What’s in a Grade?

I first met Benjamin Gorelick in the beginning of 2013, seated in a typically dishevelled Chilean restaurant located, of all places, inside a fire station. I was eagerly anticipating the commencement of Guide School 7 and had an assortment of burning questions, the first of which was whether or not I’d finally have to come to grips with the Imperial System. His laconic response was, I came to realise through subsequent familiarity, as characteristic as his clothing ensemble (orange fleece, blue jeans for those playing at home).

“No. The Imperial System is shit,” he had answered, or words to that effect.

This was a surprise to me, albeit a pleasant one. Ben was the first (and, to date, the last) American I’d ever known to denounce the Imperial System, much less supplant it entirely with the demonstrably superior Metric System. The fact that we have only two competing systems of measurement, yet have failed to apply just one of these globally speaks to the fact that the unification of climbing grades is little more than a pipe dream. Unlike the bipartisan nature of the Imperial/Metric debate, there are dozens of individual grading systems spanning several climbing disciplines, from mountaineering to bouldering and everything in between.

But what do climbing grades mean? Like any niche, the language of climbing is pure jargon and nonsense to the outsider. Take this route description (copied verbatim from thecrag.com) for example; “Bloody great! The crux holds seem to be vanishing, and it’s now a bloody punchy bit of steepness of miniscule sharp crimps. An enjoyable “adventure” where the runout start and initial slab are all part of the experience. I had to skip a bolt to score the flash, but it was worth it.” Climbers will understand this description without a second glance, but for those uninvolved with or new to the sport, it almost seems like a foreign language.

Climbing grades seek to compress the minutiae of variables within a route into a single alpha-numeric figure. Classically, grades have been defined by the hardest move contained on the route. Therefore, a short, one-move wonder with a single hard move could be graded the same as a long route with consistently hard moves. A more modern approach is to also take into account a variety of factors such as how sustained the technical difficulty is, exposure, length of the climb, rest positions and the quality and quantity of protection. That is to say that a climb may be graded somewhat harder than its hardest move by virtue of the fact that the climb is consistently difficult, which of course is more indicative of the route as a whole.

Where problems arise is with the subjectivity of climbing due to the gamut of skill and experience distributed amongst climbers. It’s a matter of one man’s trash being another’s treasure. For instance, I originally came from the Brute Force School of Climbing and was somewhat technically inept. With practice, I’ve improved a lot, though I’m still not particularly good at delicate, balancey climbing. Whilst in Brisbane, I’m consistently shown up by my climbing partner who is quite adroit at this style of climbing, while the adverse is true as soon as a route contains difficult mantling or laybacks. So depending on the type of climb and the techniques involved, either one of us might find a particular grade to be either a tad soft or fiendishly difficult. The grade for a new route is often malleable due to the fact that it has yet to be reviewed by a substantial cross-section of climbers. It falls to the more experienced amongst the community to appraise the climb, given their extensive familiarity with the relative difficulty levels of varying routes. That said, it’s still a matter of opinion and there is no consistent, definitive framework that governs these levels of difficulty (in rock climbing, at least). It’s more a matter of consensus and collaborative effort. The upshot of all this is that you could very well find your first 5.12a redpoint downgraded to an 11d… which would be most upsetting.

Another problem (and the one that irks me the most) is the reluctance to retrograde climbs. Depending on the local crag ethics, there is often a lot of sentimentality attached to the original grading of climbs, especially if the route is historical in nature. Some good examples are climbs first ascended before the YDS (more on this later) became open-ended and 5.9 was the hardest grade. A friend from California once told me about “the hardest 5.9 in the Bay”, a climb that feels much more like a modern 5.10. Similarly, the description for “Halva”, a sport route at my local crag, contains the following: “There’s no way it’s a 16 but no one is willing to upgrade this crag classic”. My question is, why the fuck not? It shouldn’t be up to a single climber to sand-bag (intentionally grade low) a route for their own personal gratification, especially when the consensus amongst the community agrees otherwise. Meanwhile “Vegemite”, just 6 routes down, was upgraded from a 17 to a 19 when a hold broke off. Clearly, there is some inconsistency here, and my opinion is to disperse with this bullshit notion of romantic attachment to a grade for “historical” purposes. What we are seeking, after all, is the most accurate, simple and definitive representation of difficulty possible.

