Grade (climbing)

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Many climbing routes have a grade that reflects the technical difficulty—and in some cases the risks and commitment level—of the route. The first ascensionist can suggest a grade, but it will be amended to reflect the consensus view of subsequent ascents. While many countries with a strong tradition of climbing developed grading systems, a small number of grading systems have become internationally dominant for each type of climbing, which has contributed to the standardization of grades worldwide. Over the years, grades have consistently risen in all forms of climbing, helped by improvements in climbing technique and equipment.

Contents

In free climbing (i.e. climbing rock routes with no aid), the most widely used grading systems are the French numerical or sport system (e.g. f7c+), the American YDS system (e.g. 5.13a), and latterly the UIAA scale (e.g. IX+). These systems are focused on technical difficulty, which is the sole focus in the relatively risk-free activity of sport climbing. The American system adds an R/X suffix to traditional climbing routes to reflect the risks of climbing protection. Notable traditional climbing systems include the British E-grade system (e.g. E4 6a).

In bouldering (i.e. rock climbing on short routes), the most widely used systems are the American V-scale (or "Hueco") system (e.g. V14), and the French "Font" system (e.g. 8C+). The Font system often attaches an "F" prefix to further distinguish it from French sport climbing grades, which itself uses an "f" prefix (e.g. F8C+ vs. f8c+). It is increasingly common for sport climbing rock routes to describe their hardest technical movements in terms of their boulder grade (e.g. an f7a sport climbing route being described as having a V6 crux).

In aid climbing (i.e. the opposite of free climbing), the most widely used system is the A-grade system (e.g. A3+), which was recalibrated in the 1990s as the "new wave" system from the legacy A-grade system. For "clean aid climbing" (i.e. aid climbing equipment is used but only where the equipment is temporary and not permanently hammered into the rock), the most common system is the C-system (e.g. C3+). Aid climbing grades take time to stabilize as successive repeats of aid climbing routes can materially reduce the grade.

In ice climbing, the most widely used grading system is the WI ("water ice") system (e.g. WI6) and the identical AI ("alpine ice") system (e.g. AI6). The related sport of mixed climbing (i.e. ice and dry-tool climbing) uses the M-grade system (e.g. M8), with other notable mixed grading systems including the Scottish Winter system (e.g. Grade VII). Pure dry-tooling routes (i.e. ice tools with no ice) use the D-grade prefix (e.g. D8 instead of M8).

In mountaineering and alpine climbing, the greater complexity of routes requires several grades to reflect the difficulties of the various rock, ice, and mixed climbing challenges. The International French Adjectival System (IFAS, e.g.TD+)–which is identical to the "UIAA Scale of Overall Difficulty" (e.g. I–VI)–is used to grade the "overall" risk and difficulty of mountain routes (with the gradient of the snow/ice fields) (e.g. the 1938 Heckmair Route on the Eiger is graded: ED2 (IFAS), VI− (UIAA), A0 (A-grade), WI4 (WI-grade), 60° slope). The related "commitment grade" systems include the notable American National Climbing Classification System (e.g. I–VI).

History

The six levels (Grade I-VI) of the "Welzenbach scale", from 1926 Echelle des six degres de difficulte en escalade rocheuse.jpg
The six levels (Grade I–VI) of the "Welzenbach scale", from 1926

In 1894, the Austrian mountaineer Fritz Benesch  [ de ] introduced the first known climbing grading system, which he introduced to rock climbing. The "Benesch scale" had seven levels of difficulty, with level VII the easiest and level I the hardest; as more difficult climbs were made, the grades of level 0 and level 00 were added. [1]

In 1923, German mountaineer Willo Welzenbach  [ de ] compressed the scale and reversed the order so level 00 became level IV–V, and it became popular in the Alps. In 1967, the "Welzenbach scale" formally became the "UIAA scale" for rock climbing (or "UIAA Scale of Difficulty") with Roman numerals I–VI, and a "+" and "−" to refine each level. The UIAA also incorporated proposals made in 1943 by Lucien Devies  [ fr ] and the Groupe de Haute Montagne  [ fr ] on a broader "Scale of Global Assessment" for alpine climbing (the French Alpine System), and created the "UIAA Scale of Overall Difficulty" by assigning Roman numerals I–VI to the six adjectival levels (e.g. F, PD, AD, D, TD, and ED) of the French system. The UIAA also incorporated a "Scale of Difficulty in Aided Climbing" for aid routes with the levels: A1, A2, A3, A4, and (later) A5. In 1978, the UIAA added the VII (seventh grade) to its "UIAA scale", implying that the scale was open-ended, a concept formally adopted in 1985. [2]

By the 1980s, French guides had customized the "UIAA scale" beyond V+ with the letters "a", "b", and c" (e.g. V+, VIa, VIb, etc.). At the end of the 1980s, French climbing guidebook author Francois Labande  [ fr ] published the "French numerical scale", which replaced the UIAA Roman numerals with Arabic numerals, and where French 6a equaled UIAA VI+. The two scales were summarised as "Plaisir Grades" and aligned in a UIAA table where French grades 1–6a aligned with "UIAA scale" grades I–VI+; beyond that level, the two systems diverged and for example, French 7a+ equates to UIAA grade VIII and French 9a equates to UIAA grade XI. [2]

In America, a version of the Welzenbach Scale was introduced for rock climbing in 1937 by the Sierra Club, which in the 1950s was further adapted into the Yosemite Decimal System that added a decimal place to the class 5 grade (e.g. 5.2, 5.3, 5.4, etc.), and which by the 1960s was again amended to introduce the letters "a", "b", "c", and "d" after 5.9 to further refine the levels (e.g. 5.9, 5.10a, 5.10b, 5.10c, etc.). [2]

While individual countries developed their own rock climbing grading systems, the American system, French system, and latterly the "UIAA scale" became popular internationally (with the American and French dominating sport climbing). The UIAA "Scale of Overall Assessment" dropped its six Roman numbers in favor of the six adjectival grades of the French Alpine System (to avoid confusion with the "UIAA scale") and dominated alpine climbing grading, while the UIAA "Scale of Difficulty in Aided Climbing" – amended and expanded in Yosemite in the 1990s as "new-wave" grades – dominated aid grading. [2]

Free climbing

Adam Ondra on the sport climbing route Silence, the hardest free climbing route in the world and the first-ever at 9c (French), 5.15d (American YDS), and XII+ (UIAA). Adam Ondra climbing Silence 9c by PAVEL BLAZEK 2.jpg
Adam Ondra on the sport climbing route Silence , the hardest free climbing route in the world and the first-ever at 9c (French), 5.15d (American YDS), and XII+ (UIAA).

