficulty. The volume published by the Abraham Brothers of Keswick was in the first instance greeted with alarm, at least by those who felt that their semi-mystical experience of the hills was being reduced to little more than a recipe book. But before long the majority opinion changed when it was seen to offer sensible guidance to beginners who could start at the bottom of the list and slowly but surely work their way through the degrees of difficulty until they found their own level. Of course, in some quarters it acted as a red rag to a bull provoking much debate and offering an incentive to those of a competitive nature to produce more, and usually, harder climbs which in turn demanded even more extravagantly phrased grades.
The hill-walker, on the other hand, had no such vade mecum. Unlike rock climbing where the degree and type of difficulty was only discovered on close inspection, the difficulty of a walk was obvious. A twenty-mile hike with 10,000 feet of ascent across a stretch of typically Scottish terrain is clearly more difficult than a stroll over the Sussex Downs. Generally speaking, in 1897 the application of Naismith’s Rule (20 minutes for each mile walked and 30 minutes for every 1000 feet of ascent) and a careful study of the relevant Ordnance Survey map would indicate pretty accurately what the walker was letting himself in for.
And so, matters remained for the best part of a century. Then there appeared Alfred Wainwright’s Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland fells which not only met with unprecedented success but also opened up a new field for commercial exploitation. The original model spawned an avalanche of ‘turn left at the first sheep on the right’ sort of instructional manuals and it was not long before every bit of open country had been charted, signposts erected and footpaths marked. And in an age where most people are likely to do anything out of the ordinary without someone or something to hold their hand, it was no longer sufficient for an author to comment that ‘the completion of the Ennerdale horseshoe offers a decent day’s walking’.
At first, such guidebooks were confined to that area of hill-going most akin to rock climbing i.e. scrambling. The authors could most easily follow the pattern laid down by Jones and so act as a ladder to reach the first stages of that sport. Like Jones most authors adopted the same grading system from Easy to Severe with the highest grades of scrambling coinciding with the lowest grades of climbing proper. Thus, certain sections of the Skye Ridge might be graded Difficult/Severe by the scramblers while in the rock climbing guide such a section would only merit Easy/Moderate. To have such a system made sense. Scrambling, because it is almost by definition done without any safety precautions is inherently more dangerous than rock climbing and therefore it is prudent to offer guidance particularly to the beginner.
Whether such an approach is necessary when describing a walk is, at the very least, open to question. Attempts to grade walks often by the use of an icon of a caricatured boot – the more boots the boggier- seems rather spurious and does not appear to add much in the way of help to the walker. As often as not it is the effect of the weather, which can range from dehydration to hyperthermia, that can decide the degree of difficulty experienced. Nevertheless, in a spirit of co-operation and goodwill I offer an alternative method of grading, perfected by Ron and myself while training for an attempt on the Bob Graham Round. To replenish the vital liquids lost during the day we relied on the Export Ale produced by Mc Ewan’s Brewery. The formula was roughly as follows: 20 miles with 5000 feet of ascent, a 1 can day; 30 miles with 10,000 feet of ascent, a 2 can day and a particularly ambitious 40 miles with 15,000 feet of ascent, a 3 can day (readers may of course substitute brewery to suit taste). Finally, to emulate the growing habit of awarding a star to indicate a route of particular merit, we would reward ourselves with a double malt after a particularly satisfactory excursion.