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The Addison River Grading System

I have often thought about the rigidity and inconsistencies of the river grading system. Many of the rivers I have paddled have had similar grades but posed different amounts of risk. Anyway Mr. Addison has had a few thoughts of his own. See what you think.

Corran Addisons appraisal of the current river grading system – Addison’s Scale (The examination of a static rating system in a dynamic sport by Corran Addison)

The problems lie in the very foundation of the system. With one number, we have attempted to describe the difficulty, element of danger and exposure. Combine this with the fact that the latest breakthroughs in equipment and techniques have allowed us to push the limits of the possible, and that the system has a cap, and we find that the last digit of class five has as wide a range of rapid difficulties as all the proceeding numbers combined.

What the system fails to see, is that the elements of danger and difficulty (the principal concerns) are not the same thing. A rapid can be dangerous, but easy to run (a wave train requiring no boat skills, but with an undercut off to one side). Another can be technically difficult, but with very little danger (a series of waterfalls into deep pools). The third and seemingly less important, though it is not, is exposure: if things go bad, how long will it take to get help? An hour; a day; a week?

Given that our sport is still young and developing, we can continue to assume that the limits of the possible are still being pushed, so to have a cap on the system places unnecessary pressure on the lower scales, or packs too many variables into one number. Considering that our sport takes us to the most desolate corners of the earth, the element of exposure is also an important one. A broken leg on a roadside run an hour from a major metropolitan area is no real concern. A broken toe in the most remote corner of Tibet is a very real concern. As such, you are more likely to take chances on your local run than on an expedition where even if there were medical help, it would be questionable.

So an effective system would include the element of (1) Difficulty (what is the absolute minimum amount of skill needed to successfully run this rapid), (2) Danger (if I make a mistake, what are the consequences of that mistake), and (3) Exposure (once I have made a mistake, how long before I get help).

Point (1).
As stated before, it needs to be open ended. No consideration for the consequences should be used while addressing this rating. It is a pure and cold assessment of the minimum skills needed to run the rapid. It should be open ended (no cap), with the current rating difficulty used as a starting point, spread over one to ten, with the ability to add eleven, twelve and so on as needed.

Point (2) is much simpler.
Again, using our current rating system as a base, we give this a one to six assessment. One, the is almost no danger at all. Three there is the possibility of minor injury, including bone breakage, serious cuts and bleeding (basically you’re in serious trouble, but death is unlikely – depending on point 3). Five there is a high probability of serious injury (spinal breakage etc.) and a very real possibility of death. Six, you die. This has a cap, as you can’t be any more or less dead. The key to remember here is the most likely scenario. You can drown in a small ripple, but the chances of it are so slim that it is not realistic. You might also swim out of a hole that has killed many people before you, but again in assessing the danger, you need to keep in mind that IF you swim there, you will most likely die.

Point (3) is linked to point two.
A broken rib with some internal bleeding one hour from a hospital is not a very real concern. However, a day or more from help, and now you have a problem. This is broken into three letters. A is less than an hour to receive help. B is more than one hour but less than 24 hours, and C is 24 hours or more. This rating considerably changes the importance of the first two points.

So to recap;

the system reads like this. How hard is it for me to run this, and if I blow it, what’ll happen to me. Some examples are: Niagara Falls 3.5A (3 for difficulty – not that hard, 5 for danger, and A for help). Five Falls on the Chattooga at 4 ft, 6.3B, and the upper Zambezi above Victoria Falls, 2.5C (easy, but if you swim you get eaten by a crock or hippo and you don’t want to be treated in one of those hospitals). The effectiveness of the system is realised in the following scenario.

A class five (technically) paddler (scale 1 to 10) looking at a 5.2A. No problem. The rapid is challenging, but the consequences of a mistake are nominal, so go for it. Challenge yourself and progress. However, this same paddler looking at a 5.4C should be walking as the skills to deal with a mistake in the rapid are not there, and the consequences of the mistake are severe.

This system, which I have been using for several years (and is jokingly referred to as Addison’s Scale by my paddling partners) has proven to be very effective in describing a run to paddlers familiar with it’s workings. Because of its effectiveness, I am now making a push for it’s international acceptance and use. Such a system (which has evolved to its present form over about ten years use and modification) could very effectively eliminate many of the problems that arise constantly from our current system.


1 Comment

  1. Terry

    I’ve no problem with the premise of a more defined and open ended grading system however this feels a bit inelegant and clumsy. It isn’t intuitive as the grade includes something identifiable as a number (2.3, 5.4 etc) but isn’t sequential.

    Ideally you should be able to tell at a glance how difficult the rapid/river are without major interpretation to avoid easy errors. For me, at a glance and without deciphering 5.1A appears harder than 4.5C but on closer examination it isn’t.

    For something to become mainstream it should be elegant and easliy understandable otherwise we’re replacing a overly simplistic system with an overly obtuse one.

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