The eGrader Calculator - Rebooting E-Grades with Linear Consistency Opinion

© eGrader

A group of top climbers including Neil Gresham, James Pearson, Steve McClure and Tom Randall have developed an online trad grade calculator - the eGrader - to help straighten out a grading system that they argue is compressed. Mark Bullock spoke to the group to determine why they feel it's necessary, and how their system might help to inform trad grading.

After being established in September 2021, through the following autumn and spring, Lexicon - the UK's latest E11 - received a flurry of repeats by some of the most accomplished trad climbers in the UK. A steady stream of debate ensued, both in online forums and between the professional climbers themselves. 

Steve McClure making the first repeat of Lexicon E11 7a.  © Neil Gresham
Steve McClure making the first repeat of Lexicon E11 7a.
© Neil Gresham

The first ascensionist, Neil Gresham, initially felt like he'd "stuck his neck out" by proposing such a lofty grade. But despite subsequent repeaters all seemingly confirming he'd made the correct suggestion, discussion rumbled on. As well as comments suggesting 'It must be E10 if so many are repeating it so quickly', others honed in on how much sheer danger was involved, such as: 'But how can multiple people fall off an E11 in relative safety if you can't fall off *this* E9 because you'll die?'

With some public opinion suggesting a downgrade, privately, Steve McClure rhetorically asked Neil, "What's the point in even having grades at all, if everything ends up being given the same grade no matter how hard it is?!"

In the months that followed, Neil and Steve, plus James Pearson and Tom Randall, started to discuss how they might improve understanding around the British grading system. Particularly at the top end, where there is seemingly frequent controversy, but also, by creating a more linear model that works consistently, they wanted to demonstrate that the same consistency can be applied right across the E grading spectrum. 

The French grading system is linear in nature, so hypothetically there should be the same difference between 6a and 6a+, as there is between 9a and 9a+. Therefore, since all grading systems are inherently linked and similar it seems sensible that the same linear nature should apply to British grades.

Defining the British Trad Grade system.  © Rockfax
Defining the British Trad Grade system.
© Rockfax


Historically, (and for convenience, let's say since 1986!), maximum sport grades have progressed faster and further than maximum British grades. Here is a whistle stop chronology: 

In 1986 the hardest sport climb thus far established was 8b+ (Le Rage de Vivre) and the seminal Indian Face (E9) was put up in the same year. 

By 1987 8c (Wall Street) was the next step, followed by 8c+s (Liquid Ambar, Hubble) in 1990. In 1991 Action Directe was the first confirmed 9a (with Hubble later upgraded). 9a+ was established in 2001 (Realisation/Biographie; Mutation, retrospectively upgraded to 9a+, was climbed in 1998), with 9b in 2008 (Jumbo Love), then followed by 9b+ (Change, then La Dura Dura) in 2012, and 9c (Silence) in 2017.

In the same time period, Equilibrium was given E10 in 2000, Rhapsody was the first E11 in 2005, but there has been no confirmed progression in the 18 years since. There have been additional E10s and E11s put up, but no 'new' British grade boundary surpassed (including a well-documented downgrade [Walk of Life], and a highly cryptic non-grade [Echo Wall]). 

So while sport climbs have progressed from 8b+ to 9c, in the same timespan British grades have only moved from E9 to E11, despite an unarguable improvement in overall ability: this generation of climbers are operating at superior French grades than the generation of the late '80s and early 9'0s were. So why haven't E grades progressed?

The British trad grade system has become compressed at the top end, some pros argue.
© Rockfax

Project Concept

James Pearson explains:

"Neil, Steve, Tom and I created a simple formula to help us better understand the E grade, and hopefully, to give a clearer impression of any proposed new grades. What I've since come to understand and what I hope this collective work helps to improve the knowledge of, is that there are two fundamental factors of the E grade scale that must be accepted for it to make sense:

  • E grades are a direct result of both difficulty and danger. A higher E grade does not automatically mean a higher danger, as is often assumed. Any E grade can cover the entire spectrum of danger from 'totally safe' to 'certain death'.
  • The increase from one grade to the next is linear, not exponential. Whilst personal progression may feel increasingly difficult, objectively the difference between E1 and E2 is the same as between E11 and E12 (this is especially obvious when allied to the corresponding French grade).