The two main free climbing grading systems (which include the two main free climbing disciplines of sport climbing and traditional climbing) are the "French numerical system" and the "American YDS system". [2] The "UIAA scale" is still popular in Germany and across parts of Central Europe. [2] Many countries with a history of free climbing have also developed their own free climbing grading systems including the British E-grade system and the Australia/New Zealand "Ewbank" system. [2]

The evolution of grade milestones in traditional climbing, and latterly sport climbing (as it took over from traditional climbing as the main focus of the leading free climbers), is an important part of the history of rock climbing. As of September 2023, the hardest free climb in the world is the sport climbing route Silence which is in the Hanshelleren Cave, in Flatanger, Norway; the severely overhanging Silence is graded 9c (French), 5.15d (American YDS), and XII+ (UIAA), and is the first-ever climb to have those grades in history.

French numerical grade

The French numerical system for free climbing was developed from the UIAA scale in the 1980s but uses Arabic numbers instead of the UIAA scale's Roman numerals, and also uses the letters "a", "b" and "c" and the "+" symbol to give additional refinement between the numbers (whereas the UIAA uses only the "−" and "+" symbols). [2] The French system starts at 1 and closely aligns with the UIAA scale up to UIAA V+, which is French grade 6a, but thereafter begins to diverge. [2] [3] The French grading system is the dominant system in Europe, and it and the American YDS system are the most dominant systems worldwide; beyond the easiest grades, the two systems can be almost exactly aligned in comparison tables. [2] [3]

The French system is an open-ended scale that was at 9c in 2023 with Silence . The system is only focused on the technical demands of the hardest movement on the route. [2] Unlike the American YDS system, there is no allowance for any risks in the route, and thus the French system is more closely aligned with sport climbing (i.e. where pre-bolted protection removes most risk). [2] It is less common to find traditional climbing routes graded by the French system, and thus it is also called the French sport grade. [2] To avoid confusion between French grades and the British E-grades, a lowercase "f" (for French) is used as a prefix (e.g. f6a+); this should not be confused with the use of the capitalized "F" or "fb" prefix in Font boulder grades. [2]

American YDS grade

Alex Honnold's 2017 free solo of Freerider on El Capitan was the first-ever big-wall free solo at the grade of 5.13a (American) or 7c+ (French) Alex Honnold El Capitan Free Solo 1.png
Alex Honnold's 2017 free solo of Freerider on El Capitan was the first-ever big-wall free solo at the grade of 5.13a (American) or 7c+ (French)

The American YDS (or 'Yosemite Decimal System') was developed independently by climbers at Tahquitz Peak who adapted the class 5 rating of Sierra Club Class 1–5 system in the 1950s. [4] As a result, the system has a "5" as its prefix which is then followed by a decimal point and a number that starts a 1 and counts up with increasing difficulty (e.g. 5.4, 5.5, 5.6, etc.). [3] At 5.10, the system adds the letters "a", "b", "c", and "d" as further refinements between levels, and the scale continues upward (e.g. 5.10a, 5.10b, 5.10c, 5.10d, 5.11a, 5.11b, etc.,). [3] [4] The American YDS system is the dominant system in North America, and it and the French numerical system are the most dominant systems worldwide; beyond the easiest grades, they can be exactly aligned. [2] [3]

The American YDS system is an open-ended scale that was at 5.15d in 2023 with Silence . Like the French system, the numerical component of the American YDS system is focused on the hardest move on the route. [4] In 1980, Jim Erickson introduced an additional rating for traditional climbing routes where the level and quality of the climbing protection is assessed. [4] A suffix of "PG-13" (using the American cinema classification system) denotes the climbing protection is adequate, and if properly placed a fall will be short (in practice, the "PG-13" is usually omitted as it is considered the default). [4] A suffix of "R" is added where protection is inadequate and any fall could risk serious injury, and "X" for routes with little or no protection and where any fall could be very long and potentially fatal (i.e. also known as a "chop route"). [2] [4] [3]

American big wall climbing routes will often include the NCCS grade (Levels I–VII) with the YDS grade (e.g. the Salathé Wall at 5.13b VI). [2]

UIAA scale

The UIAA scale (or UIAA Scale of Difficulty) for free climbing was developed from the original "Welzenbach scale" in 1967 and uses the Roman numerals of that scale with "+" and "−" symbols for refinement between numerals after Grade III (i.e. III, IV−, IV, IV+, V−, V, V+ etc.,). [2] [3] Initially, the UIAA scale was closed-ended and went from Grade I (easiest) up to Grade VI (hardest), where it stopped. In 1978, the "seventh grade" was added—though climbers had been climbing at that level for years—and by 1985 it was formally made into an open-ended scale that went beyond Grade VII. [2] [4]

The UIAA scale is closely aligned with the French system up to Grade V+, which is French grade 6a, but thereafter begins to diverge, although the two can be reasonably aligned in comparison tables. [2] [3] The UIAA scale was at XII+ in 2023 with Silence , which is French 9c. While the French system became the dominant scale in Europe, the UIAA scale is still popular in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. [2] [3] [5] The UIAA scale is also commonly found in the grading systems of alpine climbing routes, and particularly those that use the French Alpine System (e.g. PD, D, TD, ED), where the UIAA scale is often used to grade the free climbing component. [2] [6]

