The E Grade. Is it broken? Can it be fixed?

© Dave Pickford

The E Grade. Is it broken? Can it be fixed?

Read E is for mEdia, to find out if the climbing media really controls top end grading.

I am assuming that all those reading this article are familiar with the British grading system to a certain degree. If not it is explained quite fully HERE (Rockfax Website). There is a comprehensive look in to the history of the British grading system HERE (Bob Wightman's Site).

Jack making a first ascent after top-roping and guessing a grade of E8 - © D Pickford

How the British Grading system differs from others:

The British E grade encompasses not only the physical difficulty of the route, but the seriousness of the route as well. This gives us the unique position of being able to have three routes of the same grade being completely different in terms of physical difficulty:



Level of Protection

Physical Difficulty

London Wall

E5 6a

Well Protected


Right Wall

E5 6a



The Long Run

E5 6a

Badly Protected


Why do they all get the same grade?

The beauty of the E grade system is that it encompasses how difficult a route will 'feel' overall, both physically and mentally. Making moves above poor protection will feel harder than the same moves above good protection. Equally making lots of 6a moves in a row will feel harder than making one 6a move. These factors are taken in to account in the E system, hence why The Long Run is graded E5 even though the climbing is much easier than on London Wall.

E grades are for the On Sight?

E grades are supposed to represent how difficult a route feels to climb on sight. This means with no prior knowledge of where to go, or what gear to use. A climber will need a lot of physical and mental strength in reserve to hang around and work out sequences, place gear, reverse from dead ends, wiggle in more gear and eventually climb to the top. This is a very different experience from climbing a route after practice, and this is at the heart of the E grade - encompassing both the physical and mental aspects of the route. The mental challenge is much higher when climbing on-sight.

As mentioned in my editorial, E is for mEdia, there are some top climbers who don't feel that E grades are correctly used after headpointed ascents. Here is an example that shows how these 'second guess' high E grades are hard to get right:

Big John climbs a new route after extensive top-rope inspection. He places lots of gear that his many days on a top rope have allowed him to find. He uses hidden holds and sneaky rests. He has tested the gear by dropping a rucksack on to it, so he knows which pieces are good and which are not. He reduces the level of fear he will experience because he knows what gear to expect and where the bold sections of the climb are.

Big John then proposes (guesses) a grade to represent how hard the route will feel to a climber that has never top-roped the climb, has not tested the gear and has no knowledge of any of the moves, rests or gear placements. Obviously that is difficult to do.

Conversely, the French system gives an indication of the physical difficulty of the route, assuming that the climber uses the easiest possible sequence. This is much more black and white and easier to propose.

Climbers in the past have broken free from this 'second guessing' E grade system; In 2001 John Arran graded Doctor Dolittle, his new route at Curbar Edge in the Peak District, H9 (H standing for Headpoint). “I was unwilling to guess an onsight grade, I proposed H9”.

Steve McClure graded his new route The Elder Statesman, also in the Peak District, HXS 7a, because he was unsure how hard it would be to climb on-sight.

In a recent UKC Article, top UK trad climber Pete Robins said “It would be much better if E-numbers didn't exist for head-points and they were just given a sport grade until they were on-sighted.”

Jack making a first ascent on-sight and guessing a grade of E5

Does it really matter if some top E grades are a bit out?

The H system hasn't caught on, perhaps because a two tier system that changes with the style of ascent (H9 becomes E9 after an on-sight ascent) is complex, and also perhaps because top climbers arguing over E9 or E10 are few in number (but high in passion). So we are still in a situation where grading a route with a 'second guess' E grade isn't a perfect system either. That's because there is no perfect system, as any grading system is open to abuse or disagreement.

What is worth remembering is that proposing grades at this level is not an exact science, whether the route has been top-roped or not.

Climbers attempting hard and bold routes on-sight are usually extremely experienced and know that the grades at this level are only a rough guide.

Dave Macleod's Thoughts:

Dave is headpointing so far above current on-sight standards, that I had to find out his thoughts about current top end grading. Here is part of our conversation:
Dave: "I think you should take account that not everyone is using this system of 'grading for the theoretical onsight', but rather comparing directly to the overall difficulty of other headpointed routes. I stuck my neck out and gave Rhapsody E11 because it was miles harder than any of the E10s I'd been on or done. As for Echo Wall I don't feel like I can grade it because there's nothing else like it. I know it's harder than anything I've tried, but I don't have enough references to settle with and confidence at all on a grade guess."
Dave was happy for me to quote this from his blog:
"Grades are generally given for an onsight ascent. However, the many new routes above E7/8 have all been opened after abseil cleaning/inspection and/or top rope practice. Therefore, predicting what it would be like to onsight E10 is impossible. Who knows what that will be like? No-one at the moment anyway. We can only give grades based on a subjective feeling of increments of overall difficulty we experience. Grading can work perfectly well that way, although it is subject to the same complications it always had (hyping, sandbagging, new sequences etc.) People assume that grading systems are a mess just because they either don't understand how they work or do not take into account the subjectivity of grading."

