UK Rock Climbing Grades
The core of this text originally appeared on the Rocktalk climbing forum in October 2003. However I thought that it needed a more permament home and some elaboration. Some of the extra notes are based on text in Hard Rock  and Extreme Rock .
In the beginning there was the adjectival grade. The earliest reference I can find to grading routes is from O. G. Jones’ book Rock Climbing in the English Lake District , in which he prescribes four grades: “Easy”; “Moderate”; “Difficult” and “Exceptionally Severe”. These covered everything that could affect the grade of the route: technical difficulty; exposure; protection (or lack of it); quality of rock; etc. Through the early post WW2 years various new adjectival grades were added to extend the system: Hard Very Severe; Extremely Severe; Exceptionally Severe (resurrected from OG Jones). These grades were still all encompasing.
There were one or two attempts to introduce numerical systems but these never really became popular except on Southern Sandstone where top-roping from solid anchors was the norm so there was little need to account for lack of protection or other risks.
As an example, in his 1971 two volume selected guide Scottish Climbs , Hamish MacInnes used the UIAA system for rock climbs. This did not catch on.
The Crew-Wilson numeric system
In an article in the 1964 CC Journal, Pete Crew and Rodney (not Ken!) Wilson, proposed a numeric grading system for the technical difficulty of a climb without regard to any other factors. This was meant from the outset to complement the adjectival grade not replace its technical component.
Based on the system used for some years on the sandstone crags of South Eastern England, it used a numbering scheme beginning at 1 for the easiest climbs and extending to 6, each step was subdivided into three by the use of letters 1. ‘a’, ‘b’ & ‘c’. Thus the grade ran 1a, 1b, 1c, 2a, etc. The system was intended to be open ended so as new, more difficult climbs appeared then they would simply take on a value “off” the end of the scale and the scale would be extended.
The original scheme used on Southern Sandstone was introduced by Nea Morin in the 1930s from Fontainbleau [Citation needed] and was used by Ted Pyatt in his series of guides to South-East England.  (There is also areference to a 1947 edition of this guide) The grades differed from those in use today by only having ‘a’ & ‘b’ as the subdivisions for each number. The 4c grade was introduced in the 1981 Southern Sandstone
In 1947, 5b was the highest standard used. When the numerical
system was originally formulated it was taken as axiomatic that no climb on an
outcrop could be Grade 6. By 1956 even more difficult climbs were being done and
led and the need was felt for a further category to cover climbs of extreme
technical difficulty. Grade 5c was therefore introduced.
At the present time still more difficult climbs are being
done and the need has arisen for yet another category. Rather than use 5d, it was
felt that 6a would be more appropriate. Since the numerical grading system is
now dead in British mountains, the argument against Grade 6 on outcrops is
The last sentence implies that attempts were made to use the Southern Sandstone system in mountains at an early stage. I do not know if any guidebook from the time used such a system, or there were private guidebooks circulating promoting it. It may also have been a goal of Pyatt’s to extend the system countrywide.
One problem with the technical grade in its existing incarnation is due to the compression of difficulty once you reach 6a and beyond. Just 6b on its own is as wide as the whole of the 5th grade! The Lakes New Climbs 1981/1982  booklet contains a list of The Lakes “ Technical” Top 50 with the selected routes being divided into four groups. All are given technical 6b or 6c. Maybe if the groups had 6b, 6c, 7a & 7b as their technical grades more would have been encouraged to extend the system rather than continue to cram harder routes into the existing categories.
An Interim Solution
In 1973 Colin Read, one of the main Lakeland climbers of the time wrote in Mountain magazine:
What I would like to see in the next series (of guidebooks) is some serious thought
given to the overloaded Extreme grade. One solution would be to abolish the Easy
or Moderate grades and shift all the routes down a notch. A more feasible solution
would be to break up the Extreme grade into three distinct sections. There are scores
of glaring examples of the great disparity in the limits of the Extreme grade; this
would surely be a good time to consider some reform. In the table below I have listed
a few examples of proposed Mild, Standard and Hard Extremes from various Lakeland
areas for consideration.
