Climbing Grades Explained
- Tuesday 10th December 2019
by Neil Gresham
It is one of the oldest topics of discussion amongst climbers but if you are uncertain how to assess the difficulty of your chosen climb then it is unlikely that you will be able to climb at your full potential. Many of the debates on the chat forums show that so many British climbers are still unclear about certain fundamental aspects of the various grading systems. Questions such as how E grades relate to technical grades still seem to pop up. Many also wonder if French grades refer to the hardest move or the overall difficulty of the route. Even some of the more experienced climbers you encounter are a little vague when quizzed on these subjects and many will just palm it off as a complex business that lacks clear definitions. But the reality is that the methodology behind the grading systems is pretty much black and white. It is strange that so many climbers misinterpret the information, but the purpose of this article is to attempt to get things back on track.
Looking first at British trad grades and starting with the technical grade. This is a numerical value, usually starting from 4 and going up to 7, followed by a letter ‘a’, ‘b’ or ‘c’ and which follows the adjectival grade. The technical grade is designed to express the difficulty of the hardest single move or couple of moves on the pitch. It is not supposed to be a representation of overall strenuousness. The adjectival grade (such as VD, HVS, or E2), is supposed to incorporate both the strenuousness and the seriousness. But how can this be possible? Simple, a route that is given E1 5a could take various guises: firstly, it could be very bold with ground-fall potential from easy (4b) moves high on the route, but with one 5a move low down or close to good gear. Alternatively it could be very safe, with good gear all the way, but with loads of 5a moves from start to finish. Bizarrely, an E1 5a could also have two or three 5a moves and then long run-outs, on 4cish terrain with the potential to take big lobs, but without ground-fall potential. Thus we have three completely different styles of trad route, all with exactly the same grade!
But that’s where reading the guidebook and making a visual assessment of the route comes in – and suddenly it all clicks into place. Brown's Eliminate (E2 5b) at Froggatt is the ‘Meshuga of E2’, a total chop route compared to its neighbour, the Big Crack which is a desperate but totally safe struggle at exactly the same grade. Take a look at them and one has no cracks at all and the other follows a perfect crack from start to finish.
Of course when we see grades like E2 5a or E4 5c, we tend to think that the climb is very bold (because the technical grade is so low relative to the adjectival grade), but equally, the climb concerned could be preposterously strenuous, with good gear all the way, but without a definitive crux. Similarly, when we see grades like E2 6a or E4 6b, a ‘1-move-wonder’ with bomber gear springs to mind. Indeed, this tends to be the case, although, theoretically, the crux could then be followed by some bold climbing on much easier terrain. A great example of this would be Oedipus (E4 6b), again at Froggatt, a desperate 6b move to pull off the ground, but don’t underestimate the 5c move at the top, from which you will hit the ground!
Stephen Coughlan climbing the excellent S 4a, Allen's Slab at Froggatt Edge in the Peak District. Photo: David Simmonite
E grades and boldness
Perhaps, the biggest misconception attached to the British grading system is that the higher you go up the E grades, the more bold routes should get. People often hold the Indian Face as an example of how ‘E9s should be’ because it is regarded as one of the most dangerous routes in the world. But the reality is that Indian Face is no more dangerous than a route like Sunset Slab (HVS 4c) at Froggatt, for someone who climbs that grade. If both routes are at the limit of the climber concerned then serious injury or death are the certain outcome of a fall from the crux. When Dave Macleod climbed Rhapsody (E11) at Dumbarton, it was inevitable that it would be scrutinised by less-informed critics, seeing as he was able to get away with falling off it so many times. But the climbing on this route is so utterly desperate, and harder than that on any other trad route, that it does not need to be at the limit of boldness to earn its grade. Having checked it out on an abseil rope myself, I can vouch that the difficulty of the climbing equates to F8c/8c+ sport climbing, and that is more than enough to earn the E11 grade if it is protected with trad gear, regardless of the fall potential.
For every bold route at any grade (up to E9 so far) there is always a safe option and a strenuous option to balance it. You might think that Seb Grieve’s Meshuga, with its total lack of gear and horrific landing is most representative of E9 6c, but what about John Dunne’s legendary Big Issue of exactly the same grade? This equally established and important climb has bomber gear all the way up. The former has only one 6c move and the latter has 6c moves from bottom to top for 100 feet. There is no point discussing which route is harder; one taxes the mind and the other the body. It’s the same for every grade from Diff right through to the highest E grades and it’s as simple as that.
The style of ascent
Another question is whether routes are graded for an onsight ascent or for abseil or top-rope inspection. Unquestionably, the intention has always been to grade for onsighting, but of course it can be very hard to make an objective assessment of how an onsight would feel if the first ascentionist has top-roped the route extensively. If you really think about this, what we are saying here is that no one has actually climbed E9 according to the true definition of what E9 is supposed to stand for. A few of the leading ‘headpointers’ who are more open about this have actually proposed that headpoints be given a separate grading system, or prefix in order to make the distinction. The E grade could then be added at a later date when the route is onsighted. But the climbing media, with its thirst for big numbers has played its part in the façade. The true heroes of traditional climbing (in its original sense) aren’t the big name headpointers, but the less known figures like James McHaffie, Ryan Pasquill, Ben Bransby, Pete Robbins and Neil Dickson who’ve played by the original rules and still managed countless E7s and pushed close into E8.
