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Love them or hate them, grades are here to stay. Here's an in-depth look at what they all mean...


Grading Systems Used in Scotland

In Scotland the British (Trad) grading system is used for traditional climbing, with a few local twists (such as Scottish VS). Sport climbing uses the French Grading system. Winter climbing in Scotland uses the Scottish Winter grading system. Bouldering in Scotland uses Font grades, with V grades being phased out.

Traditional Climbing Grades

The British grading system for traditional climbing has (in theory) two parts: the adjectival grade and the technical grade.

The adjectival grade attempts to assess the overall difficulty of the climb taking into account all factors, for a climber leading the route on-sight in traditional climbing style. In the early 20th century it ran Easy, Moderate, Difficult, but increasing standards have several times lead to extra grades being added at the top. The adjectival grades are as follows:

  • Easy (rarely used)
  • Moderate (M)
  • Difficult (D, or 'Diff')
  • Very Difficult (VD, or 'VDiff')
  • Hard Very Difficult (HVD)
  • Severe (S)
  • Hard Severe(HS)
  • Very Severe (VS)
  • Hard Very Severe (HVS)
  • Extremely Severe (E1, E2, E3, ...)
  • XS is used for climbs that are on loose or crumbling rock that are seldom repeated after the first ascent

The Extremely Severe grade is subdivided in an open-ended fashion into E1 (easiest) then E2, E3 and so on. As of 2006, the hardest climb is graded E11, but many climbers consider such high grades provisional as the climbs have not yet been climbed by anyone on-sight. The hardest confirmed grade is E9.

Some guidebooks make finer distinctions by adding the prefix "Mild" or "Hard" (thus, Hard Very Difficult and Mild Severe lie between Very Difficult and Severe).

The technical grade attempts to assess only the technical climbing difficulty of the hardest move or moves on the route without regard to the danger of the move or the stamina required if there are several such moves in a row. This aspect has already been taken into consideration by the adjectival grade, but is often included along side for further insight to a routes difficulty. Technical grades are open-ended, starting at 1 and subdivided into "a", "b" and "c", but you are unlikely to see any mention of them below 4a. The hardest recorded climbs are around 7b.

Usually the technical grade increases with the adjectival grade but a hard technical move very near the ground (that is, notionally safe) may not raise the standard of the adjectival grade very much. VS 4c might be a typical grade for a route. VS 4a would usually indicate very poor protection (easy moves, but no gear), VS 5b would usually indicate the crux move was the first move or very well protected. On multi-pitch routes it is usual to give the overall climb an adjectival grade and each pitch a separate technical grade (such as HS 4b, 4a).

Sport Climbing Grades

The French grading system is used for Sport climbing and in climbing walls. It takes into account the overall physical and technical difficulty of the moves and the length of climb, but is not influenced safety or scariness of the climb. French grades are not onsight grades: they are used to convey the difficulty of redpointing a route. Hence two routes of equal grade can be different in difficulty when attempting an onsight espically when holds are not chalked - a common occurance in scotland!

Grades are numerical, starting at 1 (very easy) and the system is open-ended. Each numerical grade can be subdivided by adding a letter (a, b or c) from the number 6 upwards. . Furthermore, a + (no -) may be used to further differentiate difficulty (Examples: 2, 4, 5, 6a+, 6b, 7c, 8b+). This may look similar to the British tech grades, but please do not get confused. A French 6a route is likely to be way easier than, say, an E5 6a. Many countries in Europe use a system with similar grades but not necessarily matching difficulties. For example, a 7a in Spain is likely to be easier than a 7a in France. Other countries around the world use their own systems.

Winter Climbing Grades

The Scottish Winter grading system comprises two numbers the first, a roman numeral, tells you how hard the route is to lead, the second, a arabic numeral gives the tecnical difficulty. Grades go from I to XI, with technical grades going from 1-11, although both are open ended.

Bouldering Grades

In bouldering, problems are assigned grades based on physics and technical difficulty, no account is taken of how scarey a problem is (in theory at least). There are several established grading systems, which are distinct from those used in Sport or Trad climbing. Comparing route to bouldering grades is notoriously difficult, and should be avoided at all costs. Bouldering grade systems include the "B" system, Hueco "V" grades, Fontainebleau technical grades, route colours, and overall difficulty grades, Peak District grades, and British technical grades.

In Scotland and the rest of Europe, the Fontainebleau grading is the most widely used. This system ranges from 1A to 8C+ (the equivalent of V16), it is rare to find problems easier than 2B. The system was first devised to classify the sandstone climbing in the Fountainebleau forests in France, but is now widely used also in other bouldering areas around the world. Although it may look the same as a sport grade or british tech grade, it is very different. For example, the crux of a (french) 8a sport route may only be (font) 7A if it were a boulder - if that - and get a tech grade of brit 6b!

To differentiate between french and font grades, a modern convention is to use capital letters for Font grades and lower case letters for French. It's often best to use, say, for example, "brit 5c" when talking about anything other than traditional climbing

In North America, the "V" grades devised by John Sherman at Hueco Tanks are prevalent, having largely displaced the older "B" grades. The "V" system currently covers a range from V0 to V16. At the easier end of the scale, some use the designation VB (for V-basic) for problems slightly easier than a V0. In Scotland, you may find the V-grade in some guides and climbing walls.

In Britain, it is not uncommon to see a British technical grade for boulder problems, describing the hardest individual move, although this is getting rarer. This gives non-boulderers an idea of difficulty compared to Trad climbs. There are bigger steps between British tech grades than Font or V grades and a rough conversion is given below. This provides a snapshot for one move boulder problems only.

Bouldering Rating Systems
Font V grade
5c 5 V0
6a 6A+ V2
6b 6B+ V4
6c 7A V6
7a 7C V9

The old "B" grade system, introduced by bouldering legend John Gill, is more an interesting idea than grading scale. It has only three categories, B1, B2 and B3. B3 problems are those that have only been completed once, the cutting edge of bouldering. B2 as problems that are "harder than B1". B1 problems are those relating to "a hard toprope climb". A B1 problem was defined by John Gill in 1969 as a 5.10, but in 1987 as a 5.12. This highlights the constant evolution of the "B" scale.

Comparison table

The following table has a basic comparison chart for some of the different free climbing rating systems that are in use around the world:

Rock Climbing Rating Systems
French UIAA
Australian GDR
5.5 4a VS        
5.6 4b          
5.7 4c       15  
5.8   HVS 5a 6- 16 VIIa
5.9 5a   5b 6 17 VIIb
5.10a   E1 5c 6+ 18 VIIc
5.10b 5b   6a   19  
5.10c   E2   7- 20 VIIIa
5.10d 5c   6b 7 21 VIIIb
5.11a   E3   7+ 22 VIIIc
5.11b     6c   23  
5.11c 6a E4   8- 24 IXa
5.11d     7a 8 25 IXb
5.12a   E5   8+ 26 IXc
5.12b 6b   7b      
5.12c   E6   9- 27 Xa
5.12d 6c   7c 9 28 Xb
5.13a   E7   9+ 29 Xc
5.13b     8a      
5.13c 7a     10- 30  
5.13d   E8 8b 10 31  
5.14a       10+ 32  
5.14b 7b   8c      
5.14c   E9   11- 33  
5.14d 7c   9a 11    
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