How to Calculate Climbing Grade


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Before you set out to take a hike or scale a mountain, you'll want to know a few important details. Is the route you're planning to follow as challenging as climbing the southeast ridge of Mount Everest, or is it as easy as a stroll in Central Park? Is it icy? Will you need equipment to help you along? What would happen if you slipped and fell? Many of these questions can be summed up in what's known as a climbing grade.

Climbing grades are systems of letters or numbers (or in some cases letters and numbers) that let climbers know what to expect from the routes they are going to take. Without these ratings systems, it would be difficult to know from place to place what a climb is going to be like, and whether or not you have the skill, ability and guts to handle it.

Just like the grades a teacher gives a student in school, climbing grades are an overall assessment of a climb. Because there are many different places to climb, and many different ways to climb, there are also many different grading systems that are used. For example, climbing routes that involve ice high up in the mountains have a different rating system than climbs that involve large boulders close to the ground. While each grading system takes into account different factors, most measure one or more of the following elements:

  • Technical skill needed to make the climb
  • Amount of time the climb will take
  • Degree of danger involved in the climb
  • Number of sheltered or exposed areas on the route
  • Altitude
  • Equipment needed to make the climb (if any)
  • Difficulty of finding the route
  • Difficulty and number of pitches (a pitch is a section of climbing between two stopping places)

But how do these factors translate into a letter or a number? Well, that's the tricky part. Each grading system has a different set of criteria used to assign a grade to a climbing route. Grades are assigned to routes based on personal experiences and observations. They're best estimates that are a result of assessing only some factors, and they're in no way meant to cover everything a person could encounter during a climb. We'll get into more detail about how these systems actually rate climbs, and the different ratings systems used throughout the world, in the next sections.

Free Climbing Grade Systems

Free climbing is a type of climbing that uses nothing but a person's body to maneuver from one point to the next. Climbers don't use ropes, hooks or other climbing aids -- a person's hands, feet and fingertips are the only tools necessary. Gripping onto cracks and stones on the surface, the climber works his way to the top using his own physical strength and agility.

The two major grading systems for free climbing come from the United Kingdom and the United States. The British system of climbing grades is made up of two parts: the adjectival (descriptive) grade and the technical grade. The adjectival grades describe the overall difficulty of the climb and include: Easy, Moderate (M), Difficult (D), Very Difficult (VD), Hard Very Difficult (HVD), Mild Severe (MS), Hard Severe (HS), Severe (S), Very Severe (VS), Hard Very Severe (HVS) and Extremely Severe (E). Beginners can usually climb a route with an Easy or M rating. The higher grades, such as S, VS and HVS, are for more experienced climbers.

The second part of the British grading system is the technical grade, which describes the technical difficulty of the hardest part of the route. Technical grades are written as 1a, 1b, 1c, 2a, 2b, 2c, 3a and so on, up to about 7b, increasing in difficulty as the number gets higher. The adjectival grade and the technical grade are usually used together to describe the climbing route (VS 4c, for example).

The American grading system for free climbing is the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS). It's also made up of two parts -- classes and grades. The classes, numbered 1-5, describe the overall difficulty of the climb, becoming more difficult as the number gets higher. For example, Class 1 is general walking and hiking, while Class 3 is easy climbing that requires the use of your hands.

Class 5 climbing, the most technical, is subdivided into grades. These grades appear after the class and are written in a numbered decimal system (5.0, 5.1, 5.2, all the way up to 5.14). A grade 5 with a class of 0 (5.0) would be difficult, but would require little technical skill. A rating of 5.14, on the other hand, would be very difficult and require excellent climbing skills.

Free climbing can take place anywhere that climbing can happen, but if you plan on doing your climbing in the mountains, there are more specific grading systems that you can use -- mountaineering grades. Read on to learn more about how climbing high up in the mountains is graded.

Mountaineering Grade Systems

Most mountaineering grade systems can be combined with other grade scales.
Most mountaineering grade systems can be combined with other grade scales.
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Mountaineering is climbing, hiking and generally getting around in the mountains. In many parts of the world, mountaineering is known as Alpine climbing. Because mountaineering is such a general term, the grading systems used to rate mountaineering can overlap somewhat with other categories.

In the United States, mountaineering is usually graded using the National Climbing Classification System (NCCS). This system uses a series of roman numerals from I to VI. Remember, though, that this is still mountaineering, so even a grade I climb will be more difficult than hiking on level ground. The NCCS grade assesses the overall climb and takes into account several factors, but the most important ones are the technical effort required and the amount of time needed to complete the route. A grade of I is the easiest climb, lasting only an hour or two. A grade of VI, on the other hand, will last several days and include a lot of tough climbing.

Because the NCCS ratings focus mostly on the length of time needed to complete a route, this system is often combined with other grade scales. For instance, it might be combined with a free climbing grade to indicate both the difficulty and the length of time required to complete it the route.

Another mountaineering grade system, the International French Adjectival System (IFAS), is a system used by several European countries and many other countries throughout the world. Like the adjectival part of the British free climbing grade system, IFAS uses letters to describe the overall difficulty of the route. The adjectives used are: F (facile, or easy), PD (peu difficile, or a little difficult), AD (assez difficile, or fairly difficult), D (difficile, or difficult), TD (très difficile, or very difficult), ED (extrêmement difficile, or extremely difficult) and ABO (abominable, which means "horrible" and implies that it's nearly impossible). The IFAS grades can be broken down even further by adding plus or minus signs to them. This gives a broader range to the IFAS scale and allows for intermediate grades when a route doesn't quite fit into any of the main categories.

