Grading Systems (May 23rd 2006)
Grade systems for aid climbing
Aid climbing are graded A0 to A5/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. The letter “A” now means that you have to use pitons or other gear that requires the use of a hammer. The letter “C” indicates that the route can be climbed clean (Clean climbing) without the use of a hammer.
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. The risk is still little.
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 10 meters fall potential but with little risk of hitting anything.
A3: Hard aid. Many tenuous placements in a row. Fall potential up to 15-meters.
A3+: Same as above but with dangerous fall potential.
A4: Serious aid. Continuously tenuous gear placements in a row with up to 30-meters 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 above but with belay anchors that won’t hold a fall. A fall will kill the whole team.
Grade systems for free climbing
For free climbing, there are many different grading systems mostly varying according to country:
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 + (no -) may be used to further differentiate difficulty. Many countries in Europe use a system with similar grades but not necessarily matching difficulties.
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 2004).
While the Ewbank system was originally intended to simply grade the hardest individual move on a climb, the current practice is to take all factors into account, and the grade in modern Australian and New Zealand guidebooks makes no attempt to distinguish between different types of difficulty - strenuousness, exposure, technical difficulty, protection - simply to grade a climb as an overall experience. Thus a poorly protected and strenuous but technically easy climb with no move harder than about 14 might be graded 17, while another climb that is well-protected and offers good rests but has a couple of very difficult moves around 19 or 20 might also be a 17. The common factor is that, to safely lead either climb, you need a certain level of competence. Thus, the Ewbank system is not applied consistently through Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, i.e., a South African 17 is not equivalent to an Australian 17.
The Yosemite Decimal System originated in the USA and quickly spread to Canada and the rest of the Americas.
The system consists of five classes. Class 1 is walking with a very low chance of injury and a fall is not 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 and is predominantly on vertical or near vertical rock and requires skill and a rope to proceed safely. Un-roped falls will result in severe injuries or fatalities.
In theory grade 6 exists and would be 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 A (aid) rating system is used instead. (see Aid climbing)
The original intention was that the classes would be further subdivided decimally, so that a route graded 4.5 would be a scramble halfway between 4 and 5, and 5.10 would be the hardest rock climbs. However, increasing standards and improved equipment have meant that climbs graded 5.10 in the 1960s are now only of medium difficulty, so rather than regrade all climbs each time standards improve, Letters were introduced for climbs above 5.10. Grades at 5.10 and above would be further subdivided by adding a letter "a" (easiest), "b", "c" or "d" (hardest) the difference between letter grades is 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 a difficult as going from a 5.7 to a 5.8.
Initially, the consensus was that a climb's difficulty should not progress beyond 5.10. Once 5.10d was reached, however, 5.11 was added because continuation of letter grades seemed impractical. A formula was established that each subsequent number grade would also use the letter grade; for example, 5.11a, 5.11b. 5.11c, 5.11d, 5.12a, 5.12b…
As of 2004, it is generally accepted that the hardest currently climbable routes are at grade 5.15. There are no letters used until a grade higher than the whole (meaning 5.10, 5.11, 5.15 being a whole before letters are added) is climbed, and verified.
The Yosemite system considers only the technical difficulty of the climb from the point of view physical requirements as well as the complexity of the move itself. The grade is based on the hardest or most difficult move on the route. For example a route that consisted mainly of 5.7 moves but has one 5.12a move would be graded 5.12a. A climb that consisted of 5.11b difficulty moves all along its route, would in the true sense of the system be 5.11b. As well a 5.10a slab route, 5.10a face climbing route and 5.10a overhanging route should all have the same degree of technical difficulty.
However the grading system has evolved over the years to incorporate how sustained or strenuous a climb is. The above example of a climb consisting of continuous 5.11b moves would in all likelihood be graded harder than 5.11b to take into consideration the strenuousness of performing move after move of 5.11b difficulty. The end result is specific climbing areas tend to adjust the grading system to take into account the nature of the area often using benchmark or reference climbs to compare new routes. Climbers often find ratings will vary plus or minus 1 to 2 grades from area to area.
The rating system does not rate the nature or difficulty of the protection available on the climb nor the frequency or difficulty of clipping pre-placed protection such as bolts or pitons. Some guidebooks add symbols such as G, PG, R, and X:
The British grading system for traditional climbs has (in theory) two parts: the adjectival grade and the technical grade. (Sport climbing in Britain 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, 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 lead to extra grades being added at the top. The adjectival grades are as follows:
Some guidebooks make finer distinctions by adding the prefix "Mild" or "Hard" (thus, Hard Very Difficult and Mild Severe lie between Very Difficult and Severe).
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 you are unlikely to see any mention of them below 4a. The hardest recorded climbs are around 9a.
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), 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 an ill-fated attempt at international standardization. It is used mostly in Western Germany and Austria and also Switzerland (mostly for alpine routes; the French grading system is more typical for sport climbing). 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-.
The Brazilian grade system is similar to the French system, but with a few adjustments: gradings 1 to 3 are very easy (3 being a very steep, but almost walkable route), 4 to 5 are easy (4 being the grade most indoor gyms use as a starting point for beginners) and it progresses till the maximum grade of 12. The suffix "sup" (possibly for "superior") is used for grades 1 to 6, and the standard French "a", "b" and "c" siffexes for grades from 7 to 12. The French 7a grade is mostly equivalent to the Brazilian 8a.
Grade systems for mountaineering
Alpine mountaireering 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), 4000ft. (Length), VI (commitment level), and many other factors.
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):
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.
An alpine grading system adapted from the Mt. Cook Guidebook (Hugh Logan, 1994) 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: techical 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.
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.
Grade systems for bouldering
There are many grading systems used specifically for bouldering problems. See the grade (bouldering) article.
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