British E-grade

The crag of Clogwyn Du'r Arddu in Wales with Indian Face (centre), which was the first-ever E9-graded route on the British system at E9 6c (British) or 5.13a X (American) Clogwyn Du'r Arddu 2.jpg
The crag of Clogwyn Du'r Arddu in Wales with Indian Face (centre), which was the first-ever E9-graded route on the British system at E9 6c (British) or 5.13a X (American)

The most complex grading system is the British E-grade system (or British trad grade), [6] which uses two separate open-ended grades for each route. [7] This structure is particularly adapted to traditional climbing routes (which are more common in Britain), but it is still considered complex and unlike the American YDS system (which has the R/X labels for traditional climbing routes), never came into wider use for traditional climbing outside of Britain. [7] Within Britain, the French sport grade is more popular for British bolted sport climbing routes. [7] As of April 2024, the highest consensus E-grade on a traditional route in Britain was on Lexicon (E11 7a) and on Rhapsody (E11 7a), which are considered equivalent to American 5.14 R or French f8b+/f8c+. [8] Outside of Britain, the highest consensus E-grade was Bon Voyage in Annot, France at E12, or 5.14d / 9a. [9]

The first grade is an "adjectival grade" that covers the overall difficulty of the route and takes into account the: "seriousness, sustaindness, technical difficulty, exposure, strenuousness, rock quality, and any other less tangible aspects which lend difficulty to a pitch". [10] This adjectival grade uses the labels (starting from the easiest): M (moderate), D (difficult), VD (very difficult), HVD (hard very difficult), S (severe), HS (hard severe), VS (very severe), and HVS (hard very severe). [3] [10] After HVS, the label switches to E (extreme), but then rises as E1, E2, E3, E4, ... etc., in an open-ended scale. [3] [10]

The second grade is a "technical grade" that focuses on the hardest technical movement on the route. This technical grade has a very similar format to the French sport grade, being an Arabic number that starts at 4 and uses the additional "a", "b", and "c" symbols for refinement between the numbers (unlike the French grades, it does not also use the "+" refinement, and simply goes: 4a, 4b, 4c, 5a, 5b, 5c, 6a, ... etc.,). [3] [10] British climbers use the prefix "f" to distinguish French sport-grades from British technical grades, which is important as they are not equivalent (e.g. British 5c is f6b+). [2]

The secret to understanding the British E-grade system is the relationship between the two grades. [2] [3] [10] For each adjectival grade there is a typical technical grade for a standard route. [3] [10] For example, E4 is often associated with 6a, so E4 6a means the route has a normal level of risk and other related factors for its technical level of 6a. [11] However, E5 6a would imply that the risk is higher (i.e. closer to an American YDS "R"), while E6 6a would imply a very significant risk (i.e. like the American YDS R/X), and a rare E7 6a would be effectively no protection (i.e. a full American YDS "X", or essentially a free solo route). [11] Similarly, E3 6a implies a well-protected route, while E2 or E1 6a would imply easily available bomb-proof protection. [11]

Other notable systems

Climber on Punks in the Gym, Mount Arapiles, grade 32 (Ewbank) and the world's first-ever 8b+ (French), 5.14a (American) route. Punks Wall (29529972985).jpg
Climber on Punks in the Gym, Mount Arapiles, grade 32 (Ewbank) and the world's first-ever 8b+ (French), 5.14a (American) route.

Bouldering

Dreamtime V15 (8C) is the diagonal green line, and Somnolence V13 (8B) is the blue line. Dreamtime Boulder in Cresciano - line.jpg
Dreamtime V15  (8C) is the diagonal green line, and Somnolence V13  (8B) is the blue line.

The two main boulder grading systems are the French Font-grade and the American V-grade systems. [2] [14] Beyond the easiest grades, the two systems can be almost exactly aligned in comparison tables. [2] [14] For various reasons, it is also noted that boulder grades on indoor climbing walls tend to be materially softer than the equivalent outdoor grade up until about V10 / Font 7C+ (e.g. an indoor V4–6 could be an outdoor V2–3). [15]

As of September 2023, the hardest bouldering route in the world is Burden of Dreams in Lappnor in Finland, which is graded 9A (Font) and V17 (V-grade/Hueco), and was the first-ever boulder to reach those grades.

Comparison with free climbing

The Font-grade system is easily confused with the French sport grade and the British E-grade systems as they use similar symbols, however, boulder grades are very different from free climbing grades and they start at much harder technical levels. For example, the entry-level Font-grade 4 / V-grade V0 is equivalent to the free climbing grades of 6a to 6a+ (French), VI to VII− (UIAA), and 5.9 to 5.10c (American YDS), depending on what table is used. [2] [4] [5]

This confusion is amplified by the tendency for modern sport-climbers to describe the crux moves on their routes in terms of their bouldering grades – their routes are effectively a series of connected boulder problems. For example, here is Adam Ondra describing his 2017 redpoint of Silence , the first-ever free climb in the world to carry a grade of 9c (French), 5.15d (American), XII+ (UIAA):

The climb is about 45m long, the first 20m are about 8b [French sport] climbing with a couple of really really good knee-bars. Then comes the crux boulder problem, 10 moves of 8C [French boulder]. And when I say 8C boulder problem, I really mean it. ... I reckon just linking 8C [French boulder] into 8B [French boulder] into 7C [French boulder] is a 9b+ [French] sport climb, I'm pretty sure about that.

