If you’re a beginner to rock climbing, having a guide to climbing rating systems will help you to decipher how difficult and how enjoyable a climb is likely to be. Knowing the former is essential for both your safety and enjoyment and the latter is important because… well, life’s too short for mediocre climbing routes, right?
However, there are as many different rating systems across the world as there are brands that now make approach shoes. Not only are there different grading systems depending on where you are, each climbing discipline also has its own ladder of awkwardly ascending numbers and letters or Roman numerals adorned with plus and minus signs or adjectives that very quickly jump to ‘difficult’ and only get stronger from there. It can very quickly get overwhelming.
Let’s leave winter to one side, because that’s a whole other can of frozen worms. As are grades that describe lengthy mountaineering routes, such as alpine expeditions. In this feature, we’re going to focus on traditional approaches to rock climbing, bouldering and scrambling, explaining and comparing the different grading systems. We’ve included approximate conversion tables, allowing you to compare across different regions and disciplines. However, here comes a stark word of warning for those just starting to train for climbing…
A guide to climbing ratings is never going to be black and white, as is the nature of climbing grades. Any given grade is subjective and doesn’t reveal the breadth of challenges a climb entails. Some climbs at sea level might be short but spicy, earning the same grade as a longer, multi-pitch route up in the mountains that is less technical but is difficult in other ways. Add to this the fact that a climb can increase in difficulty due to changes over time, such as weathering or the polishing effect of countless climbing shoes, and you begin to see it’s an imperfect picture.
A guide to climbing rating systems: the quality rating
This is the easiest aspect of climbing ratings, so let’s deal with it first. A climb is usually given a rating that describes its quality. This could be down to the quality of the rock, the drama of the surroundings or the elegance of the line taken and, like any review, is purely subjective.
The format of ratings differ from guidebook to guidebook and place to place. They may be star ratings, scores out of five or whatever. It’s important to stress that highly-rated routes might also be therefore the most popular, which might mean a queue at the bottom. As well as this, such routes are prone to the polishing effect described earlier, resulting in increased difficulty due to smoother rock.
A guide to climbing rating systems: standard climbing grades
Below is an approximate comparison between the grading systems used in Europe and the US. As mentioned, any comparison between different grading systems is rough, with differences between different disciplines further complicating the picture.
|British trad grade||British technical grade||French sport grade||UIAA (alpine) grade||US grade|
|Moderate (Mod)||Row 0 - Cell 1||1||I / II||5.1 / 5.2|
|Difficult (Diff)||Row 1 - Cell 1||1 / 2 / 2+||II / III||5.2 / 5.3|
|Very Difficult (VDiff)||Row 2 - Cell 1||2 / 2+ / 3-||III / III+||5.2 / 5.3 / 5.4|
|Hard Very Difficult (HVD)||Row 3 - Cell 1||2+ / 3- / 3 / 3+||III+ / IV / IV+||5.4 / 5.5 / 5.6|
|Mild Severe||Row 4 - Cell 1||3- / 3 / 3+||IV / IV+||5.5 / 5.6|
|Severe (Sev)||Row 5 - Cell 1||3 / 3+ / 4||IV / IV+ / V-||5.5 / 5.6 / 5.7|
|Hard Severe (HS)||Row 6 - Cell 1||3 / 3+ / 4 / 4+||IV+ / V- / V||5.6 / 5.7|
|Mild Very Severe||4a / 4b / 4c||3+ / 4 / 4+||IV+ / V- / V||5.6 / 5.7|
|Very Severe (VS)||4a / 4b / 4c||4 / 4+ / 5||V- / V / V+||5.7 / 5.8|
|Hard Very Severe (HVS)||4c / 5a / 5b||4+ / 5 / 5+ / 6a||V+ / VI- / VI||5.8 / 5.9|
|E1||5a / 5b / 5c||5+ / 6a / 6a+||VI / VI+||5.9 / 5.10a|
