Daniel Dawson
Oct 20, 2021

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

People have been grading the difficulty of rock climbing and mountaineering routes since the sport started to gain popularity in the mid-nineteenth century. 

While the previous post discussed mountaineering grades, how to read them and how separate systems compare, this one will discuss the free climbing grades.

Free climbing grades run the gamut. From rock climbing to aid climbing and water ice climbing, there are many different systems. 

Keep reading: A Beginner’s Guide to Mountaineering

While the UIAA, French Numerical System (FR) and Yosemite Decimal System are the most popular internationally, most countries have developed their own system to best rate and describe routes in their respective countries. 

Among these is the Brazilian, British adjectival and technical grades, the Cracow Scale (used for limestone climbs in Poland and Central Europe), Ewbank (used in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa), Saxon (used in Germany and Switzerland), Scandinavian and Scottish Winter System (used for ice and mixed climbing). 

Different grades are also used for certain types of ice climbing and mixed climbing routes, along with bouldering and aid climbing. 

Due to the specificity of some of the grading systems, it is difficult to make comparisons. However, the table below shows how the grades are similar to one another. 

UIAA Grades

For free rock 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 rock 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 intimate details about a route that other systems do.

As a result, these grades are used on longer routes, with more specific grades from other climbing systems being used to grade certain pitches or climbing features. 

Many other climbing systems are derived from UIAA grades.

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.

French Numerical System (FR)

Outside of the United States, the French Numerical System is the most widely used system to rate free climbing routes. 

The FR system rates climbs according to their overall technical difficulty and the physical difficulty of the route. The grades begin with 1 and are open-ended. 

After grade 5, routes can further be distinguished by adding the letters a, b or c. A “+” and “–” symbol further indicate the level of difficulty. For example, 7b+ is more challenging than 7b but easier than 7c. Currently, the toughest route in the world is graded as a 9c.

 In some locations, the letter F may precede one of the aforementioned grades to indicate that the grade is the French Numerical System. This is common for routes in the U.S. and U.K.

Yosemite Decimal System (YDS)

The Yosemite Decimal System is the dominant free climbing grading system in the U.S. and parts of Canada.

The Sierra Club initially developed the system in the 1930s to grade hikes and climbs in California’s Sierra Nevada. The rock climbing portion was added by the Los Angeles chapter of the club in the 1950s. 

A single YDS grade comprises three different aspects: the technical difficulty, length of route and protection rating.

The technical difficulty part of the rating consists of five grades denoted from 1 to 5. Grades 1 and 2 are used for hiking and trail running routes. Meanwhile, 3 and 4 are used to grade easy scrambles. 

Keep reading: Top 10 Mountaineering Destinations in the United States

Grade 5 is used for the vast majority of technical rock climbing and is an open-ended system. Originally, the scale was meant to run from 5.0 to 5.9, but as technology improved, more routes became accessible, further grades of 5.10, 5.11, etc., were added. 

For climbs rated as 5.10 or more, letter grades from a (easiest) to d (hardest) have been incorporated to differentiate tougher climbs further. 

Along with the technical difficulty, many YDS grades also indicate the length of the route using Roman numerals, with grades running from I to VI. Grades I to II indicate only a couple of pitches near a parking lot. Meanwhile, grades III to IV indicate a multi-pitch route with a hiking approach. Grades V and VI are reserved for multi-day climbs. 

A further protection rating is also tacked to the end of YDS grades, which is used to gauge the risk of the climb. Risk grades are based on the abundance or scarcity of permanent hardware to help climbers, along with the quality of the hardware and the rock.

YDS protection grades are indicated with a suffix borrowed from the U.S. film industry, running from PG to X. PG and PG13 indicate a low risk of severe physical harm when falling. R and X indicate a much higher risk of injury and possible death after a fall.   

Ice climbing grades

While most grading systems concentrate on free climbing over rocks, these are not adequate to describe the difficulty of climbing solely on ice. 

As a result, a separate system has been developed. There are two variations on ice climbing grades, with both a “water ice” grade, which approximately describes the difficulty on season icefalls and an “alpine ice” grade, which more precisely describes climbing on permanent ice. 

The WI grade is most commonly used due to the increasing rarity of year-round, permanent ice and spans from 1 to 7. 

  • WI1: Low angle ascent with no tools required to climb.
  • WI2: Moderate length climb with angles of up to 60º with possible bulges, but good protection.
  • WI3: Sustained climb with angles up to 70º and long, steep bulges. There are places to stop and plenty of places for screws.
  • WI4: Continuous climbing on 80º angles with sections as steep as 90º with fewer places to rest.
  • WI5: Long and strenuous climb with angles between 85º and 90º with few places to rest or sections of thin ice.
  • WI6: Long sections of ice at 90º with no rests and short pitches. These routes are highly technical.
  • WI7: Long sections of thin, poorly bonded ice with plenty of obstacles to overcome and long sections of 90º angles.

Mixed terrain grades

In terms of mountaineering and free climbing, mixed terrain comprises rock, snow, and ice sections – sometimes overlapping. 

As a result, a separate grading system is required to describe them. Mixed terrain is commonly found on longer alpine climbs and mountaineering ascents. The grades go from M1 to M16.

  • M1 to M3: Low angle terrain that requires no tools and little technical ability.
  • M4: Slabby to vertical terrain with some technical dry tooling.
  • M5: Some sustained vertical dry tooling.
  • M6: Vertical to overhanging terrain with technical dry tooling.
  • M7: Overhanging terrain with technical dry tooling limited to 10 metres (30 feet).
  • M8: Nearly horizontal overhangs with technical dry tooling.
  • M9: Continuously vertical or slightly overhanging terrain with some holds. May also feature a horizontal roof with plentiful tool placement up to three body lengths.
  • M10: At least 10 metres of horizontal rock or 30 metres of overhanging dry tooling with few rests.
  • M11: A ropelength of overhanging climbing requiring gymnastic moves or up to 15 metres of horizontal overhang.
  • M12-M16: Bouldery terrain requiring dynamic, tenuous and technical moves.

Free climbing grade comparisons at a glance 

UIAAFrench Numerical (FR)Yosemite Decimal (YDS)
I13 to 5.0
II25.1 to 5.2
III35.3
IV4a5.4
IV+/V–4b5.5
V4c5.6
V+5a5.7
VI–5b5.8
VI5c5.9
VI+6a5.10a
VII–6a+5.10b
VII6b5.10c
VII+6b+ to 6c5.10d to 5.11a
VIII–6c5.11b to 5.11c
VIII7a5.11d
VIII+7a+ to 7b5.12a to 5.12b
IX–7b+5.12c
IX7c5.12d
IX+7c+ to 8a5.13a to 5.13b
X–8a+5.13c
X8b5.13d
X+8b+ to 8c5.14a to 5.14b
XI–8c+5.14c
XI9a5.14d
XI+9a+ to 9b5.15a to 5.15b
XII–9b+5.15c
XII9c5.15d

Conclusion

Free climbing is a fun and rewarding activity but prepares plenty of planning. Before heading out on a free climb, be sure to check the grade of the climb to 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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