Climbing Grades | A Guide to Difficulty Ratings and What They Mean
Learn your 3as from your E5s
Climbing grades can be confusing. Depending on where you climb in the UK you could find anything from a 4a to an E9 or even an HVS, and don't get us started on the Australian, European or American grading systems.
The climbing grades system is an important part of climbing. Knowing which climbing grades you can handle lets you see how you're progressing and helps you pick realistic challenges when you want to push yourself.
The climbing grades system also comes into its own when you're climbing a new spot. Climbing grades give you an instant idea of which routes you can try out and which ones you'll come back for, though any new route usually seems a bit harder than its actual grade on your first go.
It's important to remember that a climbing grade represents a number of different things from the degree of technical skill, endurance and power needed to make the climb to how hard you need to commit and how difficult it is to protect a climber on the route.
Each different grading system weighs up these challenges differently meaning that while you can make a rough comparison between climbing grade systems there is rarely an exact match.
Climbing grades can also vary in difficulty from area to area meaning that you could climb a load of 5bs at one crag you might struggle with them at another. It's also important to bear in mind that climbing grades are often set by the person who first climbs them and then moderated a bit by other experienced climbers and guide books so the results can sometimes be pretty subjective.
For experienced climbers, tough climbing grades are often all about bragging rights while newbies just need to know where to find a good beginner route, but whatever your level it's a good call to have a solid working knowledge of climbing grades.
The French climbing grades system is used in most European countries, including the UK, for sport routes where the protection is already bolted into the cliff. You'll also find this system used in the majority of international events outside the USA.
The French climbing grades system is numerical, starting at 1, and each grade is subdivided with letters e.g. 4a, 4b, 4c, 5a, 5b. Sometimes a + symbol is also added to show a route that's slightly harder than it's grade but not tough enough for the next grade up e.g. a 5b+.
"Grades are decided based on the overall difficulty of the route - you can have shorter climbs and longer, easier climbs with the same grade."
Grades are decided based on the overall difficulty of the route which means you can have shorter more difficult climbs and longer easier climbs with the same grade.
The system is officially open ended but the top climbers in the world are currently tackling up to 9b climbs.
The UK climbing grades system is generally use for trad climbing routes where climbers put in their own protection as they climb.
UK grades are made up from a combination of adjectival and technical grading.
The adjectival grade describes the route as a whole, including how difficult it is overall, how much endurance you'll need and how easy it is to place protection. The grades start at Moderate (around a grade 1 or 2 on the French system) progressing through Difficult (2 to 3+) to Severe (3+ to 5c ) and finally Extremely Severe (5c to 9b+).
Each adjectival rating is also given a technical grade which represents the difficulty of the single hardest move or section in the route. Technical grades run from 3c (French 4a) up to a 7b (French 9a+).
The technical grades are also described as either Bold or Safe. Safe routes are those which have a good chance to place protection while Bold routes are riskier with longer drops and fewer places to place protection between each anchor point.
This means it's possible to get a route that has a high adjectival grade and a lower technical grade, which means is not so technically demanding but it is still pretty dangerous.
There is some overlap between UK grades so you might often find yourself surprised by the difficulty of some routes, but for many this grading system's subtleties make it one of the most flexible in the world.
Yosemite Decimal System
The American Yosemite Decimal System was originally designed in the 1930s to rate hikes and climbs in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Since then some of the originally graded climbs have become easier with the use of modern climbing equipment so the grading system has become open ended to allow for tougher climbs to be graded.
The YDS is a decimalised grading system which currently runs from grade 1 to 5.15b. Grades 1 through to 4 basically indicate an energetic stroll and it's not until you hit a 5 or more that you reach the proper climbing grades.
The number here refers to the technical difficulty of the hardest section followed by a letter grade like the French system, to further define the route. A grade 5.2 climb on the US system is roughly a 1 on the French system, with 5.15b equalling a French 9b.
The YDS also has a couple of add ons to the decimalised tech grading. Roman numerals from I to VI can be added to show how long a route is, from a short one or two pitch climb to a multi day climbing expedition.
You may also see an A grade (e.g. A5), which indicates an aid climbing route that needs specialist ascending gear, or a protection grade which looks like an American movie age rating. Protection grades start around G and PG (good and pretty good) all the way up to X which stands for no protection.
Just to complicate things, you'll often find a different system of climbing grades being used in the rest of Europe outside of France and the UK.
The International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation, or Union Internationale des Associations d'Alpinisme, has a grading system that is common across the rest of teh continent.
The UIAA system uses Roman numerals (IV, V, VI etc.) with + and – to indicate grades which just push the boundary for difficulty. UIAA climbing grades are used in Germany and large parts of Eastern Europe where the system is mainly used to grade sport climbing routes.
"Just to complicate things, you'll often find a different system of climbing grades being used in the rest of Europe"
UIAA runs pretty close to the French system with grades starting at I (1) and ranging up to XII (12) which is equivalent to a French 9A or 9B.
A tip for beginner climbers - you should be looking for climbs around the III (3) to V (5) area. Intermediates will probably find themselves climbing up to grade VIII (8).
The Ewbank Grading System
Australian climbers (unless it comes to abseiling, in which case the Aussie Rappel is pretty out there!) like to keep it simple and thanks to a former Brit they have one of the most straight forward climbing grade systems in the world.
Running from 1 to 35 the Ewbank climbing grade system, uses one number to represent the technical difficulty, exposure, length, quality of rock, protection and any additional factors that contribute to the difficulty of a route.
Invented in the 60s by John Ewbank, a Yorkshireman who emigrated to Australia, this system is also used in New Zealand and a very similar system is used in South Africa too. Gradewise an 11 on the Ewbank scale is equivalent to a 2 on the French system while a 35 tops out around a French 9A.