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A Rough Guide to Climbing Grades

Are you new to the glorious world of climbing ? Bamboozled by the numbers and letters that are thrown around by people who sound like they know what they’re talking about? Fear not! Here’s our Handy Guide to Climbing Grades:

Sport Climbing Grades/

Indoor Climbing Grades:

27-Paraclimb2015 Sample HIRST-2999

Team GB paraclimber, Sianagh Gallagher, at the 2015 Paraclimbing Championships at Manchester Climbing Centre. Photo: Natasha Hirst Photography

Sport Grades (otherwise known as French Grades) are used for indoor lead climbing, indoor bottom roping (some people refer to this as top roping, indoors, but it is actually bottom roping, as you're belaying from the bottom) and for outdoor lead climbing. A sport grade contains a number - ie. 4 - which describes how hard the climb is, the lower the number, the easier the climb. To add more detail to the grade, a letter or symbol may be added. So a grade 4 climb will be one of the easiest you’ll find in most walls; a grade 4+ will be slightly harder than a 4 but not hard enough to warrant a 5, for example. When the grade given is a 6 or above, it will be followed by a,b or c - again to denote an increase in difficulty (‘a’ being easiest), these can also be followed by + so a 6a+ is harder than a 6a.  The numbers will look like this: 4, 4+, 5, 5+, 6a, 6a+, 6b, 6b+, 6c, 6c+ and so on.

Trad Climbing Grades:

Climbing in Wales in the Slate Quarries Seamstress

Climbing in the slate quarries in north Wales in April 2015.

Trad climbing grades are a little different. They contain two parts - an adjectival grade and a technical grade.

The Adjectival Grade

The adjective describes the overall difficulty of the climb, mostly concerning the gear you are placing - how much gear there is and how good it is. When you see VDiff, Hard Severe (HS) or E1 next to a climb, these are the adjectival grades. The grades start at Moderate, which would be a very easy climb absolutely loaded with great gear. The Moderate grades lead into Diffs (for difficult) - a VDiff is a classic starter grade for many a beginner trad climber! A selection of 'severe' grades (Hard Severe, shortened to HS, Very Severe, shortened to VS, Hard Very Severe, shortened to HVS) lead into the hallowed worlds of Extreme grades, beginning with E1 and increasing the number with the sparseness of the gear. Some of us may never reach these heady heights, but we try!

Climbing at Idwal Slabs in Wales

Stacey lead climbing on the Idwal Slabs in the Ogwen Valley in North Wales in 2015.

The Technical Grade

This is similar to the Sport Grade, in that it corresponds to how hard the actual technical climbing is, and the numbers increase in the same way. Again, a,b and c letters are added to denote increases in difficulty.

It is important to pay attention to both parts of these grades so you can make an informed choice about which grade you want to climb. A climb may have a technical grade that you can climb quite comfortably, ie. 5a, but this may be coupled with an adjectival grade that is above your current ability ie. HVS. So you may need to start trad climbing at a lower grade than usual so you can see how you get on with the challenges of staying calm and placing gear, so that you stay safe.

Bouldering Grades

The most common grading systems you will see for bouldering are the Font system and The Hueco scale.

The Font Grading System

The Font system is similar to the French sport climbing system in that the numbers start at about 3 and increase depending on the difficulty of the boulder problem. The grades are not interchangeable though, a grade 6A boulder problem will be harder than a 6a route. (To differentiate between the two systems, the boulder problem has a capital A, B or C). Again, the letters are used to denote increases in difficulty as is + ie. 8C+ would be very hard indeed!

Woman bouldering outdoors, with rock in the foreground and an orange bouldering mat in the background.  The woman is wearing a beanie hat with a bobble.

Bouldering at Stanage on a chilly February day.

The Hueco Grading Scale

The Hueco scale starts with V0 and increases in difficulty to V16. Sometimes you may find VB which signifies a beginner friendly boulder problem and at the lower end of the scale + or - may be added to show a slightly harder or easier problem. The Hueco scale is commonly used in America and is now used in some indoor walls in this country. There are a number of other systems in use around the world - for climbing and bouldering so if you’re lucky enough to travel to one of those places you’ll have a whole new set of numbers to get your head round!

Eden Rock Bouldering Guide board

Eden Rock's fabulous board explaining their grading system. We love this way of explaining their grading - it helps identify different styles as well as the grading.

We hope this short guide has helped you understand the numbers us climbers are so obsessed with!

By Zoe Muffett

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