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Grade (climbing)

In 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.

Grade systems for free climbing

For free climbing, there are many different grading systems varying according to country:

Ewbank

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, up to 34 (as of 2007).

The Ewbank system is intended to simply grade the hardest individual move on a 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.

Brazilian

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" (possibly for "superior") is used for grades 1 to 6, and the standard French "a", "b" and "c" suffixes for grades from 7 to 12.

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 first Brazilian 7A is ‘Ácido Lático’ by André Ilha, Marcelo Braga e Marcelo Ramos.

The French 7a+ grade is mostly equivalent to the Brazilian 8a. For US-BR conversion, ignore "5." and subtract 4. (5.10=6).

UIAA

The UIAA grading system is mostly used for short rock routes in Western Germany, Austria and Switzerland. 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 X (hardest), but as with all other grading systems, improvements to climbing standards have led to the system being open-ended. An optional + or − may be used to further differentiate difficulty. As of 2004, the hardest climbs are XII−.

French

The French grading system considers the overall difficulty of the climb, taking into account the difficulty of the moves and the length of climb. This differs from most grading systems where one rates a climbing route according to the most difficult section (or single move). Grades are numerical, starting 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+. Many countries in Europe use a system with similar grades but not necessarily matching difficulties.

British

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".

Adjectival grade

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 - sometimes omitted)
  • Very Difficult (VD, or "V Diff")
  • Hard Very Difficult (HVD – sometimes omitted)
  • Severe (S)
  • Hard Severe (HS)
  • 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 mobile protections, and was graded E12/7a. However, many climbers consider such high grades provisional, as the climbs have not yet been achieved on sight.

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.

Technical grade

The technical grade attempts to assess only the technical climbing difficulty of the hardest move or 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 hardest recorded climbs are around 7a (or, controversially, 7b)

Usually the technical grade increases with the adjectival grade, but a hard technical move very near the ground (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).

Yosemite Decimal System

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.

A YDS rating consists of 3 parts: the Grade, the Class, and the protection rating. The Grade and protection rating are optional, and usage varies widely. When the climb also involves aid climbing, the aid climbing grade can be appended to the free climbing rating. Some examples: El Capitan – The North America Wall 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 from guidebook to guidebook.

YDS Grade

The YDS system involves an optional Roman numeral Grade that indicates the length and seriousness of the route. The Grades are:

  • Grade I: one to two hours of climbing.
  • Grade II: less than half a day.
  • Grade III: half a day climb.
  • Grade IV: full day climb.
  • Grade V: two day climb.
  • Grade VI: multi-day climb.
  • Grade VII: a climb lasting a week or longer

The Grade is more relevant to mountaineering and big wall climbing, and often not stated when talking about short rock climbs.

YDS Class

The system consists of five classes indicating the technical difficulty of the hardest section:

  • Class 1 is walking with a low chance of injury and a fall 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). The difference between letter grades is roughly the same as the difference between number grades that are below 5.10. For example: Going from a 5.12a to a 5.12b is just as difficult as going from a 5.7 to a 5.8.

As of 2008, the hardest climbing routes in the world are grade 5.15a Ratings on the hardest climbs tend to be tentative, until other climbers have had a chance to complete the routes and a consensus can be reached on the precise grade.

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 5.12a move would be graded 5.12a. A climb that consisted of 5.11b moves all along its route, would be 5.11b. Modern application of climbing grades, especially on climbs at the upper end of the scale, also consider how sustained or strenuous a climb is, in addition to the difficulty of the single hardest move.

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
  • 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. 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.

Grade systems for mountaineering

See also Summitpost Alpine Grades

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.

French Alpine

The French alpine grades give an overall difficulty grade to a route, taking into consideration the length, difficulty, exposure and commitment-level (e.g. how hard it may be to retreat). These are, in increasing order:

  • F:facile (easy)
  • PD: peu difficile (not very difficult)
  • AD: assez difficile (fairly difficult)
  • D: difficile (difficult)
  • TD: très difficile (very difficult)
  • ED1/2/3/4: extrêmement difficile (extremely difficult)
  • ABO: Abominablement difficile (Abominable) (Extremely difficult as well as being dangerous)

Often a + or a − 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−").

Romanian

The alpine routes in Romania are rated in the Russian grading system (adapted, at it's turn, 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 equivallent) 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 beeing 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 beeing the same as a D+ in the French system.

New Zealand

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.

As a rough guide.

Grade 1 – An easy scramble.

