Mountaineering is such an activity which has a seemingly endless amount of grading systems that are used to judge the difficulty of a mountaineering expedition and today in this article we are going to break down the grades and tell you how much difficult can mountaineering be.
Before getting started with it first let us know what are the mountaineering grading systems? The main mountaineering grading systems tells us about the difficultly level for each of the mountaineering expeditions. It includes the French Mountaineering Grades, starting from F “easy” to ED “Extremely Difficult, the Yosemite Decimal System starting from Class 1 to Class 5 terrain, and the National Climbing Classification System which starts from Grade I to Grade VII.
Which system you use will vary based on what you are climbing, the guidebook you purchase, and what the local mountaineers use and over the time, the French system has begun to gain more and more popularity in North America, while some areas like Scotland and Alaska have specific regional systems that you should familiarize yourself with before climbing in the area.
Mountain Climbing Ratings
Mountain climbing grades are a murky and at times difficult-to-understand system which attempts to judge how hard a specific peak is to summit of a mountain. While doing so they take into account a variety of factors, which are as follows:
- Length: The longer a route, the more time you will need to climb up
- Technicality of moves: Harder routes obviously involve harder technical moves that needs to be performed
- Sustained difficulty: A route that has numerous meters of difficult climbing will be harder than a route that which will only have a few meters of it.
- Exposure: Exposure basically means how high up you are and the more exposure a route has and the higher the consequences are if you fall, making it harder and harder to climb.
- Danger: Other elements like avalanche risk, rock fall, or poor conditions can make the mountaineering route more challenging to climb.
As you can see, there are a lot of different things that need to be taken into account before you can judge how difficult a mountain climb is and this is the only reason that there is notany one centrally accepted system.
A Caution Against Relying on Grades
Before we get into the depth of these studies, we would like to say that do not have too much faith in the grade of a route because there is so much variation in the routes, and so many factors that need to be built in, grades can sometimes be misleading. Therefore we would recommend you to use specific route reports to get a more in-detail idea of what you are going to be up against when you are climbing a mountain.
A simple rating does not cover all of the intricacies of mountaineering for example, you are an experienced ice climber, but you have less practice on exposed rock, so if you try to climb a mountain with difficult rock-climbing sections, you might find yourself in a trouble that how strenuous the route is. But, reading reports beforehand can give you more of an insight into the specifics of the mountaineering expeditions.
French Mountaineering Grades
The French mountaineering grading system was one of the first ones to develop and, till today it stands as one of the most comprehensive and widely used systems out there and it groups mountains into six different levels:
- F: Facile (Easy): Where rock scrambling or snow scrambling that can often be climbed without a rope
- PD: Peu Difficile (A bit difficult): Sometimes technical movements and more challenging in glacier travels
- AD: Assez Difficile (Fairly Difficult): Steep climbing, snow slopes about 50 degrees; a fair amount of alpine experience is necessary.
- D: Difficile (Difficult): Sustained, difficult rock or ice climbing
- TD: Tres Difficile (Very Difficult): The entire route is made up of challenging sections which is really difficult for climbing
- ED: Extremement Difficile (Extremely Difficult): The hardest mountains in the world and technical skill and a high degree of danger are involved.
The French system is mainly based around the difficulty of the hardest sections in the route, and how sustained those sections are and it is also designed specifically for mountaineering and alpine routes.
F: Facile (Easy)
Facile is considered as really easy routes that are the most basic of mountaineering expeditions and can be thought of more as hikes or scrambles as you will rarely have to use your hands, and you most likely would not need a rope on any of these routes.
A mountain graded facile can likely be ascended with no technical equipment but at times some of these routes can still feature enough exposure to hurt you if you fall, so do not take them too lightly.
PD: Peu Difficile (A bit difficult)
These routes can be considered as ‘not very hard’ for people with a good understanding of alpine techniques and the majority of the route will likely be walking or easy scrambling/glacier travel.
The technical sections, will likely require the use of a rope and protection but these sections will be easily identifiable and will not be very sustained, so they do not present that much of a challenge.
SO we would say that if you know what you are doing, then Peu Difficile mountains can provide a pleasant, relaxing mountaineering experience with just enough excitement to keep you interested.
AD: Assez Difficile (Fairly Difficult)
AD routes are where it starts to get serious and this is considered as fairly difficult route as here you can expect to have to rope up more often and for more sustained sections of climbing or glacier travel and the moves will also become more technical, and route finding will become more of an issue.
So if you ask for our suggestions then we would suggest that practise with PD mountains first then go for an AD climb and bring a more experienced partner with you.
D: Difficile (Difficult)
On difficult routes, you can expect technical finding routes and the good rope-management skills to be a push to your success as here, the routes are steeper, the glacier travel is more technical, and the climbing becomes more sustained.
Difficile routes are where you also need to start seriously worrying about uncontrollable dangers like avalanches and rock fall and you should also be comfortable enough to move on technical rock and ice without falling.
TD: Tres Difficile (Very Difficult)
Tres difficile mountains is considered as very difficult and features persistent, technical, and dangerous climbing for nearly the entirety of your time on the route. You’re going to face a variety of obstacles including steep rock, difficult ice, and knifes-edge ridges and to take on one of these mountains, you should be a seasoned mountaineer with good knowledge of trad climbing, snow or ice anchors, and emergency CPR or rescue techniques.
ED: Extremement Difficile (Extremely Difficult)
ED mountains make up some of the most difficult climbs in the world as you will have to perform challenging rock and ice climbing maneuvers in no-fall terrain for sustained periods of time, while dealing with avalanche and rock fall danger.
As the limits of human potential continue to be pushed therefore peaks have been broken down into the subcategories of ED1, ED2, and ED3 and the higher the number goes, the greater technicality of climbing you have to do.
