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
5.8−5.9: 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
5.11−5.15: 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
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.
Snow is often described by its steepest angle (ex.: 70º) or by a range approximating its steepest angle (ex.: 70º-80º).
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.