We all love epics. Shivering bivies, horrific bushwhacks, days without food or water, terrible injuries suffered high on remote peaks, near-death experiences. Let's face it, they're awesome.
Okay, maybe they're not awesome while they're happening, but we relish talking about them later over a cold beer or listening to some unbelievable story told around a glowing campfire. Epics remind us that we are capable of far more than we believe possible, that we possess some hidden inner strength. They reveal something rarely seen in daily life: the immense tenacity of the human spirit and will to live. And on the rare chance that we find ourselves in the midst of an epic, we are given an opportunity to find this spirit within us and see what we're made of.
Ultimately we are all human. We compare ourselves to others. And as not only humans but also climbers/bikers/kayakers/surfers/skiers, we are obsessed with grades and ratings and need to know how we stack up against everyone else - Is this route harder than that one? Is she a better skier than I am? Am I more badass than he is? Was my epic more epic than your epic?
I first heard of the E Scale one afternoon outside the Meadows Grill in Tuolumne. Alexis and I had spent the day climbing classic runout routes and as we calmed our nerves over an Its-It and a beer he told me about his Half Dome epic.
He had just finished the Regular Northwest Face with a partner who hardly warranted the term, and as the sun began to set he shouldered a 70lb haulbag for the descent. He took a step, his toes skittered on the polished granite and he fell 30 feet onto a ledge. The impact shattered both legs below the knee, leaving him unable to move.
"The pain was beyond extreme," he told me, "You have no idea."
He was thousands of feet above the valley floor and any potential rescue, and it was dark by the time his partner got down to him. There was no way he was going to be able to hike down. He would have to spend the night on the summit. Because the forecast called for bad weather the next morning it took until late the following evening for a rescue helicopter to arrive. Even when he got to a hospital he had to wait two days for the swelling to go down before he could have surgery.
"Yeah, that was about E7," he said, finishing the story.
"The route?" I asked, confused.
"No man. The epic. You know, the E Scale."
"Epicness" might sound too abstract to rate, but it's more straightforward than it seems. Inherent in the idea of an epic is that a serious unexpected challenge forces you into a multi-day effort to not merely finish your route, hike, or trip, but to fight to survive. To push beyond the limits you've imagined, and often beyond anything you have ever done before.
Did you spend an unplanned or unprepared night out in the open? That's an epic. Two nights? Even more epic. Bad weather? No food? No water? That's a couple notches higher on the E Scale. Were you by yourself? Did you get hurt? Did you get yourself out of the situation? Awesome. You're movin' on up.
Epics are rarely black or white, they exist on a continuum. Hence the need for a scale. So, after much scientific debate, fueled by countless cups of coffee and bottles of beer outside the Tuolumne Meadows Grill, I bring you the highly subjective E Scale.
The E Scale
E1: An unplanned bivy. To even get on the E Scale you have to spend an entire unexpected night out - e.g. you spend the night on top of a route or out in the woods without sleeping gear. This low on the scale though, you probably have warm clothing and some extra food and water to make the night bearable.
E2: An unplanned bivy without sufficient clothing. Same as an E1, but the fact that you only have a cotton T-shirt and Prana shorts means that you're gonna have a cold night. There might be an awkward moment in the morning as you and your partner untangle limbs and mumble something about "…umm, this never happened, okay?"
E3: More than one unexpected night out, and/or inclement weather without sufficient clothing, food, or water - e.g. you go out for a light-and-fast alpine push, but the face is bigger than you thought and you spend the night shivering and convincing yourself that your partner has the bigger half of your 2X3ft bivy ledge. The next day you top out the route, but the thunderstorms soak through your "waterproof" rainshell and you lose the descent trail, forcing another cold, wet night huddled uncomfortably close to your partner. You emerge on the road the next morning slightly hypothermic, covered in scratches from the bushwhacking, and ravenously hungry.
E4: This is where things start to get a little more serious. More than two unexpected/unprepared nights out, no food and little water after the first day, inclement weather, and insufficient gear and clothing for the environment - e.g. your dream hiking trip in Alaska took a wrong turn when you lost your backpack during a river crossing 50 miles from the nearest town, and your buddy's pack was ravaged by a bear that night. Without a map or food, and with minimal warm/waterproof clothing, you head back in the direction you thought you came but inadvertently go over the wrong pass into a neighboring valley. It's another day before you realize you're lost. Then the rain begins. Four long days after it began you stagger soaked, exhausted, and starving through the door of a hunting lodge where the owner lets you know that you're 60 miles west of your intended destination.
