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Climbing Grades

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A 'grade' is a letter or number applied to a climb to show how difficult it is perceived to be. Although, as we shall see, grades can sometimes be arbitrary and confusing, they remain the best way for a climber to choose a climb that is within his or her ability, and warn of any possible tricky spots along the way.

Globally, there are many grading systems used to rate climbs. Many countries use their own grading system, and including them all would require a very long and dull entry indeed. This entry will look at some of the main grading systems used, focusing mainly on the British system - which is considered to be the most complete way of describing a climb.

Adjectival Grades

Typically, the British use a system based on their own language, which at times seems to have been designed purely to confuse non-English speakers. It is formed simply by using the first letter of the adjective used to describe the climb – primarily, E (easy), M (moderate), D or Diff (difficult), S (severe) and E (extremely severe – distinguished from 'easy' by adding a number at the end, eg, E5). These basic grades are divided further in some cases by the addition of a second letter; for example, a harder climb than a Severe may be described as HS, or Hard Severe. From easiest to most challenging, the British grading system runs like this:

D or DiffDifficult
HDHard Difficult
VD1Very Difficult
HVDHard Very Difficult
HSHard Severe
VSVery Severe
HVSHard Very Severe
E1Extremely Severe 1
E2Extremely Severe 2
E3Extremely Severe 3

Of course, when people first began climbing, there was little need to have much in the way of grades. Difficult climbs were difficult indeed, at the limit of what climbers could reasonably expect to ascend; whereas with modern equipment the average climber will start at this grade! As boundaries got pushed back, so adjectives became scarce, and when Extremely Severe climbs began to be completed it was sensibly decided to carry on along the lines of E1, E2, etc.

The hardest grade climbed gets pushed up almost annually, it seems, and the best climbers are now into double figures on their E numbers.

How The Grade Is Decided Upon

When rating a climb, almost every factor is taken into account. The main considerations are length of route, frequency of holds, quality of and distance between gear placements2, how trustworthy the rock is, difficulty of the moves, even a 'fear factor' to account for a climber getting the willies halfway up.

It is worth noting that grades are designed for lead climbers, who are the ones who have to place pieces of equipment as they go in case of a fall. A climber attached to a rope at the top of a climb, as novices and seconds are, will find some climbs easier than the grade suggests as they do not have to place equipment in this way. Seconds should beware, however, if they are following a leader on a traverse - often these are more dangerous to second than when actually leading.

If the grading system sounds a little arbitrary, consider this. The grade is decided by the climber who first climbed the route (who also has the privilege of naming it), so if he is particularly fearless or technically competent, the climb might not get the grade it deserves. An example is pioneer climber Joe Brown, who had a great head for heights and was far more proficient than most climbers of his generation. To this day, his climbs are often considered 'hard for the grade', meaning that although the guidebook says it is an E3, it is more like an E4 or 5 when you're actually climbing it. Early Yorkshire climbers also made a habit of undergrading their climbs (ie, making them sound easier than they were) to terrify visitors to their crags. If the climb is rated more than a couple of grades out, however, subsequent guidebooks will change the grade in response to climbers' feedback. Bear in mind, too, that a grade presumes a certain level of competence on that particular rock type. For example, if you've climbed exclusively on limestone in the past, you'll find granite or gritstone a different proposition.

The British being British, however, were never content with just confusing foreigners. They had to introduce technical grades, just to bewilder each other as well.

Technical Grades

Most climbs graded harder than Severe will also carry a technical grade. This is based on the most difficult move that must be made during the course of the climb, also referred to as the 'crux'. These grades are quite simple to understand, running from 1a, 1b, 1c, 2a, 2b, 2c, 3a and so on. A 4b move would be harder than, say a 3c but easier than a 5a. Moves below 3a are generally not considered worth mentioning in a guidebook.

Short climbs attempted without the use of a rope, known as bouldering routes, are given a technical grade and never an adjectival one. They are usually described in guidebooks very simply, for example:

6a – Low level traverse.


6c – Centre of wall.

Typical climbs might be described as follows:

Scruttock's Old Dirigible3 65' S 4b
Swashbuckler 100' S 4a

What do these tell us? Well, both have the same adjectival grade, so they are considered equally hard for a lead climber to ascend. However, Scruttock’s technical grade is one degree more difficult (4b as opposed to 4a); it obviously has a section that is rather more difficult than anything found on Swashbuckler. Should this make the adjectival grade higher, then? Well, no, as the latter is a full 35 feet4 longer; the climber will be more exposed and during the latter stages of the climb may well be sweating over every move. From this, we can deduce that Scruttock will have shorter, more sustained and difficult sections, while Swashbuckler offers more sustained climbing that is a little easier.

To take another example, the standard technical grade for an E1 is 5b, but many E1's are graded 5a or 5c. An E1 5a would suggest that the climbing itself is slightly easier than expected (5a's normally have the adjectival grade HVS), but protection may be hard to come by particularly while making the crux move. Similarly, an E1 5c would have a relatively difficult crux move, but this would be safe - either with excellent protection or perhaps with the move being made while just a few feet off the ground.

Clearly, the ability to analyse and interpret grades well is a skill that ambitious climbers need to master.

Other Grading Systems

The British adjectival system is unique in that it considers all factors when rating the difficulty of a climb. Grading systems used in other countries use a broad technical grade that is fairly easy to translate to a British version. The main reason for this is that most other countries have a stronger tradition of 'sport' climbing, where the climber simply clips the rope into bolts that have been driven into the rock by human hands – British climbers have generally preferred to lead. Sport climbers can generally forget about how easy it is to find places for their gear and how far they are likely to fall, and concentrate more on the physical skills required to get up the face, and therefore the technicality is paramount. As some British climbs were first ascended by foreign nationals, the following chart is a handy reference guide both for Brits attempting routes that have been graded in a foreign system, and for other nationals to know what they are up against when climbing British routes.

International Grade Comparison Table5
British TechnicalFrench6AustralianAlpine7

Related Links

1This is probably the reason why early climbers preferred to call them Diffs. Modern climbers, in conversation, still do – particularly in social gatherings. 'That VD was a right old pain' doesn't go down well in many country pubs.2The equipment that the lead climber uses to limit the distance he can fall.3A genuine climb at Blackingstone Rock, Devon.4Just over ten metres.5From 'South Devon and Dartmoor – A Climbers' Guide', by Nick White, pub. Cordee 1995 ISBN 18718903226Sometimes given alongside a British adjectival and/or technical grade, just for completeness.7Commonly used on traverses, where the climber has to go along instead of up.

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