Walks grading, difficulty ratings

Assessing the walks : our system and criteria

(We discuss our difficulty ratings at the bottom of this page.)

Walk grading: what makes a walk “great”, so you know you have seen or experienced something extraordinary?

Outstanding beauty is not sufficient on its own: there are thousands of beautiful walks around the world, so beauty can only be a starting point. It is some special charisma, often combined with a natural wonder or literary or historical association, which propels a walk into the highest ranks. The Top 100 could, as a result, be seen as a bit of a freak show: for a lot of them, what makes them exceptional can also make them a bit weird – volcanoes, gorges, places of pilgrimage. Relatively few of them are straightforward walks in very beautiful scenery.

These are not necessarily “famous” walks, or great "bags”. Walks have to be looked at in their totality and with a view to assessing the overall experience: Mts. Kilimanjaro and Fuji, so famous, fail to make the Top 100 as a result. Some stupendous view (there are a lot of those about) and subsequent boasting rights do not make up for altitude discomfort, crowded huts and an unpleasant trudge up scree in the dark, quite likely nose to tail with the person in front.

Reconciling peoples’ different interests is, of course, impossible: places with great historical or spiritual reverberations, such as Mt. Kailash, the Inca Trail or Mt. Athos, may excite some, whereas natural wonders (the high Himalayas, Tongariro or the Grand Canyon) or utter isolation (the Tianshan, Drakensbergs or the Rockies) may be what are important for others. The marking system we have developed includes all relevant factors while striking a balance between different predilections. Some will disagree with the detail, but this appears to be the best and most balanced system available.

We have thus arrived at the following grading system:

  Maximum marks
Beauty 40
Natural interest 20
Human interest 20
Charisma 40
Total 120
   
Less: negative marks (20)

Beauty has a heavy weighting, as it is, in the end, the most conscious factor for many people in planning an expedition. All the Top 100 walks are, however, beautiful, and the same goes for charisma. These categories are not, as a result, decisive on their own. The biggest disparities are in natural interest and human interest, so these categories are vital for the eventual rankings.

Isolation is not accorded any separate weighting, as it is often an inherent component of beauty and charisma (and deductions are made for too many people), so this would involve double counting. Walks do not have to be in remote places to be superb: take Venice and Angkor as examples. This is the same for a pristine environment.

Let's look at these categories in further detail.

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Beauty

Beauty is, unsurprisingly, an essential ingredient. Marks are allocated as follows:

40 Unsurpassable
36 Outstanding
32 Very beautiful
30 Beautiful
28 Very attractive
24 Above average
20 Averagely attractive
16 Below average

Only a few of the Top 100 walks score less than "beautiful" (i.e. 30/40), and they make it into the Top 100 because of their strong human interest.

The status of mountains is ambiguous: while a mountain view is everyone’s cliché of beauty, they can in fact be harsh, gloomy or forbidding: George Mallory, that great mountain lover, wrote from Tibet (admittedly after his first unsuccessful attempt on Mt Everest) “on what a day to be writing to England, while one sees here nothing but inimical snows and the endless debris of giant rock masses”.

Natural interest

Natural interest can include physical features such as mountains, volcanoes, gorges and lakes as well as animal and plant life.

Marks assume that a walker is interested in natural things, but not a specialist or obsessive, and are allocated as follows:

20 Unsurpassable: could not get more interesting
18 Outstandingly interesting
16 Exceedingly interesting
15 Very interesting
14 Decidedly interesting
12 Above average
10 Averagely interesting
  8 Below average
  5 Little natural interest
  0 No natural interest

Again, mountains are an oddity: there are a lot of them in the world, so they are not that unusual, but they are inherently interesting. As a result, most significant mountains – no matter how large – score between 14 and 16 in this category.

Another tricky issue is where there is some unusual, interesting aspect – a rare plant or shy animal – which is around but which you are unlikely to see. Some weight is given to its presence, but marks are accorded on the assumption that a walker will not see the thing concerned, so the interest aroused will have some limitations.

