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Climbing ratings

Climbing Rating Systems

From an Aconcagua climb­ing expe­di­tion to the big wall route Zodi­ac on Yosemite’s El Cap­i­tan, and every­thing in-between, there is a wide range of ways to mea­sure the dif­fi­cul­ty of a climb. Below you’ll find a com­pre­hen­sive expla­na­tion of the dif­fer­ent climb­ing rat­ing systems.

The devel­op­ment of rat­ing sys­tems for climb­ing began in the late nine­teenth and ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­turies in Britain and Ger­many. Rat­ings used inter­na­tion­al­ly today include no less than sev­en sys­tems for rock, four for alpine climb­ing, four for ice, and two for aid climb­ing. A rat­ing sys­tem is a tool that helps a climber choose a climb that is chal­leng­ing and with­in his or her abil­i­ty. Rat­ing climbs is a sub­jec­tive task, which makes con­sis­ten­cy between climb­ing areas elu­sive. Of course, eval­u­a­tion of a rat­ing sys­tem is no more pre­cise than the rat­ing sys­tem itself.

The most rel­e­vant sys­tems for climbs in North Amer­i­ca are the Yosemite Dec­i­mal Sys­tem (YDS) and the Nation­al Climb­ing Clas­si­fi­ca­tion Sys­tem (NCCS). In a nut­shell, the YDS cat­e­go­rizes ter­rain accord­ing to the tech­niques and phys­i­cal dif­fi­cul­ties encoun­tered when rock climb­ing.” The NCCS describes the over­all nature of a climb in terms of time and tech­ni­cal dif­fi­cul­ty tak­ing the fol­low­ing into account: length of climb, num­ber of hard pitch­es, dif­fi­cul­ty of hard­est pitch, aver­age dif­fi­cul­ty, com­mit­ment, route find­ing prob­lems, and over­all ascent time. It is often call the com­mit­ment grade.” It is notable that the approach and remote­ness of a climb might not affect the grade. This is espe­cial­ly rel­e­vant to the North Cas­cades which are known for their chal­leng­ing and rig­or­ous approach­es so much so that local guide­book authors have devised their own approach ratings.

Source: Moun­taineer­ing: The Free­dom of the Hills by the Mountaineers,

Rat­ing descrip­tions tak­en from Amer­i­can Alpine Jour­nal 1999 and oth­er sources

Nation­al Climb­ing Clas­si­fi­ca­tion Sys­tem (USA):

NCCS grades are often called the Com­mit­ment Grade”; they pri­mar­i­ly indi­cate the time invest­ment in a route for an aver­age” climb­ing team.
Grade I: Less than half a day for the tech­ni­cal por­tion.
Grade II: Half a day for the tech­ni­cal por­tion.
Grade III: Most of a day for the tech­ni­cal por­tion.
Grade IV: A full day of tech­ni­cal climb­ing, gen­er­al­ly at least 5.7.
Grade V: Typ­i­cal­ly requires an overnight on the route.
Grade VI: Two or more days of hard tech­ni­cal climb­ing.
Grade VII: Remote big walls climbed in alpine style.

Yosemite Dec­i­mal Sys­tem (YDS)

This is the most wide­ly used rat­ing in the U.S. and its equiv­a­lents can be seen below in the chart. Moun­tain Mad­ness uses this sys­tem for defin­ing the rock climb­ing dif­fi­cul­ty of trips.

Class 1: Hik­ing. Exam­ple: Kil­i­man­jaro

Class 2: Sim­ple scram­bling, with the pos­si­ble occa­sion­al use of the hands. Exam­ple: Ruth Moun­tain

Class 3: Scram­bling; a rope might be car­ried. Exam­ple: Sahale Peak

Class 4: Sim­ple climb­ing, often with expo­sure. A rope is often used. A fall on Class 4 rock could be fatal. Typ­i­cal­ly, nat­ur­al pro­tec­tion can be eas­i­ly found. Exam­ple: Sum­mit Pyra­mid on Mount Shuk­san

