Part I in a two-part series discussing climbing grades.

Since people started climbing recreationally at the end of the 19th century, they have identified the difficulty of certain routes using climbing grades.

In rock climbing, mountaineering and ice climbing, climbing grades are meant to concisely describe the difficulty and danger of climbing any single route. 

However, by its very nature climbing is subjective – someone else can’t climb the wall for you – so there will always be people who find a UIAA V+ to be more like a V or an IFAS PD+ more like an AD.

While there are a wide variety of different climbing systems, usually developed by climbing associations in different countries, all of them take the same few factors into account. 

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Climbing grades generally consider the difficulty of the climb in terms of the technical ability required to complete the moves, along with the strength, stamina and level of commitment needed to complete the climb. The level of protection offered along the route is also factored into most climbing grades.

While they offer plenty of diversity, climbing grades are a great indicator of what a potential climber should expect on a route. In general, the grades seen in a guidebook or online are reached by consensus. The first person to climb the route will have the first say and climbers who follow will add what they think.

As a result, climbing grades are usually pretty uniformly applied in a single region. However, they may differ between regions. After all, the same people are not climbing all the routes out there.  

A brief history of climbing grades

The first recorded climbing grade system was introduced by the Austrian mountaineer Fritz Benesch in 1894. 

The so-called Benesch scale had seven levels of difficulty, with level 7 (VII) representing the easiest routes and 1 (I) being near impossible. However, as more of these level 1 routes were climbed, the scale had to add in a 0 and 00 to denote even tougher climbs. 

By the 1920s, the Benesch scale was becoming more widely adopted. In 1923, German mountaineer Willo Welzebach inverted the system and shortened it. Welzebach’s scale ran from 1 (I) to 6 (VI) from easiest to most difficult. 

The system became widely popular all over the world and was formally adopted by the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA) in 1967. 

While it is no longer considered the most accurate grading system, the UIAA remains a reference point for a wide range of climbable terrains and served as the inspiration for a number of other climbing grading systems.

UIAA Grades

For free climbing, the UIAA grades are an international standard meant to give climbers from anywhere in the world a rough idea of how difficult any specific route is. 

Due to the vast differences inherent to all types of climbing, the system is far from perfect. It is best used as a guide for which routes a climber may or may not be ready, but does not provide the kind of intimate details about a route that other systems do.

As a result, UIAA grades are frequently incorporated into systems denoting mountaineering difficulty, as any given mountaineering route may have various sections of climbing making a single score more concise.

GradeSymbolDescription
FirstIStraightforward scrambling that requires the use of hands to maintain balance and finding trusted foot-holds.
SecondIILowest grade of actual rock climbing that requires the movement of one limb at a time and a proper setting of those movements. Holds and supports on the route remain plentiful.
ThirdIIIThe rock structure is steeper and more vertical. There are far fewer holds and supports, and the climb may require the use of force. Typically the passage is not already solved in an obliging manner.
FourthIVHolds and supports become smaller and even more scarce. More technical climbing abilities are required to maneuvre rock structures such as chimneys, crevices and corners.
FifthVHandholds and supports are smaller and scarcer. Climbing also becomes delicate or difficult and routes require prior examination
SixthVIHandholds and supports are smaller and scarcer, often requiring intricate and pre-planned moves to go from one to the next. The route involves climbing overdelicate and difficult rock formations, such as overhangs. Considerable hand and arm strength along with special training are required.
SeventhVIIHandholds and supports are very small and spread far apart. Sophisticated training and immense hand, wrist and arm strength are required.
Eighth to tenthVIII to XClimbs become gradually more physically and technically difficult.

Mountaineering grading systems

Most climbing grade systems correspond with free climbing, including rock, ice or mixed climbing. However, several are commonly used to grade mountaineering routes. 

Since mountaineering routes tend to be quite diverse, scores usually factor in a wide range of criteria.

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Many countries have their own version of these grades, but the most popular are the International French Adjective System (IFAS) and Russian system. These scores are frequently used for Alpine, Himalayan and South American routes.

Other more specialized systems include the Alaskan, New Zealand and Romanian. 

International French Adjective System (IFAS)

The IFAS is a very basic system using a combination of letters and symbols to describe mountaineering routes. The system is especially useful for long climbs that comprise various terrains and may be accompanied by the appropriate free climbing scores.

The IFAS takes the length of the route, level of exposure while climbing, time commitment, the difficulty of retreating, altitude, number of pitches and type of climbing into account in its scores, which run from F to ABO.

  • F: Coming from the French word, facile, meaning easy, these routes are simple and straightforward. They may involve some rudimentary scrambling and snow and glacier climbing on gentle slopes.
  • PD: Meaning peu difficile, or slightly difficult, PD routes tend to be longer than F routes and at higher altitudes. They may involve slightly steeper snow or ice climbing (up to 45 degrees), and more complex glacier travel and scrambling. PD routes tend to have more hazards than F routes and may require belaying or abseiling.
  • AD: Standing for assez difficile, or fairly difficult, AD routes involve steeper and more technical snow, rock or ice climbing (up to 65 degrees) rated at UIAA III. The routes tend to be more exposed and comprise more inherent dangers (falls, avalanches, etc.).
  • D: Meaning difficile, D routes are difficult, as the name suggests. They involve more technical snow, rock and ice climbing on steeper slopes (up to 70 degrees), usually rated UIAA IV or V. The routes also tend to be longer and more sustained or shorter and extremely technical with plenty of hazards.   
  • TD: Standing for tre difficile, very difficult, TD routes are very hard with a high level of objective danger. These routes involve sustained and technical snow and ice climbing, usually up to a steepness of 80 degrees. They usually also comprise long and technical rock climbing routes rated at UIAA V or VI.
  • ED1/2/3/4: Meaning extrêmement difficile, extremely difficult, ED routes are highly technical and dangerous, requiring vertical and sustained rock, ice and snow climbing rated between UIAA VI and VIII. These routes are usually not climbed commercially.
  • ABO: Standing for abominablement difficile, abominably difficult, ABO routes are considered next to impossible to climb and should only be attempted by professionals.

