v· rock climbing, mountaineering and other climbing disciplines, climbers give a climbing grade to a route that concisely describes the difficulty and danger of climbing the route. Different aspects of climbing each have their own grading system, and many different nationalities developed their own, distinctive grading systems.
There are a number of factors that contribute to the difficulty of a climb including the technical difficulty of the moves, the strength and stamina required, the level of commitment, and the difficulty of protecting the climber. Different grading systems consider these factors in different ways, so no two grading systems have an exact one-to-one correspondence.
Climbing grades are inherently subjective - they are the opinion of one or a few climbers, often the first ascentionist or the author(s) of a guidebook. While grades are usually applied fairly consistently across a climbing area, there are often perceived differences between grading at different climbing areas. Because of these variables, a given climber might find a route to be either 'too hard' or 'too easy' for the grade applied.
The Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) of grading routes was initially developed as the Sierra Club grading system in the 1930s to rate hikes and climbs in the Sierra Nevada range. The rock climbing portion was developed at Tahquitz Rock in southern California by members of the Rock Climbing Section of the Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club in the 1950s. It quickly spread to Canada and the rest of the Americas.
Originally a single-part classification system, Grade and Protection Rating categories were added to the YDS in recent years. The new classifications do not apply to every climb and usage varies widely.
When a route also involves aid climbing, its unique Aid designation can be appended to the YDS free climbing rating. For example, The North America Wall on El Capitan would be classed "VI, 5.8, A5". or Medlicott Dome – Bachar/Yerian 5.11c (X,***)
Guidebooks often append some number of stars to the YDS rating, to indicate a climb's overall "quality" (how "fun" or "worthwhile" the climb is). This "star ranking" is unrelated to the YDS system, and varies widely from guidebook to guidebook.
The system consists of five classes indicating the technical difficulty of the hardest section:
Class 1 is walking on an even, often planar, surface with a low chance of injury, and a fall is unlikely to be fatal.
Classes 2 and 3 are steeper scrambling with increased exposure and a greater chance of severe injury, but falls are not always fatal.
Class 4 can involve short steep sections where the use of a rope is recommended, and un-roped falls could be fatal.
Class 5 is considered true rock climbing, predominantly on vertical or near vertical rock, and requires skill and a rope to proceed safely. Un-roped falls would result in severe injury or death.
In theory, Class 6 exists and is used to grade aid climbing (where progress is made by climbing directly on equipment placed in or on the rock and not the rock itself). However, the separate A (aid) rating system became popular instead. (See Aid climbing)
The original intention was that the classes would be subdivided decimally, so that a route graded 4.5 would be a scramble halfway between 4 and 5, and 5.9 would be the hardest rock climb. Increased standards and improved equipment meant that climbs graded 5.9 in the 1960s are now only of moderate difficulty. Rather than regrade all climbs each time standards improve, additional grades were added at the top – originally only 5.10, but it soon became apparent that an open-ended system was needed, and further grades of 5.11, 5.12, etc. were added.
While the top grade was 5.10, a large range of climbs in this grade were completed, and climbers realized a subdivision of the upper grades were required. Letter grades were added for climbs at 5.10 and above, by adding a letter "a" (easiest), "b", "c" or "d" (hardest).
As of February 2010, the hardest climbing routes are tentatively graded 5.15b, although a rating of 5.15c has been proposed for an unconfirmed ascent in Spain. Ratings on the hardest climbs tend to be speculative, until other climbers have had a chance to complete the routes and a consensus can be reached on the precise grade. This becomes increasingly difficult as the grade increases as there are fewer climbers that are capable of passing judgment on higher-end grades.
The system originally considered only the technical difficulty of the hardest move on a route. For example a route of mainly 5.7 moves but with one 5.11b move would be graded 5.11b and a climb that consisted of 5.11b moves all along its route, would also be 5.11b. Modern application of climbing grades, especially on climbs at the upper end of the scale (>5.10) also consider how sustained or strenuous a climb is, in addition to the difficulty of the single hardest move.
The YDS system involves an optional Roman numeral Grade that indicates the length and seriousness of the route. The Grades are:
The Grade is more relevant to mountaineering and big wall climbing, and often not stated when talking about short rock climbs.
YDS protection rating
An optional protection rating indicates the spacing and quality of the protection available, for a well-equipped and skilled leader. The letter codes chosen were, at the time, identical to the American system for rating the content of movies:
G – Good, solid protection ground up
PG – Pretty good, few sections of poor or non-existent placements
PG13 – OK protection, falls may be long but will probably not cause serious injury.
