Climbing Grade Conversion
- Climbing grades
- British Trad Grade
- UIAA Grade
- French Sport Grade
- Fountainebleau Boulder Grade
- Saxon Switzerland Grade
- American Scale
- Scandinavian Grade
- Ice & Mixed Climbing Grade
- Aid Climbing Grade
- Colour Grade
- Other Grades
- Comparing Grades?
- Why do you need a grading system?
- Requirements for a climbing grading system
- Representation of climbing difficulty
- The hardest route in the world
Basically, there are as many different grades as there are styles of climbing. Some are used on an international scale, whilst others are only used within a specific region. This is further complicated by the existence of separate grading systems for other mountain sports, including hiking, skiing, ski mountaineering, scrambling and mountain biking.
The British Trad Grade is a compound grade evolved from a climbing ethic strongly biased towards onsight traditional or ‘trad’ climbing. The idea of the Trad Grade is to give a representation of the whole climb, including overall difficulty, how good the trad climbing gear is (or isn’t) and the hardest single move on the route. Sport routes in the UK are graded using the French Sport Grade.
The Adjectival grade is designed to reflect a comprehensive assessment of the difficulty of the route. This includes factors such as technical requirements, protection, rock texture, exposure and how sustained the route is. The goal of the adjectival grade is to provide the most information for an onsight attempt, allowing climbers to attempt routes in an informed way without any pre-inspection.
Onsight or ‘On Sight’ climbing plays a very strong role in the British climbing scene, considered the purest form of ascent. Pre-placing gear is frowned upon and pre-inspection removes the onsight entirely, reducing the future ascent to the lesser but still respected ‘Flash’ ascent. An onsight is only possible when the climber has no prior knowledge of the route, meaning that acquiring knowledge of the moves/gear or ‘Beta’ also removes the chance of an onsight ascent, depending on how ethical the climber is.
In the upper levels of difficulty tactics tend to change towards pre-practice on a top rope or informing oneself further of the nature of the climb before committing to the ascent. This is due to the fact that with many hard trad routes the danger increases as part of the overall difficulty, or because the climber knows that they are very unlikely to be successful in onsighting but may be able to flash the route with sufficient beta.
The Adjectival Grade was created by Owen Glynn Jones in the late 1800s and has since been further developed and supplemented. The intial grading went as follows: Easy, Moderate, Difficult, Very Difficult, Severe, Very Severe, Hard Very Severe and Extremely Severe.
In the 1970’s the decision was made to expand the Extremely Severe grade into an open ended ‘E’ grade, allowing for a much more accurate classification of harder routes starting at E1 and continuing linearly to the current hardest denomination E11.
The first ascensionist of the E11 grade and arguably one of the most successful British trad climbers in climbing history is Dave Macleod. His first ascent of Rhapsody E11/7a in 2006 was an historic event, offering 8c/+ climbing with the prospect of a 20m fall onto small gear.
The Technical Grade is the other piece of the puzzle in the overall British Trad Grade. The Technical Grade is somewhat more straightforward than the Adjectival Grade, taking into account only the difficulty of the hardest move on the route or the ‘crux’. Aspects such as danger or endurance are not included in the evaluation meaning that a route with one 6b move and twenty 5b moves would get the same grade as a route with twenty 6b moves in a row.
The grade originally comes from the Fontainebleau Bouldering Grade and therefore is presented in a very similar fashion i.e. one number and one letter. Normally the Technical Grade increases relatively proportionately with the Adjectival Grade except for on exceptionally bold routes, while the Adjective Grade does not increase automatically when the Technical Grade is high.
The overall combination of the Adjectival and Technical Grades makes it possible to judge the character of a route: A route with E1/5b can be considered an 'average' route at the grade. A comparatively high Technical Grade i.e. E1/6a suggests that the route has a short, difficult crux that can be protected relatively well. Conversely, E1/4c suggests easier moves with poor protection and or high demands on endurance.
On Multi-Pitch routes it is common to give the route a general Adjectival Grade and then to specify separate technical grades for each individual pitch.
