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I have seen various grades for different climbs such as

5.14b, 8b+, 8b - 150m

It seems there are different parts to the grade, e.g. the last one is it 8b for 150 metres?

Do these grades only apply to sport routes or to trad routes as well?

Can someone point to a definitive guide or explanation?

Thanks loads.

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11  
There's a length explanation on Wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grade_%28climbing%29 A lot of this stuff is going to vary from country to country. And (since grades are subjective) each area and guidebook may have their own interpretations. –  DavidR Sep 19 '13 at 19:16
    
@DavidR - would you like to put your comment into an answer? I just read the article and it is great. –  Scotty.NET Sep 19 '13 at 21:39
    

3 Answers 3

up vote 14 down vote accepted

In Europe we have a few systems depending on the country, so in the UK we have two grading systems, adjectival and technical and they work as follows:

  • Easy - E
  • Moderate M - US 5.2
  • Difficult D - US 5.3
  • Hard Diff HD
  • Very Difficult VD - US 5.4
  • Hard Very Difficult HVD
  • Severe S - US 5.5
  • Hard Severe HS - US 5.6
  • Very Severe VS - US 5.7 or 5.8
  • Hard Very Severe HVS - US 5.9 or 5.10
  • Extremely Severe E1 to E11 - US 5.10 to about a 5.14d

Technical is a measure of the hardest move on that route, and it runs as follows (there aren't any for 3 or below):

  • 4a, 4b, 4c
  • 5a, 5b, 5c
  • 6a, 6b, 6c
  • 7a, 7b

So you'll see Easy is pretty broad, and covers everything up to a 5, so walking up to hard scrambling.

There is a good conversion chart at the British Mountaineering Council website which also includes French and Australian grades.

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Just a quick one, Easy is defunct these days, an easy climb would be a classed as a "scramble". –  Liam Apr 6 at 21:29
    
I've been bouldering for about a year, up to V2-3, and was able to do my first top rope climb on a 5.6 no problem. Isn't "Hard Severe" really, really out of whack with that? –  AAA Oct 17 at 15:37

The WP article is pretty good, but SE is meant to be standalone, so I'll try to give my interpretation of the American system, the Yosemite Decimal System. This system is for free climbing (mountaineering, trad climbing, sport climbing, and gym climbing). It doesn't cover aid climbing or bouldering.

1 = Hiking. Example: Kilimanjaro.

2 = May use hands for balance. May include cross-country where you need to pay constant attention to footing. In the Sierra, this is often talus. Example: Mt. Langley.

3 = Scrambling, possibly using hands to pull yourself up. Most people would downclimb facing outward. Examples: Avalanche Gulch on Mt. Shasta, Whitney Mountaineers' Route.

4 = Hard scrambling, with lots of good holds. Most people wouldn't be able to downclimb facing outward.

5 = Vertical rock climbing. Most people would rappel down rather than downclimbing. Example: Mount Kenya.

The grade for a route is intended to represent the difficulty of the single hardest move. For example, people who have done the South Col of Everest say it's almost all a walk-up (class 1-2), but that the Hillary Step is class 4, so the route as a whole would be class 4.

The YDS does not attempt to represent the level of danger, strenuousness, exposure, or commitment. For example, the Ebersbacher Ledges in the north fork of Lone Pine Creek are class 1, but very exposed; if you tripped over your shoelaces and fell over the side, you'd be dead. Ratings may be for a person of typical height, or may be defined according to the perceptions of a person who is a particular height.

Ratings don't necessarily relate to whether ropes are necessary. A belay might be advisable on a class-1 ledge if it was exposed and had patches of ice. A belay might be unnecessary on a class-5 climb it it was not exposed and the whole class-5 section was extremely short and consisted of a single hard move.

In mountaineering, you have slab climbing, crack climbing, snow, and ice, which aren't directly comparable to vertical rock climbing. It's pretty subjective to say that an ice-ax-and-crampons route like Avalanche Gulch on Shasta is the same class-3 grade as a talus and scrambling route like the Whitney Mountaineers' Route.

Within class 5, there are decimals. Originally these went from 5.0 to 5.9. These subdivisions were defined using 1950's equipment (hobnail boots, no SLCD's) in the Tahquitz Rock area, with 5.9 defined by the climb Open Book, which was first climbed by Royal Robbins in 1952 and was at that time thought to be the most difficult climb that anyone could do. Today, we have sport climbing, various improvements in equipment, and a higher-level elite of pro climbers like Adam Ondra and Chris Sharma. The scale has therefore been extended up to difficulties like 5.14 or maybe even 5.15. At these very high levels, it's difficult to confirm proposed ratings, because there are only a few people in the world who could climb both a 5.14 and a 5.15 and give a reliable opinion on which was which.

Within each 5.x grade for x=10 and above, there can be letter subdivisions abcd, so that, e.g., 5.10b is harder than 5.10a.

