A brief explanation of UK traditional climbing grades

Posted by Niall Grimes on 28/02/2016
Is it all starting to make sense?

How does the BMC traditional grading system work? Niall Grimes takes a look.

The system for grading traditionally protected climbs in BMC guides is the traditional, two-part British grade, a combination of the adjectival and technical grades. It may seem confusing to those not used to the system, eg, climbers who might have only climbed indoors, or who have only sport climbed (These both tend to use French grades.). However, here is an attempt at explaining how it works.

Adjectival grades
The adjectival grade is the first part of the grade, and attempts to give a sense of the overall difficulty of a climb. This will be influenced by many aspects, including seriousness, sustaindness, technical difficulty, exposure, strenuousness, rock quality, and any other less tangible aspects which lend difficulty to a pitch. It is an open ended system, and currently runs from Easy, which is barely climbing, to E11, which has been barely climbed. Along the way, and in ascending order, are Moderate (M), Difficult (D), Hard Diff (HD), Very Difficult (VD), Hard Very Difficult (HVD), Severe (S), Hard Severe (HS), Very Severe (VS), Hard Very Severe (HVS) and Extremely Severe, the last category being split into E1, E2, E3 etc.

As with all grades, these catagorisations are subjective; there are no cut off points. VS runs smoothly into HVS, HVS runs into E1. Also, some climbers are better at safe, technical routes, some better at bold easy ones. Some climb well on delicate slabs, some on overhanging fist cracks. All this leads to that all too often splutter- “That’s never a Moderate!” where a route of one grade is claimed to be harder than one from the next grade up. Well, this just happens. All you can do is, if you find a route easy for its grade, give yourself a pat on the back. If it seems hard, blame the guidebook.

Technical grades
The second part of the grade, the technical grade, is there to give an indication of the hardest move to be found on the route, irrespective of how many of them there might be, how strenuous it is, or how frightened you are when you do it.

They come onto the scale somewhere around 4a, a savage example of elitism that must have 3b merchants fuming at the mouth, and currently run thus; 4a, 4b, 4c, 5a, 5b, 5c, 6a, 6b, 6c, 7a, 7b. It is an open ended scale, although while climbs continue to get harder and harder, this is usually reflected in the E grade, with climbs tending to become more serious and more strenuous rather than more technical. Real 7a is still a rarity on routes.

Combined grades
Going back to the combined grade, you should see how the combination of these two grades goes to suggest the difficulty of a climb, and what type of difficulty this might be. As a help, climbs of a particular adjectival grade, will often have an associated average technical grade. Roughly these are S, 4a; HS, 4b; VS, 4c; HVS, 5a; E1, 5b; E2, 5c. Above this the technical grade starts to slow down in relation to the adjectival grade, and by the time you get to E6, 6b is more of an average grade.

However, by the time you get to E6, you should have started to understand grades for yourself, so don’t worry about that point. So, for your final lesson, if, for a particular adjectival grade, the technical grade is high, (e.g. VS 5a, E1 5c) then you can expect the route to be technical in character, with maybe a single, hard, well protected move. If the technical grade is low for the adjectival grade, (e.g. HVS 4c, E3 5b) then expect either a very sustained and strenuous struggle, or a route with relatively easy climbing, only in a serious situation. Which one of these two it might be can hopefully be determined by looking at the climb. (i.e., an overhanging hand crack could reasonably be supposed to be sustained and well protected, a blank slab could be supposed to be serious.)

And the final point is that these rules are broken more often than they are obeyed, so use this explanation only as a guide, and stay open minded.

It is best used in conjunction with the downloadable grade comparison table. This also shows conversions between various bouldering grades.


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1) Anonymous User
10/02/2013
Thank you, it is all starting to make sense now.
2) Anonymous User
24/05/2016
Don't allow yourself to be confused, simplicity is always the key. I've put up a fair few routes in Derbyshire and was mainly prevalent in the early eighties, I've climbed alongside Ron Fawcett, Jerry Moffatt, Andy Politt even Steve bancroft! I was there when he managed London wall. Climbing IS personal, at least to me. I went climbing to get some pent up aggression out as my childhood was pretty traumatic and it was this anger that got me to the higher levels - 6b and the like. The challenge is what mainly pushes us but the one thing I tried to do was ignore the grading system and work out the route/s for myself as with John Allen on the Great Arete at Millstone. Being 54yrs old now I haven't climbed for many years but still go out into Derbyshire to watch all those white chalk marks litter the rock. It was brilliant in the 80's as new innovations were just coming out, such the the friend or 'cam' as I think it's called now. Abseil devices other than the figure 8 and the good old stitch plate were also being rolled out. I kept my gear simple, a load of small/medium nuts,a few larger one's in case we decided to climb a dream of white horses at Llandudno :) a lovely climb that. It's always best to work things out for yourself, a look at an XS 5c/6a such as Downhill racer on Froggatt Edge and you know instinctively that there is little to no protection with small, finger crunching moves. In the end it's all up to you, either go and enjoy yourself and push those personal limits or become 'hip' and wear expensive gear and talk climbing til the cows come home, like many today. Most importantly - have fun and build upon your own skillset.
3) Anonymous User
09/10/2016
Hi what would be the height of a French 4 for indoor climbing

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