Climbing routes are graded to help everyone understand approximately how hard they are, or the skill level needed to climb them. This is where the simple idea to categorise routes so the information can be shared and accessible, ends.
There is no central authority in charge of grading routes – so, there is no fixed standard. Experienced route setters or climbers have a feel for a grade of a route and as new routes are set/found, they give them a grade – but this is subjective, other climbers may agree or disagree. Some climbing centres may get a reputation for setting easy or hard (meaning the climbs are tougher or easier than the grade implies). For outdoor routes, climbers may come to a consensus on what grade a route may be and this may become adopted.
In addition to the subjectability of grading, not all routes are classified using the same system, so it is like several different languages being used. However like any language, once fluent, it all just makes sense.
As this site is really for UK climbers we’ll concentrate on the main ones used in the UK. There are tables available to be able to convert between the different grades, including international ones. A few good ones can be found on the Rockfax or the BMC websites.
Included here is also some information about the grades the average UK climber climbs. This information is taken from UKClimbing.com where climbers log their routes and each year UKC publish average information. Of course, this information is for adults (not children or youth) but it does give an indication of how hard those grades might be.
There are 2 main systems used to grade indoor or outdoor bouldering in the UK. ‘V Grades’ and ‘Font Grades’. Both work in a similar way – basically the higher the number, the harder the route.
V Grades are the most widely used in climbing centres and guide books. They start at VB, through V0, V1 … to the hardest routes V13, V14, V15. These hardest routes are very unusual with V14 being the hardest route logged by UKC for the last few years. The average route logged is V3. Most climbing walls would have a range of routes from V1 to V9 with most being in the V4/5/6/7 range to offer a challenge for most climbers.
Font (abbreviation of Fontainbleau) grades are mainly used in France, but they are also sometimes used in the UK. The grading system looks similar to sport (see below) and is a combination of increasing numbers, plus symbols and letters (a,b and c getting harder in that order). The lowest grade I’ve found is a 2 (written as f2). 3+ would be slightly harder than a 3. 6b would be harder than 6a+.
Sport grades are for lead or top-roped climbing, indoors or outdoors. As with Font Grades, they use a system of increasing numbers and letters (a, b and c ) but they are not the same/directly comparable as f6a is not the same as a sport grade 6a! For finer grade differentiation above grade 6, a plus after the grade, as in 6b+, indicates a route harder than a 6b. The routes start at the easiest 1, through to the very hardest 9c (a route called Silence in Norway and only climbed by the best outdoor climber in the world, Adam Ondra). The average route logged on UKC in 2018 is 6a+.
Trad uses two terms to make up the grade. For example a trad grade may be HVS 4b or E2 5c. Both parts of the code give different information about the climb.
The first part is called the ‘adjectival grade’ and is used to give an indication of the whole route. It considers things like how sustained the toughest bits of the route are, how exposed it is, how safe it is, how easy gear placement might be and a whole variety of aspects. The simplest route would start at Mod (Moderate), then Diff (Difficult), VDiff (Very Difficult), HVDiff (Hard, Very Difficult). From here it goes to S (Severe), HS (Hard Severe), VS (Very Severe), and HVS (Hard Very Severe). The average UK climber is around VS grade. For experienced trad climbers pushing higher than this the routes move into E (Extreme) Grades. E0 through to E10.
The second is very similar format to the sport grade and gives an indication of the skill level of the climber. It indicates the technical grade of the hardest part of the route, whether that is a small section or a single move. Although these have the same format as sport grades, they are not directly comparable. Because of this a good climber, able to climb 6a indoors, cannot assume they could attempt a climb with a 6a technical grade for outdoors trad. The conversion tables mentioned above will be able to offer a better guide of a grade to try.
In summary the grades will give you an indication but often it will be looking for a route you like the look of and looks achievable with right level of challenge, having a go and having fun.