Once upon a time, paths and climbs were graded according to the old (and now quaint-looking) British system of Moderately Difficult, Difficult, Severe and Extremely Severe.
However, as climbing became more popular and got broken out into rock climbing, mountaineering and hill-walking, there was a need to develop a clearer definition of overall seriousness of a climb and its technical difficulty.
Guides now typically use the traditional, two-part British grade, a combination of the adjectival and technical grades and can be confusing to those not used to the system.
The adjectival grade is the first part of the grade, which gives a sense of the overall difficulty of the climb and is influenced by various aspects.
These include everything from seriousness and sustained gradient, to technical difficulty, exposure, strenuousness and rock quality.
It is an open-ended system that runs from Easy (doable by virtually anyone) to E11 (which has been climbed by only the most skilled international climbers).
In between are:
- Moderate (M)
- Difficult (D)
- Hard Difficult (HD)
- Very Difficult (VD)
- Hard Very Difficult (HVD)
- Severe (S)
- Hard Severe (HS)
- Very Severe (VS)
- Hard Very Severe (HVS)
- Extremely Severe (which is then subdivided into E1, E2, E3 and so on)
The second part is the technical grade, which indicates how tough the route’s hardest move will be – regardless of whether there is one or 10 of them.
Most climbs come onto the scale somewhere around 4a and run upwards from there.
A 1 or 2 would be very achievable by most, whereas a 7a and above would rarely be encountered and incredibly tough.
The technical grade is an open-ended scale, running upwards like 4a, 4b, 4c, 5a, 5b, 5c etc. but rarely rising above or 7b.
The toughest climbs are likely to be reflected in the E grade, becoming more serious and strenuous rather than more technical.
When looking at the combined grade then, you should be able to see how the combination of these two grades eludes to the difficulty of a climb.
If a medium adjectival grade is paired with a high technical grade, e.g. D 6c, then you can expect a fairly technical route with a single, hard, well-protected move.
Conversely, if the technical grade is low for the adjectival grade, e.g. HVS 4c, then you may face a sustained and strenuous struggle, or a route with relatively easy climbing, but in a serious situation.