The Ultimate Guide to Climbing Grades

The Ultimate Guide to Climbing Grades

Understanding climbing grades is essential for safe and successful rock, ice and alpine climbing. Understanding the different grading systems and the factors that affect grades will help you make informed decisions and tackle routes that match your skill level and ambitions.

This Ultimate Guide to Climbing Grades provides information on: 

Rock Climbing Grades (systems used across the world)
Commitment Grades
    A climber climbing stellar granite in Lake Tahoe, Calirfornia
    A climber on Donner Summit in California. Photo: Zeb Blais

    Rock Climbing Grades

    See Our Complete Guide to USA Climbing Grades

    Rock climbing is graded on both the technical difficulty of the climb and the commitment of the climb.  The technical difficulty is based on the hardest move of the climb, so even if a climb is mostly easy climbing but has one hard move, the technical rating will be that or the hardest move.

    In the United States, Canada and Mexico the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) is typically used to rate the technical difficulty of climbs.  The Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) is a numeric scale used to rate the difficulty of walks, hikes, scrambles and climbs, primarily used by climbers in the United States and elsewhere in North America. 

      Elsewhere in the world, various countries have their own systems, but most have adopted one of the following systems.

      • French Climbing Grades
      • UIAA (Union Internationale des Associations d'Alpinisme, also known as the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation in English speaking countries)
      • Great Britain
      • Australia

      Ice Climbing Grades

      See Our Complete Guide to Ice Climbing Grades

        Ames Ice Hose in Telluride CO
        A climber on the Ames Ice Hose, WI5 in Telluride, CO. Photo: Zeb Blais

        See our Complete Guide to Ice Climbing Grades for more details.

        WI 1: Low angle ice; no tools required.
        WI 2: Consistent 60 degree ice with possible bulges; good protection.
        WI 3: Sustained 70 degree with possible long bulges of 80-90 degrees; reasonable rests and good stances for placing screws.
        WI 4: Continuous 80 degree ice fairly long sections of 90 degree ice broken up by occasional rests.
        WI 5: Long and strenuous, with a rope length of 85-90 degrees ice offering few good rests; or a shorter pitch of thin or bad ice with protection that’s difficult to place.
        WI 6: A full rope length of nearly 90 degree ice with no rests, or a shorter pitch even more tenuous than WI 5.  Highly technical.
        WI 7: As above, but on thin poorly bonded ice or long, overhanging poorly adhered columns. Protection is impossible or very difficult to place and of dubious quality.


        Mixed Climbing Grades 

        See Our Complete Guide to Mixed Climbing Grades

        Ragnarock, WI4 M5 at Smugglers Notch in Vermont. Photo: Zeb Blais
        Ragnarock, WI4 M5 at Smugglers Notch in Vermont. Photo: Zeb Blais

        Mixed Climbing Grades, or M Grades, are used to rate the technical difficulty of climbing terrain that includes steep rock and ice using ice tools and crampons.  Grades range from M1 to M16,

        Our Complete Guide to Mixed Climbing for Details on grades and example videos of various Mixed Climbing Grades.

        • M1-M3: Easy to moderate, often includes good rock holds and manageable ice.
        • M4-M6: Moderate to difficult, requires more technical skill and strength.
        • M7-M9: Very difficult, steep rock sections, poor ice, and limited protection.
        • M10-M12: Extremely difficult, overhanging rock, thin ice, high technical demands. This is elite athlete territory.
        • M13-M16: The pinnacle of mixed climbing difficulty, extremely technical and physically demanding.
          Arête du Diable, a Grade IV Alpine climb in the Mont Blanc Massif
          A climber on the first rock pitch of Arête du Diable, a Grade IV Alpine climb in the Mont Blanc Massif. Photo: Zeb Blais

          Commitment Grades

          National Climbing Classification System (NCCS) Commitment Grades

          Long multi-pitch rock climbing and alpine climbing routes are often given a commitment grade.  Designated by Roman numerals, I through VII, these grades describe the commitment level of the climb. Commitment is mostly related to the overall length of time it may take an average climber to climb the route, along with the difficulty of retreat and similar factors.

          The NCCS standard originated in the US during the 1960s. More climbers were taking on bigger and more ambitious rock routes, so a way to describe the length of an average party’s ascent became very useful.

          Be aware of the term “average party,” however. Commitment grades assume that climbers have a thorough knowledge of the techniques and physical prowess needed to succeed on a particular route.

          Commitment Grades

          Grade I: Less than half a day for the technical portion.
          Grade II: Half a day for the technical portion.
          Grade III: Most of a day for the technical portion.
          Gra IV: A full day of technical climbing, generally at least 5.7.
          Grade V: Typically requires an overnight on the route.
          Grade VI: Two or more days of hard technical climbing.
          Grade VII: Remote big walls climbed in alpine style.

            Tips for Assessing Routes

            When planning a climbing new route, consider the following tips:

            • Research: Gather information from guidebooks, online forums, and local climbers.
            • Condition Reports: Check recent condition reports to understand current challenges.
            • Personal Ability: Honestly assess your own skills and experience level.
            • Route Reconnaissance: If possible, scout the route beforehand to identify key sections and protection options.

             About the Author

            Zeb Blais is an IFMGA Mountain Guide based in Truckee, California.  He tortures his feet with rock shoes and mountaineering boots when he isn't torturing them with ski boots.  His favorite place to be outside of the Lake Tahoe area is Chamonix, France.

            Previous Article Next Article

            Book Your adventure