Do you know why a something described as 'Very Difficult' is easier than something labelled 'E1'? Or why the grade E2 5a can elicit shudders whereas HVS 6a brings forth a rueful smile?!
In order to understand UK trad grades, it’s useful to also understand the concept of the French grading system (usually used for sport and indoor climbing). If you already feel confident in your knowledge of this system skip straight to the trad grading explanation a third of the way down this page.
Sport and Indoor
The French Grading system (the “French” often being omitted when speaking or writing) is used in the majority of UK roped climbing walls and at outdoor sport venues across Europe and is an indication solely of how hard a pitch is to climb.
Consider these grades as a ladder - the length/height, steepness, rung size/shape and rung spacing all have an impact on how hard it is to climb.
For example, an f3 (grades range from 3 to 9b+ at present) ladder might be on a gentle angle, with simple, obvious rungs that are not too far apart.
The same rungs and same spacing on a vertical or overhanging ladder would make the climb more difficult, resulting in a higher grade.
The grading system seeks to quantify each route - allowing the climber to make reasonable assumptions that “this route will be less/equally/more challenging than that route”.
What it cannot take into account is your personal strengths, weaknesses and style. If you’re a slab ninja, then you will naturally find a slabby route easier than a route of the same grade on overhanging terrain.
The French grading system also assumes that you already know all the important information, or “beta”, about a route - such as the best clipping positions, where the holds are, and any rest positions - it isn’t a higher grade just because you climbed it badly or missed a key hold!
Traditional “trad” Climbing
In sport or indoor climbing, your route will already be bolted, whereas traditional climbing requires you to place your own protection. Grading the latter therefore needs to take into account how hard it is to place that gear and how hard the moves are.
Trad grades are split into two parts.
“Letters” - the adjectival grade - how hard it is to protect.
“Numbers” - the technical grade - how hard it is to climb.
The adjectival (letter) grade tells us how serious a route is - the availability, quality and ease of placing protection will all impact on this. The more serious a route is (ie, the higher the likelihood or severity of an accident) the higher the grade.
The technical (number) grade works in the same way as the French Sport grade, simply codifying which climbs have moves of equivalent difficulty.
Though they may look similar, the UK trad and French grades do not align as they were developed at different times and in different places.
For grade comparisons, the Rockfax grade tables are a useful guide.
Each adjectival grade has a normal technical grade range associated with it.
V Diff *
Hard Severe 4b
Very Severe 4c
Hard Very Severe 5a
* Diff and V Diff tend not to get a technical grade (In some regions/guidebooks you may also find Severe without an accompanying technical grade) implying that the climbing is “easy” at all points, however you could expect to find less protection or more sustained sections of climbing on a V Diff than you would on a Diff (and the same again on a Severe without a technical grade).
The technical grade is the starting point of trad grading, but there is clearly a world of difference between climbing a hard move next to good gear and climbing completely unprotected yet easy moves.
Your personal style strengths, weaknesses and preferences don’t change the grade - but they may alter how you experience the route.
The hard truth often is that if it feels easy for the grade - it probably is. If it feels hard for the grade - it probably isn’t!
Trad grades were conceived back when people used to solo with a hemp rope tied around their waists - when the horrifying discomfort of falling onto a rope around your waist (rather than a comfy padded harness) was only temporary, as the ropes were liable to break anyway.
Back then, routes were described as Easy, Moderate or Difficult which posed a bit of a problem when routes harder than the existing 'difficult' routes started being climbed.
The addition of Very Difficult and Hard Very Difficult at the top end of the scale soon met with the same problem, and the grade of Severe was introduced.
The natural progression, therefore, was to add Hard Severe, Very Severe and Hard Very Severe, until people ran out of adjectives and finally settled with - Extremely Severe 1, Extremely Severe 2, Extremely Severe 3… and so on.
There was (and still is) much contention about the hardest routes at any given time, particularly since they are often only climbed by the few people that are physically capable of operating at such a high level. As standards improve and routes are repeated more and more frequently, grades tend to settle as a consensus is reached.
The highest grade in the UK to see several repeats is probably E9, although there are elite climbers out there with multiple E10 ascents in their logbooks, and harder routes do exist. The boundaries become very narrow at the top end as the climbing elite of our era approach the limits of their physical abilities. As standards develop it is clear that the physical and mental challenges of future climbs will continue to increase.
As if that weren't enough...
The grade Exceptionally Severe and Hard Exceptionally Severe (XS and Hard XS/HXS) also exists for routes that are so wild, rotten, collapsing or serious as to defy any classification within the above grading system - UKClimbing forum contributors describe the grades as...
“...description the first ascentionist gives a route that they feel unable to give a conventional grade to. They can be interpreted any way you wish.”
In response “...generally interpreted as "run away"”
And... “A sort of climbers’ version of "here be dragons".
A particular HXS route had the phrase “Descent from beyond here is at best extremely difficult, at worst terminally easy” in the guidebook description.
XS and HSX routes have the potential to be even more serious than free soloing - the death or injury of the entire party is likely if an accident were to occur.