Handy Alpine Grade Facts

Handy Alpine Grade Facts

Page Type Page Type: Fact Sheet

UIAA and YDS comparison

As a climber from the U.S., coming to Europe and pawing through guidebooks I still find myself lost in a sea of IV, V+, III- ratings for rock climbs. Note that climbs in the lower grades may feel a bit harder than you'd expect. In fact, for the grades IV- to V, my chart below has what I'd call a "west coast slant," which gives a somewhat higher YDS number for each UIAA grade in that range than what you'd infer by looking at the AAC chart referenced in sources below. There are real differences in the application of the YDS system within the U.S., and unlike our friends in the Gunks, I'd never consider passing a roof to be a 5.5 move. As a west-coast weenie, that would be 5.7+ :-). See Gabriel Roth's in-depth description of the lower grades for additional info.
I3rd class Easiest form of rock climbing. The hands are needed to support balance. Beginners should be protected with a rope.
II4th class You progress with simple foot and hand combinations. Real "3 fixed points" climbing, where you guard against a fall due to loose holds by only moving one limb at a time. For practiced climbers, usually done without a rope or going together on a short rope.
III5.3 Intermediate protection recommended. Vertical places or overhangs with good hand holds already require some strength. Even practiced climbers will use a rope. Occasional protection on long exposed sections.
IV5.6 Considerable climbing experience necessary. Longer pitches require several pieces of protection.
IV+5.6 / 5.7
V5.7 / 5.8 Increasing number of protection pieces. A higher level of physical fitness is required. Climbing technique and experience are required. Long high Alpine routes at this level are among the serious routes in the Alps.
VI5.10a Climbing requires above average ability and physical fitness. High amount of exposure with few holds. Usually requires good conditions for success. Smallest holds require exceptional strength and sense of balance. Over long sections protection placement not feasible.
Sources: The sources are Fred Spicker and the International Grade Comparison Chart at the American Alpine Club.

French and YDS comparison

The French grading system has become the international standard for sport climbs. Even in Germany, Austria and Italy, traditional home of the UIAA grade, sport routes are increasingly given a French grade instead. Within some guidebooks (I'm thinking of Arco), you'll find a distinction, where UIAA grades are used for alpine rock climbs, and French for sport, even multipitch sport. So increasingly I've had to grapple with the French system. I find that it maps much better to the YDS than UIAA does. This is because once you hit the YDS grade 5.8, it's one for one from French 5a. Just remember than in French you have a,b,c starting from 5, and "+" modifiers starting from 6. So the list 5.8,5.9,5.10a,5.10b,5.10c,5.10d,5.11a maps exactly to the list 5a,5b,5c,6a,6a+,6b,6b+. Sadly, this means that comparing UIAA and French suffers the same offset problem as with YDS. Better just learn them all!
45.4 - 5.7!

The NCCS Grade

In the U.S., alpine climbs usually get a NCCS grade (National Climbing Classification System). They are as follows:
IJust an hour or two of technical effort. These are the easiest routes, a step or two above hiking.
II A half day of technical terrain, requiring real climbing, but for a limited number of pitches.
III Most of a day on technical ground. Although a rock grade might be easy (4th class, low-5th, etc.), issues such as length, routefinding, or complexity will keep the challenge up.
IV A full day of technical climbing. Teams that are not "dialed in" should expect an unplanned bivouac. Expect rock climbing of at least 5.7, or steep snow/ice on the route.
V Typically requires a bivouac on the route. Expect rock climbing of at least 5.8, or serious aid or ice climbing.
VI Two or more days of hard climbing, whether aid, free or ice. The realm of big walls of all types.
Examples are a good way to get a feel for the grade so here is a somewhat Cascades-heavy list to start with. Send me some good canonical examples from your area if you think it would round out the picture.
Ruth Mountain, Ruth Glacier
Grand Teton, Exum Ridge
Forbidden Peak, West Ridge (II/III)
Glacier Peak, Frostbite Ridge
Mount Triumph, Northeast Ridge
Snow Creek Wall, Outer Space
Mount Baker, North Ridge (III+)
Grand Teton, Lower Exum Ridge
Mount Stuart, North Ridge
Dragontail Peak, Serpentine Arete
Grand Teton, North Ridge
Fairview Dome, Regular Route
Slesse Mountain, Northeast Buttress
Mount Rainier, Liberty Ridge
Liberty Bell, Liberty Crack