To add a bit more specificity to the IFAS, either a + or an – (pronounced sup for supérieur or inf for inférieur) is added to indicate how a route compares to others with the same score. There is no exact science for these grades, meaning one guide’s AD+ may be more difficult than another’s D–. 

Russian system

Similarly to the original Welzenbach system, the Russian system runs from easiest to most difficult: 1A to 6B. The system factors in difficulty, altitude, length and commitment to its scores.

  • 1A: Any ascent that requires more difficulty than simple hiking. Unlike other grades, 1A has no minimum elevation limit.
  • 1B: An easy ascent that requires scrambling, along with some climbing over mixed snow or ice with an elevation between 2,000 and 5,000 metres (6,500 and 16,4000 feet).
  • 2A: Involves an ascent of more than 500 metres (1,600 feet) on a peak between 2,000 and 6,000 metres (19,700 feet) in elevation with a difficulty of UIAA II. There may also be snow and ice sections up to difficulty of UIAA II.
  • 2B: Involves an ascent of a peak between 2,000 and 6,000 metres with brief sections of UIAA III rock or ice climbing. It may also involve some pitons for belaying.
  • 3A: Involves climbing a route at least 600 metres (2,000 feet) in length on a peak between 2,500 and 6,500 metres (8,200 and 21,300 feet) with long sections of UIAA II climbing on rock or ice.
  • 3B: Involves an ascent of at least 600 metres on a peak between 2,500 and 6,500 metres with rock pitches of at least 20 to 30 metres (65 to 100 feet) and ice and snow sections at least 200 to 300 metres (660 to 980 feet) long rated at UIAA III to IV.
  • 4A: Involves an ascent of at least 600 metres on a peak between 2,500 and 7,000 metres (23,000 feet) with rock pitches of 20 to 50 metres (160 feet) or snow and ice sections of 200 to 300 metres rated as UIAA IV. Routes generally take six to eight hours and require piton belays.
  • 4B: Involves an ascent of at least 600 metres on a peak between 2,500 and 7,000 metres with rock sections of 40 to 80 metres (130 to 260 feet) graded at UIAA IV or V. Routes also involve ice and snow climbing sections of at least 300 to 400 metres (1,000 to 1,300 feet) rated as UIAA V. Climbs tend to take at least eight to 10 hours and require insertion of eight to 10 pitons for belaying.
  • 5A: Involves an ascent of at least 600 metres on a peak between 3,000 (9,800 feet) and 7,000 metres with long sections of rock climbing graded as UIAA III to V. It may also involve snow and ice sections of at least 300 to 400 metres graded as UIAA V or more. The route may take 10 to 15 hours and require the insertion of 20 to 40 pitons.
  • 5B: Involves an ascent of at least 700 metres (2,300 feet) on a peak between 3,000 (9,800 feet) and 7,000 metres with long sections of rock climbing graded as UIAA III to VI. There may also be snow or ice climbing sections of at least 600 to 800 metres (2,600 feet) graded as UIAA V or more. The route may take 15 to 20 hours and require the insertion of 30 to 50 pitons for belaying.
  • 6A: Involves an ascent of at least 800 metres on a peak with a 3,600-metre (11,800-foot) traverse on rocks or mixed ground rated as UIAA IV to VI. The route takes 40 to 50 hours to complete and requires the insertion of 100 to 150 pitons.
  • 6B: Involves an ascent of at least 1,000 metres (3,300 feet) on a peak with a 4,500-metre (14,800-foot) traverse rated as UIAA V or more. The route takes at least 48 hours to complete and requires the insertion of more than 250 pitons. 6B is the toughest rating and is largely reserved for the highest and most difficult mountains, and the most challenging routes on lower peaks.

Mountaineering grade comparisons at a glance

UIAA GradeIFAS GradeRussian Grade
I/IIF/PD1B
IIPD2A
II/IIIPD+2B
IIIAD3A
III/IVAD+/D-3B
IVD4A
IV/VD+/TD-4B
VTD/ED5A
V/VITD+/ED5B
VIED/ED+6A
VIIED3 and up6B

Conclusion

When planning your next mountaineering expedition, it is always helpful to find the mountaineering grades of the route. This will help you make an informed decision about whether the route is right for you or whether it may be best to take on a different one. 

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While mountaineering grades give you a good general idea of the route length and difficulty, they are not an exact science. As a result, some routes may also include specific rock, ice and mixed climbing grades, which provide far more detailed information about the difficulty of single ascents, either on their own or within a longer mountaineering route. 

Part II of this post will discuss these rating systems in more detail along with how they compare to the UIAA system and each other.

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