Also worth noting is that guidebooks generally have quite a full description for hard and bold routes, and this can add a lot of information that a grade cannot encompass. (Two and a half pages of text for The Indian Face was perhaps a little too much!). So we can conclude that the more information available on these routes, the better informed potential on-sight climbers will be, and that includes the valuable 'second guess' E grade.

The FRCC made an extremely useful and positive step forward in their 1999 Lake District Langdale guide. In the graded list they state:

It is considered by some climbing at the highest standards that French grades provide information not currently available from the normal British grade. Therefore as an experiment, traditional routes of E6 and above have also been given a French grade in the Graded List, in addition to their British E grade... ...This step represents perhaps the beginning of an overhaul of the grading system at this level, based on the emerging thoughts of some of those most qualified to comment. It will be interesting to see how the debate develops.

This adds another piece of information to help a would be on-sight climber asses the difficulties they are likely to face and it has proved popular and useful. These days most hard new routes are quantified with a French grade when they are reported in the press (and crux moves are often described with bouldering grades). The inclusion of these 'extra' grades in to our guidebooks would be a worthwhile and helpful exercise.

The Real Issue?

If however the real issue is not with providing climbers with accurate information, but with on-sight climbers not receiving the media recognition for their achievements that they deserve, and feeling over-shadowed in the press by the big number head-points, then the problem lies not with the grading system itself but with the climbing media.

Support UKC

As climbers we strive to make the kind of website we would love to visit, with the most up-to-date news, diverse and interesting articles, comprehensive gear reviews, breathtaking photographs and a vast and useful logbook system. As a result, an incredible community has formed around the site - we’ve provided the framework but it’s you who make the website what it is today. If you appreciate the content we offer then you can help us by becoming an official UKC Supporter. This can be a one-off single annual payment or a more substantial payment paid monthly or yearly which includes full access to Rockfax Digital and discounts on Rockfax print publications.

If you appreciate then please help us by becoming a UKC Supporter.

UKC Supporter

  • Support the website we all know and love
  • Access to a year's subscription to Rockfax Digital.
  • Plus 30% off Rockfax guidebooks
  • Plus Show your support UKC Supporter badge on your profile and forum posts
UKC/UKH/Rockfax logo

4 Aug, 2008
Two great articles there. I see you having a running theme that 'On-sight climbers don't get the media recognition they deserve'. I agree that this is partly media led, but I think there is also some schoolyard jockying involvolved. Headpointing and broadcasting achievements being seen to be much less cool than onsighting and keeping-your-head-down-I-hate-media-why-don't-I-get-paid-for-climbing-grumble-grumble type attitudes which I think are rife in climbing, especially at the upper grades. I also think that there is a certain issue with the E grade, although it's open ended, there are some limits to it which will run in line with sport/technical difficulty of the route in hand. I still find it hard to contemplate that certain death isn't the outcome of some of our E10's at technical 7a, wouldn't this be the equivalent of E7 6a .......;o) Jack: Yes, the E grade is broken!
4 Aug, 2008
4 Aug, 2008
Jack I have been consistently impressed with the standard of articles and editorials in the last few months, and these two editorials are of the same high standards. I don't think the E-grade is broken, but I certainly think it has been misused quite a lot.
4 Aug, 2008
good choice of routes to illustrate the bredath of the E5 grade. some random thoughts: - everybody knows the difference between an E8 onsight (if there were one) and an E8 headpoint, this is usually made clear in the reporting, so where is the confusion. - saying "nobody knows what E10 is like to onsight" should be qualified by adding "at this point in time"....some wad will be along in the coming years to do just that....let them settle any debate on the grade. - i am sure a statistician would point out that climbing grades correspond to a normal distribution (skewed to easier routes)....that's why you don't have a whole bunch of E11's all over the at least the current distribution of grades at the top end is what you would expect.
4 Aug, 2008
dards. Precisely. Whilst the top-end e grades are, in part, theoretical the onsight limit - or 'proof' if you like - is still creeping up which shows it's not broken but is just the nature of the beast. Below the top grades we have a legacy of past misuse and a reluctance to extend the system when it should have been.
More Comments
Loading Notifications...
Facebook Twitter Copy Email LinkedIn Pinterest