Of course, there are a few other factors that will always confuse the trad grading system, such as the issue of the level of commitment involved in a route. Some will argue that a route in a remote mountain environment should be slightly easier for the grade than a route of the same grade at a roadside crag; but the reality is that the grades usually work-out pretty much the same wherever you are. It’s just that it is slightly more impressive to do a route in a remote setting than it is at a more accessible crag. On one hand, a remote and esoteric mountain route is likely to be easier because it receives less traffic and is less likely to be downgraded, but this is just as likely to work the other way and the route could just as easily be a sand-bag that slipped through the net! Less repeated climbs may be prone to getting over-grown or dirty in some areas but the most popular routes end up becoming polished, so it all seems to balance itself in the end!
On a similar note, it is also common for people to suggest that certain areas of the country are graded more stiffly than others but this usually boils down to strengths and weaknesses of individuals. If you climb on grit more often then it won’t feel like the hardest rock type in the world, and if you climb on it in early spring or late autumn then it might even feel the easiest! Remember that routes are graded for optimum conditions, so if you’re trying to climb on polished limestone in the full sun then don’t be surprised if you get spanked. On the same note, routes should also be graded for ‘average height’ (whatever that means) so if you’re shorter than the average climber then you can either sit and sulk or do what Johnny Dawes did - pull harder or jump!
Moving on to look at the issue of Sport grades, thank heavens the French system has finally become standard because the use of the British grades used to create no end of confusion. But the main misconception is still that the French grade works like a UK technical grade and only refers to the difficulty of the hardest single move. Or worse that a French 6a is the same as a British 6a! The French grade is an overall assessment of the physical / technical difficulty of the pitch and its strenuousness. For example, take Steve McClure’s incredibly long 9a+ Overshadow at Malham Cove and John Gaskins ‘micro route’ Violent New Breed. Both are 9a+ and are right up there with the hardest routes in the world, but clearly the shorter route will have much harder moves in order to earn the grade. This may be of little consequence to you if you climb in the low French 6s, but the crucial point is that it is exactly the same when comparing a French 6a at an 8 metre indoor leading wall to a French 6a at a 15 metre indoor leading wall. If the routes have been set correctly by a setter who knows their stuff then the 8m 6a will have slightly harder moves to earn the grade but it won’t be harder overall. Long routes require more endurance just as short routes require more power. It’s like comparing the 800m to the 3000metres - no athlete would waste their time with such a comparison so why would climbers bother?
The only question that might be up for debate is whether sport routes are graded for the onsight or redpoint, but the consensus answer (not that this is particularly helpful) is neither! The route is the route, according to the French, so climb it in whatever style you like! Maybe this way of seeing things provides the answer for our trad grades in order to unite onsighting and headpointing within our trad system, but I mustn’t digress and nor should I intonate that, once again, the French have got it sussed! A final point of contention is whether indoor grades are generally harder than outdoor grades, but once again, this boils down to what you’re good at. What you can say is that the ‘style’ of indoor routes is more powerful (if you can’t make the locks between the holds then it’s harder to improvise), and the ‘style’ of rock is more technical - harder to read but easier to find other options to avoid the pulls. I know I can always climb a grade harder on rock, but I also know plenty of people who find things to be the other way round!
A final query, which has less to do with grades but many climbers still raise, is how you count the number of moves on a sport route. This definitely refers to the number of hand moves and it’s up to you if you include hand-swaps. It all seems a little trivial but that’s climbing debate for you!
Finishing off with the issue of bouldering grades and in particular, let’s look at the confusion that surrounds the use of the British technical grade. In certain areas it is still popular to apply the British technical grade to boulder problems or top-rope problems, but again, this is becoming outdated. It is an unfortunate complication but in most cases you can expect the grade to be at least one grade out between a boulder problem and the equivalent move on a trad route. For example, a 5b boulder problem would almost certainly be given 5c if you found the same sequence halfway up a trad route. Of course, this shouldn’t be the case but it is so easy to see why it happens. This is virtually a golden rule that you can apply to any climbing area. For this reason it makes so much sense to use bouldering grades and the ‘V’ grades are becoming the system of choice. The pure and simple reason for this is because they are most commonly used internationally, and better still because they avoid the inevitable confusion that occurs when people mix the Fontainebleau bouldering grades with French route grades. You may have climbed French 6c routes but climbing Font 6c is another story. The comparison was never intended. The other nice thing with both V grades and Font grades is that they make an overall assessment of the problem and avoid all this nonsense about the hardest single move. Some things are just so British!
So there we have it. This was by no means a comprehensive review, but one that hopefully goes some way towards answering some of the most common questions on a subject that we will never hear the last of.