Grades" © Kingsley Jones 2000
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the UK we have a very different grading system to the Alps,
so many people are very unsure what grade of routes that they
could safely attempt in the Alps. This article attempt to unravel
some of the shroud of mystery from the grading systems, and
also to explain what the various notations in Alpine guidebooks
mean. Please do not attempt to use any of the grade tables to
do direct translations between the UK and the Alps, because
it doesn't work. For example, if you can climb a section of
vertical ice in the UK, the table indicates that you are climbing
an Alpine ED grade, when in fact you might only be capable of
an Alpine PD grade. Use this table with care. Ultimately there
is no substitute for going to the Alps, and to start climbing
routes to build up your experience. Just remember that there
is no rush, and that the routes will still be there when you
have built up enough experience to tackle them safely.
Grades are selected from many factors, including the technical
difficulty, commitment, protection, and condition. Needless
to say, each of these factors are influenced by many more
subsections, as shown below;
Difficulty; the technical grade of the crux pitch,
or the climb as a whole. The technical difficulties always
have by far the greatest influence on the grade a climb is
Commitment / Seriousness; the
length of the route, the exposure you have to objective dangers
(avalanche, rockfall, etc), the quality of the ice or rock,
and the degree of remoteness of the route (especially with
regards to potential retreat or rescue). On long or multi
day climbs the possibility of benightment or getting caught
in a storm or running out of food can also influence the grade.
Protection; this only really
affects the grade when the climb is hard to protect, such
as having lots of loose rock. Equally on some popular climbs
all the belays are equiped, which makes it easy to retreat
if necessary. If there is generally good protection, but say
one spare section, this will usually be noted in the guidebook.
the effects of altitude or prevailing bad conditions for a
route generally give it a slightly easier grading than in
perfect conditions at sea level.
It is normal practice for the first person who ascends a route,
to declare a grade for it, and for second ascensionists to
confirm (or adjust) the grade. All routes change over time,
and whilst this is evident over a few hours on an ice climb,
it is equally true for a rock climb where holds break and
get polished. Therefore treat all grades with a big pinch
of salt, as they are massively subjective, but do not ignore
them altogether. I would be bancrupt if I had given a penny
to everyone I had heard saying "the guidebook said it
was a grade III, but in these conditons it was at least a
V+", but it is not often you hear the quote the other
way around, effectively downgrading a route. To me this is
a classic example of an obsession with grades, that many climbers
have. Grades are useful as advice, and for training, but to
not become too focused on them or you will loose track of
why you enjoy climbing. The best advice I ever got was "there
are two grades; possible, and not-possible".
Given that grading routes is such a subjective task, do not
be surprised to see the same route in different guidebooks
with a different grade. Below is a table of the grading system
that you will encounter when reading Alpine guidebooks. The
letters (PD, AD, etc) can be applied to any type of climb,
whether rock, ice or snow. I have given some examples of popular
routes (mainly in the Mont Blanc massif) in each category,
and an outline of the inclination of snow / ice, and the rock
grades. Both of these are explained in more detail below the
de Miages traverse F/PD
Mont Blanc, Grands Mulets F/PD
Aiguille du Tour, East Face Normal Route F+/PD-
Grandes Montets East Face F+/PD-
Difficile (Little Difficult)
Aiguille Verte, Ordinary Route F+/PD- (one move III)
Mont Blanc, Goûter Ridge PD- (II,40°)
Mont Blanc du Tacul, Ordinary Route (NW Face) PD-
Mont Blanc, Three Mont Blanc -route PD+ (>45°)
Difficile (Quite Difficult)
du Midi, Arete des Cosmiques PD+/AD (IV/Aid)
Matterhorn, Hörnligrat AD- (III)
Dent du Géant, Normal Route (SW Face) AD (III;V)
Aiguille Verte, Whymper Couloir AD+ (55°)
Blanc, Brenva Spur D-
Tour Ronde, North Face D- (52°)
Mont Blanc du Tacul, Chere Couloir D-/D (75°, Scottish
Aiguille du Midi, Frendo Spur D+ (V,55°)
Difficile (Very Difficult)
du Plan, North Face Direct TD- (IV,60°)
Mont Maudit, Cretier Route TD- (IV+)
Aiguille Noire de Peuterey, South Ridge TD (V+,A0;VI)
Petit Dru, Bonatti Pillar TD+ (V+,A1)
Difficile (Extremely Difficult)
Blanc, Peuterey Integral TD+/ED1
Grandes Jorasses, Croz Spur TD+/ED1 (V+,60°)
Mont Blanc, Central Pillar of Frêney ED1 (VI,A1;VIII/VIII+)
Petit Dru, American Direct ED1
Almost every country in the world has its own rock grading system,
and some (like the UK) have several. It would take years to
explain them all, but here are some pointers to watch out for.