R – Runout, some protection placements may be very far apart (possibility of broken bones, even when properly protected)
X – No protection, extremely dangerous (possibility of death, even when properly protected)
The G and PG ratings are often left out, as being typical of normal, everyday climbing. PG13 ratings are occasionally included. R and X climbs are usually noted as a caution to the unwary leader. Application of protection ratings varies widely from area to area and from guidebook to guidebook.
The British grading system for traditional climbs, used in Great Britain and Ireland, has (in theory) two parts: the adjectival grade and the technical grade. Sport climbing in Britain and Ireland uses the French grading system, often prefixed with the letter "F".
The adjectival grade attempts to assess the overall difficulty of the climb taking into account all factors, for a climber leading the route on sight in traditional style. In the early 20th century it ran Easy, Moderate, Difficult, but increasing standards have several times led to extra grades being added at the top. The adjectival grades are as follows:
Easy (rarely used)
Moderate (M, or "Mod")
Difficult (D, or "Diff")
Hard Difficult (HD, or "Hard Diff" - sometimes omitted)
Very Difficult (VD, or "V Diff")
Hard Very Difficult (HVD, or "Hard V Diff" - sometimes omitted)
Mild Severe (MS)
Hard Severe (HS)
Mild Very Severe (MVS)
Very Severe (VS)
Hard Very Severe (HVS)
Extremely Severe (E1, E2, E3, ...)
The Extremely Severe grade is subdivided in an open-ended fashion into E1 (easiest), E2, E3 and so on. As of 2006 the hardest climb was graded E11: Rhapsody on Dumbarton Rock, climbed by Dave MacLeod, featured French 8c+ climbing with the potential of a 20-metre fall onto a small wire. In 2008, James Pearson climbed The Walk of Life at Dyer's Lookout, North Devon; the ascent was performed without using bolts or pitons, with just leader placed protection, and was graded E12/7a. In January 2009 the route was climbed by Dave MacLeod of Dumbarton fame, who downgraded the route to an E9 6c. Many climbers consider such high grades provisional, as the climbs have not yet been achieved on sight/ground up. In August 2008, MacLeod completed a new project close to Tower Ridge on Ben Nevis called 'Echo Wall'. He left the route ungraded, saying only that it was 'harder than Rhapsody'.
Some guidebooks make finer distinctions by adding the prefix "Mild"; thus, Mild Severe lies between Hard Very Difficult and Severe. Additionally, in some areas the grade "XS" is used for climbs on loose or crumbling rock, irrespective of their technical difficulty.
The technical grade attempts to assess only the technical climbing difficulty of the hardest move or short sequence of moves on the route, without regard to the danger of the move or the stamina required if there are several such moves in a row. Technical grades are open-ended, starting at 1 and subdivided into "a", "b" and "c", but are rarely used below 3c. The technical grade was originally a bouldering grade introduced from Fontainebleau by French climbers.
Usually the technical grade increases with the adjectival grade, but a hard technical move that is well protected (that is, notionally safe) may not raise the standard of the adjectival grade very much. VS 4c might be a typical grade for a route. VS 4a would usually indicate very poor protection (easy moves, but no gear), while VS 5b would usually indicate the crux move was the first move or very well protected. On multi-pitch routes it is usual to give the overall climb an adjectival grade and each pitch a separate technical grade (such as HS 4b, 4a).
The UIAA grading system is mostly used for short rock routes in Western Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. On long routes it is often used in the Alps and Himalaya. Using Roman numerals, it was originally intended to run from I (easiest) to VI (hardest), but as with all other grading systems, improvements to climbing standards have led to the system being open-ended after the grade VII was accepted in 1977. An optional + or − may be used to further differentiate difficulty. As of 2004, the hardest climbs are XII−. So, II would be a 5.2 in USA and XI would be a 5.14d.
The Saxon Rating System, or the East German (GDR) rating system as it was known before the Wall came down, is used in all of the former East Germany. This includes the formidable climbing area of the Elbe Sandstone Mountains in the Free State of Saxony.
French numerical grades
The French numerical system (distinct from the adjectival system, described later) rates a climb according to the overall technical difficulty and strenuousness of the route .Grades start at 1 (very easy) and the system is open-ended. Each numerical grade can be subdivided by adding a letter (a, b or c). Examples: 2, 4, 4b, 6a, 7c. An optional + may be used to further differentiate difficulty. For example, these routes are sorted by ascending difficulty: 5c+, 6a, 6a+, 6b, 6b+. Although some countries in Europe use a system with similar grades but not necessarily matching difficulties, the French system remains the main system used in all European countries and in many international events outside the USA.
