Grading systems

There are lots of tables like the ones above that allow you to roughly convert from grade to grade, within the same climbing discipline (bouldering/sport/trad/winter). As you can see some grading systems give you a higher resolution than others, mainly in the lower end of the spectrum. A higher resolution allows you to be extremely precise when grading, however it can also lead to more disagreements about what grade a climb warrants.  As climbing becomes increasingly more global, some local grading systems are becoming less used and may eventually become redundant!

Bouldering and climbing grades normally give you some sort of number letter combination for difficulty. It’s pretty simple really, the higher the number and letter (a<a+<b<b+<c<c+) the harder the climb.

As you may also be able to see the British trad grade gives you two pieces of information. The first (hard sever (HS), very sever (VS), HVS, Extreme 1 (E1) etc. not in any alphabetical order) gives you information about how well protected the route is and therefore how big a fall you might take. Once you get very high into the E’s, there will be long runouts (gaps between gear placements). In contrast an HS might have more gear placement options than you could possibly use. Along with this there is a second grade- a number followed by a lower case letter. This tells you how technically hard the route is. So an E2 5b will, in theory, be a little technically harder but feel 10 times scarier than the HVS 5a.

Putting in some photos of CWIF 2016 because it was such a great event: Leah Crane with excellent hair and beta on W1 in the semi's

Putting in some photos of CWIF 2016 because it was such a great event: Leah Crane with excellent hair and beta on W1 in the semi’s

Why the grade?

In bouldering, the problems are very short. The moves on a boulder will probably be harder therefore, than any of the moves on a long route of ‘equivalent difficulty’. The same theory applies within discipline; if you took a boulder of grade 6C and doubled/trebled the number of equivalent moves, that boulder may now be graded 7Aish due to the extra power stamina required. There is extra bias on the ‘crux(s)’ (hardest sequences) of the climb, but overall the grade is normally a function of length and effort, and therefore the stamina and ability required.

With British trad things are slightly different. The technical grade is only given for the hardest single move. Therefore a route may feel easy apart from one short crux or have continuous sequences of equivalent cruxes and realistically feel much harder.

Jan Hojer displaying strong shoulders on M2 in the semi's

Jan Hojer displaying strong shoulders on M2 in the semi’s

Why the frustration?


  • Firstly, the grade doesn’t take it to account how long it takes to figure out the best ‘beta’ (move/sequence type and adjustments) for how to do the climb. The grade is given for the easiest possible sequence, so until you find it the climb will feel harder than the grade.


  • This raises the second problem, which is that different moves and sequences feel easier or harder for different people with different body shapes and strengths/weaknesses. As a general rule, especially outside where there are considerably more options, there are enough ways of doing something that people eventually agree on a similar grade. It is true that some climbs, where the moves are height limited for example, feel harder for some people than others. Height is too often used as an excuse for this reason however. There are many advantages of being shorter (such as being lighter) that can outweigh the disadvantages.


  • The third problem is people’s perceptions based on their strengths and weaknesses. There is a certain grading precedent for different styles of climbing, which one must accept. So if you are good at overhangs and don’t train on slabs, that 5a slab will feel much harder than any 5a overhang.
Michaela Tracy sticking the last hold on W2 (semi's)

Michaela Tracy sticking the last hold on W2 (semi’s)

Given all these variables it is a wonder climbers can agree on anything! What a few websites do, which I think is a good thing, is quote a climb’s grade mainly based on the opinions of people who have repeated the route. Sometimes there is strong agreement, but a in a lot of cases there are differences of opinion of 2/3 grades. There is a downside to this flexibility, which is that people have the power to question what you have done. Most of the time however a route has a grade, a pretty definite grade. You do it. There is no second guessing and that feels good.

Indoor v outdoor

Most of the very few injuries obtained at climbing walls come from bouldering. Bouldering outdoors can get a bit spicier. The bouldering grade does not include the potential danger of falling on a rock, or falling from greater height in the case of high balls. This is unlike trad grades, which tell you about the relative safety, and sport climbing which is very safe done properly.

Climbs indoors are also harder to grade in a lot of cases. This is due to the fact that the climb is designed to be cryptic, interesting and in some cases a bit whacky. The route is also a person’s idea and they have given it a grade based on their idea of how it should be climbed. These issues can be minimised by using good route setters who understand the issues I have mentioned above and can cater for the needs of most people. As well as mimic outdoor climbing, good setters always like to create a challenge and some extremes of indoor setting can provide an excellent platform for highlighting strengths and weaknesses.

There is also an almost ubiquitous quirk that most indoor bouldering centres don’t grade harder than V8, when a small but obvious proportion of their problems are harder than that. I suspect that this is because the customers that do regularly climb harder than this can grade for themselves and are probably not that bothered because they’re training for outdoor problems. I also think that indoor problems can be graded harshly compared to outdoors. But there is so much variability outdoors as well as in centre grading that this is just my opinion based on where I have climbed!

Jimmy Webb taking the last hold of M3 with confidence (semi's)

Jimmy Webb taking the last hold of M3 with confidence (semi’s)

Don’t get too hung up

At the end of the day climbing should be about just having fun and challenging yourself. The grades are a guide- good to acknowledge and work towards. But most of the time it’s best to focus on enjoying the climbing whatever the grade. A lot of people have put up new routes and not bothered to give it a specific grade, they just enjoyed doing it!

If you did a climb which felt hard, that should feel satisfying whatever the grade of the climb. Sometimes breaking through a grade is amazingly satisfying because it was hard. But I have done climbs in the past which I should have been pleased with grade-wise, but ultimately I was left wanting more because it didn’t feel particularly hard. The positive of this, of course, is that you realise that you could be able to do the next grade up! But I think my point still stands- it’s about challenging yourself and doing climbs which are enjoyable. For me, at least, battling through something hard is satisfying whatever the grade, and sometimes enjoying the flow of moves on easier routes is just as enjoyable.

Happy climbing!

The line-up for the finals was unreal!

The line-up for the finals was unreal!


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