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.