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In rock climbing, mountaineering and other climbing disciplines, climbers give a grade to a climbing 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 may be the opinion of one or a few climbers, often the first ascentionist or the author(s) of a guidebook. A grade for an individual route may also be a consensus reached by many climbers who have climbed the route. 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 easier or more difficult than expected for the grade applied.
In 1894, the Austrian mountaineer Fritz Benesch introduced the first known grading system for rock climbing. The Benesch scale had seven levels of difficulty, with level VII the easiest and level I the most difficult. Soon more difficult climbs were made, which originally were graded level 0 and 00. In 1923, the German mountaineer Willo Welzenbach compressed the scale and turned the order around, so that level 00 became level IV-V. This "Welzenbach scale" was adopted in 1935 by French mountaineers like Lucien Devies, Pierre Allain and Armand Charlet for routes in the Western Alps and finally in 1947 in Chamonix by the Union Internationale des Associations d'Alpinisme. It prevailed internationally and was renamed in 1968 as the UIAA scale. Originally a 6-grade scale, it has been officially open-ended since 1979.
For free climbing, there are many different grading systems varying according to country. They include:
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 later. 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,***)
The system consists of five classes indicating the technical difficulty of the hardest section. Class 1 is the easiest and consists of walking on even terrain. Class 5 is climbing 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. Originally, Class 6 was used to grade aid climbing. However, the separate A (aid) rating system became popular instead.
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).
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 Grade is more relevant to mountaineering and big wall climbing, and often not stated when talking about short rock climbs. The grades range from grade I to VI spanning a one hour climb to a multi-day climb respectively.
I-II: 1 or 2 pitches near the car, but may need to be avoided during avalanche season.
III: Requires most of a day including the approach, which may require winter travel skills (possible avalanche terrain, placing descent anchors).
IV: A multipitch route at higher altitude or remote location. Multi-hour approaches in serious alpine terrain.
V: A full-day climb in alpine terrain with a long approach, long technical descent, and objective dangers.
VI: A long waterfall with the character of an alpine route; formerly required at least a day to complete, now often done faster. Significant alpine objective hazards.
VII: Under discussion.
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. Grades range from solid protection, G, to no protection, X. 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, also known as the UK grading system, 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 which lend difficulty to a pitch including technical difficulty, sustaindness, protection quality, rock quality, exposure and other less tangible aspects - for a climber leading the route on sight in traditional style. It thus resembles mountaineering grades such as the International French Adjectival System. The adjectival grade appears to have been introduced by O. G. Jones in the early 20th century who classified climbs as “Easy”; “Moderate”; “Difficult” or “Exceptionally Severe”. Increasing standards have several times led to extra grades being added. The adjectival grades are as follows:
Increasing standards in the 1970s resulted in the adoption of Pete Botterill's proposal that the Extremely Severe grade be subdivided in an open-ended fashion into E1 (easiest), E2, E3 and so on. The E-grade is still an estimation of overall difficulty experienced by a climber leading a route on-sight.
In 2006 the hardest grade claimed was E11 for 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 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'. Many climbers consider such high grades provisional, as the climbs have not yet been achieved on sight/ground up[reference required].
The grade "XS" (occasionally qualified by Mild [MXS] and Hard [HXS]) is sometimes used for Extremely Severe rock climbs when a high proportion of the challenge is due to objective dangers, typically loose or crumbling rock, rather than 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 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−.
In Sweden, Norway, and Finland, they originally used the UIAA scale. But since it was thought that 6+ would be the definition of how hard humans could climb, no climber wanted to put up this grade, leaving the entire scale very sand-bagged compared to the UIAA scale. To show that it is a Scandinavian grade, Arabic numerals are used (e.g. 5, 6, 7), and for UIAA graded climbs in Scandinavia, Roman numerals are used (e.g. V, VI, VII). In some guide books, where many Germans have done the first ascent, the UIAA scale is used for those climbs, and where the first ascent is done by a Scandinavian, the Scandinavian scale is used. The only way to know how the climb is rated is to know the first ascentist is German or Scandinavian. In sport climbing the French scale is pretty common (especially for the hardest grades), or both scales are used in the guide book, with the other scale in parentheses, i.e. 6+ (6b).
The Saxon Rating System, or the East German (GDR) rating system as it was known before the unification of Germany, 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.
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 the vast majority of 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.
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 35. 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.
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
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:
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 used to designate the lower or upper ends of a grade (e.g. a 4B equating to 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
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):
A plus (+) may be added to indicate somewhat higher difficulty. For example, the West Buttress Route on Mount McKinley (Denali) is graded 2+ in the above-mentioned guidebook.
It is important to remember that even an Alaska Grade 1 climb may involve climbing on snow and glaciers in remote locations and cold weather.
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)
WI4+ - highly technical WI4. (Wicked Wanda, Ghost River)
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)
WI5+ - highly technical WI5 (Oh le Tabernac, Icefield Parkway; Hydrophobia, Ghost River; Sacre Bleu, 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 later years as they don't meet the strict criteria of difficulty.
WI11 - Previously unheard of climbing running steep to horizontal through aerated spray ice. The only known example is Wolverine at Helmcken Falls, Canada. The grade was given to reflect previous M11 climbing experiences of first and second ascentionists.
This measures the difficulty of mixed climbs combining ice and rock. Mixed climbs have recently been climbed and graded as high as M14.
In Scotland, 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.
There are many grading systems used specifically for bouldering problems, including:
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.
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.
The following chart compares some of the free climbing grading systems in use around the world. As mentioned above, grading is a subjective task and no two grading systems have an exact one-to-one correspondence. Therefore, there isn't a perfect agreement in the literature about grading system comparisons or conversion rules.
The British Adj grades (E) do not grade only the hardness of the climb but the overall feel of the route i.e. How hard gear is to place, How good is the gear, How high up is the first piece of gear, The landing of a ground fall and how dangerous the climb is. All these factors are regarded when giving it the grade.
The following grades are used for rating 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 correspond to roughly equivalent sets of grades. Font refers to the Fontainebleau grading system.