Extending the UK grading system

by Bob Nov/2010
This article has been read 13,537 times

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+Teetering along the Rainbow, 143 kb
Teetering along the Rainbow
© mark reeves

So what's this all about then?

Some years ago I posted on Rocktalk, as it then was, about the history and development of the UK grading system. Later I extended and updated it and hosted it on my website. It gets linked to quite regularly when, ahem, discussions arise on UKC about grading systems. However, things don't stand still so this is about potential future directions of the grading system. More: "How can we improve it?" than "Let's throw everything out and start again".

OK, let's recap on the current system. Just how does it work?

The two parts of the grade (adjectival and technical) are meant to work together to give the climber an idea of what to expect on the route. Now it should be apparent that you can't condense a whole experience of a pitch/route into just four characters so the expectation is that the climber will modify just what the grade means when they stand under the route. The adjectival grade is comparable in some ways to the French grade, it's an overall indication of the difficulty of the pitch/route. Used on its own that's all you get.

And what's wrong with what we've got? It's served us well for over thirty years now.

Two things really. Firstly climbers have got much, much fitter, mainly due to sport climbing on steep limestone and the spread of indoor leading walls and are used to doing long sequences of hard moves. Secondly, and perhaps as a consequence of the first point, the current crop of routes are much more sustained than the routes of old. A route from the 1970s like Footless Crow on Goat Crag (originally E5 before the crux hold/gear came off) has maybe three 6a moves and a single 6b move in 50 metres of climbing! The rest is mostly 5b, plus you get a hands off rest before the crux section. Compare that with a more modern route like say Fay at Lower Sharpnose that was originally graded E5 where you are unlikely to get many easy moves and also unlikely to have any resting places and you can see that there can be a big difference in what you are setting out on. Fay is perhaps an oddity in itself - it's almost definitive borderline E4/5 in that if you climb E4 then it is more like E5 but if you climb E5 then it feels like an E4! BTW, I'm not suggesting that Fay is harder than Footless Crow, just that the sustainedness of the former is harder for the current grading system to deal with.

One of the commoner criticisms of the UK grading system is the wide variation in difficulty represented by each grade particularly at the upper end whereas the French grading system has a more even spread. Continuing to use E5 as our example grade, routes like Right Wall on the Cromlech are reckoned to be F6c+ while Doubting Thomas at Malham is probably F7a+/F7b, that's four sports grades. This is hardly fair on the climber even if they do "modify" their expectation when standing beneath the route. How has this come about?

Any grading system will have routes that simply don't fit in, but if the current system didn't work for the majority of routes then we wouldn't be using it. Right Wall is used a lot by detractors of the UK grading system, partly because it's statistically an outlier and partly because it is a lot easier than most E5s around the place, there's only two 6a moves on the whole route. If it got put up today, it would probably get E4. A lot of the grade compression was down to a combination of macho climbers deliberately toughly grading routes (E5 was the "top" grade at the time) and a fear of ridicule in attempting to extend the system. Look at how Stuart Cathcart and Mark Edwards got treated when they "pushed" the limits of the grading system. When Pete Botteril extended the adjectival grade with the E-grade system we use today, the intention was always that it was open ended but instead it just became another temporary stop in the same way that HVS and Extremely Severe had been. Thus you had routes being graded "E3, but no E3 leader could get up it!" - too right! The route in question is probably E5! You almost have to know who did the route and how they were climbing at the time. (Extra points if you can name the above route and first ascensionist!)

What about danger? Surely that is represented by the 'E' grade?

Yes and no! Yes because it is part of the adjectival grade, no because there is more to the adjectival grade than just risk/danger. If the 'E' grade was just danger then it would be a closed system in the same way that the aid grades are. After all there is no way you can fall further than twice the rope length unless the belay rips.I suspect that this idea has come about because people assume that the tech grade is for the whole pitch therefore the 'E' grade must just be the risk part.

Ah! The tech grade.