Adam Ondra in an interview with PlanetMountain (2017). [16]
Climber on the Rave Heart V8 (7B/7B+) section of The Wheel of Life, which is graded at both a boulder route at V15 (8C), and a free climbing route at f9a (5.14d) Bouldering Hollow Mountain Cave 3.jpg
Climber on the Rave Heart V8  (7B/7B+) section of The Wheel of Life , which is graded at both a boulder route at V15  (8C), and a free climbing route at f9a (5.14d)

In addition, boulder routes that connected various boulder problems into a single longer bouldering route, have been graded as if they were sport climbs. A notable example is the 2004 boulder route, The Wheel of Life , which is graded V15  (8C) as a boulder route, but also f9a (5.14d) as a sport climbing route. [17]

Font grade

The Font-grade (from the "Fontainebleau climbing area") is one of the oldest boulder grading systems whose origins can be traced back to at least 1960 with Michel Libert's L'Abbatoir at Fontainebleau. [14] The Font-scale is an open-ended scale that starts at 1 and increases in single-digit steps but uses a "+" for additional refinement between steps; from grade 6 it introduces a capitalized "A", "B" and "C" for further refinement, and was at 9A in 2023 with Burden of Dreams . The Font-scale has no regard to any risk and is purely focused on the technical difficulty of the movements. [2] The Font-scale is distinguished from the French sport grade by using capitalized letters (i.e. Font 6C+ vs. f6c+), and also the use of "Fb" or capital "F" (for "Font") as a prefix. The distinction is important as the scales are very different (i.e. Fb6C+ is closer to f7c). [2] [14]

V-grade

Midnight Lightning is one of the most famous boulders in history and the second-ever V8 (7B/7B+). Midnight Lightning yosemite.jpg
Midnight Lightning is one of the most famous boulders in history and the second-ever V8  (7B/7B+).

The V-grade (short for "Vermin" or "Verm", and also known as the "Hueco" scale) was first published in 1991 by American bouldering pioneer John "Verm" Sherman in his climbing guidebook, Hueco Tanks Climbing and Bouldering Guide. [14] Legend is that his publisher would not print the book without some kind of rating of his 900 routes. [14] The V-scale is an open-ended scale that starts at V0 (although a slightly easier "VB" has been used for beginners), and increases in single-digit steps (i.e. V5, V6, V7), and was at V17 in 2023 with Burden of Dreams . The V-scale has no regard for any risk and is purely focused on the technical difficulty of the movements. [2] The V-scale is the dominant scale in North America, and it and the Font scale are the most dominant systems worldwide; beyond the easiest grades, the two systems can be almost exactly aligned in comparison tables. [2] [14]

Other notable systems

Aid climbing

The main aid climbing systems are the A-grade (usually the "new wave" version) and the C-grade systems. [2] [20] [4] While aid climbing is less popular as a standalone pursuit, aid techniques remain important in big wall climbing and alpine climbing, where the level of difficulties can vary significantly on long routes, and thus the use of aid in places is still common (e.g. The Nose on El Capitan is graded '5.9 (American) C2 (aid)' with aid, but an extremely difficult '5.14a (American)' without any aid; guidebooks will mark such routes as '5.9 & C2 (5.14a)', with the no-aid/fully free option in brackets. [20]

Instability of aid grades

Layton Kor on the first ascent of Exhibit A Eldorado Canyon; the route was then graded 5.9 A4 (original A-grade), but is now graded 5.8 C2+ R (post "new-wave" C-grade). Layton Kor, in Eldorado, on the climb "Exhibit A".jpg
Layton Kor on the first ascent of Exhibit A Eldorado Canyon; the route was then graded 5.9 A4 (original A-grade), but is now graded 5.8 C2+ R (post "new-wave" C-grade).

The grade of an aid climbing route can change materially over time due to improvements in aid equipment but also due to the impact of repeated ascents that subsequent aid climbing teams make to a route. [22] [23] It is not uncommon for a new A5 route in Yosemite to become a "beaten-out A3+ route" due to the effect of repeated hammering of cracks (which widens them), and to the build-up of permanent in-situ aid climbing equipment. [24]

Original A-grade

The original "UIAA Scale of Difficulty in Aided Climbing" system went from A0 to A5 and focused on the number and quality of "bodyweight placements" (i.e. can only take static bodyweight and not a falling bodyweight) versus "bombproof placements" on a given pitch. [2] [24] The grades were less concerned with the physical demands of the route (although there was some mention), and risk was only introduced later with A5. [22] [24]

New wave A-grade

In the 1990s, Yosemite aid climbers created what they called a "new wave" aid grading system that expanded the range of the original UIAA system to A6 (they had already re-defined parts of the UIAA system), and introduced an intermediate "+" grade from A2 onwards for specific tricky or strenuous sections, and gave more detailed definitions at each grading level than the original A-grades. [24] [22]

Clean C-grade

When the original or the "new wave" aid climbs can be ascended without the use of a hammer (for pitons or copperheads), the "A" suffix is replaced by a "C" to denote "clean climbing". [25] [26] In Yosemite, an "F" suffix is placed after the "C" if fixed gear (e.g. bolts) is required to go clean (or hammerless). [24]

Ice and mixed climbing

The most dominant system internationally for ice climbing is the WI-grade, while the most dominant international system for mixed climbing is the M-grade (with the Scottish Winter grade also notable given the unique nature of Scottish mixed routes). [27] Where a route has no ice, and not even the "thin ice coating" common on Scottish Winter routes, it is increasingly common to use a D-grade to indicate dry-tooling. Some M-graded routes in "dry" areas (i.e. places like the American Rockies, but not Scotland), are more of a combination of a WI-graded ice route with a D-graded dry-tooling route. [2] [25] [26]

WI-grade

Angelika Rainer [it] high up on the severely overhanging Clash of Titans (graded WI10+), Helmcken Falls. Angelika Rainer Helmcken Falls 3.png
Angelika Rainer  [ it ] high up on the severely overhanging Clash of Titans (graded WI10+), Helmcken Falls.