Class 5: Where rock climb­ing begins in earnest. Climb­ing involves the use of a rope, belay­ing, and pro­tec­tion (nat­ur­al or arti­fi­cial) to pro­tect the leader from a long fall. Fifth class is fur­ther defined by a dec­i­mal and let­ter sys­tem – in increas­ing and dif­fi­cul­ty. The rat­ings from 5.10−5.15 are sub­di­vid­ed in a, b, c and d lev­els to more pre­cise­ly define the dif­fi­cul­ty (for exam­ple: 5.10a or 5.11d). Exam­ples: The Tooth or Ingalls Peak

5.0−5.7: Easy for expe­ri­enced climbers; where most novices begin. Exam­ples: Lib­er­ty Bell Beck­ey Route, R & D, or South Ear­ly Win­ter Spire South Arête

5.8−5.9: Where most week­end climbers become com­fort­able; employs the spe­cif­ic skills of rock climb­ing, such as jam­ming, liebacks, and man­tels. Exam­ples: Out­er Space Snow Creek Wall, Index Town Wall Godzil­la, or South Ear­ly Win­ter Spire South­west Rib

5.10: A ded­i­cat­ed week­end climber might attain this lev­el. Exam­ples: Juno Tow­er Clean Break or South Ear­ly Win­ter Spire Direct East Buttress

5.11−5.15: The realm of true experts; demands much train­ing and nat­ur­al abil­i­ty and, often, repeat­ed work­ing of a route.

Addi­tion­al rock climb­ing rat­ing systems:

YDS=Yosemite Dec­i­mal Sys­tem
UIAA=Union Inter­na­tionale des Asso­ci­a­tions D’Alpinisme
CIS=Commonwealth of Inde­pen­dent States/​Russia

Red rocks
DSC 0024

French Sys­tem:

The over­all seri­ous­ness of the com­plete route based on all fac­tors of the ascent, descent, and final approach. This sys­tem is increas­ing­ly being used world­wide, includ­ing in the Amer­i­c­as.
F: Facile” (easy); rock scram­bling or easy snow slopes, some glac­i­er trav­el, often climbed rope­less.
PD: Peu Dif­fi­cile” (a lit­tle dif­fi­cult); some tech­ni­cal climb­ing and more com­pli­cat­ed glac­i­ers.
AD: Assez Dif­fi­cile” (fair­ly hard); steep climb­ing or long snow/​ice slopes above 50º; for expe­ri­enced alpine climbers only.
D: Dif­fi­cile” (dif­fi­cult); sus­tained hard rock and/​or ice/​snow; fair­ly seri­ous.
TD: Très Dif­fi­cile” (very dif­fi­cult); long and seri­ous.
ED1, ED2, ED3: Extreme­ment Dif­fi­cile” (extreme­ly dif­fi­cult); the most seri­ous climbs with the most con­tin­u­ous difficulties.

Alas­ka Grade:

An over­all grade reflect­ing the remote, cold, stormy nature of Alaskan climb­ing.
Grade 1: Easy glac­i­er route.
Grade 2: Not tech­ni­cal, but exposed to knife-edged ridges, weath­er, and high-alti­tude.
Grade 3: Mod­er­ate to hard, includ­ing some tech­ni­cal climb­ing.
Grade 4: Hard to dif­fi­cult, with tech­ni­cal climb­ing.
Grade 5: Dif­fi­cult, with sus­tained climb­ing, high com­mit­ment, and few bivouac sites.
Grade 6: Sus­tained hard climb­ing over sev­er­al thou­sand ver­ti­cal feet requir­ing high commitment.

F85 EF7 A9 B36 D 4 BF1 99 EA A61 ECC5367 A7

Moun­tain Mad­ness Trip Rating:

Using a blend of the descrip­tions found here Moun­tain Mad­ness has put togeth­er a basic descrip­tion that defines rating/​difficulty to include the fol­low­ing; skills need­ed, ter­rain expect­ed to encounter, and often numer­i­cal rat­ings such as the Yosemite Dec­i­mal System.