I have listed a few of the routes used as examples by Colin...
- Holy Ghost HXS (now E2)
- Hell’s Groove MXS (now E1)
- Phoenix XS (now E1)
- Ichabod XS (now E2)
- Leverage MXS (now E1)
- Red Edge MXS (now E1)
- Central Pillar XS (now E2)
This three tier system (which was after all simply extending the Easy-Hard prefixes into the Extreme grade) was quickly adopted. It sufficed for only a few years.
Pushing the Limits
During the 1970s as a more athletic and fitter climber emerged on the scene, it became apparent that further extension to the grading system was needed: the Extreme grade was becoming too broad. Note that Exceptionally Severe never really caught on. With Pete Livesey’s ascents of Footless Crow in the Lake District and Right Wall in North Wales the pressure on the Extreme grade became too much: both Cenotaph Corner and Right Wall were given the same grade!
There had been one notable attempt to break the deadlock - Ed Drummond in his privately published 1967 guide to Avon Gorge  introduced a multi-numerical system that had a numerical grade similar to, but slightly different from, the Crew–Wilson numerical grade, (it went 4a, 4b, 5a, 5b, 6a, 6b as opposed to 4a, 4b, 4c, 5a, 5b, 5c etc) but for the adjectival part, replaced it with four numbers representing:
- The number of hard moves.
- Quality of rock.
- Style of climbing.
In that specific order. Within each category, zero equated to “good” and three to “bad”.
It didn’t catch on.
The answer came in 1976 from a Carlisle climber, Pete Botterill, who proposed that the then current Extreme grade be subdivided into five numbered grades: Extremely Severe 1; etc. The current state of the art was to be given Extremely Severe 5. The novel part of Pete’s system was that future, harder, climbs would simply increment the number part, but still be “Extreme” climbs. So the next grade would be Extremely Severe 6. Very quickly, the grades contracted to E1, E2, and so on. Cenotaph Corner thus became graded E1; Right Wall, E5.
The “new” grading system for the upper levels was still all encompassing, i.e. it included technical difficulty, boldness, and all the other factors, it was just an extension. What was also gaining acceptance around the same time was the practice of giving the technical difficulties of the hardest move for each pitch its own grade. This technical grade was of course was the Crew–Wilson numeric system. And it was not long before climbers realised that particular overall grades tended to have the same technical grade. So an E1 would typically be 5b technically, E2 == 5c and so on, both up and down the grades. This link then began to self perpetuate as the dual system took hold so a new E1 would be given a technical grade of 5b, thus reinforcing the link.
Note that the grade was, and is, still: VS, HVS, E1, .... So to grade a route E2 5c is wrong: the route is graded E2 and it has a technical difficulty of 5c.
Also, E is not short for “Exposed”, “Effort”, “ Extermination”, “Excitement” or “Exacting” but for “Extreme”.
In fact there was a lot of retro-fitting of technical grades to existing routes and during this process it was noticed that some routes of the same overall grade had somewhat different technical grades.
Take two popular HVSs on Pavey Ark in Langdale: Arcturus and Golden Slipper. The former has one particularly hard section on smooth rock past a peg - this is much harder than the rest of the route and indeed harder than most HVS routes would expect to contain. It gets a 5b technical grade. Conversely the climbing on Golden Slipper is more continuous but somewhat easier than on most HVSs so it has a technical grade of 4c. In addition, the protection is a little sparse, further justifying the HVS overall grade.
Also on Pavey are two great Extremes: Aardvark and Astra, both with 5c technical cruxes, yet the first is E1, the latter E2. The cruxes on both are well protected, indeed on Aardvark almost excessively so, so why the difference in grades? In this case it is to do with the rest of the pitch: that on Astra is sustained, delicate and bold and not much easier in places than the crux. Whereas on Aardvark the climbing is delicate but is nowhere near as hard as the crux. So in these cases the overall grade takes account of climbing other than at the crux.