The most dominant ice climbing system is the WI (for "water ice") grading system. [28] [27] WI-grades broadly equate to the mixed climbing M-grades from WI1 up to WI6/WI7, but after M6/M7, mixed climbs become overhanging, which ice does not. [28] [27] WI-grades try to take some account of the difficulty of placing protection on the route but, as with M-grades, are more focused on the technical and physical challenge of the route, and are thus more akin to the French and American YDS free climbing systems, although as with the American YDS system, an "R/X" suffix is sometimes used alongside the WI-grade to grade additional risks. [28] [27]

The WI-grade is for "hard ice"; steep snow slopes, which are encountered frequently on alpine climbing routes, are not explicitly graded but instead, their steepest angle (approximate figure or a range) is quoted (e.g. 60–70 degree slope). [25] [26] WI-grade is for "seasonal" hard ice; an AI prefix is used instead for "alpine ice", which is year-round and usually firmer, more stable, making AI-grade routes slightly easier than WI routes. [25] [26]

In 2010, ice climbers began to put up new ice routes at Helmcken Falls in Canada that had unique characteristics. Unlike the sheerest WI7 ice routes, these routes were significantly overhanging like extreme M-graded routes. This was due to the intense spray from the waterfall, which covered the overhanging routes in ice so that there was little dry-tooling (i.e. all the movement was on hard ice). [29] The routes were bolted like M-grade climbs and the result was a series of new WI-graded routes that laid claim to being the "world's hardest ice routes"; by 2020, they reached WI13 with Mission to Mars. [29]

M-grade

Rocket Man (M9), Wyoming. Many M-grade routes are really a combination of a WI-grade ice route and a D-grade dry tooling route. Aaron Mulkey Rocket Man Wyoming.png
Rocket Man (M9), Wyoming. Many M-grade routes are really a combination of a WI-grade ice route and a D-grade dry tooling route.

The grading of mixed climbing routes approximates the ice climbing WI grades, up to M6, but they then diverge as mixed routes can become very overhanging and eventually turn into roofs (ice is not normally overhanging, aside from Helmecken Falls routes). [28] [30] [27] M-grades do not take into account the "danger" of the route (i.e. how good is the protection in the event of a fall) as they are mostly pre-bolted routes; they, therefore, focus on the technical and physical challenge of the route, and is thus more akin to the French and American free climbing rock grades, although as with the American system, the "R/X" suffix is used for danger. [28] [30]

In his 1996 book, Ice World, mixed climbing pioneer Jeff Lowe ranked his new M-grades to the level of physical exertion needed on a free rock climb; for example, Lowe estimated that M8 was equivalent to 5.12 (American YDS). [27] Other authors have tried to align M-grades with rock climbing grades, [4] [31] and now equate M8 to 5.10/5.11, however, there is some variation and no consensus that such comparisons are valid. [27]

D-grade

When mixed climbing is done as pure dry-tooling, which is ice climbing on bare rock with no ice section, the M-grade is usually replaced by a "D" grade prefix (but all other aspects of the two systems are identical). [2] The most extreme dry-tooling route in 2023 is Parallel World (D16) in the "Tomorrow's World Cave" in the Dolomites. [28] [32]

Scottish winter grade

Greg Boswell on the first ascent of Banana Wall, the second-ever Scottish Winder Grade XII/12 route. Banana Wall, Coire an Lochain, Cairngorms, Scotland.jpg
Greg Boswell on the first ascent of Banana Wall, the second-ever Scottish Winder Grade XII/12 route.

Mixed climbing in Scotland is known as "Scottish Winter climbing" and uses a dual-grading system – similar to the British E-grade – with a Roman numeral denoting the "overall" difficulty (e.g. technical challenge, length, and the level of boldness/physicality/stamina required). [30] A second Arabic number grades the technical difficulty of the hardest move on the route. [30] A climb graded VI, 6 means the technical difficulty of the hardest move is standard for the overall grade, whereas a climb graded VI, 8 denotes the hardest move is above the overall grade. [30]

This dual grade is used as Scottish winter climbs use traditional climbing protection, placing greater strains on the climber. [30] British mixed-climber Ian Parnell wrote in his guide to Scottish winter climbing that Scottish grades are almost two levels above M-grades, and thus a Scottish VIII, 8 is similar to an M6; but that an onsight of a Scottish VIII, 8 using traditional climbing protection, would be similar in difficulty to a bolted sport climbing M8. [30]

Other notable systems

Mountaineering

Ueli Steck on the 800-metre alpine climbing route, North Couloir Direct on Les Drus, which is graded ED (IFAS-overall), VI (UIAA-rock), AI6 (WI-ice), M8 (M-mixed). Ueli Steck Les Drus "North Couloir Direct" (VI, Al 6+, M8) 5 (cropped).png
Ueli Steck on the 800-metre alpine climbing route, North Couloir Direct on Les Drus, which is graded ED (IFAS-overall), VI (UIAA-rock), AI6 (WI-ice), M8 (M-mixed).

The most important grading system in mountaineering is the International French Adjectival System (IFAS) (or French Alpine System, FAS), which is also effectively the "UIAA Scale of Overall Difficulty" (they are the same, only differing in labels), and which is used in all forms of alpine climbing around the world. [2] [34]

Due to the complexity and length of mountaineering and alpine climbing routes, their grading systems are focused on the "overall" – or "global level" – of risk and/or commitment of the route. [2] [34] The specific rock climbing, aid climbing, and/or ice and mixed climbing difficulties of the route will be graded separately (per the earlier grading systems) and listed alongside the mountaineering grade (e.g. see photo opposite). [2] [3] [34]

For a time, there were a number of "commitment grade" systems that primarily focused on the amount of time required for the route (e.g. Grade I being several hours to Grade VII being several weeks), such as the American National Climbing Classification System (NCCS), but for various reasons these are now in less use. [2] [3] [34]

International French Adjectival System

Climber on the big wall Cassin Route on Piz Badile, which is 850-metres, 25-pitches, and graded TD (IFAS), 5.9 (American), 5c (French), VI- (UIAA-rock), IV (NCCS). Piz Badile - Cassin route.jpg
Climber on the big wall Cassin Route on Piz Badile, which is 850-metres, 25-pitches, and graded TD (IFAS), 5.9 (American), 5c (French), VI− (UIAA-rock), IV (NCCS).