"If the best British trad climbers of the late '90s were sport climbing around 8b-ish; then fast forward 20 odd years to today when it feels like the average sport grade of the top British climbers is more around 9a; it's easy to see that the physical ability of British climbers has increased, even if perhaps their accepted level of risk has not."

The conversation between the four climbers evolved around a proposal John Dunne had suggested back in 2008. James recalls:

"John had noticed a relatively simple pattern linking French sport grades and 'Danger' to an overall E grade. Effectively converting the French grade of a route to an E grade (which was directly possible because bolted routes in the UK were originally assigned E grades up until the more general adoption of French grades for sport climbs in the mid '90s), and then essentially 'adding on' a few more E grades depending on the overall danger. 

"At the time I didn't really see the point, mainly because I had climbed very few sport routes and had never climbed trad routes outside of the UK. It took John, and his - at the time - almost unique experience as a worldly travelled top level trad and sport climber, to see something it would take the rest of us another decade or so to see. Between me, Neil, Steve and Tom, we took John's original idea, tweaked it a little, and created a simple formula to help us better understand and apply the E grade."

John says: "It's great to see a motivated group of talented climbers trying to tackle the complexities of modern trad grading and put historical routes into context. For far too long grades have been compressed or suppressed by individuals, leaving a very confusing picture at the top end of the sport. 

"I've always advocated using a sport grade then using the E grade system overlaid to get some perspective. Trad grading is very subjective and relies on lots of factors that are applicable to the individual at the time of trying the route. With modern trad climbing relying heavily on sport fitness, I would suggest the best trad climber is also the best sport climber and this is now obvious with Ondra on Dawn Wall."

Tom Randall approached Danny Tomalin, a digital solutions specialist at REYT, to help create a widget building on the John Dunne equation the group had developed, and further reinforced by the input of large amounts of route data. 

Steve McClure takes a logical stance: "The basic point is, a mathematical model can't be argued with. Because a mathematical model takes a large amount of data, and for a grading system ideally all of the routes will lie on a linear graph, precisely because grading is linear! The eGrader converter has used a large number of known routes with widely agreed grades to create the linear graph - and it works. Routes that now lie outside the linear line can be discussed as to why they lie outside the linear line. [If] there is no reason for them to be outside the line, then the grade needs to be changed (up or down)."

The project became an online widget calculator, the eGrader. Tom Randall talks about his experience and ideas:

"I grew up in the UK trad climbing scene thinking that E grades were entirely logical and worked for any route as they encompassed the blended nature of risk, physical difficulty and technical challenge.

"From around 2010, myself and Pete [Whittaker] started to travel extensively abroad, both to repeat hard trad routes and to establish our own. Initially we tended to grade things in the local area's traditional manner. Ergo, if it was in the USA, it would get a 5.something (plus an R or X for danger) and if it was European we'd do a French grade. It was on the French side of things we ran into a spot of bother though. We simply had no way of showing that a dangerous 8a [on gear] was 'harder' to do than a safe 8a. This led to us often adding in an additional reference to a US or UK grade for the same route. 

"For a while this worked, but increasingly we noticed that we were almost happier with a US trad grade as it described the physical and risk scale better. We also noticed that when we did consider some of the UK routes at the top end (e.g. stuff like Captain Invincible), it felt like the grades were getting compressed because people were too attached to historical grade boundaries, or that physical difficulty being combined with low risk meant grades being 'discounted' in the UK trad scene."

