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toponeige ski rating system

Volodia Shahshahani, writer and ski-alpinist began publishing guides to ski-alpinism at the end of the Nineties. At this time he proposed a precise rating system to try to better identify the descent difficulty. This system is known as the Toponeige rating, or "Volo" rating. It is currently widely used in France. The general principle is to clearly to distinguish a rating for the ascent and a rating for the descent. Further information about the rating is given in each description of the route.

Using this system, all routes are given three ratings:

  • Ascent Rating
  • Descent Rating
  • Exposure Rating

To understand the difficulty of a route it is necessary to review all 3 rating elements in additon to the current objective hazard, glacial conditions and snow conditions.

Ascent Rating

This rating closely follows the UIAA alpinism rating system developed by Wilo Welzenbach.

R : Excursion
Low angle terrain. Crampons and iceaxes would not be needed under any snow condition.
ski 1 & 2
F : Easy
Glacial routes without challening sections
ski 3
PD : Not Very Difficult
Snow slopes up to 45°
ski 4
AD : Fairly Difficult
Difficult, potentially short couloirs up to 50°
ski 5
D : Difficult
Couloirs or snow/ice faces, 55° to 60°
ski 5 - 5.4
TD : Very Difficult
Undefined at this point
ED : Extremely difficult
Undefined at this point

As with apinism, the modifiers + (more) or - (less) can be added to this scale to further refine the rating.

Caution: the ascent ratings use the same denominations as the alpine grades for ski-alpinism, but the two ratings do not describe the same thing. In the "Volo/Toponeige" scale, AD or D only describes the difficulty of the ascent as opposed to describing the overall difficulty of a ski tour.

This ascent rating also includes other traditional alpinism factors related to the seriousness of the route: how remote the route it, the altitude, the length of the route and the elevation gain which can deminish a skiers physical capacity to negotiate a difficult passage.

This rating does not include any factors related to the descent.

Descent Rating

The descent rating is for technical difficulty. This rating is made on a scale of Ski 1 to Ski 5.

Ski 1
Beginner alpine skiing terrain. Slope angle up to 30° and less than 800m. Wide, open slopes or sparsely treed areas. Exposure is non-existent and in general the risk of avalanche is low.
Ski 2
Few technical difficulties. Slopes are not that difficult (maximum 35°) that may be longer than 800m. Possibly uneven terrain or mild exposure and objective hazard.
Ski 3
The beginning of the ski-alpinism: technical passages, couloirs, long slopes at 35°, short sections of 40-45°. Fairly thick forests on lower angle slopes and difficult forest roads.
Ski 4
Narrow couloirs or challenging slopes: long slopes at 40°, possibly short passages at 50°. Very uneven glacial terrain. Very dense forests even with moderate slopes.
Ski 5
Very challenging slopes: Long and sustained steep couloirs, very long slopes from 45°-50° or possibly over 50°. Includes slopes above 55° that are rarely in condition.

Grades 1-4 are further subdivided into three levels, for example:

ski 3.1
Grade 3 Easy
ski 3.2
Grade 3 Moderate
ski 3.3
Grade 3 Difficult

Grade 5 is currently subdivided into 4 levels (5.1, 5.2, 5.3 and 5.4) but there is the possibility of further grades being added (5.5, 5.6...) as needed. Thus, the Toponeige system is open ended to allow for further progression in difficulty in ski descents.

Specific Details Regarding Grade 5 Terrain
Shorter sections of 50°, long slopes of 45° (500 m), or a section (300 m) with challenging, complex terrain: this grade includes some gnarly chutes as well as large consistent slopes in big alpine terrain.
Consistent slopes of 50° (200 m long) or very long sections of 45-50°. The addition of a "+" is used for routes previously given a higher rating, but that have been downgraded due to a restructuring of the rating system.
Slopes starting at 49-50° (300 m long). This grade includes a significant number of routes which previously were rated 5.4. These routs are now rated 5.3: route of great with or "specialty" routes receive the "+". Routes with short but very difficult crux sections fall within this grade.
Routes considered "extreme" in standard conditions. Taking into account the definition of the preceding levels, the current maximum is likely 5.4+.
Nothing would prevent the use of the grade 5.5 for routes currently in existence if a sufficient number experts deemed this necessary.

Exposure Rating

There are four divisions for exposure ratings. When contemplating exposure, keep in mind:

  • Above 30° it is impossible to stop a fall on frozen snow
  • From 40° to 45° it is impossible to stop a fall on compact snow
  • 50° and above: If a fall is not stopped immediately it will be impossible to stop even in deep powder

The exposure rating considers the presence of obstacles that would cause injury to the skier in the event of a fall.

Expo 1
There are no large obstacles; the exposure is that of the slope itself. This factor is identical for a slope up to 25° or a steep 55° slope, 300m long, which ends in a basin. In the case of a 55° slope, a fall will likely have the same consequences (risk of death) as a fall on a slope of 30° slope with an exposure rating of 3.
Expo 2
Slopes may contain cliff bands which would lead to air time in the even of a fall from the top. At this level, if the take off is controlled, the risk of a dangerous impact is low. "S" corridors belong at this level.
Expo 3
Unquestionable risk of a fall over a cliff in the event of fall, but not 100% certainty. "S" corridors with a certainty of impact in the even of a fall belong at this level. The probability of death in the even of a fall is high.
Expo 4
High cliffs, fall lines which include multiple rebounds, or crushing impact zones. In the even of a fall impact is guaranteed, and death is virtually certain...

Exposure ratings do not account for objective hazards: rock fall, seracs, etc. Nor do exposure ratings account for glacial features: seracs, crevasses, etc. Skiers must consider these additional factors before committing to a slope.

Exposure is a critical factor in ski-alpinism because skiers are rarely protected by the use of a rope. Stress due to exposure can cause the contraction of muscles and can inhibit decision-making, thus causing an increase in difficulty.

Examples - To see the Toponeige system in use check out the following French Websites:
skitour route description
bivouak route description

Click here to return to the home page for ski tour & ski descent rating systems

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