Ratings are extremely subjective, and local customs may cause them to be either inflated (too high) or "sandbagged" (too low). For example, I've managed to climb some 5.10a routes at my local climbing gym, but that absolutely does not mean that I'm climbing better than Royal Robbins; it means that (1) the ratings at my gym are inflated, and (2) I'm climbing these routes either on top-rope or leading them in an indoor sport-climbing style, which is a lot easier than a trad lead.

In general, there has been a huge inflationary trend since the scale was first defined. For example, the original YDS scale used two climbs on Tahquitz as the definitions of 5.0 and 5.1. These were The Trough and Fingertip Traverse. The modern guidebook by Gaines (2013) describes these as 5.4 and 5.5.

Sandbagging (deflation) tends to happen because people want to boast about what awesome climbers they are. If most people say a climb is 5.5 in modern ratings, Sam Sandbagger will bluster online about how kids these days are wimps, that climb is 5.2 at most, he free-solos it before breakfast, and his toy poodle led it in the dark with an injured paw at the age of 12.

In the 5.x grades, it can be very hard to compare different types of climbs. For example a 5.10a in the gym could be:

  • A climb that's overhung the whole way, but has huge holds, requiring stamina and upper-body strength.

  • A climb that's vertical and requires delicate balance and flexibility.

  • A climb that's less than vertical but has tiny sloping holds, requiring strong hands.

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1  
That is very good point relating that SE is more about a standalone source of knowledge and information. I shall then delete my answer! Shall I? Or you want to put those links as a reference in your answer? –  WedaPashi Sep 26 '13 at 4:48
    
@WedaPashi I think you could add a table that compares all different grade systems. This would be a good addition to the answer of Ben. –  Kai K. Sep 26 '13 at 6:45
    
Nice writeup. One thing: I believe the YDS originally topped at 5.9. Would you check your sources? –  Mr.Wizard Sep 27 '13 at 11:52
2  
@BenCrowell - great answer, although ... as an Aussie, living in England, who has done a little climbing in France ... I can't bring myself to give you the 'tick' for only covering the US system(s). Any chance you can expand your answer? –  Scotty.NET Sep 28 '13 at 23:00
1  
@Scotty.NET: I don't know anything about the other systems. Rory Alsop has an answer covering the UK systems. –  Ben Crowell Sep 28 '13 at 23:33

Direct Answers:

  • 5.14b is North American scaling, which equals UIAA X+/XI− and French 8c
  • 8b+ is French scaling, which equals UIAA X+ and North American 5.14a
  • 8b - 150m is a 150m long 8b climb
  • Do these grades only apply to sport routes or to trad routes as well?

    Like explained on Wikipedia:

    The British grading system for traditional climbs, also known as the UK grading system, used in Great Britain and Ireland, has (in theory) two parts: the adjectival grade and the technical grade. Sport climbing in Britain and Ireland uses the French grading system, often prefixed with the letter "F".

    @RoryAlsop described this system in his answer.

A really nice comparison of the climbing scales can be found on this table, I am sure you can understand it without speaking German: Comparing different types of scales.

Short overview of different grading systems

Due to the different requirements of several types of climbing there are lots of different scales. There are systems all over the world: some are typical for North America, some for the Alps and some for Scotland/UK. Most are measured on the toughest spot (would be interested which ratings aren't scaled like this).

@BenCrowell gave a nice detailed answer but I have to add some informations for the mid European guys, more specific the wonderful Alps region. Here, for free climbing the most common scales are the French grading system and the scaling formulated by the UIAA (Union Internationale des Associations d’Alpinisme). Typically those scales are used in sport climbing and rock climbing. For bouldering there are special scales, like the Hueco scale in the US or the Fontainebleau grades in Europe.

In the past when those grading systems were written down, the scales were closed. At some point when tougher pitches were climbed it got really confusing and troublesome to adjust the routes to the constant boarders of the scaling. Until the late 1970s the UIAA scale which is notated in roman numerals was closed to grades up to VI. Today good beginners can climb a VI (although today’s VI might not be comparable to a VI from the 1970s) and one of the toughest routes is La Dura Dura with incredible difficulties: UIAA XII-, French 9b+, North American 5.15c.

For mountaineering e.g. the scale of the Club Alpin Suisse is widespread and for ice climbing you can read this. Another scale for mixed routes and so on. Nonetheless you often find judgements in the UIAA grading system for rock parts of alpine tours, and also for Himalayan expeditions.

Summary

For rock/sport climbing in big parts of Europe like the Alps, the common grading systems are:

  • French: currently ranging from 1 to 9b+

    grading: 1,2,3,4,5a,5b,5c,6a,6a+,...
    
  • UIAA: currently ranging from I to XII-

    grading: I,II,III,IV,V-,V,V+,...
    
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