Human interest

Human interest includes unusual people and ways of life, as well as historical, mythical, religious, literary and artistic associations. Human interest can include history, atmosphere or romance, even though there may not be many (or any) physical evidence to be seen: Tash Rabat is an example. High scoring walks include the Great Wall of China and Hadrian's Wall, the koras (sacred circumambulations) of Tibet, the holy mountains of China, the Inca Trail, Petra and Angkor.

Marks assume that a walker is interested in the “human” world, but not a specialist or obsessive, and are allocated as follows:

20 Unsurpassable: could not get more interesting
18 Outstandingly interesting
16 Exceedingly interesting
15 Very interesting
14 Decidedly interesting
12 Above average
10 Averagely interesting
  8 Below average
  5 Little human interest
  0 No human interest

Human interest is in some ways the most controversial category. Those with a predilection for solitude may view "human interest" as insignificant (or even a negative) factor. For many others, exceptional “human” factors enhance a walk. Our system, in which isolation enhances beauty and negative marks are given for crowding, achieves the best available balance: most would agree that strong "human interest" adds to a walk's attractions, while crowds detract. Wandering in the poet’s footsteps, but lonely as a cloud, can be the best of all worlds.

There is, of course, further complexity in deciding what sort of human presence is valuable. Picturesque mountain folk or pilgrims, good: sweaty westerners in baseball caps, bad – but for whom? Deciding what are interesting people and ways of life has to involve distinctions which may be relativist and controversial in theory, but do not encounter much resistance in practice: typical dwellers in modern cities and developed countryside are relatively dull, whereas unusual people and ways of life, including undeveloped parts of (for instance) Europe, tend to be interesting.

Human interest is also controversial because it is the most variable of all the categories, and thus significantly affects the walks' rankings. There are many "humanly" interesting walks which rank above more beautiful walks, for instance, the Mt. Kailash Kora and the Inca Trail, which beat (or match) the Anapurna Sanctuary and the Grand Canyon.

Charisma

While hard to define, you know charisma when you encounter it, and all the best walks have it in abundance. While it usually accompanies beauty and natural or human interest – none of the Top 100 walks scores less than 28 for charisma – it is a separate attribute that does not necessarily correlate to these other factors.

Marks are given as follows:

40 Unsurpassable: could not get more charismatic
36 Outstandingly charismatic
32 Exceedingly charismatic
30 Very charismatic
28 Decidedly charismatic
24 Above average
20 Averagely charismatic
15 Below average
10 Little charisma
  0 No charisma

Negatives

There can, of course, be unpleasant aspects to walks which require adjustments to the final score, if a true view of the experience is to be given. The measure is how much a factor would reduce a reasonable person’s enjoyment of a walk. We can confirm from bitter experience that a stupendous view seems less so while hunched with an altitude-induced nauseous headache in a bitter, soaking gale. The most common of these problems are altitude, which can cause headaches, sickness, sleeplessness and much, much worse, and an excess of other visitors.

With altitude, we subtract marks according to how high you will sleep, as follows:

 

Height over
Marks subtracted
3,000m (9,700 ft.)
1
3,500m (11,500 ft.)
2
4,000m (13,100 ft.)
3
4,500m (14,800 ft.)
5
5,000m (16,400 ft.)
7
5,500m (18,000 ft.)
10
6,000m (19,700 ft)
14

We adjust this further to reflect any particularly high passes that are crossed during the day (although the availability of a pony for someone whose legs give in is a mitigating factor), the length of time spent at altitude and the opportunities to gain some acclimatisation before reaching the relevant altitude. Altitude can affect people in very different ways, so we have tried to reflect the impairment of the enjoyment that a moderately susceptible person will experience.