The UK tech grade is a bit of an oddity. It was originally a bouldering grade (from Fontainbleau) and works well for the older style routes with distinct crux moves or short sections but isn't really appropriate for sustained pitches. Certainly for sustained pitches including the sports grade adds more information. Quite a few guides now include sports grades for some of the harder routes. I think this makes sense for those routes that are sustained but not necessarily for the old style "cruxy" or bold routes. If you like, the old style E5s are still well served by being graded E5 6b but that the more modern routes would get E5 6b (F7a+). It would make determining the nature of the route easier for most climbers, though again, eyeballing the route first hand is probably going to tell you far more than a set of cryptic pairs of alpha-numeric characters in a guidebook ever could.

So why not just use sports grades for the harder routes along with some sort of danger index and drop the adjectival grade altogether?

You are effectively just selecting another pair of variables to mix and match. I don't think that such a system would be as subtle as the existing system plus you are substituting a fairly vague perception, difficulty, with an even vaguer one, risk. The ability of individuals to deal with risk is so variable as to render any attempt at codifying it as being considerably harder than herding cats!

So what about Right Wall?

OK, let's say it is F6c+ if it were a sports route. Those who are in to sports climbing reckon on the difference between on-sighting and hard redpoint to be around 2-3 grades so to onsght Right Wall you would need to be redpointing F7a+/7b which is the equivalent of easy E5, which is what Right Wall is. You need that extra strength "in the bag" as it were to cope with putting gear in, figuring out the line, etc.

+Trad Grade Table - Bold, 107 kb
Trad Grade Table - Bold
Rockfax
© ROCKFAX
What about the headpointing grades - H7 and the like?

I have to admit I'm not a fan. I think it would be more honest to attempt to give a traditional grade - E7 6b say but note that the route had been extensively pre-practised. Guidebooks used to have a dagger symbol to indicate that a route hadn't been checked or that the grade should be used with caution.

You've been talking about the big mountain routes that have fallen out of favour these days, what about everyone's favourite rock, Grit?

Grit is another of those cases that is used to bash the UK system - how can you have an E10 that's only 10 metres high? One thing that gets in the way of big falls on grit is the ground and I can report from personal experience that it hurts! Again you have one grading system being used for two different styles of routes. On the one hand you have routes like London Wall that are substantial climbs and are suited to using the existing system. On the other hand you have routes that are effectively highball boulder problems, albeit ones that have some gear and usually attempted roped that maybe could be better described using V-grades along with (H) to indicate highball. See? There was an ulterior motive for not wanting H to be used for headpointing grades! Plus you can always look at the ground to see what the fall/landing is going to be like so no real need for the Yorkshire 'P' grade system.

But wouldn't that be rather confusing? Having two grading systems for adjacent routes?

Well it already happens - the Yorkshire limestone guide has both trad and sports grades sitting side by side, even the colour of the text is different. UK trad and V-grades co-exist in the Peak grit guides with no problem. The real problem is again with ego: the "my E4 is now a V3 (H)!" attitude. But if it's clearer to grade a route in that manner why shouldn't we do it? I don't think there'd be any hard and fast rules about routes below X metres in height are to be given V-grades, it'd be more a case of going by the feel of the route. It would also give an indication as to the nature of the route.

Any examples?

One I can think of is Poetry in Motion at Rylstone. It currently gets E2 6a but is essentially a slightly high boulder problem, the crux is about half-height but there's a tricky move at the top so V2 (H) would be a better grade.

So really you are suggesting evolution rather than revolution?

Indeed! I think that including the French/sport grade for "modern style" routes is an enhancement. It's not needed for routes like Right Wall and its inclusion/exclusion itself would indicate the sustainedness of the pitch or route. At the shorter end of the spectrum then grading them as highball boulder problems would be more sensible than trying to twist one grading system to work for everything. As for revolution: Those who don't understand the UK grading system are forever destined to reinvent it - poorly!

So do you think these proposals will end the debate about what the elements of the UK grading system mean?

Are you serious!? Some folk will always misunderstand things.

While we are at it, what about the star rating system?

Don't go there! Just don't ...


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