The Injury Divide: In all but the most extreme cases, an E4 is the highest grade you can attain without an injury. This doesn't mean that you automatically get an E5 if you cut your pinky on a bush, but rather that no matter how bad things get, if you weren't hurt it probably wasn't that epic. A minor injury might not push you past an E2 if the rest of the situation wasn't that bad, but an injury can bump you from an E2 to an E3, or an E3 to an E4, all else being equal.
E5: At least an E1 situation, coupled with a severe injury - e.g. you take a bad fall near the top of a long alpine route and break your arm in three places. One of the fractures is compound. You put together a makeshift sling and painfully jug out the last few pitches, but now it's late at night and you can't find your way down in the dark. You wait until morning huddled underneath a boulder in the descent gully. After a long day of painful hiking you make it out to the trailhead and drive to the hospital.
E6: An E2 situation, coupled with a severe injury. Alexis thought his experience was an E7, but in reality it was probably a good example of a solid E6. Though he had warm enough clothing for the night, the extreme severity of his injuries and the fact that it took a day and a half until rescue could come make his epic an E6.
E7: More than one unprepared bivy with bad weather, a serious injury, and little food or water - e.g. you were hiking on an island off the coast of Scotland and decided to cook dinner in your tent vestibule because the weather was so bad. When you primed the stove the tent caught on fire, melting nylon onto your skin and burning you severely. Most of your gear and food was burnt in the fire and you are a two day hike from the lone town on the island. You spend the night under an overhanging rock trying to stay warm in the constant drizzle. In the morning your burns hurt so badly you can barely move, but you force yourself up and eat your last two bars as you begin to hike back towards town. Without a map you move much slower than the day before, and the rain makes it impossible to see more than a few hundred yards. At dusk the town is still nowhere to be seen and the burns are getting worse. There's nowhere to take shelter and you're worried you won't survive the night if you stop, so you continue to walk through the darkness for hours. In the morning, barely moving from the wet and cold, you see the town and stumble zombie-like through the streets.
E8: More than two nights out in bad weather with a bad injury, no food, and little water. The injury likely leaves some lasting damage - e.g. you head out into the mountains for the day to solo a couple of ice climbs that you have done before. After the climbs you decide to head into a neighboring canyon to check out potential new routes. The canyon is full of great looking ice and you can't resist the opportunity to get on some of the flows. Everything is going splendid until you pop an ice tool 50ft up one of the routes. You fall and catch a crampon in the ice, flipping yourself into an awkward position as you slam into the snow-covered slabs at the base of the route. The fall knocks you unconscious, and when you come to you discover that you've broken an arm, as well as quite a few ribs. You begin to hike out, but you're still disoriented from the fall and the looming darkness is worrying. You pull out your headlamp, but find that it was broken in the fall. Stumbling around in the darkness until you realize that you simply need to stay put until morning. You emerge from your self-dug snow cave at dawn to find a raging blizzard swirling through the canyon. Visibility is less than three feet and your tracks are covered. There's no way you can go anywhere in this weather. The storm continues unabated for two more days while you fight to stay warm in your snow cave. Finally the weather clears and you begin to crawl back to your car. The rescuers find you six hours later and get you to a hospital. Unfortunately you lose one foot and three of your fingers to frostbite, but at least you're alive.
E9: The most epic experience you can imagine. Only worse. Think Joe Simpson and Aron Ralston (mandatory self-amputation of a major limb automatically takes you into E9 territory). If you've lived through an E9 you're truly lucky to be alive.
E10: You die.
Of course, with any such list there need to be a couple of caveats. It's best to think of the E Scale as a guide, rather than a hard-set rating system, because there are so many possible permutations of epic situations and the lines between each grade are hazy at best. For example, it could be possible to achieve an E4 with less than two unplanned bivies if you were by yourself during the whole experience and got yourself out of the situation. In the same way, you might spend more than two nights out but only get an E2 because you were in a large group, had some extra food and water, and were rescued by outside help.
Additionally, some might argue that an epic can be had without having to spend a night out unprepared. What if you suffered a bad injury in the morning and hiked back through stormy weather to arrive at your car just before the sun set? Is that not an epic? For some it is, but I believe there is a difference between a terrible experience and an epic. An unplanned bivy is that difference. To find yourself far away from help as the sun dips below the horizon changes your mentality completely. Knowing that you have to pass the shadow hours of night without the right equipment turns even the most benign situations into a dark experience. There's no denying that breaking an arm or a leg 20 miles from the road in a heavy snow storm isn't a shitty situation, but if you were able to get back to civilization/help in the same day then that's all it is. A shitty situation, not an epic.
So the next time you're trudging through the rain in a cotton shirt with miles of slide alder bushwhack to go until you hit the road you can comfort yourself with the knowledge that at least you aren't having an epic.