A final Pavey Ark example: Brackenclock. This demonstrates how a pitch grade is separate from the grade of the route. There are two main pitches on this fine E2, a technical slab given 5c and a wall given 5b. The slab is well protected with wires at your shoulder when doing the hard climbing. If it were a route all of its own, it would be E1. The wall on the following pitch is a different matter, protection is devious and not easy to find, and as a route in its own right would be E2. So one route with two pitches an E1 -technical 5c pitch; and an E2 - technical 5b pitch. Thus the hardest level in each part of the grade refer to different parts of the route.
The “new” two part grading system took some time to appear in guidebooks: From amongst the guides that I own the FRCC was the first in 1979 with Buttermere and Eastern Crags . The SMC were next with the 1980 Glencoe and Glen Etive guide . The CC took until 1982 with the Ogwen guide  to get in on the act. This is not dilitoriness on the part of the major guidebook producers, but more symptomatic of the time and effort it took at that time to get a guide into print as this was some time before personal computers were widespread.
The Foreign Influence
Around the same time this happened, people like Pete Livesey and Ron Fawcett began making rock climbing (as opposed to alpine) trips to France where another grading system was beginning to emerge, what is now known as the French or Sports grade. This simply states the difficulty of climbing from the start of the pitch to the top excluding all other factors. Whether a pitch is strenuous, sustained or technical is simply absorbed into the single grade. This of course is made possible by the acceptance of virtually all routes having regular fixed gear, originally a mixture of pegs, threads and bolts but now usually just bolts. Interestingly, at that time the French had a dual grading system not dissimilar to that used in the UK. The 1981 guide Escalades à Buoux  uses an overall adjectival grade in the text with technical grades marked on the topos.
Pete Livesey made the connection of subtracting 2 from the French grade to get the UK technical grade so F6a == 5b. This was fine for the grades at the time where F7a or so was the maximum and 6b was the hardest given UK technical grade. Once above these levels however the 2 grades difference begins to fall down: F8a is not UK 7b technical.
However if Livesey had made the link between the French grade and the overall UK grade it would have made more sense. If we accept that routes with a technical grade of 5b with reasonable or good gear are usually E1 in overall standard; and ignore the +/- of the French system; we have:
- E1 == 6a
- E2 == 6b
- E3 == 6c
- E4 == 7a
- E5 == 7b
- E6 == 7c
- E7 == 8a
- E8 == 8b
- E9 == 8c
- E10 == 9a
Which overall seems to fit much better (at least to me) as E7 has often been stated as being equivalent to 8a and both 9a and E10 are at the cutting edge of what is currently being achieved in bolt protected and naturally protected routes respectfully.
Note that since originally writing this piece, it has been brought to my attention that there was an alternative view of how the UK technical grade should be used. This said that if a 6b move came at the end of a series of 6a moves then it could well feel like 6c or 7a. It is likely that this view of the technical grade was what Livesey was comparing with the French grade as it does make more sense. At this time Ron Fawcett was putting up new routes with technical grades such as 6c that are now felt to be plain 6a so there was obviously some testing of the waters going on as to which meaning was to be ascribed to the technical grade. Some, like Mark Edwards in the South West, have continued to grade routes in this manner. Again, these routes have seen their technical grades dropped on subsequent ascents.
So, what does a grade like E2 (6a) mean? Well it is an E2 that is technically harder than the average though by the above definition that means that something else covered by the grade has to be “easier”, usually the gear is better or the difficulties are short lived. The converse is also true: an E2 (5b) may be sustained or bolder than normal. These may equate to F6b+ and F6a+ respectfully though the lack of gear on the latter would be unnerving to someone used to bolts. Whether an E2 (5b) is sustained or bold may really only be determined by extra information: either text in the guidebook or looking at it from the ground.
