Last Updated: Wed Jun 09 14:15:00 BST 2004
This is a table that lets you compare various systems used to grade rock climbs around the world.
If you want to try and understand the initially complex, but incredibly useful (when you get used to it) UK grading system, Plas-y-Brenin's Rock Notes contain a very well written exposition. While the YMC's Yorkshire Grit Guide has a more cynical intepretation.
|YDS||=||Yosemite Decimal System|
This table has been constructed from many sources, hardly any of which agrees with any of the others. The lower grades (UK 4a and below) tend to have hardly any agreement, while the upper grades may differ by a line or so, depending on the source you use. The upshot of this is that the only way to determine the equivalence of the different styles of grading used throughout the World is to go and climb in many different places.
Having said that I only have experience of climbing in the UK, the USA and France. The highest grades I've climbed at (leading) are UK 5c, YDS 5.10, Fr 6a (outside) - UK 6a, Fr 6b (inside).
Mountaineering prides itself in having no written rules: mountaineers, therefore, spend most of their time arguing about their interpretation of the unwritten rules. Nowhere is this more so than in the invariably subjective area of the grading of climbs. Rock is such an irregular medium and climbers come in such a range of shapes and sizes that any grade can only be, at best, an indicator. It's more of an Art than a Science - and some would say a Black Art at that!
It all began quite sensibly with Victorian climbers describing climbs to their contemporaries with adjectives such as Easy, Moderate or Difficult - the original adjectival grades. Unfortunately, climbers have a habit of improving. So, with the benefit of their predecessors' knowledge, new techniques and equipment advances, the guidebooks were soon full of Very Difficults, Severes, Very Severes, Hard Very Severes and finally Extremely Severes, often sub-divided into intermediate shades of difficulty, with nonsense like Mild Hard Very Severe, for example, making a mockery of the English language.
This adjectival grade took all aspects of the climb into account; the difficulty of each move, the number and quality of runners, problems of route-finding and ease of escape, together with all objective dangers (loose rock, bottle-throwing tourists, spiders, snakes, holly bushes, avalanches etc).
As standards continued to rise, Extremes were sub-divided into E1, E2, E3..., an open-ended system which has currently arrived at E9. At the same time, there was an increasing demand for the purely technical difficulties of each pitch to be described by a separate parameter. In other words, what's the hardest `move' I'll have to make? This has now evolved from a system first used to describe climbs on Cloggy, into a number/letter sequence, with each numerical grade sub-divided into a, b and c, in ascending order of difficulty. Although, theoretically, it should start at 1a, 1b, 1c, 2a..., very few guidebook writers bother to give numerical grades below 4a (which normally corresponds to about Hard Severe). Currently the highest grade thought to exist in Britain is 7c/8a. So some desparate five-pitch climb might be described as;
The Living End E4 (5c,6a,6a,5a,4b)
E4 is an overall, subjective grade taking into account all factors mentioned above, whilst the pure technical difficulty is quoted for each pitch. This helps uneven climbing pairs to decide who's going to lead which pitch, although low pitch grades on hard climbs should always be taken with a pinch of salt. Also, the 5a pitch above might have no runners, and still be consistent with the overall grade of E4. Unfortunately the application of grades is not uniform throughout the country - generally the smaller the crag, and the less mountainous the area, the greater the tendency towards an undergrading of technical difficulty.
With this two-tiered grading system now well-established in Britain, it should be possible for climbers to select climbs which match their aspirations and their style. Cool-headed weaklings with a death-wish can go for routes with relatively low pitch grades (e.g. VS 4a) since this implies that the difficulties will be other than technical (no runners, loose rock, difficult route-finding, etc): wimpy Gorillas can go for routes with a high technical grade and a relatively low overall grade (e.g. VS 5a), safe in the knowledge that it will be their muscles, rather than their minds, which will be stressed.
Present day opinion uses a reciprocal adjectival system for coping with failure at a certain grade. Hence failing on a Difficult is Extremely Severe, whilst it is only Difficult to cope with failure on an Extremely Severe. Simple, eh?
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