|E2||5b / 5c / 6a||6a+ / 6b / 6b+||VI+ / VII- / VII||5.10b / 5.10c|
|E3||5c / 6a||6b / 6b+ / 6c||VII / VII +||5.10d / 5.11a / 5.11b|
|E4||6a / 6b||6c / 6c+ / 7a||VII+ / VIII- / VIII||5.11b / 5.11c / 5.11d|
|E5||6a / 6b / 6c||7a / 7a+ / 7b||VIII / VIII+ / IX-||5.11d / 5.12a / 5.12b|
|E6||6b / 6c||7b / 7b+ / 7c / 7c+||IX- / IX / IX+||5.12b / 5.12c / 5.12d / 5.13a|
|E7||6c / 7a||7c+ / 8a / 8a+||IX+ / X- / X||5.13a / 5.13b / 5.13c|
|E8||6c / 7a||8a+ / 8b / 8b+||X / X+||5.13c / 5.13d / 5.14a|
The US Yosemite Decimal System
Right across the American continent, the system commonly used by walkers, scramblers and climbers in the Yosemite Decimal System. At its simplest level, the scale goes from 1 to 5, with 1 being a nice, easy stroll in your best hiking shoes and 5 being a technical rock climb where you require ropes and climbing equipment.
For the purposes of standard climbing routes, we are only interested in 5 and above, so here’s where the ‘decimal’ comes in. 5.1 equates to an easy rock climb, 5.2 a little harder and so on. When talking about routes, climbers often drop the ‘5’ from the start of a grade in the same way we drop ‘www-dot’ from the start of websites. As all climbs are ‘5s’, it becomes superfluous and tiresome to have to say ‘5’ for every route.
Once we get to 5.10 (or a 10, as it may be), the scale is broken down further into a, b, c and d to fully capture the nuances of the increases in difficulty. The level of danger on a route is often indicated by an additional rating, which is somewhat similar to film ratings. ‘PG’ stands for parental guidance, so there’s some danger; ‘R’ stands for restricted, meaning there’s the potential for serious injury; R/X means a fall could be fatal; and ‘X’ indicates a fall would likely be fatal.
British trad and European sport grades
The two main grading systems in the UK are the British Traditional Grading system, used for trad climbing and the French grading system, which is used for sport climbs. Trad climbing is the approach where climbers place their own protective gear while on the crag. Due to this, there are more challenges to consider than on sport climbing routes, where bolts or other protection already exist and the route up the wall is more obvious.
In terms of trad climbing, an abbreviated word or phrase – the climb’s trad grade – describes how taxing you can expect things to be. The trad grade goes from ‘Moderate’ or ‘Mod’ (the easiest) up to ‘Hard Very Severe’ or ‘HVS’, after which the scale switches to ascending numbers that follow the letter E, so E1, E2, E3 and so on. However, beyond ‘hard severe’ or ‘HS’, the trad grade is accompanied by the technical grade, which consists of a number followed by a letter, such as 4b. Still with us? Good. The technical grade refers to the hardest move on the route.
Together with the trad grade, the technical grade helps to describe the character of the climb. For example, a HVS 5b is probably generally easier than a HVS 4c but contains one or more moves that are tricker (hence 5b compared to 4c) when taken in isolation. The fact that the HVS 4c still has the same trad grade as the HVS 5b must mean that, although it’s toughest move is a 4c, it must have other difficulties, such as a lack of places to place protection.
Confusingly, the British technical grade system used for trad climbing looks very similar to the French grading system, which is used for sport climbing in much of Europe, including Britain. However, the two systems are not interchangeable. The French grading system goes up numerically in terms of challenge, with subtle increases indicated by a plus or minus sign. The level of difficulty is further broken down once you reach level 6, where our old friends a, b and c get rolled out too. So, in terms of increasing challenge, you’d go: 6a, 6a+, 6b, 6b+ and so on.