The eGrader: a British trad grade calculator.  © eGrader
The eGrader: a British trad grade calculator.
© eGrader

The team are keen to keep things as simple as possible. The formula only accepts a certain number of inputs and therefore only gives a fixed number of outputs (Effectively Easy/Hard at each given E Grade). Real life is rarely as clear cut, with many extraneous variables (discussed later), but the tool is only designed to be a guide. Tom continues: 

"Creating an algorithmic grading calculator was really about adding a 'tool' of objectivity into the whole UK grading debate and not about creating something that's better or that replaces common-sense consensus opinion from climbers. This project should be seen as a tool that can be added into anyone's grading process when they complete a first ascent, or even when they're looking at trying a tricky route and gaining information. Furthermore it could be used to identify where certain routes may need more of a consensus, or a more robust analysis of the grade status, when egos, history or cultural structures have maybe had a significant effect. 

"I know that many will roll their eyes and think that some AI bot is going to replace the current approach to grading, but I would encourage people to think about why exactly they might be worried about an algorithmic tool. Our brains are effectively organic computers processing various inputs and likewise so is a basic bit of algebra. The former has the advantage that it's capable of handling huge amounts of qualitative and subjective data but the disadvantage is that its outputs are rarely fixed because the 'human formula' changes constantly. The latter has its advantage in being simple, quantitative and a fixed formula for outputs, although it must be acknowledged that the inputs and the formula themselves are still prone to their own human issues!"

Neil shares his experience of the psychological burden that the existing grading system can place on first ascensionists:

"There are many reasons why grades get compressed but surely at the core of it is the fear, which every first ascensionist experiences, of having your route down-graded by one of your peers. In other words, it's better to do this yourself and under-grade the route in the first place, rather than have someone else do it. 

"Additionally, there's all the craziness that plays out on forums as a result of people fundamentally misunderstanding the British grading system. With Lexicon there was the same old stuff that we saw for Rhapsody. How could it possibly be E11 when Steve fell off and lived to tell the tale!? There are VS's which are more dangerous than Lexicon and at any grade, you can have safe and dangerous examples. This shouldn't influence those who understand the system and who grade the routes, yet undoubtedly it does and it can be frustrating! And if it continues then gradually things become increasingly skewed, to the point where top grades aren't really able to exist because they'll become farcical."

So how does it work?

The eGrader is an algorithm that combines the technical difficulty of a real or hypothetical route - using a French sport grade - with the perceived danger of the route - using so-called 'Danger Points' - to come up with an E grade which is either at the Hard or Easy end of the spectrum.

Danger Points explained

Problems & nuance

Our knee-jerk response to innovation is often to look for outliers, loopholes or anomalies. In the case of climbing grades this is an enormous can of worms that can be debated at endless length in the pub, in online forums such as here on UKC.

Subjective grading nuances include; locality (some crags and regions can and do feel like sandbags, some feel soft); rock type and quality; style (insecure v positive) and what suits any individual; pre-placed gear; headpointing; pegs/peg degradation/replacement; morphology; individual form/fatigue; humidity; gear quality; and pad use (see below). 

To avoid this article becoming an indigestible dissertation, let's try to accept that grades are given for good conditions, and the easiest sequence. 


Pads are undoubtedly the most impactful modern variable to affect trad grades. To use a contemporary example, let's look at Mat Wright's new E9 'Eternal Fall'.

In grading Eternal Fall, Mat acknowledged that he had headpointed the line, and then climbed it with a bunch of pads in a highball bouldering style. He was honest enough to say, though, that the 7B+/7C difficulty felt extremely serious due to the horrible sloping landing of jumbled rocks, and that even a large amount of pads still felt like soloing and very far from the 'safe' indication a bouldering grade would imply. 

The eGrader uses a Paddability Calculator to show how incremental padding can affect the safety and grade of a route. This is a challenge for any first ascensionist as there's a difference not only between number of pads, but also size and quality. In some ways it makes it easier for the climber to propose a trad grade without pads, and then allow repeaters to add pads and subtract E points as they see fit. Many historical trad routes are now regularly highballed with a team of spotters and a nest of pads, and fundamentally those ascents should not take the same E grade that was traditionally given. 

