Traditional (Trad) Grades History

Trad climbing was started in the late 19th century, by the pioneers of rock climbing, as a sport as opposed to rock climbing to avoid predators!

Unlike the French grading system that most beginners get used to first, (what is used at indoor walls) the UK Trad grading system has two parts to it, the Adjectival and Technical. It was O.G. Jones who was credited with the creation of the Adjectival grade system in the early 20th century.

It only consisted of the following grades:
Easy
Moderate
Difficult
Exceptionally Severe – This was everything harder than Difficult!

Slowly as climbing techniques and standards improved over the following 50 years, additional grades and variations were introduced. The grade Easy was eventually dropped although some Classics are still classified as such. The table below shows what the grades were in 1970, the top grades of Very Severe (hard) and Extremely Severe were introduced around the late 50’s and mid/late 60’s respectively.

Grade *1 Today’s Grades Abbr
Moderate Moderate M
Difficult Difficult D
Difficult (hard) Hard Difficult HD  *2
Very difficult Very Difficult VD
Very difficult (hard) Hard Very Difficult HVD
Severe (mild) Mild Severe MS   *2
Severe Severe S
Severe (hard) Hard Severe HS
Very Severe (mild) Mild Very Severe MVS  *2
Very Severe Very Severe VS
Very Severe (hard) Hard Very Severe HVS
Extremely Severe Extreme E1, E2 etc.
*1. Extract from a Fell and Rock Club (FRCC) Guide book 1970
*2. Very seldom used now.

Eventually they ran out of adjectives to describe the difficulty of routes above ES, so in 1976 Pete Botterrill proposed the open ended numerical system we have now, i.e. E1, E2, E3 etc.

The Technical grade was first proposed by Pete Crew and Rodney Wilson in 1964 using the numerical values based on the grades being used on southern sandstone climbs. This wasn’t adopted until around 1976 after many other systems had been dismissed.

Adjectival grades

The adjectival grade is the first part of the UK Trad 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.  As with all grades, these categorisations 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 “Severe!” where a route of one grade is claimed to be harder than one from the next grade up.  Well, this just happens, if you find a route easy for its grade, give yourself a pat on the back. If it seems hard, blame the guidebook.

Technical grades

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, although grades of 3b  and 3c are not unheard of 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. So a 7b is still a rarity on routes.

Note:  Do not confuse these numbers with the French sport grading system!!  At the lower end they are similar but the gap widens the higher the grade, (French grades may have an “F” before the number, but may not!)  e.g.  UK tech 4a = F3, 4b = F4 (similar) but UK 5c = F6b, UK 6b = F7b and UK 7a = F8c. So if you’re doing F6b at your local wall don’t even think you could try a Trad Tech grade of the same number as this would be around E5!!

Also note, bouldering grades are also differentiated by use of an “f” before the grade.