Some grading systems are only concerned with the technical difficulty
of overcoming the hardest move on a climb (irrespective of if
it is one foot of the ground or 1000 feet up), whilst others
consider the overall sustained grade of the route, or the ability
to protect the route in event of a fall. It is fairly meaningless
to produce a table to "translate" grades from one
country to another. As far as the rock grades in the Alps, it
is normal for routes in the valley to get stiffer grades than
in the mountains, even if the climbs were identical. In the
guidebooks you will see arabic numbers (5+, 6, etc) used for
valley crag grades, and their exact equivalent in roman numerals
(V+, VII, etc) for mountain rock routes. If you have only every
climbed valley routes before, then you should only consider
mountain routes a few levels under your normal grade. For example
if you climb grade 6 routes in the valley, a mountain IV+ will
be quite enough for a first experience of altitude Alpine climbing.
In no way is this meant to patronise, but you cannot compare
toproping a sport (bolted) route at sea level wearing rock shoes,
with a route at altitude, wearing heavier clothing and maybe
mountain boots, as well as carrying a rucksack.
Because ice is extremely ever changing medium highly depending
on weather conditions, rating ice climbs is very difficult a
task. Thus any ice climbing grades are for reference and getting
the idea of the climb only, they are substantially less trustworthy
than rock grades.
Water Ice, hard ice formed from water.
MI Mountain Ice, softer porous ice formed from snow under
M Mixed, both rock and ice are encountered on the route.
is the case with rock grading systems, there are also several
different systems to grade ice climbs. Most systems are closely
related to each other and take into consideration solely technical
difficulty. US systems uses WI or MI to indicate the type
of ice followed by the number to indicate technical difficulty.
In Central Europe system is the same completed with Roman
number (I-VI) indicating objective hazards (seracs, rock fall,
etc.) to be encountered on the route. Finnish system is the
same without consideration of the objective hazards. Scottish
system (also used in Norway) uses Roman numbers to indicate
technical difficulty of the route.
Approximate Description (to give rough idea)
1 Low-angle water ice of 40 to 50 degrees or a long moderate
snow climb requiring basic level of technical expertise.
2 Low-angle water ice with short bulges up to 60°.
3 Steeper water ice on 50 to 60 degrees. Possibly bulges of
70°-90°. Ice is thick and secure protection easy to
4 Short vertical columns, interspersed with rests. On 50 to
60 degree ice fairly sustained climbing. Ice is thick and
of good quality. Secure protection is easy to place.
5 Generally multipitch ice climbing with sustained difficulties
and/or strenuous vertical columns with little or no rest possible.
Ice is still mostly of good quality.
6 Multipitch routes with heightened degree of seriousness.
Long vertical sections and very sustained difficulties. Ice
is often rotten with more or less dubious possibilities for
7 Full pitch of thin vertical or overhanging ice of dubious
8 Hardest ice climbing ever done.
climbing grades indicates mainly the difficulty and quality
of protection placements. Minor (upward) changes in difficulty
can be marked with +-sign. Aid climbing grade are subject
to change because of developing equipment and wear of the
A0 Fixed pieces of protection are already in place. Possibly
A0 climb can involve the climber placing slings to climb some
A1 Pitons, hooks, wedges etc. are relatively easy to put in
place. Occasional use of a ladder. Does not yet require much
force and virtually every placement is perfectly capable of
holding a fall. A1 climbs often get climbed "French free",
meaning that the climber uses protection to aid progress by
A2 Protection placements are fairly good, but placing the
pieces may not be without difficulties. Between good placements
there may be some less perfect placements.
A3 A3 is hard aid. Normally leading a pitch takes several
hours and there are potentially falls of 20-25 meters length,
but without danger of grounding or severe injury. Active testing
of soundness of placement is required.
A4 Serious aid. Fall potential up to 35 meters with bad landings.
Placements hold only body weight.
A5 Placements hold only body weight for entire pitch with
no solid protection. A leader fall at the top of an A5 pitch
means a 100-meter fall with possibly lethal consequences.