The UIAA grade is the official grade scale of the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation. This is written in whole numbers, i.e. 8, which are additionally split into three separate categories using a plus (+) or a minus (-). Practically speaking this means that each number represents three grades, scaling positively from 8- to 8 and 8+. Intermediate grades can also be inserted for further accuracy. For example, 7+/8- represents a route somewhere between a hard 7+ and a soft 8-.
The UIAA scale is predominantly used in Germany and Eastern Europe and usually applies to fully bolted sport routes and indoor routes.
The scale begins at 1 and currently reaches 11+. The grades 1-2 are typically not seen as terrain at this level does not normally require the use of hands and therefore tends to be classified as scrambling. The main defined grades range from 3-6 for beginners, 6-7 for experienced climbers, 8-10 for those performing at an advanced level and 10+ onwards for the sport climbing elite. The UIAA Grade is often displayed in Roman numerals i.e. I, II, III, IV etc.
The French Sport Grade (f) is used predominantly in France and internationally for grading bolted sport routes. If you want to talk about your hard sport ascents to the wider audience, this the grade to use.
The French scale makes use of numbers, letters and plus (+) grades to further refine the grading process, giving it more intermediate steps than the UIAA scale. The French scale is usually prefixed with an (f) to distinguish it from the Fontainbleau scale. A typical French grade would therefore be written as f6c+. Officially this allows for 6 grades per number - however, climbers often specify even further with combination grades such as 6c/+ or 6c+/7a.
South of Paris lies the small town of Fontainebleau, surrounded by acre upon acre of idyllic forest. Scattered amongst the trees are countless blocks of perfectly formed, bullet hard sandstone. It’s unsurprising, therefore, that bouldering found its origins in Fontainebleau. Whilst the rest of the world was focused on route climbing and thought of bouldering as a mere training tool for the winter months, a group of forward-thinking individuals in ‘Bleau’ were already cultivating the art of bouldering into an independent style of climbing.
Grading is confusingly similar to the French Sport Grade, but there are methods of distinguishing between. The same format of letter, number and (+) apply, however the scale is often preset with (fb) or (F) with the secondary letters also capitalised i.e. fb6C+ or F6C+. This is not always the case and it is common to see grades distinguished between purely by capitalising the letter i.e. 7A vs 7a.
Unlike the denomination, the difficulty level on the Fontainbleau scale is vastly different to that of the French Sport Grade. A F5B is broadly equivalent in terms of difficulty of movement to a f6b.
There was also a separate grade in Fontainebleau that was used purely for traverses, however this has fallen out of favour. Climbers tend to offer normal boulder grades for short, punchy traverses alongside french sport grades for longer traverses that are more endurance based.
The Fontainbleau Boulder Grade is used in climbing gyms and crags worldwide and often also used to distinguish the crux difficulty of a route.
The Elbe Sandstone Mountains are not only full of beautiful sandstone formations, but also have a rich history of climbing tradition. The climbing ethic differs so greatly in this area from the rest of Germany that it makes sense for the individual grading system developed there to perpetuate.
Regular metal climbing protection in the form of cams and wires is strictly forbidden, as the soft sandstone would quickly be destroyed from the high impact caused by metal gear. Instead, the locals use knotted slings and ropes wedged into crack features with uncanny skill, alongside the occasional lonely ring bolt. Chalk is also forbidden, with the locals using cotton clothing to better absorb sweat from fingers.
The grading scale is strongly based on the UIAA Grade but uses Roman numerals and is very much influenced by the first ascensionist of the route in question, as grades are set and can only be changed by them. Subdivisions from grade VII onwards are made with the addition of the letters a, b and c; XIc is currently the highest grade.
The Saxon Switzerland grade is used exclusively in East Germany/Czech.
The American Scale is used exclusively in North America, but is easily applied on a global scale. Some of the world’s most famous climbing areas can be found in North America, and therefore it can really be considered a birthplace of modern climbing and accurate grading.
The American Scale starts from 1-4 representing steadily more difficult walks, until by grade 5.0 the terrain would be scrambling. Beyond this point the true grading system for rock climbing begins. 5.0-5.3 are scrambling, 5.4-5.7 are suitable for beginners, 5.8-5.11 for experienced climbers, 5.12-5.14 for advanced. Beyond that lies the territory of the elite at 5.15 and potentially higher.