How that aim might best be achieved is subject to debate and has resulted in several different grading systems across the globe. The slight variations between the systems sometimes result in inaccurate conversions from one system to another, though for the most part they can be compared on a fairly linear basis with the margin of error being plus or minus one grade. I’ll briefly touch on the main ones now, as well as include a chart to detail the complex interplay of the systems.

Rock:

The Yosemite Decimal System (or YDS, open-ended from 5.1 to 5.15c) has become the lingua franca for much of the climbing world, though the French (open-ended, 1 to 9b+) and the Ewbank (Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, 1 to 38) are also predominant.

As the name implies, the YDS was concocted for use specifically in Yosemite and surrounding regions, but soon spread to cover the Americas. It includes grades 1 to 5 to denote anything from walking trails to vertical terrain, but as rock climbers, we only care about the 5’s. As alluded to earlier, 5.9 was the hardest grade, though with the increase of skill and availability of better equipment, namely modern rock shoes, an open ended scale was implemented. After 5.9, letters are added to increase the grade (e.g 5.10a, 5.10b, 5.10c and 5.10d respectively, before proceeding to 5.11a). This format is similar to the French System, though only from a to c and with the addition of some + and – symbols.

My feeling is that this style is a little convoluted and outdated, but nevertheless it remains firmly entrenched and will likely continue to do so. The lowly Ewbank system is a simpler affair, a single numeric denominator which also increases in open-ended fashion.

Additionally, there are extra grades for other disciplines, such as Aid Climbing (climbing using pitons and hammers on otherwise unprotectable surfaces, A0 to A5) and Trad Climbing (climbing using non-damaging protection such as nuts and cams, based on the movie rating system and a little cutesy for my taste, G, PG, R, X). These denote ease of placement, the quantity of available locations and the relative security of protection placements.

Bouldering:

Owing to the more recent inception of bouldering as a sport in its own right, the bouldering grades have built on the successes of previous systems and it seems perfected from the outset. Most notable are the Hueco System (most of the world, V0 to V16) and the Fontainebleu (Europe, 1 to 8c+). Hueco has the advantage that it’s numbering is different from its rock counterpart, whereas Fontainebleu uses the same grades as French rock system, though they have different difficulties. This means it can be slightly confusing when the two are compared directly.

Ice/Mixed:

Now here’s where the powers-that-be truly got a grading system nailed down. Water Ice (WI 1 to WI 7) and Mixed Climbing (using ice tools on both ice and rock, M1 to M14) both have the boon of being differentiated by specific descriptions on what makes a certain climb fit a certain grade. For example, WI5 is described as “near-vertical or vertical steps of up to 20 metres, sustained climbing requiring placing multiple protection screws from strenuous stances with few good rests”. This leaves less room for ambiguity and a more effective, accurate grade.

Mountaineering:

Three main players here; the playfully titled International French Adjectival System (or IFAS, why they found the need for both “International” and “French” in the title is beyond me), the New Zealand system and Alaskan Grade.

All systems are closed, that is to say there is an upper limit of difficulty. Also, like the ice grades, these have specific conditions for each grade. IFAS, as its name implies, relies on the abbreviations of adjectives that describe the climb, such as AD (assez difficile or fairly difficult; Fairly hard, snow and ice at an angle of 45-65 degrees, rock climbing up to UIAA grade III, but not sustained, belayed climbing in addition to a large amount of exposed but easier terrain. Significant objective hazard.) New Zealand grades range from 1 to 7 and Alaska grades from 1 to 6, both systems allowing for a + or – on these numbers. I can’t help but think that the Alaskan grade is woefully outdated, as it takes into consideration the approach and remoteness of the climb, a factor which has been largely diminished in modern climbing with the ready availability of small aircraft.

So as you can see, there are some complex relationships going on here and it doesn’t look like we’ll reach a global agreement in the foreseeable future. I’d very much like to see the adoption of a single set of grades for each discipline, but I also want to be James Bond. In any case, for posterity’s sake, I’m going to once again outline my four point plan for world peace, so that in the event that it actually transpires, you’ll know it came from me first.

1) Ewbank grades for rock and European grades for alpine.
2) European sizing for shoes
3) Universal power points, preferably the US or UK model.
4) The fucking METRIC SYSTEM

Ahhhh, it always comes back to the Metric System, doesn’t it. And if you don’t agree with me, go walk 9 furlongs and 16 chains along a 1 mile pier.

Ryan Siacci, Esq.
Originally published in February 2015

Thoughts? Opinions? Cries of dissent?