The Brazilian grade system is similar to the French system, but with a few adjustments: gradings 1 to 2sup are very easy (2sup being a very steep, but almost walkable route), 3 to 5 are easy (3 being the grade most indoor gyms use as a starting point for beginners) and it progresses till the maximum grade of 12, as of 2007. The suffix "sup" (for "superior") is used for grades 1 to 6, and the standard French "a", "b" and "c" suffixes for grades from 7 on.
The "6+" (locally pronounced "6sup") was considered the hardest possible grade until 1980s. So when an even harder route was established, it was proposed to use "French" style of letters for the newer "sporting" climbs. so, 1...6+ are "classical" and 7A,7B...12a are sporting grades.
For US-BR conversion, ignore "5." and subtract 4. (5.10=6).
The Ewbank system, used in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, was developed in the mid 1960s by John Ewbank. Ewbank also developed an open ended “M” system for aid climbing. The numerical Ewbank system is open-ended, starting from 1, which you can (at least in theory) walk up, to the four climbs located in Australia given the hardest currently confirmed grade of 34. South African and Australian grades differ by 1 or 2 grade points.
The Ewbank system is not intended to simply grade the hardest individual move on a climb though the grading system is often described this way. Ewbank explained "Grading takes the following into consideration: Technical difficulty, exposure, length, quality of rock, protection and other smaller factors. As these are more or less all related to each other, I have rejected the idea of 3 or 4 grades, i.e. one for exposure, one for technical difficulty, one for protection etc. Instead the climb is given its one general grading, and if any of the other factors is outstanding, this is stated verbally in the short introduction to that climb"
The current practice is to make mention of all factors affecting the climber's experience (exposure, difficulty of setting protection or outright lack of protection) in the description of the climb contained in the guide.
Grade systems for mountaineering
There are several systems in current use to grade mountain climbs. Alpine mountaineering routes are usually graded based on all of their different aspects, as they can be very diverse. Thus, a mountain route may be graded 5.6 (rock difficulty), A2 (aid difficulty), WI3 (ice climbing difficulty), M5 * (mixed climbing difficulty), 70 degrees (steepness), 4000 ft (length), VI (commitment level), and many other factors. See also Summitpost Alpine Grades
International French Adjectival System (IFAS)
In contrast to the French numerical system (described earlier), the French adjectival alpine system evaluates the overall difficulty of a route, taking into consideration the length, difficulty, exposure and commitment-level of the route (i.e., how hard it may be to retreat). The overall grade combines altitude; length and difficulty of approach and descent; number of difficult pitches and how sustained they are; exposure; and quality of rock, snow and ice. These are, in increasing order:
F: facile (easy). Straightforward, possibly a glacial approach, snow and ice will often be at an easy angle.
PD: peu difficile (not very difficult). Routes may be longer at altitude, with snow and ice slopes up to 45 degrees. Glaciers are more complex, scrambling is harder, descent may involve rappelling. More objective hazards.
AD: assez difficile (fairly difficult). Fairly hard, snow and ice at an angle of 45-65 degrees, rock climbing up to UIAA grade III, but not sustained, belayed climbing in addition to a large amount of exposed but easier terrain. Significant objective hazard.
D: difficile (difficult). Hard, more serious with rock climbing at IV and V, snow and ice slopes at 50-70 degrees. Routes may be long and sustained or harder but shorter. Serious objective hazards.
TD: très difficile (very difficult). Very hard, routes at this grades are serious undertakings with high level of objective danger. Sustained snow and ice at an angle of 65-80 degrees, rock climbing at grade V and VI with possible aid, very long sections of hard climbing.
ED1/2/3/4: extrêmement difficile (extremely difficult). Extremely hard, exceptional objective danger, vertical ice slopes and rock climbing up to VI to VIII, with possible aid pitches.
ABO: Abominablement difficile (abominable) Extremely difficult as well as being dangerous - self explanatory.
Often a + (pronounced Sup for supérieur) or a − (pronounced Inf for inférieur) is placed after the grade to indicate if a particular climb is at the lower or upper end of that grade (e.g., a climb slightly harder than "PD+" might be "AD−").
The alpine routes in Romania are rated in the Russian grading system (itself adapted from the Welzenbach system), and reflecting the overall difficulty of the route (while leaving out the technical difficulty of the hardest move). This is why most documentation also contains the UIAA free-climbing rating of the crux of the route, as well as the aid-climbing rating (in the original aid-climbing grading system) and the then resulting free climbing rate.
