LogoSouth Tyrol - The other side of Italy

Difficulty scales for climbing

Depending on the country and region, climbing routes are rated according to different difficulty scales. In the Alpine region, the UIAA and French scales are the most common ones. Many countries of the world, though, use the American YDS (Yosemite Decimal System).

Unfortunately, the various rating systems cannot be directly converted and translated. This has to do with the fact that rating systems can have different ranges per degree and are not linear. The following table of our partner theCrag lists all the worldwide rating scales. On our platform, it is possible to rate alpine climbing routes either with the UIAA or the French scale. For our international community, however, other rating scales will gradually be integrated.

TheCrag offers a free converter tool, with which you can easily convert foreign difficulty levels into your desired scale system.
Additionally, you can gain a great overview of the worldwide distribution of difficulty scales by continent on theCrag at the very bottom of the following page.

In the following section, we will introduce you to some scales that are important for the disciplines of sport and alpine climbing and used in different parts of the world.

  • UIAA scale
  • French scale
  • Saxon Switzerland (Elbe Sandstone) Scale
  • British Scale
  • YDS Scale
  • Ewbanks Scale
  • Seriousness rating scale/E-Scale (not part of the table, but important for alpine climbing in the Alpine region)
  • Technical scale (second technical scale for the other rating scales)

UIAA Scale of Difficulty

This scale is used mainly in the Alpine regions and in parts of Europe. It is also commonly used in climbing gyms. The individual difficulty levels are represented by Roman or Arabic numerals. In addition, they are upgraded by a plus (+) and downgraded by a minus (-). Thus, each digit receives a total of three degrees of difficulty. A VI+ (6+) is thus more difficult than a VI- (6-). The VI without plus or minus is in between. There are also intermediate steps such as VI+/VII- (6+/7-). This is then a heavy VI+ (6+) to light VII- (7-). The scale starts with I and ends at XII (12). Grades I-II (1-2) are mostly still more walking terrain than real climbing and usually do not require using your hands.

Lisi Steurer in the route “Without smoke you die too” (8a) Große Zinne, Dolomites, Italy
Photo: Lisi Steurer, CC BY-SA, Wikimedia Commons

French Scale

The French scale is used mainly in France and within international sport climbing. It is represented with Arabic numbers. Like the UIAA scale, it starts with difficulty levels from 1 to 4. From 5 onwards, each number is given more intermediate steps by the addition of the letters a, b and c. In addition, each number-letter combination can still be upgraded by a plus (+). A devaluation by a minus (-) is not possible with the French scale. This results in significantly more intermediate steps than with the UIAA scale. Example: A 6a route is easier than a 6b route. A 6a+ is a little harder than a straight 6a. Thus, difficulty level 6 contains a total of six difficulty levels (6a, 6a+, 6b, 6b+, 6c, 6c+). There are, therefore, significantly more intermediate steps than in the UIAA scale. The highest French difficulty level is currently 9c (UIAA XII).

Saxon Switzerland (Elbe Sandstone) scale

The Saxon Switzerland scale is only used in Eastern Germany and the Czech Republic, as this scale was developed in the Elbe Sandstone Mountains. In this region, they have a strict climbing ethic that prohibits modern metal protection gear such as pitons, nuts, friends, etc. Knotted slings and ropes with single rings are used to protect the soft sandstone. Magnesium is also prohibited. The scale is also provided in Roman numerals and is strongly based on the UIAA scale. Starting with grades I to VI, a number-letter combination (VIIa, VIIb, VIIc, VIIIa, etc) is used to indicate intermediate steps, as in the French scale. There is no up- or downgrading with a plus or minus. The highest Saxon difficulty level is currently XIIc.

British Scale

The British scale is mainly used in England, Ireland and Kenya. It was developed by O.G. Jones at the beginning of the 20th century and has been refined, upgraded  and supplemented ever since its origin. It consists of two categories, Technical Grade and Adjectival Grade. Both refer to traditional climbing. Here, climbing is done exclusively with trad gear. Sport climbing routes are rated using the French scale.

 

TECHNICAL GRADE

The technical scale refers purely to the technical requirements of a route. A route is rated according to the most difficult move, the so-called crux. Originally, the scale is derived from the Fontainebleau scale (bouldering). It is represented in Arabic numbers, which are also potentially extended by the letters a, b, c as intermediate steps.

 

ADJECTIVAL GRADE

With the Adjectival Grade, a route is evaluated according to its overall demand. Criteria such as protection, exposure, rock composition and endurance are taken into account. Classically, it is assumed that the climber climbs the route onsight. That is, he has never climbed the route before, has not observed anyone else attempting it, and has not received any prior information. In the high difficulty grades, routes from E6 on are usually climbed redpoint. However, pre-placed gear is a 'no-go'. The scale starts with M (‘moderate’), increases to HVS (‘very severe, hard’) and then counts up from E1, E2, E3, E4, etc. to E11. For multi-pitch routes, it is common to give the route a general Adjectival Grade and to rate the individual pitches technically.

M: moderate

D: difficult

VD: very difficult

MS: severe, mild

S: severe

HS: severe, hard

MVS: very severe, mild

VS: very severe

HVS: very severe, hard

E1

E2

...

E11

 

Dave Mac Leod climbed ‘Rapsody’ (Technical Grade: 7a, Adjectival Grade: E11) in 2006, the most difficult route to date. There is a risk of a 20 m fall onto a narrow ledge.