There have been attempts to extend or modify the system. In his 1983 guide to Clwyd Limestone , Stuart Cathcart used two dual systems: the now standard adjectival/numerical grades for the “high” (bigger than 50ft) crags. On the “low” crags he used the standard system up to HVS, but for the Extreme grade he used the numerical technical grade along with a simple 1, 2, 3, etc. to indicate the protectability of the route and nothing else. This did not catch on elsewhere and no other guide has, to my knowledge, used it even though it is quite sensible in differentiating between big routes and those that are basically gritstone edge type routes.
The Yorkshire Mountaineering club for the 1989 edition of their Yorkshire Gristone  guide introduced the P or “prang” grade. This indicated, in the words of the guide, the “snuff potential” of the particular route. Again this hasn’t really caught on, though its use has continued in the current edition of the guide.
The interplay between the two parts of the UK grade is rich and provides a lot of information to those looking at it. One of those few instances where 2 + 2 does equal 5. It is obviously good enough for the French to adopt it in the alpine arena with the “Extremement Difficile” grade now subdivided into ED1, ED2, etc. and combined with technical grades for pitches.
The dual grading system is in use from multi-pitch Scottish mountain crags to routes that are little more than boulder problems and it is probably fair to say that, at the smaller end of the scale and especially at the higher grades, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. How can you compare something like Breathless on Tophet wall where you can fall three times the total height of a route like Equilibrium at Burbage? Yet they are both given the same grade! I'm equally sure that a fall from either of them is not something to consider lightly. The concept of a “highball” boulder problem as opposed to a short route is relatively new to the UK and it may well be that a new grading system will emerge to sit between the bouldering and the route grading systems.
There are holes in the system but whether a route/pitch is bold or sustained is usually obvious when looking at it in the flesh and with some experience of using it, it is rarely too far out. There are regional variations of course: Lakes routes are often bold for their grade; Welsh ones less so but more technical.
One point that appears time and again in the history of grading systems is that given the introduction of any open-ended grading methodology, some will assume that the new system is itself fixed and simply redistribute the existing routes across the new set of categories.
- Hard Rock by Ken Wilson (1981 2nd Edition) Granada Publishing, ISBN-0-246-11192-5
- Extreme Rock by Bernard Newman (1987) Diadem Books, ISBN-0-906371-36-8
- Rock Climbing in the English Lake District by O. G. Jones (1900) EJ Morten, ISBN-0-09-159899-2 (refers to 1978 reprint)
- Scottish Climbs by Hamish MacInnes (1971) Constable, ISBN-0-09-463450-5 (refers to second edition in one volume)
- South-East England by E.C.Pyatt (1956, revised 1963) Climbers’ Club
- Southern Sandstone by Tim Daniells (1981) Climbers’ Club ISBN-0-901601-17-9
- Lakes New Climbs 1981/1982 by Dave Armstrong & Pete Whillance (1982)
- Avon Gorge by Ed Ward Drummond (1976)
- Buttermere and Eastern Crags by E. Grindley & G. Higginson (1979) Fell & Rock Climbing Club, ISBN-0-85028-021-4
- Glencoe and Glen Etive by Ken Krocket (1980) Scottish Mountaineering Trust, ISBN-0-906227-07-0
- Ogwen by Zdzislaw (Tom) Leppert (1982) Climbers’ Club, ISBN-0-901-601-19-5
- Escalades à Buoux by D. Gorgeon et al. (1981) Edisud, ISBN-2-85744-093-6
- Clwyd Limestone by Stuart Cathcart Cicerone Press, ISBN-0-902-363-48-4
- Yorkshire Gritstone Edited by Graham Desroy Yorkshire Mountaineering Club, ISBN-0-9515267-0-7
Credits and Acknowledgements
- Thanks to Gordon Stainforth for information regarding the introduction of numerical grades to Southern Sandstone.