Traditional Climbing Grades Explained

Traditional Climbing Grades Explained

Are you new to the world of traditional climbing and feeling overwhelmed by all the different grades and ratings? This article will break down the traditional climbing grading system and help you understand what each grade means. Whether you’re a beginner looking to improve your skills or a seasoned climber wanting to brush up on your knowledge, this guide will provide you with the information you need to conquer any climb.

Understanding Traditional Climbing Grades

When it comes to traditional climbing, understanding the grading systems is crucial for climbers to accurately assess the difficulty of a route. There are several grading systems used around the world, with the most common ones being the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS), British Adjectival System (Brit), and International French Adjectival System (IFAS).

Yosemite Decimal System (YDS)

The YDS is the most widely used grading system in the United States and is based on a decimal system. The grades start at 5.0 for the easiest climbs and go all the way up to 5.15 for the most difficult climbs. The YDS also includes a letter grade to indicate the level of danger or commitment involved in the climb, with grades ranging from Class 1 (walking) to Class 5 (technical climbing).

British Adjectival System (Brit)

The Brit system is commonly used in the United Kingdom and is based on a combination of adjectives and numbers to describe the difficulty of a climb. The grades start at Moderate (M) for easy climbs and progress to Very Severe (VS), Hard Very Severe (HVS), and Extremely Severe (E) for more challenging climbs. The Brit system also takes into account the quality of protection available on the route.

International French Adjectival System (IFAS)

The IFAS is widely used in France and other European countries and is based on a combination of adjectives and numbers similar to the Brit system. The grades start at F for Facile (easy) and progress to TD for Très Difficile (very difficult), ED for Extrêmement Difficile (extremely difficult), and ABO for Abominable (unclimbable). The IFAS also considers the overall seriousness and commitment required for a climb.

Understanding these traditional climbing grading systems is essential for climbers to accurately assess the difficulty and risks associated with different routes. By familiarizing themselves with these systems, climbers can make informed decisions and stay safe while enjoying the thrill of traditional climbing.

Yosemite Decimal System (YDS)

History and Origin

The Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) is a grading system used to rate the difficulty of rock climbing routes. It was developed in the 1950s by members of the Sierra Club in Yosemite National Park. The system originally only included classes 1-5, with 5 being the most difficult. Over time, decimal points were added to further differentiate between route difficulties.

Grade Categories

The YDS is divided into five classes: Class 1 being walking on a flat surface, Class 2 requiring the use of hands for balance, Class 3 involving scrambling with the potential for a fall, Class 4 requiring technical climbing skills, and Class 5 being vertical or near-vertical climbing. Within Class 5, routes are further broken down into decimal ratings from 5.0 (easiest) to 5.15 (most difficult).

Comparison to Sport Climbing Grades

While the YDS is commonly used for traditional climbing, sport climbing often utilizes a different grading system known as the French grading system. The YDS tends to focus more on the overall difficulty and danger of a route, taking into account factors such as route finding, protection, and overall commitment. In contrast, the French grading system places more emphasis on the physical difficulty of the climbing moves themselves. Despite these differences, both grading systems serve as valuable tools for climbers to assess and communicate the challenges of a given route.

British Adjectival System (Brit)

History and Development

The British Adjectival System, also known as the Brit system, is a traditional climbing grading system used primarily in the United Kingdom and Ireland. It was first introduced in the early 20th century and has since become widely adopted in these regions. The system is based on a combination of factors including the overall difficulty of the climb, the level of protection available, and the overall seriousness of the route.

Grade Descriptions

In the Brit system, climbs are graded using a combination of letters and numbers. The letters denote the overall difficulty of the climb, ranging from ‘M’ (Moderate) for easier climbs to ‘E’ (Extremely Severe) for the most challenging routes. The numbers provide further detail within each grade, with higher numbers indicating greater difficulty.

For example, a climb graded as ‘VS 5a’ would be considered Very Severe with a technical grade of 5a, while a climb graded as ‘HVS 4c’ would be considered Hard Very Severe with a technical grade of 4c. Climbers should be familiar with the system and have a good understanding of their own abilities before attempting climbs graded in the Brit system.

Regional Variations

While the British Adjectival System is primarily used in the UK and Ireland, variations of the system can be found in other countries around the world. These regional variations may use different letters or numbers to denote the difficulty of climbs, but the overall principles of the system remain the same. Climbers should be aware of these variations when traveling and climbing in different regions to ensure they understand the grading system used.

International French Adjectival System (IFAS)

Origin and Usage

The International French Adjectival System (IFAS) is a grading system used primarily in Europe for traditional climbing routes. It was developed in France in the mid-20th century and has since been adopted by many countries across Europe. The IFAS grading system is based on the overall difficulty and seriousness of a climb, taking into account factors such as the technical difficulty of the moves, the exposure of the route, and the quality of the protection available.

Grade Components

IFAS grades are typically represented by a combination of a Roman numeral and an uppercase letter. The Roman numeral indicates the overall difficulty of the climb, with higher numbers representing harder climbs. The uppercase letter indicates the seriousness of the climb, with grades ranging from "a" (easiest) to "e" (most serious). For example, a climb rated as 5a would be relatively easy with good protection, while a climb rated as 6e would be extremely difficult and dangerous.

Comparison to YDS and Brit.

The IFAS grading system is often compared to the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) used in the United States and the British grading system used in the UK. While all three systems aim to provide climbers with a consistent way to assess the difficulty of climbs, there are some key differences. The YDS focuses more on technical difficulty and tends to be more linear in its grading, while the IFAS takes into account both technical difficulty and the overall seriousness of the climb. The British system also considers factors such as route finding and environmental conditions in its grading. Climbers who are familiar with one system may find it challenging to transition to another, but understanding multiple grading systems can help climbers broaden their climbing horizons and tackle new challenges.


In conclusion, understanding traditional climbing grades is essential for any climber looking to tackle outdoor routes. By familiarizing yourself with the various grading systems and their nuances, you can better prepare yourself for the challenges that lie ahead. Whether you’re just starting out or a seasoned veteran, knowing how to interpret and navigate climbing grades will enhance your overall climbing experience and help you push your limits in a safe and sustainable manner. So next time you’re gearing up for a traditional climb, take the time to study the grades and make sure you’re ready for the adventure that awaits.