The IFAS system (or UIAA Scale of Overall Difficulty), also called the French Alpine System (or Alpine System), [3] [26] grades the overall difficulty of a route, taking into account the length, technical difficulties, exposure, and commitment level (i.e. how hard is a retreat). [4] [34] The system was created by French climbers, and when the UIAA formally adopted it in 1967 they assigned Roman numerals to the six levels, which caused confusion with the UIAA scale, and thus the French shorthand for the six levels prevailed: [2] F–Facile (easy), PD–Peu Difficile (not very difficult), AD–Assez Difficile (fairly difficult), D–Difficile (difficult), TD–Très Difficile (very difficult), and ED-Extrêmement difficile (extremely difficult). [3] [4] [26]

Later, a + (pronounced Sup for supérieur) or a − (pronounced Inf for inférieur) was used 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−"), and the specific degree of the snow slopes was added (e.g. 60 degrees). [2]

As standards rose, the ED-grade was further expanded into ED1 (is the original ED−), ED2 (is roughly the original ED), ED3 (is the original ED+), ED4, ED5 .. etc., to denote harder levels of grade. [2] [34]

Whilst each IFAS grade can imply certain grades of rock, ice, or mixed climbing difficulties, the UIAA warns against assuming the IFAS grade always aligns with specific rock and ice climbing grades, as the objective dangers can vary dramatically on alpine routes with similar rock and ice climbing grades. For example, the famous 1,800-metre 1938 Heckmair Route on the north face of the Eiger has an IFAS ED2-grade even though the rock climbing is only at UIAA VI− and the ice climbing at 60 degrees (or WI-4 grade), which is more typically associated with an IFAS D-grade; this is due to the exceptional length and serious dangers of the route. [2] [3] Some guidebooks have still attempted to list the implied rock and ice climbing grades at each IPAS level. [3] [35] [34]

American NCCS

The 16-pitch El Capitan route Zodiac, is graded 5.7 (American), A2+ (A-grade), VI (NCCS) with aid; or 5.13d (American), VI (NCCS) free Craig DeMartino on Zodiac on El Capitan.jpg
The 16-pitch El Capitan route Zodiac, is graded 5.7 (American), A2+ (A-grade), VI (NCCS) with aid; or 5.13d (American), VI (NCCS) free

The National Climbing Classification System (NCCS) was devised in the 1960s by the Sierra Club as "commitment grade" for mountaineering routes, and in particular, the time investment in a route for an "average" climbing team". [25] [26] The NCCS uses Roman numerals form Grade I (few hours of climbing) to Grade VII (several weeks of climbing). [25] [26] The NCCS was popular for a period on American big wall climbing routes, however, advancements in techniques and the ability for climbers to complete big wall routes in hours that historically took days (or weeks), made the NCCS less useful; it is still often quoted on American big wall routes (although it is often confused as being the UIAA scale). [2] [4] [34] NCCS grades are described as: [25] [26]

Russian

The Russian grading system has a range from grade 1A–6B that aligns in comparison tables with the IFAS/UIAA system (the six levels align with the original six UIAA Scale of Global Difficulty levels), [2] and factors in difficulty, altitude, length, and commitment (i.e. risk and difficulty of retreat); the grades are described as: [25] [26]

Alaskan

The iconic Moonflower Buttress , Mount Hunter Alaska, which is graded 5.8 (American YDS), WI-6 (ice), M7 (mixed), A2 (Alaska) Climbing in Alaska.JPG
The iconic Moonflower Buttress , Mount Hunter Alaska, which is graded 5.8 (American YDS), WI-6 (ice), M7 (mixed), A2 (Alaska)

In the "Alaskan Overall Difficulties" system, [2] mountaineering routes are graded from 1 (easiest) to 6 (hardest), and factor in difficulty, length, and commitment (including storms, cold, and cornicing). [4] The system was developed by Boyd N. Everett, Jr. in 1966, for the particular challenges of Alaskan climbing, [2] and rarely appears outside of the region. [25] [26] A summary of the levels from Alaska: A Climbing Guide (2001) is: [25] [26] [34]

A plus (+) may be added to indicate somewhat higher difficulty. For example, the West Buttress Route on Denali is graded 2+ in the aforementioned guidebook. Importantly, even an Alaska Grade 1 climb may involve climbing on snow and glaciers in remote locations and cold weather. [2]

Other notable systems

Comparison tables

Free climbing

Free climbing systems can be broadly compared per the table below. [26] [25] [38] While most systems do not perfectly align, especially at the lower (or easier) grades, above the level of circa 5.12a (American YDS), f7a+ (French), VIII+, the risk-free sport climbing becomes the dominant free-climbing format and most grades closely align; [2] [3] the exception being the traditional climbing focused British E-grade system. [7]

American YDS British E-grade French
sport
UIAA
scale
Saxon
scale
Ewbank
(Aus. & NZ)
Ewbank
(South Africa)
Scandinavian Brazilian technical Polish
Kurtyka
TechAdjFinlandNorway
3–41M1II1–21–211II
5.03–43–4I sup
5.122IIII5–65–622IIII
5.2D77II sup
5.333IIIIII8–98–933III
5.4VD4aIVIV1010IIIIV
5.54aS4bIV+/V−V11–1211–1244III sup
5.64bHS4cVVI1313IVIV+
5.74cVS5aV+14–1514–155−5−V−
5.8HVS5bVI−VIIa161655IV supV
5.95a5cVIVIIb1717–185+5+VV+
5.10aE16aVI+VIIc18196−VI
5.10b5b6a+VII−19206−VsupVI+
5.10cE26bVIIVIIIa202166VIVI.1
5.10d5c6b+VII+VIIIb226+VI supVI.1+
5.11aE36c
6c+
VIIIc216+7−
7
7aVI.2