The routes themselves are, however, usually only marked with the overall grade (and/or sometimes the French equivalent) at the bottom. The grades go from 1 to 7, and a good parallel can be established with the French rating (1 is F in the French rating, 2 is PD and so on, 7 being ABO). Instead of +/-, the letters A and B are (almost always) used to show if a climb is at the lower or upper end of the grade, thus, let's say, an 4B being the same as a D+ in the French system.
An alpine grading system adapted from the grades used in the Aoraki/Mt Cook Region is widely used in New Zealand for alpine routes in the North and South islands. Grades currently go from 1–7. The grading system is open ended; harder climbs are possible. Factors which determine grade are (in descending order of contributing weight): technical difficulty, objective danger, length and access.
Standard grading system for alpine routes in normal conditions
New Zealand Grade 1: Easy scramble. Use of rope generally only for glacier travel.
New Zealand Grade 2: Steeper trickier sections may need a rope.
New Zealand Grade 3: Longer steeper sections generally. Use of technical equipment necessary. Ice climbs may require two tools.
New Zealand Grade 4: Technical climbing. Knowledge of how to place ice and rock gear quickly and efficiently a must. Involves a long day.
New Zealand Grade 5: Sustained technical climbing. May have vertical sections on ice.
New Zealand Grade 6: Multiple crux sections. Vertical ice may not have adequate protection. Good mental attitude and solid technique necessary. May require a bivvy on route and be a long way from civilization.
New Zealand Grade 7: Vertical ice/rock which may not have adequate protection. Rock grades in the high 20's (Ewbank). Climb may be in remote area. May require a bivvy on route.
In the Alaskan grading system, mountaineering climbs range from grade 1–6, and factor in difficulty, length, and commitment. The hardest, longest routes are Alaskan grade 6. The system was first developed by Boyd N. Everett, Jr. in 1966, and is supposed to be particularly adapted to the special challenges of Alaskan climbing. Here is a summary of Alaska grade descriptors, adapted (and greatly simplified) from Alaska: A Climbing Guide, by Michael Wood and Colby Coombs (The Mountaineers, 2001):
Alaska Grade 1: Climb requires one day only, no technical (fifth-class) climbing.
Alaska Grade 2: Either a moderate fifth-class one-day climb, or a straightforward multiday nontechnical climb.
Alaska Grade 3: Either a serious fifth-class one-day climb, or a multiday climb with some technical elements.
This system measures the difficulty of routes on water ice. The WI scale currently spans grades from 1–7. There also exists a rating scale for Alpine Ice (compacted snow/ glacial ice) that has the same rating system as the "WI" system, but is instead denoted by "AI." The primary difference between the two is the density of the ice, Water Ice being much more dense.
WI2 - low-angled (60 degree consistent ice), with good technique can be easily climbed with one ice axe. Grades beyond this generally require the use of two ice tools.
WI3 - generally sustained in the 60-70 degree range with occasional near-vertical steps up to 4 metres (Cascade Waterfall, Banff; This House of Sky, Ghost River)
WI4 - near-vertical steps of up to 10 metres, generally sustained climbing requiring placing protection screws from strenuous stances (Professor's Falls, Banff; Weeping Wall Left, Icefields Parkway, Banff; Silk Tassle, Yoho; Moonlight & Snowline, Kananskis)
WI5 - near-vertical or vertical steps of up to 20 metres, sustained climbing requiring placing multiple protection screws from strenuous stances with few good rests (Carlsberg Column, Field; The Sorcerer, Ghost River; Bourgeau Left Hand, Banff)
WI6 - vertical climbing for the entire pitch (e.g. 30–60 metres) with no rests. Requires excellent technique and/or a high level of fitness (The Terminator, Banff; Nemesis, Kootenay Park; Whiteman Falls, Kananaskis Country; Riptide, Banff)
WI6+ - vertical or overhanging with no rests, and highly technical WI6 (French Maid, Yoho; French Reality, Kootenay Park)
WI7 - sustained and overhanging with no rests. Extremely rare, near-mythical, and widely accepted testpiece examples of this grade don't exist in the Canadian Rockies. Note that many routes (e.g. Sea of Vapours, Banff; Riptide, Icefield Parkway, Banff) have been assigned WI7- to WI7+ but have been subsequently downgraded in latter years as they don't meet the strict criteria of steepness. In fact some local ice climbers have argued for Sea of Vapours (WI7+ originally) to be downgraded to WI5 or even WI4 simply because it's not steep enough.
M numeric scale
This measures the difficulty of mixed climbs combining ice and rock. Mixed climbs have recently been climbed and graded as high as M14.
M1-3: Easy. Low angle; usually no tools.
