UK Traditional & Sport Climbing Grades

How do Climbing Grades work?

Climbing has a bewildering array of grading systems. Each one is largely assigned to a particular discipline, and understanding how they work and relate to one another can be difficult. Here we will try and shed some light on UK Traditional & Sport Climbing Grades.

French sport climbing grades:

Many people are introduced to climbing through climbing walls, where the French grading system is widely used and accepted. Typically, most climbing walls have routes starting around 5 (5a, 5b 5c). As climbs get more difficult, the number and the letters (a-c) increase.

Therefore 6a, 6b, 6c are harder than anything prefixed with the number 5, and the grade with the highest letter (in this case 6c) should (in theory) be the most difficult. This system is open-ended and continues in this way (7a, 7b, 7c, 8a, 8b, 8c) up to around 9b, which is currently the very top-end of today’s standards.

Each grade can be sub-divided with a + symbol. Take 6a+ for example. This is a grade in its own right, but it’s essentially a way of indicating if something is hard for the grade (i.e. too hard to be 6a, but not hard enough to be 6b). Its important to remember that grading is not an exact science, but more a suggestion as to a routes difficulty.

 UK traditional grades:

Now things start getting confusing! The UK has a long history of traditional climbing. Routes climbed in this style are generally protected by a leader who places protection as he or she climbs. This protection is generally removed by a second who follows the climb. Once again it is an open-ended system that is evolving as standards increase. The major difference is that it is a two-tiered system that conveys more information about a routes difficulty.

The first part of the grade is the ‘adjective grade’. This attempts to give the climber an idea of a climbs difficulty, taking into account less tangible factors such as: how much gear (protection) is available and its quality (seriousness); exposure; rock quality; and how sustained the difficulties might be. This scale has been ‘modernised’ but essentially starts at Moderate (Mod) and continues up to E11. The subdivisions are as follows:

Moderate (Mod); Difficult (Diff); Hard Difficult (HD); Very Difficult (VD); Hard Very Difficult (HVD); Severe (S); Hard Severe (HS); Very Severe (VS) Hard Very Severe (HVS); and Extremely Severe, which is subdivided from E1; E2; E3 etc. up to E11.

The second part of the grade it the ‘technical grade’ which gives a more tangible idea of how hard the hardest move (crux) might be. Technical grades take the same format as French sport grades but are not the same thing. Generally, most guidebooks have English technical grades starting at 4a, and it continues: 4b; 4c; 5a; 5b; 5c; 6a; 6b; 6c; 7a; 7b.

When adjective and technical grades are used together, they can convey useful information when compared to one another. For example: VS 4a is going to be easier physically than a VS 4c, but to compensate for having the same adjective grade something else about the VS 4a is going to make it difficult for it to have the same adjective grade.

It is likely that there won’t be as much gear available making the route a more serious proposition. There could also be loose rock, or the route might just have a big or committing feel about it. Again, it’s not an exact science but the grade can give an indication of what you might expect to find up there.

Standing back from the crag or having a good look up on the walk in might fill in a few of the blanks, and help explain why a route gets the grade it does. Are there lots of cracks or obvious places to arrange gear? Does it look loose, blank or ‘out there’?

As a general rule, if the technical grade is high for a particular adjective grade (e.g. E1 5c), you might expect to find a few hard moves that are relatively well protected. A route with a lower technical grade in the same adjective grade (e.g. E1 5a) is likely to have less difficult individual moves but will be more sustained and will probably be less well protected.

It can take a while to get your head around this but with experience, and being able to compare routes with one another, patterns can be found and sense can be made of it. If you would like to find out more on this subject, visit this page from the BMC for a brief explanation of UK traditional climbing grades.