First female E9 ascent

Super Sketchy E9 On UK Sea Cliff - Hazel Findlay
Video: REEL ROCK

YDS Scale

Especially in the USA, but also in large parts of the world, the YDS scale (YDS = Yosemite Decimal System) is used. The difficulty grades 1-4 refer to increasingly difficult walking terrain. From grade 5.0 the scrambling terrain starts. This is where the real climbing scale begins. Then it is counted up from 5.0 to 5.15. Also in the YDS scale, the intermediate steps for each degree of difficulty are indicated with a number-letter combination. Here, it is subdivided in ascending order with a, b, c, d (e.g., 5.4a, 5.4b, 5.4c, 5.4d). The highest level of difficulty is currently 5.15d. Often the five in front is left out (15d).

To the individual degrees of difficulty, there is an addition, similar to the Adjectival Grades of the British scale, which is designed to provide information about the safety of the route. It is classified from G to X in ascending order:

G (= good): good, solid protection

PG (= pretty good): fairly good, some sections with sparse or no protection

PG13 (= pretty good 13): sufficient protection available; falls can be deep but the risk of injury is low

(= runout): protection is patchy, major runouts, a fall may cause an injury

R/X (= runout/extreme): a fall may cause serious injury or even death

X (= extreme): no protection, extremely dangerous, serious injury or even death can result

Ewbanks Scale

The Australian scale is used in Australia, New Zealand and the island nation of Tonga. It is easy to understand because you simply count up in whole numbers from 1 to 35. The actual climbing scale starts from grade 11, as per the definition only then the real climbing with hands and feet begins. The hardest route in Australia is a 35, which is equivalent to a UIAA XII or French 9a. It is called 'The Red Project' and was climbed in 2013 by Alex Megos (GER) Red Point.

South Australia, Morialta, Thorn Buttress
Photo: Stefanos Nikologianis, CC BY, www.flickr.com

E-Scale by Markus Stadler

In the Alpine region, alpine climbing routes often include, in addition to the degree of difficulty, the seriousness rating scale (German: Ernsthaftigkeit) that Markus Stadler designed for his climbing guide for the Wilder Kaiser area. This, similarly to the Adjectival Grade of the British scale or the Addition to Safety of the YDS scale, is intended to reflect the seriousness of a route in terms of belay level, risk of injury, and psychological demands. A very well protected route in the sixth or seventh grade in an easily accessible and well-protected climbing area can be climbed well by inexperienced alpine climbers, while a route of this difficulty in a secluded north face with moderate protection immediately places quite different demands on the climber. The E-scale is, therefore, listed in addition to the indicated difficulty. It is graded from E1 ascending to E6 and evaluated according to the following criteria. As with the difficulty grades, it is also possible to add a plus (upper limit) or a minus (lower limit) to the E-scale in order to achieve a finer gradation.

 

Criteria/Abbreviations:

S = How well must the climber know how to use the variety of climbing protection?

R = How high is the risk of an accident or injury (especially if they have overestimated their fitness or technical ability)?

P = What demands are made on the psyche or mental abilities of the climber?

 

E1: Bolted, sport-climbing level protected route with small bolt spacing (no runouts).
S: sport climbing level, no additional protection required
R: very low, hardly any objective dangers or falls with serious injuries possible
P: very low

 

E2: Above average well protected route, good material available, only a little additional protection necessary, partly larger bolt spacing
S: basics of trad gear
R: low, falls with serious injuries unlikely, but possible in some places
P: low

 

E3: averagely protected route, additional protection is necessary but still relatively easy
S: average ability to place trad gear
R: dangerous falls possible, possibly objectively not completely safe
P: medium

 

E4: alpine, poorly protected route, protection must be placed by the climber, including some difficult placements, available material often of poor quality
S: safe handling of trad gear
R: serious risk of injury in case of falls and/or objectively dangerous
P: medium-high

 

E5: difficultly protectable route, some sections cannot be protected at all or with difficulties, long runouts have to be mastered
S: safe use of trad gear
R:  possible falls with serious injuries in the difficult sections
P: high

 

E6: very serious route, where longer sections cannot be protected even in difficult pitches, potential falls will have fatal consequences
S: perfect use of all kinds of trad gear, even uncommon ones
R: dangerous route with a very high risk of accident
P: very high

Aid Climbing Ratings

Unlike free climbing, in aid climbing, you try to climb a route using all the means at your disposal. Bolts or pitons, trad gear, aid climbing gear or aiders are used to make progress. In a route with grade A0, climbing freely is common, but individual bolts are used for grabbing or stepping. In routes graded A5, on the other hand, only artificial progression points are used. However, these are mostly of very poor quality and can only hold the weight of the climber. If one point fails, the entire progression chain is likely to break out. The fall is only stopped at the anchor. Deep falls are the result, which can cause serious injuries.

The aid climbing scale breaks down as follows:

A0 = a fixed point is used for progression (to step or pull on it).

A1= one foot loop is hooked in and used

A2 = two foot loops or aiders are used to move forward

A3 = two aiders - but the pieces or placements are of poor quality

A4 = like A3 in more difficult conditions (pieces are poorly placed) and overcoming the climbing section require strength and endurance

A5 = The movement takes place exclusively or almost entirely exclusively on aid climbing gear, the quality of which, moreover, is usually so poor that a fall is held only by the anchor.

Grade A6 does exist, but it is incredibly dangerous and we are therefore not including it within our guide.

The world's most difficult (sport) climbing route

The most difficult climbing route to date was climbed by Adam Ondra in 2017. The route 'Silence' in the climbing area Flatanger (Norway) was rated by him with 9c (YDS: 5.15d, UIAA: XII) and is thus the first 9c ever. To date, the route has not been succesfully repeated, which is why the grade has not yet been confirmed by other climbers. In the same year, Angy Eiter became the first woman to climb a 9b. The route ‘La Planta de Shiva’ is located in the climbing area Villanueva del Rosario (Andalusia).
Silence
Video: Adam Ondra

RECOMMENDED READING