Understanding Trad Grades

Are you just getting into trad climbing? Are you not sure how trad grades work? If you don't know the difference between a HS 4c and a HS 4a, then our short article will help you get to grips with British trad grades. 

Erin Bastian and Ben Mayo enjoying  Demo Route (HS 4b), at Sennen

How it Works

Here in the UK we only have one grading system that we use for all traditional rock climbs; where you place your own protection as you lead climb. We do however have one of the most complicated grading systems around, so when your starting out it can seem quite confusing, but perseverance will pay off as once you understand how it works it becomes one of the most insightful. Below we've put together a concise grade table to illustrate the British trad grades up to E1.

A concise grade table showing the realtionship between the Adjective and Technical grades up to E1

A concise grade table showing the realtionship between the Adjective and Technical grades up to E1

The Adjective Grade

The first part of a trad grade gives you an overall holistic impression of the route, taking into account the rock quality, overall difficulty of the climbing, and how sustained and potentially serious it is. The grades start and ascend as follows: Moderate (M), Difficult (D), Very Difficult (VD), Severe (S), Hard Severe (HS), Very Severe (VS), Hard Very Severe (HVS) and Extreme Severe (E). The ‘E’ grades are then categorised with a number and ascend in difficulty as follows: E1, E2, E3, E4, and so on all the way up to (currently) E11.

The Technical Grade

The second part of the grade is the technical grade, which purely relates to the difficulty of the hardest move on the route- the crux. It worth noting that it doesn’t take into account how well protected the climbing is. The technical grades generally start at 4a, though some guidebooks start at 3c, and ascend as follows: 4a, 4b, 4c, 5a, 5b, 5c, 6a, 6b, 6c, 7a, 7b.

The Relationship between the Grades

When the two grades are combined (e.g. VS 4c) then this will give you an insight about what type of route it is. A route of a given adjective grade will often have an average technical grade associated with it. These loosely run as follows: S 4a, HS 4b, VS 4c, HVS 5a, E1 5b, E2 5c and after E3 the system starts to fall down a bit- but once you’ve got there you’ll know how it works! Depending on the relationship between the grades you’ll be able to tell if the route is ‘Bold’, ‘Average’, or ‘Safe’ (see the definitions above). So a low adjective grade and a high technical grade (e.g. VS 5a) would imply that it’s a safe route with a short but well protected crux. Whereas a high adjective grade and a low technical grade (VS 4b) would imply its either a bold route- one with easier climbing but a serious undertaking due to it being harder to protect- or a sustained route with lots of 4b (ish) climbing.

It’s worth remembering that these are loose guidelines rather than hard and fast rules, and some routes out there will not fit with them. So take care, do your homework, and spend some time 'reading' your route to decide if it's any appropriate choice for you.


To help you get to grips with trad grades we've put together a single page download of our Grade Table, and explanation, so you can save it to your phone or print it out and then use it at the crag.