Yosemite Decimal System
The YDS or Yosemite Decimal System is one of the oldest measurement tools used for mountain climbing. It has its limitations in terms of mountaineering, because of the fact that they do not account for ice, snow, or winter conditions.
This scale has 5 difficulty levels, which are as follows:
- Class 1: Walking on easy terrain
- Class 2: Some hands-on scrambling is required for balance and the fall danger is low
- Class 3: Lots of hands-on scrambling, with some difficulty moves and a fall could result in a broken bone and even death .
- Class 4: Sustained, difficult scrambling on exposed terrain and a fall will kill you.
- Class 5: Technical rock climbing and a rope and belayer are required.
The YDS was developed for rock climbers, and that is where it is mainly used today and knowing the grading criteria for it can help you gain a better understanding of the terrain that you will be up against when you are mountaineering. If you are scrambling or doing non-technical mountain climbing, there is a good chance that you will need to know the YDS.
Class 1 scrambling is basically just steep hiking and you may need to contend with unstable footing and strenuous uphill sections, but you likely would not find yourself on any technical terrain and all you need to perform a Class 1 scramble is a reasonable level of fitness.
Class 2 scrambles involve some hands-on moves and some exposure as these are still pretty easy which can most likely be performed by anyone with a high degree of fitness and a good head for heights but they should not be taken too lightly because a fall on a class 2 scramble could still result in broken bones.
Class 2 scrambles are a great way to build up your confidence and get used to moving on moderate terrain without any protection in place and because of this, they can be a great introduction into the world of alpine climbing.
Class 3 scrambles are where it starts to get serious because you will have sustained scrambling in areas where a fall could result in a broken bone or worse and you may have to bear with brief sections of more difficult moves or greater exposure. On class 3 scrambles, there will be sections where a fall could be really very fatal and even deadly. Though the terrain is rarely difficult enough to require a rope, but you should still proceed with extreme caution and make sure that you are comfortable at all times and a good amount of experience on class 2 scrambles should be gained before you venture onto one of these routes.
A class 4 route is one that lies between scrambling and free soloing because you are performing challenging moves in no-fall terrain for sustained periods of time and difficult route finding, poor rock quality, and high degrees of exposure may also have to be contended with. These are no joke, and it is very easy to die on one. A
Class 5 terrain is technical rock climbing and unless you are one of those handful of people whose comfortable free-soloing, you will need ropes and other gear to ensure your safety and while climbing, the routes are denoted on their difficulty by a number following the five, e.g. 5.x and the higher this number, the more difficult the mountaineering would be.
Rock climbing can be broken down into a few categories:
- 5.1-5.5: These are absolute easy climbs with solid handholds and footholds which almost anyone can climb at this level.
- 5.6-5.9: Progressively more difficult climbs and some experience and training may be required.
- 5.10-5.12: Climbing routes that require a high level of strength and skill
- 5.12-5.15: Extremely technical climbing which requires a hell lot of strength and practice.
National Climbing Classification System
The National Climbing Classification System (NCCS) was created by the American Alpine Institute to provide a grading system for climbing routes across the massively diverse terrain of the USA.
Unlike other systems, this system mostly focusses on ‘commitment’ which is the expected amount of time it takes to complete a route and in this way, it tries to standardize the difficulty of ice, rock, and snow routes, along with the different types of routes which are found in different parts of the country. NCCS leaves out a lot of important details such as the approach difficulty and the specific degree of technical skill required but it can be really awesome to use as a judge for how much gear or prep you will need to do before embarking to climb a certain peak.
This system has seven levels, which are stated below:
- Grade I: Technically, the route can be completed in less than an hour.
- Grade II: Two hours of technical climbing in grade II
- Grade III: The technical portion of the route will require most of the day.
- Grade IV: In Grade IV climbing, one usually faces a difficulty of at least 5.7 or the equivalent level of snow or alpine climbing
- Grade V: It will be necessary to stay overnight midway through the technical portion of the route.
- Grade VI: A minimum of two technical climbing days is required for grade VI
- Grade VII: You will climb large alpine walls for several days or weeks on grade VII mountains
NCCS is based around the capabilities of an ‘average’ climbing team, but it does not delve too much into what this means. In that case, we recommend that if you are going to utilize the NCCS, you start with a grade II or I route and compare your own time to the ‘expected’ time set.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What are the 6 types of climbs?
Mountaineering (alpine climbing)
Top Rope Climbing
Free Solo Climbing
What are the different types of mountaineering?
There are three types of mountain climbing which are; ice climbing, trail climbing, and rock climbing.
What is a Class 5 scramble?
Class 5 is the part of the class scale that deals primarily with rock climbing classification, whereas classes 1 and 2 have more to do with hiking and trail running.
Is Climbing a 5.10 Good?
Climbing a 5.10 is a solid intermediate step that puts any climber in good company and it requires above average fitness and an understanding of basic techniques so we can consider it as intermediate..
What is the best time to go mountaineering?
The best conditions for a mountaineering trip are generally during Spring, early-Autumn, and Summer as these seasons provide more pleasant and stable weather conditions and allow mountaineers to avoid extremely cold temperatures, heavy snowfalls, and strong winds.
What is Cragging?
The term ‘cragging’ describes climbing routes within walking distance of the car, and it is the most popular form of roped climbing.
What is the most dangerous type of climbing?
Lead climbing is one of the most dangerous forms of rock climbing, and requires a skilled climber or belayer to be performed safely and because of the increased fall distance and all of the risks associated with it, lead climbing is considered as the riskiest activity that most climbers will do.
What are the examples of mountaineering activities?
Some examples of mountaineering activities are as follows:
What is the goal of a mountaineer?
The sole goal of a mountaineer is to reach the summit of the peak of a mountain.