The American Scale is further refined with a,b,c,d to represent interim grades i.e. 5.11d. Because the (5.) never changes, grades are often referred simply by the second half of the grade i.e. 11d.
The American Scale also has an extra suffix for the safety of the route. This suffix is based on film ratings and goes as follows:
- PG (parentual guidance): Protection may be run out or spaced
- R (restricted): Injury is possible in the event of a fall
- R/X (restricted/adult audience): Falling is likely to result in serious injury or possibly death
- X (adult audience): Falling will result in serious injury or death
The Scandinavian Grade is based off the UIAA Grade but varies greatly in terms of difficulty. It is usually displayed in a similar numeric format but the grade is much lower for a similar level of difficulty. This is due to the fact that in Sweden, Norway and Finland, it was assumed that 6+ would be the definition of how hard humans could climb, and no climber wanted to raise this grade. This unwillingness to raise the grade of climbs resulted in the grades skewing away from the UIAA Grade until they were markedly different.
In order to differentiate between the two grades, the Scandinavian Grade is often displayed in whole numbers whilst the UIAA Grade is displayed in Roman numerals. However, in some situations this is not the case and the only way to define between the grade system of a route is to know whether the first ascensionist was Scandinavian, which usually indicates that the Scandinavian Grade was used. For example, a 9- in the Scandinavian Grade would be a French f8a whereas a UIAA 9- would be French f7b+.
One can already imagine that grading ice/mixed routes is extremely difficult because a route is fully dependent on the season and the weather. Basically, a route is redefined every year based on the conditions in the local area. Whilst one year a route may be completely covered with ice, it can be a mixed or dry-tooling route the next. Therefore, it is accepted knowledge with the climbing community that the grade may vary by up to 1.5 depending on condition.
In ice climbing, a seven-step grading system is used. Thus far it reaches from WI1 to WI7, with the WI standing for Water Ice. In 2010, Will Gadd and Tim Emmett climbed a 30m 45° overhanging route on spray ice in British Columbia called ‘Spray On’ and graded it WI10, as the only comparably difficult climb they had completed was a dry tooling M10. However, this grade has not yet been accepted in the generally agreed ice scale.
The difficulty of ice routes depends mainly on the angle of inclination of the wall, and the possibilities for placing protection.
|Grade||Angle||Ice Quality||Protection||Route Description|
|WI1||40-60°||Compact ice||Easy to protect||Low angle ice, minimal gear required|
|WI2||60-70°||Compact ice||Good protection possibilities|
|WI3||70-80°||Compact ice||Good protection possibilities||Alternating flatter and steeper passages|
|WI4||80°||Short passages with ice columns possible||Good protection possibilities||Short sections of vertical ice possible|
|WI5||85-90°||Short passages with ice columns possible||Good protection possibilities||Long vertical passages|
|WI6||90°||Soft ice and free standing ice columns||Poor protection possibilities||Extended vertical passages with difficult terrain and possibly insecure ice|
|WI7||Overhanging||Overhanging passages and freestanding skinny columns||Very poor protection possibilities|
The grades in Aid Climbing depend on the amount of options available for placing gear and the quality of the placements. On a route graded A0, the route is practically free climbed with individual gear placements used for foot or hand holds.
On a route graded A5, only marginal placements are available. These are generally so poor that they just support the weight of the climber with static load. In the event of a fall, all the gear on route could strip resulting in a fall directly onto the belay. The result is a huge fall that likely involves serious injuries. Yes, there are people who enjoy it!
The (purely theoretical) grade A6 representing a route with such poor protection possibilities that a fall is unthinkable has been proposed for two routes, but these have both been subsequently downgraded by the second ascentionist.
|A0||A gear placement is used to aid in movement as a foothold or handhold.|
|A1||An aid ladder is used to enable movement.|
|A2||Two aid ladders are used to enable movement.|
|A3||Two aid ladders are used on placements that may be poor quality.|
|A4||As per A3 under more difficult conditions (Poor gear placements) and the climbing requires strength and endurance.|
|A5||The moves are exclusively with poor gear placements that are usually so bad that a fall would only be held on the belay.|
Difficulty grading by colouring actually originates from bouldering, again from Fontainebleau. In the bouldering area of Bleau the boulder circuits were defined by colour to create a free flowing stream of boulders to climb. The boulders are arranged in such a way that the next boulder in the circuit is within sight of the previous one. This way, a bouldering area can be continually moved through with minimal time spent finding blocs.