The Paddability Calculator  © eGrader
The Paddability Calculator
© eGrader

Some routes don't lend themselves to pads (sea cliffs, mountain crags) - especially not carrying in a truckload - and as with the other variables affecting subjectivity, it's ultimately up to the climber to take responsibility in their own grading of the style they use. 


Creating the algorithm for the eGrader calculator meant inputting a large amount of data from existing routes across the UK (and some abroad). The model has been proven to work with 'benchmark' examples across all E grades (meaning that the existing status quo wasn't a totally broken system, as there were just a few outliers with some compression at the top end). 

As example benchmarks we would reference: 

Right Wall (E5) (6c climbing with 2 Danger Points equates to E5); 

at E6, Lord of the Flies (7a with 2.5 D points equals E6); 

at E7, Strawberries (7c climbing with 1.5 D points is E7); 

at E8, End of the Affair  (7b climbing with 3 D points = E8); 

and at E9, Mission Impossible (8b climbing with 1.5 D points equals E9).

A good example of an outlier is 'If 6 Was 9' (currently E9), as Steve says: "'If 6 was 9' is now regarded as harder than its historical grade of E9. That is because it is now 8a+ climbing, and dangerous (it has lost holds and runners since the first ascent). So while there's always been a feeling that it's a fearsome E9, this feeling is confirmed by the grade converter. In reality it's just not E9, it's E10."

Another tricky route to put through the eGrader is in Pembroke. Hazel Findlay explains:

"When I put in Muy Caliente through the eGrader as 8a+, and even if you put it as very run-out (which I think is an understatement) it comes out as easy E10 and most people think of it as easy E9."  

Muy Caliente is an interesting example and a testing route to grade. The huge run-out is on slightly technically easier ground, whereas the harder technical crux is slightly safer. So the ability to break a route down into sections is also necessary.


The collective team that built the project also reached out to some of the most experienced trad climbers in the UK. Their input has been helpful and largely approving.

Hazel Findlay

I played around with the calculator. A lot of routes worked but some didn't and these were the higher-end grades which I guess is the point - that the E grade falls down there. For example, I put in Magic Line which is 8c+ and it would get a minimum of 'runout' given that you place two ball nuts and even with them you could come close to the ground from the crux. It came away with E11, whereas I've been saying that Magic Line is E10.

Charlie Woodburn

I welcome this grade calculator. I think something like this is a great idea to bring some sort of consistency to grading. There is clearly an erraticism in E grading that can often say more about the first ascensionist than it does about the route, and whilst that is great for feeding the gossip in the pubs or forums, it's not much use for going climbing. 

Whilst the conversation around this is typically centred around the top end of the grading scale, it's true that grade discrepancies exist at all levels and are an inherent part of the history of climbing. I have to say that I've always quite liked the fact that sandbag and soft touch routes pepper the climbing around the UK (and globally). For me, reaching a new grade and getting established at that level involved having to experience a whole load of routes at that number before I felt I could adequately 'understand' that grade. And so I think it's worth remembering that grading is a complex business.

To me, the most obvious question regarding this calculator is: are we talking about climbing onsight or are we talking about the easiest way to climb the route after TR practice? The British trad grading system was established at a time when climbing onsight was the norm rather than the exception. These days it's the other way around. The headpointing revolution occurred at a time when E7ish was the cutting edge and so E8 and above have mostly been established as headpointed routes and graded as such. 

It's interesting because for many in the '70s, '80s and '90s the subjective experience of climbing say E6 is very different to what it is now, where an onsight is considered atypical. As such most people's subjective experience of climbing E6 is somewhat more mellow now than it was 40 years ago. There's nothing wrong with it, it's just different.

Climbing onsight can vary the subjective difficulty of any grade by a huge amount. Sometimes you get the sequence right first time and it feels OK, other times you might end up climbing it by a much harder sequence and it feels desperate. This has taught me not to 'pigeon hole' route grades with a definite expectation of difficulty and I think that's a good thing. It has taught me to stay humble and appreciate each route more for its character than its grade.

