Rock Climbing, Abseiling & Canyoning

Rock Climbing Grades | Explained

Confused by the language of climbing grades? Here's what they mean

The trusty old climbing grade. Loathed by many, loved by few. Climbing grades represent the overall difficulty of a route. That’s obvious though, right? Well it’s not always so simple. Climbing routes offer a broad spectrum of challenges, all of which need to be collectively rounded up into a single number, letter or word to give the grade.

It’s important to remember that with grades, there is not one definite grade for each route – it’s a pretty subjective matter. Things could have been climbed when they were less polished, in better weather, or even by a climber who was much more suited to the type of climbing in question (shock). Don’t get too caught up on grades – just use the grading systems as a rough rule of thumb and always blame your mates for sandbagging you on a route you found too tough!

Over time, many routes have shifted grades as more and more climbers started to come to some sort of consensus regarding the grade of climbs within an area. This is clear when you’re climbing at a well established area, compared to when you climb at a new crag, where the grades can sometimes feel off.

British Trad Grading

By far the most confusing of the grading systems. The British trad grading system was set up to represent the wide range of factors that need to be taken into consideration when trad climbing in the UK, hence the multi-faceted style. British trad grading system consists of both an adjectival and a numbered grade, which we’ll explain below.

Adjectival Grades

The first portion of the British traditional grading system is what’s know as the adjectival grade. Adjectival grades scale in the following order; Moderate, Easy, Difficult, Very Difficult, Severe, Hard Severe, Hard Very Severe, E1, E2, E3… All the way up to E11 to this day.

This grade very broadly represents the overall feel of the entire route. I say broadly, as it covers a wide range of variabilities that can change the overall feel of a route. These vary from how strenuous the route is, how exposed the route is, how well protected the route is or how long the route is.

Numbered Grades

The numbered part of this grade represents the difficulty of the hardest section of the climb. You do of course need to be aware that this could be a single 5a boulder problem move at the start of the route, or a more complex series of moves of a similar grade high up on the route. It very confusingly uses the same number letter layout as the French grading system, but it’s worth bearing in mind that these grades are not the same. For example, a 5c UK Trad grade is closer matched to a 6b French.

Adjectival and Numbered Grades Combined

The two grades can then be used together to understand how bold or safe a route will feel. For example, a route with a high adjectival grade, but low numbered grade (within the scope of the adjectival grade), will be a safe route.

French Grading

The internationally used system to grade sport climbing routes that have fixed protection throughout. This system is even used within UK sport climbing locations and indoor centres. The removal of the safety aspect (as the gear is permanently fixed into the wall) makes the French grading system much more straightforward to understand. It scales in technicality, beginning with 1. Once you reach grade 4 and above, the grade then cycles through a, b and c, before  jumping up to the next number.

UIAA Grading

To add yet more confusion to grading systems, the UIAA developed their own grading system. Widely adopted in Germany and Eastern Europe, this grading system scales with Roman numerals starting at ‘I’ and ascending all the way up to XII with + or – also added in for routes that are close to the next grade up or below.

The UIAA grading system runs alongside the French grading system, so you’ll be able to get a pretty direct comparison. For example, a ‘V’ is equivalent to a ‘4c’ and ‘X+’ is equivalent to ‘8a+’.

United States Grading

Finally onto the US grading system – also known as the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS). This grading system was first established in California, then revised in the Yosemite Valley to become close to what it is today. Class 5 grades are what we’re going to focus on in this article as they represent the climbing grades. It’s worth noting that the YDS begins at Class 1: Class 1 – 2 are used for hikes and trail runs, Class 3 for scrambling and Class 4 is for the in between ground between scrambling and easy climbing.

Class 5 is where the proper climbing begins. It is divided into parts that currently scale from 5.0 up to 5.15b. Like the UIAA grading system, the YDS is used for sport routes, so each grade simply represents the technicality of the entire route.

If the climb does involve some climber placed protection, then there is often a protection rating joined alongside the number:

G = Good, solid protection,

PG = Pretty good, few sections of poor or non-existent placements.

PG13 = Fair protection, falls may be long but are less likely to cause injury.

R = Runout, some protection placements may be very far apart. Injury more likely.

X = No protection, extremely dangerous. Death likely, even when protected.

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