Alpine grades, and taking a look at the complexities of grading an alpine route
Alpine terrain really draws on many of those learnt skills whether that’s, safe glacial travel, ice climbing, rock scrambling or rock climbing, or a culmination of all that terrain where you’ll wear crampons and use an ice axe over all of it ‘mixed climbing’
All these skills can be learnt separately, and it can really help by focusing on each skill in this way, so that in each of those environments you learn best practice, so that when in the bigger mountain environment such as the Alps you can draw both physically and mentally on those learnt skills to travel more efficiently and safely through it.
Conditions also changing, turning easy snow slopes later in the season in steeper ice slopes that are more technical and more time consuming to travel over later in the season. Early season you could also get very heavily snowed up ridges with cornices that have formed making that easy ridge a very serious proposition and much more dangerous. The list goes on, but please think of the grade as a useful tool when planning you route of mountain to climb, but it’s only part of that bigger picture that you need to paint, to fully understand the grade and conditions of both the approach, the route itself and then also the descent….all a changing environment both summer and winter.
The grade given to a route is the maximum technical difficulty that you’ll generally find approaching it, climbing it, or descending from it.
The grade also considers how serious the route is, how committing it is and so paints a broad overall picture in terms of the ‘grade’.
Having said that just because a route is graded ‘Facile’ which is ‘Easy’ some of the ‘Easy’ alpine routes can feel very serious indeed! A snowed-up knife edge arete, with 500m of very steep almost vertical terrain falling down to the valley below, even though is just walking can feel and is, very serious.
What I’m saying is that grades vary enormously with regards how technical they are or how serious and committing they feel, use it as only a broad brush.
Grade names -
F = Facile = Easy PD-/PD/PD+ = Peu Difficile = Somewhat difficult AD-/AD/AD+ = Assez Difficile = Fairly difficult D-/D/D+ = Difficile = Difficult TD-/TD/TD+ = Tres Difficile = Very difficult ED-/ED/ED+ = Extremement Difficile = Extremely difficult EDX = Beyond extremely difficult!
What makes up the alpine grade -
The alpine grade is mainly determined by the maximum technical difficulty on the route that cannot be avoided (without using aid climbing techniques), either on rock, snow, ice, or mixed terrain. The maximum ‘obligatory’ grade will determine the minimal alpine grade given to a route as it determines the minimum level required to overcome the hardest move or pitch on the climb.
However, overcoming the hardest move is rarely enough and the maximum technical difficulty is thus weighted by a number of other factors such as how sustained the difficulties are, the complexity of the approach or descent, the route’s commitment etc. These other elements are what makes the alpine grade an overall/holistic grade.
This more ‘holistic’ grade helps give you more of a clearer and indication of the level required to complete a route or climbs in a reasonable amount of time and safety associated with that routes level of commitment.
Maximum obligatory difficulties
The following correspondences gives a broad-brush idea of how maximum and obligatory technical difficulties determine the minimum alpine grade given to a climb. If the climb goes over several types of terrain, the hardest maximum difficulty encountered will be the one to determine the minimum alpine grade, which will subsequently be weighted according to other criteria as explained
Any rock climbing? (‘F’ French grading system)
F3a (obligatory) = PD minimum
F4a (obligatory) = AD- minimum
F4b (obligatory) = AD minimum
F4c (obligatory) = AD+ minimum
F5a (obligatory) = D- minimum
F5b (obligatory) = D minimum
F5c (obligatory) = D+ minimum
F6a (obligatory) = TD- minimum
F6b (obligatory) = TD minimum
F6c (obligatory) = TD+ minimum
F7a (obligatory) = ED- minimum
F7b (obligatory) = ED minimum
F7c (obligatory) = ED+ minimum
Any ice climbing? (‘WI’ Waterfall Ice grade)
WI3 = AD+ minimum
WI3+ = D- minimum
WI4 = D minimum
WI4+ = D+ minimum
WI5 = TD- minimum
WI5+ = TD minimum
WI6 = TD+ minimum
WI6+ = ED- minimum
Any mixed climbing? (‘M’ Mixed Climbing Grade)
M3 - AD minimum
M4 - D minimum
M5 - TD minimum
M6 - TD+/ED- minimum
M7 - ED minimum
Any aid climbing?
A0 (obligatory) = D- minimum
A1 (obligatory) = TD- minimum
A2 (obligatory) = ED- minimum
Maximum technical difficulties –
In general, the maximum technical difficulty encountered on a climb
determines the minimum alpine grade, which can be increased to reflect
how sustained the difficulties are, the complexity of route-finding, how
hard the route is to protect etc in fact, anything which might make the
climb harder is considered.
The most common criteria are listed below -
How hard a particular move or sequence of moves are – on snow, rock, or ice
The approach & descent - length and complexity
The quality of the snow rock or ice
The location of any of the harder sections (at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end)
Are there good quality belays and anchors or not?
Is any of the climbing difficult to protect or not?
The aspect of the slopes (E or W, N or S) and thus the required timings associated to these faces
Any objective danger (such as routes under the threat of falling seracs)
Any frequent and/or unpredictable bad weather conditions
Commitment (difficulty of retreat)
The problem being is that the grade was given and record on the first ascent. That route and its grade was then written up in guidebooks. But as soon as that guidebook was published the conditions of that route may have changed making it maybe more serious in terms of objective hazards such as glaciers receding and now there is more glacier hazards on the approach or descent etc.
Now routes that are popular in busy areas have over the years seen multiple guidebooks written and it’s positive that the first ascent grade has changed as conditions to or from it or even whilst climbing it have changed and so the current grade more accurately describes the climb more accurately. But if it a guidebook that’s been published longer than an hour ago then the route and conditions could be very different!
A final note on the UIAA grading scale –
The ‘UIAA Scale’ (International Union of Alpine Associations) is composed of Roman symbols from I to VIII and upwards, followed by either the sign ‘+’ (plus) or ‘-‘ (minus).
In 1943 by Lucien Devies and GHM (Groupe Haute Montagne), proposed that the UIAA add in the ‘Scale of Global Assessment’ by the letters: F, PD, AD, D, TD and ED and the “Scale of Difficulty in Aided Climbing” with the symbols A1, and A2 Etc
You'll see the UIAA grading system used in many alpine guidebooks.
UIAA grading system –
Grade I - A scramble and the easiest form of rock climbing. You need to use your hands for support or balance and footholds must be trusted.
Grade II – Here climbing begins, that requires climbing movement - holds and features for hands and feet are abundant.
Grade III – The rock structure is becoming steeper or even vertical. The rock offers holds and features for hands and feet, although you will need to use more force to climb securely.
Grade IV – Hand holds and features for feet become less obvious and require a good level of climbing ability.
Grade V - Hand holds and features for feet become more infrequent, and less obvious. The climbing is becoming more delicate, requiring a higher level of technical movement and climbing ability.
Grade VI – Very small hand holds and features for feet which require sequences of movement to overcome particular sections of steepr or less featured rock. The climb could be very delicate or physical tough if overhanging
Grade VII - Any handholds and rock features for your feet become very small and more widely spaced apart. Requires a high level of climbing ability, movement, and finger strength.
Grade VIII through to IX and X etc – the climbing continues to get more and more extreme, technically, and physically.
I hope the above helps a little with regards alpine grades, in what is a very changeable environment!