VI.2+

5.11bVIII−22237−
7
7b
5.11c6aE4IXa23247c
5.11d7aVIIIIXb257+VI.3
5.12aE57a+VIII+IXc24267+7+/8−8aVI.3+
5.12b6b7b25278−8−8bVI.4
5.12cE67b+IX−Xa2628888c
5.12d7cIXXb27298+8/8+9aVI.4+
5.13a6c7c+IX+Xc28309−8+9bVI.5
5.13bE78aX−XIa293199−9cVI.5+
5.13c7a8a+30329+9−/910a
5.13dE88bXXIb313310−910bVI.6
5.14a8b+X+XIc3234109/9+10cVI.6+
5.14b7bE98cXI−XIIa333510+9+11aVI.7
5.14c8c+XIXIIb343611−10−11bVI.7+
5.14dE109aXI+XIIc3537111011cVI.8
5.15aE119a+XII−XIIIa363811+10/10+12aVI.8+
5.15b9b373912−10+12b
5.15c9b+XIIXIIIb38401211−12cVI.9
5.15d9cXII+XIIIc394112+1113aVI.9+

Main sources: RockFax Rock Climbing Grade Table (2021), [3] theCrag (2023), [38] and UIAA (2021). [2]

Bouldering

As of 2023, the American and French bouldering grade systems can be compared in the following way (they exactly align after V9 / 7C). [2] [3] [38] Various authors have created tables to compare bouldering grades of Font/V-grade, to the free climbing French sport/American YDS grades, but because of the different types of climbing (and particularly the sequences of movements), they are only ever indicative and can vary by several levels between versions; [2] [4] [5] an example is provided in the table below from a report by the Club Alpino Italiano for the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation from 2016. [2]

American
V-Grade
French
Font Grade
~American
YDS
~French
sport
VB3<5.6/5.7<5a/5b+
V0−4−5.85c
V045.96a/6a+
V0+4+5.10a/b6a+/6b
V155.10c/d6b/6b+
V25+5.10d/5.11a/b6b+/6c
V36A5.11c6c+
6A+5.11d7a
V46B5.12a7a/7a+
6B+7a+
V56C5.12b7a+/7b
6C+7b
V67A5.12c7b+
V77A+5.12d7b+/7c
V87B5.13a7c/7c+
7B+5.13b7c+/8a
V97C5.13c8a/8a+
V107C+5.13d8b
V118A5.14a8b+
V128A+5.14b8c
V138B5.14c8c+
V148B+5.14d9a
V158C5.15a9a+
V168C+5.15b9b
V179A5.15c9b+

Main sources: RockFax Bouldering Grade Table (2021), [3] theCrag (2023), [38] and UIAA (2021). [2]

Mountaineering

As of 2023, the Russian system can be compared to the French Alpine System (and the UIAA Scale of Overall Difficulty), in the following way: [2] [34]

Russian French Alpine System UIAA Overall Alpine
1AFI
1BF+/PD−I/II
2APDII
2BPD+/AD−II/III
3AADIII
3BAD+/D−III/IV
4ADIV
4BD+IV/V
5ATDV
5BTD+/ED1V/VI
6AED1/ED2
(the old ED)
VI
6BED2
(the old ED+)
VII

Main source: UIAA (2021) [2]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Climbing</span> Activity to ascend a steep object

Climbing is the activity of using one's hands, feet, or other parts of the body to ascend a steep topographical object that can range from the world's tallest mountains to small boulders. Climbing is done for locomotion, sporting recreation, for competition, and is also done in trades that rely on ascension, such as rescue and military operations. Climbing is done indoors and outdoors, on natural surfaces, and on artificial surfaces

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Traditional climbing</span> Type of rock climbing

Traditional climbing is a type of free climbing in rock climbing where the lead climber places the protection equipment while ascending the route; when the lead climber has completed the route, the second climber then removes the protection equipment as they climb the route. Traditional climbing differs from sport climbing where the protection equipment is pre-drilled into the rock in the form of bolts.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Climbing route</span> Path to scale a mountain, rock, or ice wall

A climbing route is a path by which a climber reaches the top of a mountain, or rock/ice-covered obstacle. The details of a climbing route are recorded in a climbing guidebook and/or in an online climbing route database, and will include elements such as the type of climbing route, the difficulty grade of the route–and beta on its crux(es)–and any risk or commitment grade, the length and number of pitches of the route, and the climbing equipment needed to complete the route.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Glossary of climbing terms</span> For rock climbing and mountaineering

Glossary of climbing terms relates to rock climbing, mountaineering, and to ice climbing.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ice climbing</span> Type of climbing with ice tools

Ice climbing is a climbing discipline that involves ascending routes consisting of frozen water. To ascend the route, the ice climber uses specialist equipment, particularly double ice axes and rigid crampons. To protect the route, the ice climber uses steel ice screws that require skill to employ safely and rely on the ice holding firm in any fall. Ice climbing routes can vary significantly by type, and include seasonally frozen waterfalls, high permanently frozen alpine couloirs, and large hanging icicles.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Dry-tooling</span> Form of mixed climbing on bare rock

Dry-tooling is a form of mixed climbing that is performed on bare, ice-free, and snow-free, routes. As with mixed climbing, the climber uses ice axes and crampons to ascend the route, but uses only rock climbing equipment for protection; many modern dry-tooling routes are now fully bolted like sport climbing routes. Indoor ice climbing competitions are held on non-ice surfaces and are effectively dry-tooling events.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Aid climbing</span> Type of rock climbing