To ease navigation, the boulders are marked by coloured dots and numbers, which also represent the order in which the circuit goes. Different colours are assigned to each difficulty bandwidth, with the exact level of difficulty of a boulder being learned from the boulder guide.
Many bouldering halls have now taken on a colourful grading system because it is clear to the customers. Some use the colour scale of Bleau, others have developed their own.
However - the colours do not correspond to a certain difficulty, but more of a range. You know that a black boulder is very tough, but not whether it is a 7b or 7c.
Many other grading systems exist: Australian with a progressive and straightforward approach of 1, 2, 3 etc, or the Brazilian system with a strange combination of French and UIAA. However, it’s important to let the climbing itself speak for an area and only use the grading system as a guideline.
When it comes to comparing grades the discipline in question is important, alongside the nature of the different climbing areas. Some disciplines are much more closely related, meaning a grade comparison is likely to have more meaning in terms of practical application in climbing.
Sport climbing and bouldering are two disciplines of climbing that are relatively close, and therefore grade comparisons hold a fairly solid meaning. A good awareness of both scales means that boulder grades can be used to define the crux difficulty of a longer sport route, and sport grades can be estimated for longer boulder problems i.e. an 8A power endurance style boulder with 20 moves is comparable to a short f8b+ route. Nevertheless, comparing boulderers and sport climbers is similar to comparing a sprinter and a marathon runner. Due to the different requirements of the disciplines, a 7a boulderer can not automatically climb a f7c+, even if the difficulties are roughly the same.
In the case of sport climbing, the overall difficulty of the route is always assessed. Depending on the character of the route, this can be a hard crux between easier sections, or a sustained level of difficulty with no specific crux. When sport climbing, it is important to read the route correctly. Aspects such as bolt spacing and clip positions must be taken into account. In addition to strength and hardware, tactics and endurance are crucial.
When bouldering, little of the above is applicable. Boulder problems are much shorter and often mean boulderers are constantly performing near to their limit. Tactics and security are mostly irrelevant aside from on high-balls, but excellent technique and strength are crucial.
When comparing between sport climbing and trad climbing, you can imagine a scenario where you pull onto a perfectly safe f7b+. If the movement and hold size of the f7b+ are at your performance limit, you then need to consider that when trad climbing, you would need to hang onto those holds long enough to find and place good gear, alongside route reading and finding suitable points to shake out and rest.
However, whilst bouldering and route climbing can be fairly easily translated, other climbing disciplines are not so straightforward. For example, a comparison between sport climbing and ice climbing bears so little similarity as to be dismissed as nonsense. As a f7b+ climber, one could assume they have the strength and endurance for a WI4 ice route or an A3 aid route - but probably do not possess the discipline specific technique and experience.
It is much easier to compare grades of the same climbing style between different regions. The unique grading systems that have evolved over a long period of time often have strong historical justification or because the climbing requirements were somewhat special such as on the sandstone in Saxon Switzerland.