Deductions for crowding are difficult: a throng of people can affect the beauty and charisma of a place, so when giving negative points for this one needs to avoid double reductions for the same factor. Crowds can undermine the point of going somewhere (the noisy backpackers on top of Uluru spring to mind), but can be essential to the experience of other places – the crowds of extraordinary Tibetan pilgrims walking round the Barkhor Kora in Lhasa are essential to the magic and excitement of the place – so any adjustments must be sensitive to this. For this purpose, we have adopted the outlook of a person who is not allergic to other people – misanthropes will not care for some of these walks – and who appreciates crowds where they are part of a walk's magic, but whose enjoyment is generally reduced by meeting more than a few people during a day's walking. There is a difficult point of cultural relativity here: to the typical westerner, a crowd of pilgrims on a Tibetan kora, or even local sightseers on top of a sacred mountain in China, can have its own interest, whereas a crowd of tourists in Venice or on the edge of the Grand Canyon detracts from the experience.

While trekking out into the wilderness with a tent for a few days is wonderful, long hikes with no chance to replenish supplies and thus carrying heavy packs becomes less fun for most people, and more a specialist occupation. Minus marks are thus given for walks of this sort.

We assume that you will tackle a walk at a suitable time of year, so bad weather is not taken into account unless it is likely to affect your walk, whenever it is undertaken – i.e. a regular feature.

Difficult access or an unpleasant atmosphere are also problematic. Wonderful walks are often in remote places, so this is not generally a factor. However, the fact that a walk is in an inherently dangerous place (Ethiopia) or an unpleasant one (North Korea) does affect the enjoyment of a walk, and this is reflected with minus marks.

If a normal person would find a walk frightening as a result of sustained dangers such as narrow, unstable paths on sheer cliffs, this would incur negative marks.

All these negative factors can of course change over time.

Averaging

Most of these walks take several days, so it is essential to devise methods for dealing with bursts of exceptional beauty or interest, interspersed with less outstanding sections, in order to give a true view of the totality of the experience. The same applies to negative aspects such as a high and tough pass on what is otherwise a more comfortable walk. Daily marks for each day are averaged, then usually adjusted to reflect the realities of how a walk feels and is remembered: a three day walk consisting of a pretty walk in and out, with an astounding "target" middle day, tends to feel and be remembered as more special than its strictly averaged level. How detractions, such a high pass on a generally comfortable walk, are adjusted depends on the circumstances: a miserable, painful, exhausting day which clouds the whole experience will result in a higher negative score than a strict averaging of the daily experience would imply.

Duplication

Some walks are essentially duplicative: while individually superb, they are in similar countryside to other walks, and each would feel less unique or special if both were walked. Most people will not rush to do more than one such walk. The various trails across the Grand Canyon, and the Colca and Cotahuasi Canyons in Arequipa, Peru, are examples. We have therefore treated some of these different experiences of particular areas as one walk for the purpose of giving descriptions of them on this website (e.g. the various walks across the Grand Canyon) or for compiling the Top 100 (although the relevant walks may be separately listed in the All Walks list). Torajaland in Indonesia is an extreme example: there is a throng of outstanding walks in this remote, extraordinary area, with no one walk so outstanding as to merit sole nomination to the exclusion of other walks. Like Malta's collective George Cross in the Second World War, the whole area is dealt with together and deservedly joins the Top 10. Tibetan koras are also tricky: their essence is the same – a sacred circumambulation of a monastery or other religious site, and the high, dry Tibetan landscape is broadly similar across the plateau – but they can be thousands of kilometres apart and very different in their form and atmosphere. The rankings have thus focused on the best of them, although many more are superb in their own right.

DIFFICULTY RATINGS:

We rate the difficulty of our walks as follows, in descending order:

 Very difficult - eg because of altitude, huge ascents/descents/distances, climbing/gut-wrenching via ferratas, every day.

Difficult - similar but not as bad, but still tough and demanding.

 Strenuous - hard work and you'll be tired by the day end, but not "difficult" (eg, in UK terms, a significant Munro or Lake District mountain.

Moderate - a reasonable walk that reasonably fit people will feel exercised by but not exhausted. 

Straightforward - as it sounds.

Our ratings system  assumes a reasonably fit, healthy and experienced walker. If unfit or unwell or inexperienced, you should assume that walks will be harder than as rated!

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