The Alpine Grade

Because you can forget the difference between AD, D and TD (at your peril), here is a handy Alpine Grade Reference. These grades can have a "+" or "-" to reference the upper or lower range of the grade. The Alpine Select guidebook by McLane makes a distinction between the Alpine Grade and the NCCS grade above, it is interesting to read: [speaking of the NCCS] "...In its original design by statistician Leigh Ortenburger, an attempt was made to encompass the entire scale of the endeavour, but that was usurped by its application to Yosemite climbs where it became strictly a measure of the time required...Alpine Grades, being based on terrain and skill descriptions, and having a dozen or so categories of grade, are unequivocably different from NCCS, in both verbal articulation and the avoidance of any confusion with 'time-required' grades." and later, a compelling definition of the Alpine Grade: "Perhaps the best single word that describes the essence of Alpine Grades is 'engagement': it is the shibboleth which distinguishes the degree of challenge, difficulty, and committment that each climb presents. Most climbers are unwilling to attempt climbs above a certain Alpine Grade, whatever its technical difficulty, because the degree of engagement - the influencing forces of intimidation, effort and risk - is beyond their comfort level to accept."
On the North Ridge of Mount BakerA classic AD climb: the North Ridge of Mount Baker
F easy facile
These are often glacier walks, perhaps with some scrambling to reach the summit.
PD not difficult peu difficile
The level of good introductory climbs for novices. There may be a few pitches of mid-5th class climbing (or say, Grade III in UIAA). If it's a snow climb, there will be minor crevasse problems to deal with, or limited sections of very steep terrain.
AD fairly difficult assez difficile
At this level alpine climbs get interesting, that is, there are extended periods of roped climbing or exposed 4th class soloing, often in a remote location. An easy descent can no longer be expected, and the climb may be physically demanding. Many alpine ice climbs belong in this grade, barring the appearance of really frightening bergschrunds or extended mixed terrain.
D difficult difficile
Well stated in Alpine Select, "Climbs at this grade are significant undertakings for experienced climbers." If the climb is of short or medium length, expect a commenserately hard grade for the rock or ice. Longer climbs will have many pitches of serious rock climbing, all of which is under a higher commitment level due to problems of weather an difficulty of retreat. Difficult alpine ice climbs usually fall into this category.
TD very difficult trés difficile
These are hard routes no matter who is judging. Expect rock difficulties of 5.10 or greater, and sustained for multiple pitches. If the technical difficulty is not so great, there will be other factors that make the climb intimidating: poor protection, "points of no return" where up is the only way, notorious weather problems, etc.
ED1/2/3/4 extremely difficult extramement difficile
These are "the most demanding climbs in the world." You need mental tolerance for sustained, high levels of objective hazard, as well as flawless technical ability certainly above the stated crux of the climb. These will be long, stressful undertakings with difficult retreat. Difficult mixed climbing with poor protection, 5.9 rock climbing in extreme cold, aid climbing with dangerous pitches...all under a calving glacier for three days - have fun!
German equivalents: F = L = leicht (light or easy) PD = WS = wenig schwierig (a little difficult) AD = ZS = ziemich schwierig (fairly difficult) D = S = schwierig (difficult) SS = TD = sehr schwierig (very difficult) AS = ED = äusserst schwierig (extremely difficult) Examples
Mont Blanc, standard route (PD+)
Mount Rainier, Disappointment Cleaver (PD+)
Matterhorn, Hornli Ridge (AD+)
Bugaboo Spire, Kain Route
Forbidden Peak, West Ridge
Mount Whitney, East Face
Mount Baker, North Ridge
Tour Ronde, North Face
Sir Donald, Northwest Ridge (D-)
Mount Rainier, Liberty Ridge
Grand Teton, Black Ice Couloir
Mount Edith Cavell, East Ridge
Slesse Mountain, Northeast Buttress
Howser Towers, Beckey-Chouinard
Mount Edith Cavell, North Face
Sources: The Alpine Select guidebook to climbs in Southwest British Columbia and Northern Washington, by Kevin McLane.

More about grades

Rybakov has a great page about Russian Grades here.