Aid climbing is a form of rock climbing that uses mechanical devices and equipment, such as aiders, for upward momentum. Aid climbing is different than free climbing, which only uses mechanical equipment for protection, but not to assist in upward momentum. Aid climbing sometimes involves hammering in permanent pitons and bolts, into which the aiders are clipped, but there is also "clean aid climbing" which avoids any hammering, and only uses removable placements.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sport climbing</span> Type of rock climbing

Sport climbing is a type of free climbing in rock climbing where the lead climber clips into pre-drilled permanent bolts for their protection while ascending a route. Sport climbing differs from the riskier traditional climbing where the lead climber has to insert temporary protection equipment while ascending.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Climbing guidebook</span> Database of climbing routes

Climbing guidebooks are used by mountaineers, alpinists, ice climbers, and rock climbers to locate, grade, and navigate climbing routes on mountains, climbing crags, or bouldering areas. Modern route guidebooks include detailed information on each climbing route, including topo diagrams, route beta, protection requirements, and the ethics and style that are in place for a given climbing area.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Pitch (climbing)</span> Steep section of a climbing route requiring a rope

In climbing, a pitch is a section of a climbing route between two belay points, and is most commonly related to the task of lead climbing, but is also related to abseiling. Climbing on routes that require only one pitch is known as single-pitch climbing, and climbing on routes with more than one pitch is known as multi-pitch climbing.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Rock climbing</span> Type of sport

Rock climbing is a sport in which participants climb up, across, or down natural rock formations or indoor climbing walls. The goal is to reach the summit of a formation or the endpoint of a usually pre-defined route without falling. Rock climbing is a physically and mentally demanding sport, one that often tests a climber's strength, endurance, agility and balance along with mental control. Knowledge of proper climbing techniques and the use of specialized climbing equipment is crucial for the safe completion of routes.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Multi-pitch climbing</span> Type of climbing

Multi-pitch climbing is a type of climbing that typically takes place on routes that are more than a single rope length in height, and thus where the lead climber cannot complete the climb as a single pitch. Where the number of pitches exceeds 6–10, it can become big wall climbing, or where the pitches are in a mixed rock and ice mountain environment, it can become alpine climbing. Multi-pitch rock climbs can come in traditional, sport, and aid formats. Some have free soloed multi-pitch routes.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Redpoint (climbing)</span> Type of free climbing

In rock climbing, redpointing means to free-climb a climbing route from the ground to the top while lead climbing, after having practiced the route or after having failed first attempt. Climbers will try to redpoint a route after having failed to onsight it, or flash it. The first successful redpoint of a route, in the absence of any prior onsight or flash, is recorded as the first free ascent (FFA) of that route.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Deep-water soloing</span> Free solo rock-climbing over water

Deep-water soloing (DWS), also known as psicobloc, is a form of free solo climbing where any fall should result in the climber landing safely into deep water below the route. DWS is therefore considered safer than normal free solo climbing, however, DWS brings several unique additional risks including trauma from uncontrolled high-speed water entry, injury from hitting hazards above and below the water while falling, and drowning in rough or tidal seas, and is thus considered riskier than normal bouldering.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Beta (climbing)</span> Climbing term for route information

Beta is a climbing term that designates information about how to ascend a climbing route, and the specific climbing techniques required—and how to apply them—to overcome the key challenges encountered. Traditionally sourced in climbing guidebooks, online databases and apps now provide detailed climbing beta. The term is attributed to Texan climber Jack Mileski.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">History of rock climbing</span> Key chronological milestones

In the history of rock climbing, the three main sub-disciplines—bouldering, single-pitch climbing, and big wall climbing—can trace their origins to late 19th-century Europe. Bouldering started in Fontainebleau, and was advanced by Pierre Allain in the 1930s, and John Gill in the 1950s. Big wall climbing started in the Dolomites, and was spread across the Alps in the 1930s by climbers such as Emilio Comici and Riccardo Cassin, and in the 1950s by Walter Bonatti, before reaching Yosemite where it was led in the 1950s to 1970s by climbers such as Royal Robbins. Single-pitch climbing started pre-1900 in both the Lake District and in Saxony, and by the late-1970s had spread widely with climbers such as Ron Fawcett (Britain), Bernd Arnold (Germany), Patrick Berhault (France), Ron Kauk and John Bachar (USA).

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Topo (climbing)</span> Graphical representation of a climbing route

In climbing, a topo is a graphical representation of a climbing route. Topos range from a photograph of the climb on which the line of the route is overlaid, to a detailed diagram of the key features and challenges of the climb.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Big wall climbing</span> Type of rock climbing

Big wall climbing is a form of rock climbing that takes place on long multi-pitch routes that normally require a full day, if not several days, to ascend. In addition, big wall routes are typically sustained and exposed, where the climbers remain suspended from the rock face, even sleeping hanging from the face, with limited options to sit down or escape unless they abseil back down the whole route. It is therefore a physically and mentally demanding form of climbing.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mixed climbing</span> Ice climbing on ice and rock surfaces

Mixed climbing is a climbing discipline used on routes that do have not enough ice to be pure ice climbs, but are also not dry enough to be pure rock climbs. To ascend the route, the mixed climber uses ice climbing tools, but to protect the route, they use traditional or sport rock climbing tools. Mixed climbing can vary from routes with sections of thick layers of ice and sections of bare rock to routes that are mainly bare rock but which is “iced-up”.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Alpine climbing</span> Type of mountaineering

Alpine climbing is a type of mountaineering that involves using any of a broad range of advanced climbing skills, including rock climbing, ice climbing, and/or mixed climbing, to summit typically large routes in an alpine environment. While alpine climbing began in the European Alps, it is used to refer to climbing in any remote mountainous area, including in the Himalayas and in Patagonia. The derived term alpine style refers to the fashion of alpine climbing to be in small lightly-equipped teams who carry all of their own equipment, and do all of the climbing.

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Further reading