Climbing grades are a necessary part of climbing because they help people determine the difficulty of a route, so they accurately prepare for it both physically as well as mentally. Different kinds of grading take into account various areas to evaluate.
The three most common kinds of climbing grades are the French, the British and the Yosemite Decimal System. The climbing grades may seem unnecessarily complicated at first, but explaining them isn’t as difficult as you might think.
Although climbing grades are subjective, most people will tend to agree on the rating for a course after a certain number of runs. Lots of things affect the difficulty of a route, and due to the subjective nature of grading routes, what's a seven on the YDS for you might feel like a five for someone else.
Things to factor while determining climbing difficulty include but aren't limited to: weather, the length of the route, the type of rock you're climbing on, and the volatility of the atmosphere.
Climbing Grades Explained
The UK Climbing Grade System
The rock climbing grades system in the UK is based on a mixture of technical and adjectival factors. The adjectival grade denotes just how difficult the route is as a whole, how much effort and the endurance required to complete the course, and how difficult it is to place protection.
The sport climbing grades adhering to the UK system start at Moderate, they then progress to Difficult, after which comes Severe, and finally Extremely Severe. Each adjectival grade is then given one of the following climbing ratings.
The technical grades range from 3c to 7b and are given to represent the hardest area or maneuver on the route. So the most difficult section on the route will be known based on its technical grade.
These technical grades are then further categorized as Bold or Safe. Routes that are Bold have fewer opportunities to deploy protection between anchor points and are riskier with longer drops. Routes that are Safe have a lot more opportunities to place protection and are just all around safer.
With this grading system, you can get a route with a higher end adjectival rating and a low technical rating that may not be very technically demanding, but can still be quite dangerous.
The UK grading system is considered by many to be one of the most flexible grading systems around.
The French Climbing Grade System
The French grading system is used in a lot of European countries including the UK. This system is also generally used in most international events outside of the United States.
The French climbing grade system grades route numerically starting at the number 1. Each numeric grade is then further categorized by a letter denoting further its difficulty. A symbol like a plus sign might also be added at the end to signify that a route is slightly more difficult than its grade suggests, but not enough to move up.
The grades are determined based on the overall difficulty of the course, as decided by whoever climbs it. This essentially means that you can have long easy climbs and short hard climbs with the same grade because overall they require the same amount of work.
To give you a good idea of what the French grades look like, a good place to start out for your first climb would be somewhere around a 3 or a 4. The best climbers in the world are currently climbing routes at about 9b.
The Yosemite Decimal System
The Yosemite Decimal System originated in the United States in the 1930s by climbers at the time to rate ascensions and hikes in the Yosemite region.
Since the 1930s there's been quite a significant advancement in climbing gear and safety equipment. Some routes have changed, so as a result, the system has become more open-ended to allow for a broader range of climbs to be graded.
The Yosemite Decimal System is a grading system that makes use of decimals. The grades in the YDS run from 1 to 5.15b. Simply put, the grades 1 to 4 indicate that the route is at about the pace of an energetic stroll. From grades five on, that's when you're climbing.
The numerical grade given to a route under the YDS refers to the technical difficulty of the most strenuous area of the route. The letter grade that follows is very similar to the French system and is used to define the route further.
For example, a 5.6 on the YDS is about a four on the French scale, and a 5.13c on the Yosemite decimal system is an 8a+ on the French system. This should give you a good idea of how the North American system rates routes.
You may also see an A attached to a YDS grade, which tells you that the route requires ascending gear. The YDS grade may also have a protection grade signified by G meaning good, PG meaning pretty good, and X meaning no protection whatsoever.
The Ewbank Grading System
The Ewbank Grading System (also known as the Australian Climbing Grade System) is probably the most straightforward systems out there.
Unfortunately, it’s one of the least commonly used. It was invented in the 1960s by a fellow named John Ewbank who was from Yorkshire originally and immigrated to Australia. Thanks to this guy, Australia has one of the most accessible systems for grading routes.
The Australian system runs from 1 to 35 and takes into account all factors of a route to assign a numerical grade. The system takes into account protection, technical difficulty, exposure, type and quality of rock and anything else that may factor into difficulty.
Learning about all kinds of grading systems will help you to be able to identify the difficulty of any route regardless of where you are and what grading system is being used.
The good thing about how complicated these grading systems are is that you can get a good idea of the route before you get your hands on it.