How does the BMC traditional grading system work? Niall Grimes takes a look.
The system for grading traditionally protected climbs in BMC guides is the traditional, two-part British grade, a combination of the adjectival and technical grades. It may seem confusing to those not used to the system, eg, climbers who might have only climbed indoors, or who have only sport climbed (These both tend to use French grades.). However, here is an attempt at explaining how it works.
The adjectival grade is the first part of the grade, and attempts to give a sense of the overall difficulty of a climb. This will be influenced by many aspects, including seriousness, sustaindness, technical difficulty, exposure, strenuousness, rock quality, and any other less tangible aspects which lend difficulty to a pitch. It is an open ended system, and currently runs from Easy, which is barely climbing, to E11, which has been barely climbed. Along the way, and in ascending order, are Moderate (M), Difficult (D), Hard Diff (HD), Very Difficult (VD), Hard Very Difficult (HVD), Severe (S), Hard Severe (HS), Very Severe (VS), Hard Very Severe (HVS) and Extremely Severe, the last category being split into E1, E2, E3 etc.
As with all grades, these catagorisations are subjective; there are no cut off points. VS runs smoothly into HVS, HVS runs into E1. Also, some climbers are better at safe, technical routes, some better at bold easy ones. Some climb well on delicate slabs, some on overhanging fist cracks. All this leads to that all too often splutter- “That’s never a Moderate!” where a route of one grade is claimed to be harder than one from the next grade up. Well, this just happens. All you can do is, if you find a route easy for its grade, give yourself a pat on the back. If it seems hard, blame the guidebook.
The second part of the grade, the technical grade, is there to give an indication of the hardest move to be found on the route, irrespective of how many of them there might be, how strenuous it is, or how frightened you are when you do it.
They come onto the scale somewhere around 4a, a savage example of elitism that must have 3b merchants fuming at the mouth, and currently run thus; 4a, 4b, 4c, 5a, 5b, 5c, 6a, 6b, 6c, 7a, 7b. It is an open ended scale, although while climbs continue to get harder and harder, this is usually reflected in the E grade, with climbs tending to become more serious and more strenuous rather than more technical. Real 7a is still a rarity on routes.
Going back to the combined grade, you should see how the combination of these two grades goes to suggest the difficulty of a climb, and what type of difficulty this might be. As a help, climbs of a particular adjectival grade, will often have an associated average technical grade. Roughly these are S, 4a; HS, 4b; VS, 4c; HVS, 5a; E1, 5b; E2, 5c. Above this the technical grade starts to slow down in relation to the adjectival grade, and by the time you get to E6, 6b is more of an average grade.
However, by the time you get to E6, you should have started to understand grades for yourself, so don’t worry about that point. So, for your final lesson, if, for a particular adjectival grade, the technical grade is high, (e.g. VS 5a, E1 5c) then you can expect the route to be technical in character, with maybe a single, hard, well protected move. If the technical grade is low for the adjectival grade, (e.g. HVS 4c, E3 5b) then expect either a very sustained and strenuous struggle, or a route with relatively easy climbing, only in a serious situation. Which one of these two it might be can hopefully be determined by looking at the climb. (i.e., an overhanging hand crack could reasonably be supposed to be sustained and well protected, a blank slab could be supposed to be serious.)
And the final point is that these rules are broken more often than they are obeyed, so use this explanation only as a guide, and stay open minded.
It is best used in conjunction with the downloadable grade comparison table. This also shows conversions between various bouldering grades.
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