M4: Slabby to vertical with some technical dry tooling.
M5: Some sustained vertical dry tooling.
M6: Vertical to overhanging with difficult dry tooling.
M7: Overhanging; powerful and technical dry tooling; less than 10 m of hard climbing.
M8: Some nearly horizontal overhangs requiring very powerful and technical dry tooling; bouldery or longer cruxes than M7.
M9: Either continuously vertical or slightly overhanging with marginal or technical holds, or a juggy roof of 2 to 3 body lengths.
M10: At least 10 meters of horizontal rock or 30 meters of overhanging dry tooling with powerful moves and no rests.
M11: A ropelength of overhanging gymnastic climbing, or up to 15 meters of roof.
M12: M11 with bouldery, dynamic moves and tenuous technical holds.
This section still needs substantial editing. Mixed climbs are not graded purely on steepness; you can have a slabby mixed line that is M8.
Scottish winter system
In Britain, the Scottish winter grading system is used for both ice and mixed climbs. Routes are given two grades, essentially equivalent to the adjectival and technical grades used in British traditional climbing. Overall difficulty is signified by a Roman numeral grade, and the technical difficulty of the hardest move or section of the climb is graded with an Arabic numeral. For routes of grade I – III, the technical grade is usually omitted unless it is 4 or greater. As with other grading systems, advances in climbing have led to a need for an open-ended grading system (the grades originally finished at IX, 9), and climbs have now been graded up to XI, 11.
Aid climbs are graded A0 to A5 depending on the reliability of the gear placements and the consequences of a fall. New routes climbed today are often given a “New Wave” grade using the original symbols but with new definitions. Depending on the area in question, the letter “A” may mean that the use of pitons (or other gear that requires the use of a hammer) is needed to ascend the route. The letter “C” explicitly indicates that the route can be climbed clean (clean climbing) without the use of a hammer. It is considered poor form to use hammered aid where clean aid will suffice. Furthermore the clean equipment can be employed more rapidly and efficiently than hammered gear, so many climbers prefer it where possible.
The original grading system
A0: A free climb with an occasional aid move that does not require specialized aid gear ("aiders" or "etriers"). Pulling on gear during a free ascent is often referred to as A0.
A1: Requires specialized gear but all placements are solid and easy.
A2: Good placements, but sometimes tricky.
A3: Many difficult aid moves. Some of the placements might only hold body-weight, but the risk is still low.
A4: Many body-weight placements in a row. The risk is increasing.
A5: Enough body-weight placements in a row that a fall might result in a fall of at least 20 meters.
Clean Aiding is aid climbing without the use of bolting gear, pitons or other gear that scars the rock or becomes fixed after the ascent. Most difficult aid climbs still require pitons or other techniques using a hammer, and are thus rated on the 'A' scale past a certain point.
C0: Bolt ladder, requires no placement of traditional gear. May indicate a pendulum or tension traverse on a free climb.
C1: Easy aid and easy placements. Typically nuts, cams and hexes.
C2: Moderate aid. Solid gear, but difficult to place. May require cam or sky hooks.
C2+: Up to 10m fall potential but with little risk of injury.
C3/A3: Hard aid. Many tenuous body-weight only placements in a row. Fall potential up to 15-20m.
C3+/A3+: Same C3/A3, but with longer, more dangerous fall potential.
C4/A4: Serious aid. Continuously tenuous gear placements in a row with up to 30m ledge fall potential. RURP placements may be encountered, or may have moderate sections of hooking.
C4+/A4+: Severe aid. Longer fall potential, with high ledge fall potential. Each pitch can take many hours to lead. Thin nailing is to be expected, or may have long sections of hooking.
C5/A5: Extreme aid. Nothing on the pitch will hold a fall. A fall may result in the death of the leader or even the whole team.
Note: C5 is a theoretical and controversial grade. Many argue that a pitch is not C5 until a climber or team has died as a direct result of gear failure. However, there are several pitches that currently hold a C5/A5 rating, as none of the gear placed is rated to hold a dynamic fall.
C6 or A6 does not exist, since the aid climbing scale was developed as discrete scale that is not open ended. Also, since C5 implies the death of both climber and belayer, a rating of C6 could not cause an increase in severity.
Free climbing ratings comparison table
A comparison chart for some of the free climbing rating systems in use around the world:
Free Climbing Grading Systems
Ewbank (Australia, NZ & South Africa)
The following grades are used for the rating of boulder problems throughout the world. Although fundamental differences in climbing style make direct comparison between bouldering and route climbing difficult, the colors in the above and below tables roughly correspond to equivalent sets of grades.
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