Friday, October 24, 2008

The Cascade Bushwack Rating System

In writing a recent piece for AAI's Blog, I was describing what a typical approach to the Pickett Range -- a sub-range of the Cascades here in Washington -- involves, and bushwacking was a big part of that.

Over the years, I have worked with many climbers who are very new to the concept of bushwacking, especially of the type that we have here in Washington. Describing these things to a person who has never been in brush so thick that it literally makes forward progress impossible is a futile effort at best. In considering how to best describe the intricacies of pushing the bush, forcing the foliage, and groping the garden here in the Cascades, I was reminded of an article I had seen a few years back on the very same subject. As we all know, difficulty is a somewhat subjective thing and as such, definitions, interpretations, and general impressions vary from person to person. To help put various bushwacks into perspective, Mark Dale authored the following piece.

Coley Gentzel
Program Coordinator and Guide, AAI

Above the buskwacking in Boston Basin, North Cascades

The Brush and Bushwhack Rating System
by Mark Dale

For years there has been something sadly lacking in the climbing world. Something necessary to help describe the total mountaineering experience in those areas blessed with challenging peaks surrounded by primeval forest. That something is a brush and bushwhack rating system. After years of the hand-to-limb combat encountered in below-timberline approaches, one comes to realize that this part of an ascent can be half or more of the battle. (Notice the use of fighting terms.)

And yet, just how does one accurately relate this important facet of a climb in words? "It was ugly, real ugly," "Brutal," "A freaking flail," "Oh, not too bad, but I did lose a pint of blood." Well, these are pretty good subjective descriptions, but what's missing here is something more definitive. What we need is a way to portray in a more precise manner those endearing struggles with the brush.

Therefore I propose the Cascade Brush and Bushwhack Rating System. This system is so named because most of my experience in the past ten years of climbing has been in the Washington Cascades. It's perfectly applicable, though, to other ranges of a similar nature, e.g. the Olympics, Northern Selkirks, British Columbia Coast Range, Alaska Range or any mountain group where below-timberline approaches necessitate brush-beating and bushwhacking. This system rates both difficulty and grade much like the technical climbing ratings in use today.

Seth Hobby enjoying some moderate
brush walking, North Cascades, WA.

Before defining system nomenclature here are a few guidelines for describing your favorite flail:

  1. Conditions described must be when the approach is snow-free, since snowpack greatly affects most bushwhacks, reducing their difficulty considerably.
  2. More demanding terrain, e.g. cliffy or steep, will increase a bushwhack's difficulty and grade as compared to one with the same vegetation on level ground.
  3. Both the density and the type of brush are important factors. I'll take an open area of mature devil's club over a dense stand of slide alder any day.
  4. Grade is determined by both time and distance involved in completing the approach, as well as the duration of the difficulties.
  5. Since creek and river crossings play an important part of many approaches, a special sub-rating has been devised for these.
  6. When a mechanical device such as a machete is used the bushwhack is no longer "free," and an aid sub-rating must be used.
Difficulty Ratings
These apply to the "free" difficulties (no aid used) and range from BW1 to BW5, where BW stands for "bushwhack." Difficulty ratings apply to those areas of worst brush that can't be avoided.

  • BW1 Light brush. Travel mostly unimpeded, only occasional use of hands required (e.g. mature open forest).
  • BW2 Moderate brush. Occasional heavy patches. Pace slowed, frequent use of hands required.
  • BW3 Heavy brush. Hands needed constantly. Some loss of blood may occur due to scratches and cuts. Travel noticably hindered. Use of four-letter words at times.
  • BW4 Severe brush. Pace less than one mile per hour. Leather gloves and heavy clothing required to avoid loss of blood. Much profanity and mental anguish. Thick stands of brush requiring circumnavigation are encountered.
  • BW5 Extreme brush. Multiple hours needed to travel one mile. Full body armor desirable. Wounds to extremities likely, eye protection needed. Footing difficult due to lack of visibility. Loss of temper inevitable.
Aid Ratings
When artificial means are used to penetrate brush, then an aid rating should be used to describe the device required. These ratings range from BA1 to BA5, where BA stands for "brush aid":

  • BA1 Machete or sickle
  • BA2 Gas-powered weed-eater
  • BA3 Chainsaw
  • BA4 Agent orange
  • BA5 Bulldozer

As the terrain steepens, running
"veggie belays" are often used

Creek and River Ratings
These ratings are used to describe the difficulty in crossing watercourses. The range is WA1 to WA5, where WA stands for "water":

  • WA1 A dry crossing is possible by using rocks or logs.
  • WA2 Possible wet crossing, but a dry crossing can be accomplished with some finesse.
  • WA3 Wet crossing, ankle- to calf-deep.
  • WA4 Wet crossing, calf- to knee-deep.
  • WA5 Wet crossing, greater than knee-deep, possibility of getting swept downstream.
Grades range from I to VI and follow the same general guidelines as climbing grades:

  • I Brush beating can be done in a few hours or less.
  • II Generally will take less than half a day.
  • III Could take most of a day, but hardened parties will be able to complete in a short day.
  • IV Will take a long day and involve continuous battle.
  • V A 1+ to 2-day bushwhack, difficulty rarely less than BW4, large quantities of bandaids and wound dressings will be needed unless properly attired.
  • VI The most extreme of bushwhacks, requiring over 2 days to complete with probably a BW5 encountered along the way.
Following are some examples of rated bushwhacks:
  • Picket Range, Goodell Creek approach -- Grade III - IV, BW4
  • Mt. Shuksan, White Salmon approach -- Grade I - II, BW4-
  • Mt. Spickard, Silver Creek approach -- Grade V, BW4+
  • Mt. Blum, Blum Lakes approach -- Grade III, BW3+, WA5
  • Devils Peak, Coal Creek approach -- Grade I, BW2
  • Monashees, Thor Creek approach -- Grade VI, BW4, BA1
  • Chimney Rock, standard approach -- Grade II, BW2

A typical climbers "trail" approaching
Mount Goode in the North Cascades.

And there you have it. No longer must one try to decipher the deranged mutterings of a victim of jungle warfare. A person needs only to apply the appropriate brush ratings to relate his brutal experience to others. And who knows? With advances in bush technology and the competitive nature of climbers, we'll probably see difficulties pushed to BW6 and beyond. And there just HAVE to be some Grade VII's out there!

So come on, folks! The next time you report a mountaineering trip that involves green hell, use the Cascade Brush and Bushwhack Rating System to tell others about it. They'll be glad you did!

Mark Dale is a Washington climber, skier and paraglider pilot and a recovering brush abuser.

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