Begin­ner / No pri­or climb­ing expe­ri­ence is required. Climbers should be in good phys­i­cal con­di­tion and it is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed that they have some back­pack­ing expe­ri­ence. Exam­ples: Mount Bak­er Eas­t­on Glac­i­er or Mount Adams

Advanced Begin­ner / Climbers should have basic snow and ice-climb­ing skills and should be com­fort­able with glac­i­er trav­el, which includes mov­ing in a rope team, self arrest, and basic crevasse res­cue. Basic knowl­edge and expe­ri­ence would be required for objec­tives with some rock climb­ing. Exam­ples: Aconcagua, Mex­i­co Vol­ca­noes, or Mount Elbrus

Inter­me­di­ate / Climbers should be com­fort­able on mod­er­ate snow/​ice slopes up to 40 degrees, climb­ing on exposed ridges and/​or rock climb­ing expe­ri­ence up to 5.6−5.7 depend­ing on the objec­tive. You should have a past climb­ing expe­ri­ence with proven skills. Exam­ples: The Mat­ter­horn, Nun Peak, or For­bid­den Peak

Advanced Inter­me­di­ate / Climbers should be com­fort­able climb­ing on exposed ridges, 45 to 60 degree snow/​ice slopes and/​or 5.8 rock and have a well-round­ed past his­to­ry of climb­ing expe­ri­ence. Exam­ples: Ama Dablam, Mount Bak­er North Ridge, Mount Stu­art North Ridge, or the Eiger

Advanced / Climbers should be com­fort­able on 45 to 60 degree snow/​ice slopes, water­fall ice climb­ing up to WI3‑4, and/​or 5.8−5.9 rock at high alti­tudes. Par­tic­i­pants will have a well-round­ed his­to­ry of climb­ing expe­ri­ence. Exam­ples: The Moose’s Tooth, Mount Ever­est, Mount Logan, or the Pick­et Range Traverse

Mount Baker glacier mountaineering climb
Forbidden Peak West Ridge with Mountain Madness
Cordillera Blanca Peru Climbing with Mountain Madness

Aid Grades:

In gen­er­al, old­er routes, routes with lit­tle aid, and those put-up by climbers with­out exten­sive big-wall expe­ri­ence use the orig­i­nal aid rat­ing sys­tem. New­er routes put-up by big-wall afi­ciona­dos often are giv­en a New Wave” aid rat­ing using the same sym­bols with new def­i­n­i­tions. When the let­ter C” replaces A,” the rat­ing refers to clean” climb­ing — i.e., with­out a hammer.

Orig­i­nal Aid Rat­ing Sys­tem:
A0: Occa­sion­al aid moves often done with­out aiders (etri­ers) or climbed on fixed gear; some­times called French free.”
A1: All place­ments are sol­id and easy.
A2: Good place­ments, but some­times tricky to find.
A3: Many dif­fi­cult, inse­cure place­ments, but with lit­tle risk.
A4: Many place­ments in a row that hold noth­ing more than body weight.
A5: Enough body-weight place­ments in a row that one fail­ure results in a fall of at least 20 meters.

New Wave Aid Rat­ings:
A1: Easy aid. No risk of a piece pulling out.
A2: Mod­er­ate aid. Sol­id gear that’s more dif­fi­cult to place.
A2+: 10-meter fall poten­tial from ten­u­ous place­ments, but with­out dan­ger.
A3: Hard aid. Many ten­u­ous place­ments in a row, 15-meter fall poten­tial, could require sev­er­al hours for a sin­gle pitch.
A3+: A3 with dan­ger­ous fall poten­tial.
A4: Seri­ous aid. 30-meter ledge-fall poten­tial from con­tin­u­ous­ly ten­u­ous gear.
A4+: Even more seri­ous, with even greater fall poten­tial, where each pitch could take many hours to lead.
A5: Extreme aid. Noth­ing on the entire pitch can be trust­ed to hold a fall.
A6: A5 climb­ing with belay anchors that won’t hold a fall either.

Scot­tish Win­ter Grades:

These apply to ice and mixed con­di­tions and are used pri­mar­i­ly by climbers famil­iar with Scot­tish con­di­tions.
Grade I: Snow gul­lies and easy ridges.
Grade II: Steep snow where two ice tools may be required but tech­ni­cal dif­fi­cul­ties are short.
Grade III: More sus­tained than Grade II. Mixed ascents of mod­er­ate rock routes.
Grade IV: Steep ice with short ver­ti­cal steps or long pitch­es up to 70º, or mixed routes requir­ing advanced tech­niques.
Grade V: Sus­tained ice to 80º or mixed climbs with linked hard moves.
Grade VI: Ver­ti­cal ice and high­ly tech­ni­cal mixed routes.
Grade VII: Mul­ti-pitch routes with long sec­tions of ver­ti­cal or thin ice, or mixed routes with lots of high­ly tech­ni­cal climb­ing.
Grade VIII and above: The hard­est routes in Scotland.