When climbing in the mountains, the temperature drop that occurs in high altitudes may result in the formation of ice, adding another layer of complication to a climb. Because ice climbing presents its own challenges, there's a separate grading scale used for ice climbing. In the next section we'll go over the grades used when ice comes into play during your mountain climbs.

Ice Climbing Grade Systems

Because ice formations change so often, ice climbing grades are hard to assign.
Because ice formations change so often, ice climbing grades are hard to assign.
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Because ice is always changing -- melting, shifting, expanding, cracking -- any route that's made up of ice is difficult to assign a grade to. And because ice can change from year to year, an ice climbing route may have a different grade than it did in previous years. Because of this, ice climbing grades focus mainly on the steepness of the climb and the technical ability required to make the ascent.

In the U.S., there are three grading systems used to measure climbing on three different types of ice: water ice (WI), alpine ice (AI) and mixed ice (M).

Water ice (WI) is ice that's seasonal, or that disappears during the warmer months of the year. The scale for water ice ranges from WI1 (not very steep) to WI7 (vertical or overhanging, and very dangerous).

Alpine (AI) ice is permanent ice, like the ice usually found in high altitudes or glaciers. The scale for alpine ice is the same as the scale for water ice, except the prefixes are different (AI1-AI7 instead of W1-W7). The major difference between the two is the type of ice being graded.

Mixed ice (M) refers to routes that may contain ice, but are also partly rock. The mixed climbing scale is very closely tied to the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS). While the mixed climbing scale ranges from M1 to M13, each grade is described relative to a YDS rating. So, for instance, M1 is similar to a YDS rating of 5.5. Because mixed ice climbs are also partly rock, they can be rated using the International French Adjectival System (IFAS).

If ice climbing is a little too cool for your tastes, or if climbing in high altitudes gives you the shivers, why not try something a little closer to the ground? In the next section we'll discuss the grading systems for bouldering -- a climbing style for adventurers who may be a bit more grounded.

Bouldering Grade Systems

Bouldering is a lot like free climbing in that climbers do not use ropes, hooks or aids of any sort -- just their hands and feet and a little bit of ingenuity. The main difference between the two is that bouldering usually takes place closer to the ground, where a fall would not be as dangerous, while free climbing can be at any height. The name "bouldering" comes from the fact that close to the ground there tend to be a greater amount of large rocks and boulders to climb.

The two most common systems for rating bouldering are the V grade and the Fontainebleau grade. Another less frequently used scale is the B grade.

The V grade system was developed in the U.S. by a climber named John Sherman. He was nicknamed "Verm" by his friends; hence the "V." The V grades attempt to rate the overall climb. Originally, the V grades went from V0 to V15 (V0 being the easiest and V15 being the hardest), but the V grade was criticized for not including enough easier ratings. And so grades of V0+ and V0- were added, as well as VB (Beginner), to account for easier climbs.

Because of the problems with the V grade system, the B grade system was developed. It ranges from B0 to B15 and is meant to allow more room in the lower grades (both B0 and B1 cover what the V scale describes as V0).

Another popular bouldering grade system is the Fontainebleau system. Developed around the climbing scene in Fontainebleau, France -- which some call the bouldering capital of the world -- this system uses as series of numbers, letters, and symbols to rate a climb. The scale ranges from 1 to 8, where higher numbers indicate greater difficulty. Each number is further divided with letters a, b and c, and the use of a + symbol. So, for example, each number would follow a sequence like this: 6a, 6a+, 6b, 6b+, 6c, 6c+ and so on.

Bouldering and free climbing are all about using your body to get around the rocks. But sometimes it can be too difficult -- or too dangerous -- to attempt a climb without the use of tools and climbing aids. In the next section, we'll talk about the grading scales for aid climbing, or climbing with climbing tools, which are used for some of the world's most daring and dangerous climbs.

Aid Climbing Grade Systems

The type of climbing pictured above, in which the climber is using ropes and hooks, is classified as aid climbing.
The type of climbing pictured above, in which the climber is using ropes and hooks, is classified as aid climbing.
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Aid climbing is any kind of climbing that uses aids, or tools, to help the climber. Aids can include ropes, hooks, hammers and other climbing tools. Aid climbing grades are used for routes with sections that are pretty much impossible to pass without the use of climbing aids. For example, most sheer, or vertical, rock walls would be impossible to climb safely without the use of ropes and hooks.

There are two main ratings systems used for aid climbing: the A system and the C system. The A system is used for general aid climbing, while the C system is used to rate what is known as a clean climb, or a climb that's completed without the use of a hammer. The reason for this difference is that some climbing locations don't allow the use of a hammer, which can cause damage to the rocks.

The A system is a rating from A0 to A6. As the number in the rating gets higher, the more difficult the climb is. For example, it may be more difficult to place a hook, or a hook may have a greater risk of coming loose, in higher grades. The A system also takes into account the danger of any potential fall, which depends on the height from which you're falling as well as what's at the bottom. A route with a higher grade in this system might present more danger if the climber falls.

The C system for rating clean aid climbs is exactly the same as the A system, except that it uses the letter C instead of A. It's only used when a hammer isn't included as one of the climbing aids. The use of a hammer can make a big difference in climbing, so a route might have a rating of an A4 with a hammer, but a C5 without one.

The Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) is also sometimes used to grade aid climbs. Part of the set of descriptions in the YDS allows for the use of climbing aids.

For more information about climbing, mountains and other outdoor adventures, explore the links on the next page.

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