There are many factors that influence the potential difficulty of a route: How loose is it? What are the conditions like? What are the logistical implications such as tides, or how far from some kind of emergency service is it? How complex would escape be? What condition are the pegs in? How pumpy is it to place the gear?

This raises the question of specialist gear. Some routes can be made much safer by a bit of specialist gear that isn't generally a standard part of your rack. Examples of this are the filed down blue ball slider that I used on the bold start of The Walk Of Life. That fits into the small hole that others either placed a filed-down peg (also specialist) or didn't use at all.

On Talbot Horizon on Scafell I used a blue Totem cam in a flared pocket - that was absolutely bomber - that just hadn't been invented when Dave Birkett did the first ascent. Other ascensionists didn't use this, but in my case the route became nowhere near bold enough to warrant E9, so should the route be downgraded based on this gear beta? The logical answer is 'yes' but you could easily see someone turning up at the crag without that gear, or even not seeing it as an option and think it was wrongly graded.

Another significant factor to take into consideration regarding difficulty is predictability. By this I mean how well you can control the likelihood that you will not fall off based on the route's style. Two different routes can have the same French grade and the same danger level but be very different when it comes to the things you can control whilst climbing. Some routes have positive holds with powerful moves but not much nuance, so as long as you are strong/fit enough you can predict to a high level your likelihood of success. Other routes are delicate, technical and require a subtlety to the movement that feels easy when you do it right, but impossible when you don't. An example of this would be comparing Meshuga with Harder Faster – same grade, same danger level but assuming you have the requisite physical ability Meshuga is far more predictable than Harder Faster, which probably accounts for its higher number of ascents.

So whilst I really do believe this grade calculator is a good idea to help align an unnecessarily inconsistent E grading scale, it's worth remembering that grading is a far more complex beast than many realise, and the personality of a route  - just like the people that climb them - is all part of the picture.

Maddie Cope

To me the E grades make sense up to E6 really as this is a grade I have onsighted a lot. When I shift above that and into headpointing the E grade feels like it falls apart in terms of representing my experience. My brain shifts to the American grading system and I think this works quite well in the realm of headpointing (and maybe just for all trad). This may be because of the time I have spent in the States, but the sport grade followed by PG, PG-13, R, X feels like a more precise way of grading (rather than having the overlap of factors that play into the E grade). 

There are so many factors that play into someone's experience on a trad route that I think an important skill for climbers to learn is to use their brains to judge the situation/grade versus their skill set.

Craig Matheson

I believe [undergrading] comes from a mix of cultural and psychological factors. I'm quite reserved in my judgments and don't shout too loudly about the things I've done. As a result I've been happy to offer grades to routes that are more reserved or 'play it safe'. This means they'll be tough at the grade (they might even be upgraded when a guide is released). But that's because I've been brought up in a climbing culture where it wasn't the done thing to give grades away easily. Perhaps historically this grading strategy was partly so that you could hear about others having a hard time on your routes, which has always been a good chuckling point in the pub! I blame my Dad for giving me this '70s mentality - but I think it's fair to say most of the Cumbrian teams operating in the '70s/'80s used this conservative grading policy. 

What I am trying to explain is that experience, locality and personal characteristics all affect the grades that are given. Which brings us to the current discourse - how do we provide a British E grade system with less grade variance? Ultimately this really means repeat ascents, but with many hard routes repeats are rare occurrences (statisticians will no doubt inform me how many this needs to be before it becomes relatively accurate). 

An alternative is to provide a form of software guidance that takes away some of the personal interpretation. Whilst this is still subjective and still needs validation by ascents, it is a viable tool in helping to achieve a more consistent grading system. Just in the same way that online grade 'voting' has become a tool that helps to inform the grade of a route for the average climber."


The eGrader won't radically alter British grades and it's not meant to. It's a tool that can help to build a comprehensive picture of what a route will feel like. With that said, it is built on data and based in logic and reason, so its linear nature should only provide a positive influence on the grading of new routes, as well as help to inform and understand existing grades. 