The UIAA grading system
Similar to the French grading system is the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation or UIAA grading system, which is used primarily in Germany and other nations in Eastern Europe to describe (usually bolted) rock climbing routes. The grade is indicated by a Roman numeral that ascends as the difficulties increase. Once again, subtleties in the level of challenge are indicated by a plus or minus sign.
A guide to climbing rating systems: bouldering grades
There are two main scales used to describe the difficulty of bouldering routes, the American V Scale, which is widely used in the UK too, and the French Fontainebleau system. The ‘V’ in V Scale stands for “Verm” or “Vermin”, which was the nickname of the pioneering John Sherman, who – along with his buddies – started to categorise boulder problems in Texas during the late 1980s.
The V Scale is open-ended, starting at V0 and with no limit to how high the scale can go as boulderers continue to push the pursuit forward. Currently, V17 is the hardest boulder problem that has been solved. As an idea of how difficult this is, at a standard climbing wall, the problems usually go up to about a V10. A plus or minus sign can also be added to the grade to indicate subtle differences.
The Fontainebleau Scale, often referred to as ‘the Font Scale’, ascends in a similar way to the V Scale, until you hit Font 6, when our old friends a, b and c, and the plus and minus signs are wheeled out once more to indicate slight increases in difficulty. As its name suggests, the scale was born in the legendary bouldering forest of Fontainebleau, to the south east of Paris and predates the V Scale by a few decades.
|US V grades||French Fontainbleau system|
|V3||Font 6a / Font 6a+|
|V4||Font 6b / Font 6b+|
|V5||Font 6c / Font 6c+|
A guide to climbing rating systems: scrambling grades
A scramble occupies the grey area between hiking and rock climbing. Basically, if you start to use your hands to help propel you upwards and onwards, you’re scrambling. It is an increasingly popular way to get around in the mountains, as many scrambles can be completed – in a relatively safe manner – without the need for ropes, a harness and a climbing rack. The pursuit is enjoyed by hikers and trail runners, while climbers will often scramble on the way to a more technical crag in their approach shoes. The nature of the terrain on a scramble can still feel pretty adventurous and “out there”, while there’s a terrific sense of freedom to its fast and light nature. You'll often set out with just the essentials in a small hydration pack, which is extremely liberating when compared to being weighed down by all the gear associated with traditional rock climbing.
UK scrambling grades range from Grade 1 to Grade 3, with 3 being the hardest and akin to moderate rock climbing. As we’ve already discovered, the US use the Yosemite Decimal System, which goes from 1 to 5 and describes everything from an easy walk (1) to technical rock climbing (5). Between these extremes lies the domain of the scramble. Hopefully this table will help you to make sense of it all…
|US grade||UK grade||Description|
|1||Row 0 - Cell 1||An easy walk where hands are not required.|
|2||1||A hike on more technical terrain, where hands are required for some moves. May involve tricky rock steps or exposed ridges.|
|3||2||Tougher and more sustained scrambling on technical terrain with some committing moves. A fall could lead to serious injury or in some cases be lethal.|
|4||3||Difficult and committing scrambling with some moves more akin to technical rock climbing in exposed positions. Most people would choose to use a rope and other climbing equipment.|
|5||Moves on to rock climbing grades||Technical rock climbing requiring the full use of climbing equipment.|
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Alex is a freelance adventure writer and mountain leader with an insatiable passion for the mountains. A Cumbrian born and bred, his native English Lake District has a special place in his heart, though he is at least equally happy in North Wales, the Scottish Highlands or the European Alps. Through his hiking, mountaineering, climbing and trail running adventures, Alex aims to inspire others to get outdoors. He is currently President of the London Mountaineering Club, training to become a winter mountain leader, looking to finally finish bagging all the Wainwright fells of the Lake District and hoping to scale more Alpine 4000ers when circumstances allow. Find out more at www.alexfoxfield.com