However, it is easier to rely on and compare grades that have gained international recognition such as the Fontainebleau Boulder Grade.Download table in PDF
|UIAA||French||Sax Swiss||British (Tech)||British (Adj)||USA (Sierra)||Nordic (FIN)||Nordic (SWE/NOR)||Fb Grade (Boulder)||V Grade (Boulder)|
|9||7c||Xb||6b / 6c||E6||5.12c||8||8||6c+||V4/V5|
|11||9a/9a+||XIIb||> 7b||> E11||5.14d/ 5.15a||11 /11+||> 9+||8a+||V12|
|11/11+||9a+||XIIb/XIIc||> 7b||> E11||5.15a||11+||> 9+||8a+/8b||V12/V13|
|11+||9a+/9b||XIIc||> 7b||> E11||5.15a/ 5.15b||> 11+||> 9+||8b||V13|
|11+/12-||9b||XIIc||> 7b||> E11||5.15b||> 11+||> 9+||8b+||V14|
|12-||9b+||> XIIc||> 7b||> E11||5.15c||> 11+||> 9+||8c||V15|
|12||9c||> XIIc||> 7b||> E11||5.15d||> 11+||> 9+||8c+||V16|
|UIAA||French||Sax Swiss||British (Tech)||British (Adj)||USA (Sierra)||Nordic (FIN)||Nordic (SWE/NOR)||Fb Grade (Boulder)||V Grade (Boulder)|
The first step of grading is to define the difficulty of a route in order to compare it to other routes. This is desirable for a variety of reasons: for the performance comparison amongst athletes in competition, for awareness of personal performance, but most importantly for safety. Especially in Alpine terrain, it can be very dangerous to start a route that is well above your level.
Of course, you can shake off the shackles of grades and fully indulge in the fun of climbing. Many people are of the opinion that this experience is where the purest climbing lies and that grades are just smoke and mirrors, however, that's something you have to decide on your own.
When evaluating climbing routes, numerous factors play a role. Unfortunately, these factors cannot all be considered so easily; the angle of the wall, size and number of holds can all be objectively considered.
However, it is more difficult to take into account factors such as rock friction, orientation to the sun and the overall condition/character of the route when considering the grade.
Such factors can be decisive. Some rock types are far more difficult to read when exposed to the sun, others are equally difficult in the shade. If attempting the route at the wrong time, a route that may have been easier earlier can seem a lot harder. Body size is another devisive factor with long reaches often providing extra difficulty for shorter climbers where taller climbers find none.
One should assume that difficulty grades represent an orientational spectrum and their meaningfulness is strengthened over time.
On the one hand, there is no standard on which a grade is based. The first ascensionist of a route sets the grade and then subsequent ascents confirm or alter it. The waters are muddied by the problem of ego-driven grade creep, the result of many people finding a benchmark route hard over a long period of time. This doesn’t even take into account regional characteristics; gritstone, for example, is renowned for ‘sandbags’, routes that are considered hard for the grade due to specific technique or tradition.
The difficulty of a route is very subjective and depends on personal, physical and psychological conditions.
In addition, the weather also has a significant influence on the difficulty of a route. In cold, dry weather, holds are generally much better than in humid air or summer heat (not counting the legendary ‘sticky damp’ that can be found on Peak Limestone, that elusive ‘perfect’ combination of just the right temperature and just the right humidity as to make even the rattiest crimp or extra dirty sloper feel solid.)
Another important aspect is age: routes or boulders on rock change over the years. On well travelled routes the rock is polished smooth, which can make the holds much worse than when the first ascent was made.
In areas with lower rock quality, the key handhold or foothold can break off or a key gear placement blow out, often resulting in a change in grade. In these situations, guidebooks will often state the old grade alongside the proposed new grade, i.e. ‘Once considered benchmark E4, this route is now considered much more serious following the breaking of the flake. E5/6.’
Lastly comes the factor of technology. Over the last 40 years, the landscape of climbing gear has totally changed, from protection through to climbing shoes and even chalk. These technological advancements make once serious routes a perfectly safe proposition, reducing the technical difficulty of moves that were once delicate and extremely bold. This, alongside a massive rise in standards, has really changed the shape of climbing and how certain routes are approached. Routes that were once truly committing undertakings can now be approached onsight.
“What is the most difficult route that has ever been climbed?” The question always arises when difficulty is discussed. As climbing and bouldering continue to develop, the highest degree of difficulty is always increasing.
In the last five years, the bar has risen considerably. Currently it sits at f9b+ (French Sport), which would correspond to approximately UIAA 12-. ‘La Dura Dura’, first bolted by Chris Sharma with Adam Ondra as first ascensionist, the route remained a project for several years before finally going down in February 2013.
Of course, La Dura Dura is not the only f9b+, but it was the first route of this grade where the difficulty was confirmed by two ascensionists. For the rest of the climbing world, the bar can only rise.