As explained above there are myriad variables that further complicate the subjective nature of grades and grading worldwide will never be a 100%-agreed-upon practice. There will still be outliers and anomalies, subjectivity to consensus will always exist and nuance and variables will always enter the debate. But the eGrader will lessen the abundance of outliers (partly through increased discussion as to why they're outliers), and also help reopen the compression that's developed at the top end of British trad climbing.

Ultimately this tool should be a positive contribution to the community, and a tool that can be made further robust by the contributions and thoughts and discussions of the climbing community. The team invites people to comment!

What do you think? Comment in the UKC forum thread.

4 Apr, 2023

It sounds like an April Fools joke but our trad grad system simply doesn't work in the higher grades. I expect its too late to sort out now but it'd be great if it could be fixed.

English 6c can be anything from Font 6C (a grade I'm likely to flash) to Font 7C+ (a grade I won't get up with 5 years of training/a tight rope rope/ the good lord assisting me).

English 7a is even worse. It means impossible but who knows how impossible.

When climbing E6 or above most people try to gain a bit of extra info on the boulder or sport grade of the particular route, mostly to give them an idea of wether they can actually climb the route or if its going to kill them lol.

The standard grading system could have given this information if it hadn't been stretched into uselessness.

Don't really know why I'm waffling, it's not going to change 😅

4 Apr, 2023

The Darth Grader of trad. I can't talk about the high E grades, but for routes I have done, I thought it was quite accurate.

A bit of fun in the pub after a days trad climbing.


4 Apr, 2023

Not sure if an April fools or not, and I’ve only skim-read the article, so please forgive me if this is covered. Initial thoughts are that I think the general adjustment of E grades is possibly/probably a good thing as there are large inconsistencies, however not everyone who climbs trad necessarily has enough sport experience to be able to judge the corresponding french grade? I can think of several routes I’ve climbed in the E1-E2 range where I wouldn’t be able to tell you whether they were 6a, 6a+ or 6b, and yet this would apparently change its rating. Also, do we all agree on a definition of safe or run-out? Some people like to have a lot more gear than others!

This being said, definitely a good attempt at defining something that is contentious! Good effort, if indeed this is a serious article!

4 Apr, 2023

"The French grading system is linear in nature, so hypothetically there should be the same difference between 6a and 6a+, as there is between 9a and 9a+."

Well, it's not. I mean, you can call it linear if you want but it's measuring something that is subjective and ill-defined. What is meant here by "difference"? It's like calling the Decibel or Moment Magnitude scales "linear" because the numbers go up by the same amount.

This is all fun and provokes discussion but ultimately you're trying to assign a number to how hard a totally arbitrary person finds it to scale totally arbitrary features on a bit of rock.

E grades, with the odd outlier, seem to suit the vast majority of UK trad climbers. I suspect those at the upper end will get by with a combination of E grades, boulder grades and a French sport grade. Isn't that what they all do anyway?

4 Apr, 2023

I get what you're saying but I disagree. Each grade represents a reduced proportion of climbers able to succeed. If the proportional reduction is the same for 6a to 6a+ as it is for 9a to 9a+ then there's a very good case for calling it linear.

More generally, on first encounter I expected to find this initiative overly geeky, overly complex and not that useful at all. Instead, I'm really quite impressed.

I suspect quite a few routes of E8 and E9 will come out as deserving upgrades, which I don't see as a bad thing as grade compression around there I think is notable.

The one thing I'm less sure about is how to account for marginal gear, meaning that the outcome of a fall cannot reliably be predicted. This doesn't seem to feature at all in the danger descriptions and is a pretty significant factor in many of the UK's hardest routes.

Edit: Just thought this through and realised that my 'proportionality' argument above is effectively the definition of logarithmic, so I retract my objection! I think rather than calling it 'linear', maybe 'consistent' would be more appropriate.

More Comments
Loading Notifications...
Facebook Twitter Copy Email