Grade 4 – Technical climbing, must be able to place rock and ice gear quickly and efficiently. Often involves a long day.

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.

Alaskan

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.
  • Alaska Grade 4: Multiday, moderately technical climb.
  • Alaska Grade 5: Multiday, highly technical climb.
  • Alaska Grade 6: Multiday, extremely technical climb.

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.

Grade systems for ice climbing

Ice climbing has a number of grading systems. The WI numeric scale measures the difficulty of routes on water ice; the M scale measures the difficulty of mixed climbs combining ice and rock. The WI scale currently spans grades from 1–7, and M climbs have recently surfaced graded 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.

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.

Grade systems for bouldering

There are many grading systems used specifically for bouldering problems. See the grade (bouldering) article.

Grade systems for aid climbing

Aid climbs are graded A0 to A5 or A6 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.

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.

The “new wave” aid system:

  • A1: Easy aid and easy placements.
  • A2: Moderate aid. Solid gear, but difficult to place.
  • A2+: Up to 10m fall potential but with little risk of hitting anything.
  • A3: Hard aid. Many tenuous placements in a row. Fall potential up to 15m.
  • A3+: Same A3, but with dangerous fall potential.
  • A4: Serious aid. Continuously tenuous gear placements in a row with up to 30m ledge fall potential.
  • A4+: More serious aid. Longer fall potential. Each pitch can take many hours to lead.
  • A5: Extreme aid. Nothing on the pitch will hold a fall. A fall will almost certainly end with death.
  • A6: Same as A5, but with belay anchors that won’t hold a fall. A fall will kill the whole team.

Comparison table

The following table has a basic comparison chart for some of the different free climbing rating systems that are in use around the world:

Rock Climbing Rating Systems
YDS
(USA)
British
(UK)
Tech/Adj
French Vermin
(Bouldering)
UIAA
(Central
Europe)
Eastern Germany
(Central
Europe)
Ewbank (Australia, New Zealand & South Africa) Finnish Norwegian Brazilian
5.2     1   I I       Isup
5.3     2   II II 11     II
5.4     3   III III 12   3 IIsup
5.5 4a VD 4   IV IV 12   4 III
5.6   S 5a   V− V 13 5− 5− IIIsup
5.7 4b HS 5b   V VI 14 5 5 IV
  4c       V+   15      
5.8   VS 5c   VI− VIIa 16 5+ 5+ IVsup
5.9 5a HVS 6a   VI VIIb 17   6− V
5.10a   E1 6a+ V0 VI+ VIIc 18 6− 6−/6 VI
5.10b 5b           19     VI/VI+
5.10c   E2 6b V1 VII− VIIIa 20 6 6 VIsup/VI+
5.10d 5c   6b+   VII VIIIb 21   6+ VIsup
5.11a   E3 6c V2 VII+ VIIIc 22 6+ 7− 7a
5.11b     6c+       23   7 7b
5.11c 6a E4 7a V3 VIII− IXa 24 7− 7+ 7c
5.11d     7a+   VIII IXb   7+/8- 8a
5.12a   E5 7b V4 VIII+ IXc 25 7+ 8− 8b
5.12b 6b   7b+       26 8− 8 8c
5.12c   E6 7c V5 IX− Xa 27 8 8/8+ 9a
5.12d 6c   7c+ V6 IX Xb 28 8+ 8+ 9b
5.13a   E7   V7 IX+ Xc 29 9− 9− 9c
5.13b     8a V8       9    
5.13c 7a   8a+ V9 X−   30 9+ 9−/9 10a
5.13d   E8 8b V10 X   31 10− 9 10b
5.14a     8b+ V11 X+   32 10 9/9+ 10c
5.14b 7b   8c V12     33 10+ 9+ 11a
5.14c   E9 8c+ V13 XI−   34 11− 10− 11b
5.14d 7c   9a V14 XI   35 11 10 11c
5.15a   9a+ V15         12a
5.15b   9b V16

Color Description*
Grade level easily achievable by most people
Grade level achievable by committed climbers
Grade level achievable by passionate climbers, climbing shoes and chalk essential
The realm of professional climbers
Professional climbers showing exceptional, skill, strength, power and coordination
The pioneers of the sport, fewer than ~5 climbers worldwide have achieved this level

*Note: As mentioned in this article, there is no concise and full proof method of grading climbs and delineation between grades is somewhat blurred from person to person. The color scheme is a generalization to try and simplify the grading system so that people with no climbing experience can understand the grading system.

References

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