Cana­di­an Win­ter Com­mit­ment Grade:

This com­bines length, haz­ard, and over­all chal­lenges.
Grade I: Short, easy, and with no alpine haz­ards.
Grade II: One or two pitch­es near the car with few alpine haz­ards.
Grade III: Requires most of a day includ­ing the approach, which may require win­ter trav­el skills (pos­si­ble avalanche ter­rain, plac­ing descent anchors).
Grade IV: A mul­ti­p­itch route at high­er alti­tude or remote loca­tion. Mul­ti-hour approach­es in seri­ous alpine ter­rain.
Grade V: A full-day climb in alpine ter­rain with a long approach, long tech­ni­cal descent, and objec­tive dan­gers.
Grade VI: A long water­fall with the char­ac­ter of an alpine route; usu­al­ly requires at least a day to com­plete. Sig­nif­i­cant alpine objec­tive haz­ards.
Grade VII: Longer and hard­er than Grade VI, with con­sid­er­able dan­gers even to expert climbers.

Mixed Grade:

These routes require con­sid­er­able dry tool­ing (mod­ern ice tools used on bare rock) and are climbed in cram­pons; actu­al ice is option­al but some ice is usu­al­ly involved.
M1‑3: Easy.
M4: Slab­by to ver­ti­cal with some tech­ni­cal dry tool­ing.
M5: Sec­tions of sus­tained ver­ti­cal dry tool­ing.
M6: Ver­ti­cal to over­hang­ing with dif­fi­cult dry tool­ing.
M7: Over­hang­ing with pow­er­ful and tech­ni­cal dry tool­ing.
M8: Some roofs (near­ly flat over­hangs) requir­ing very pow­er­ful and tech­ni­cal dry tool­ing.
M9-12 and above: Longer and longer stretch­es of hor­i­zon­tal roof, with increas­ing­ly ten­u­ous tool place­ments and/​or increas­ing­ly long and pow­er­ful moves.

Water Ice, Alpine Ice, and Cana­di­an Ice Tech­ni­cal Grades:

Ice climb­ing rat­ings are high­ly vari­able by region and are still evolv­ing. The fol­low­ing descrip­tions approx­i­mate the aver­age sys­tems, at least as used by North Amer­i­cans. The WI acronym implies sea­son­al ice; AI is often sub­sti­tut­ed for year-around Alpine Ice and may be eas­i­er than a WI grade with the same num­ber. Cana­di­ans often drop the WI sym­bol and hyphen­ate the tech­ni­cal grade with the com­mit­ment grade’s Roman numer­al (ex.: II‑5).
WI 1: Low angle ice you can walk on.
WI 2: Con­sis­tent 60º ice with pos­si­ble bulges; good pro­tec­tion.
WI 3: Sus­tained 70º with pos­si­ble long bulges of 80º-90º; rea­son­able rests and good stances for plac­ing screws.
WI 4: Mul­ti­ple pitch­es of con­tin­u­ous 80º ice, or a sin­gle pitch con­tain­ing fair­ly long sec­tions of 90º ice bro­ken up by occa­sion­al rests.
WI 5: Long and stren­u­ous, with a rope­length of 85º-90º ice offer­ing few good rests; or a short­er pitch of thin or bad ice with rea­son­able pro­tec­tion that’s dif­fi­cult to place.
WI 6: A full rope­length of near-90º ice, or a short­er pitch even more ten­u­ous than WI 5. High­ly tech­ni­cal and very scary.
WI 7: As above, but on thin poor­ly bond­ed ice or long, over­hang­ing poor­ly adhered columns. Pro­tec­tion is impos­si­ble or very dif­fi­cult to place and of dubi­ous qual­i­ty.
WI 8: Com­ing soon.

Ice Climbing Mount Baker North Ridge


Snow is often described by its steep­est angle (ex.: 70º) or by a range approx­i­mat­ing its steep­est angle (ex.: 70º-80º).