Why do we need an alpine grade ?
Alpine terrain is all about variety and changing conditions. The maximum difficulty one is likely to encounter on each type of terrain, be it rock, ice or snow, offers little indication as to the overall difficulty of an alpine climb based on. In fact, important information is overlooked by focusing on maximum technical difficulty, such as how sustained these difficulties are, how complex are the approach and descent, or how committed the climb is. These various aspects play an important part is determining if a climbing party is “up to the job” and they are summed up in the alpine grade.
An alternative would be to provide a long list of grades for each one of these aspects taken separately but having a single entry-point for evaluating the overall difficulty of a climb is a big time-saver (for example when searching through a guidebook) and can help avoid nasty surprises.
Alpine climbs are generally graded using the alpine grade (sometimes also called the “global grade”) together with the maximum terrain-specific grades on the climb and/or a grade indicating overall commitment. British climbers will be well aware of the advantages of coupling a global and technical grade as this is very much what the British adjectival and technical rock climbing grades or Scottish ice and mixed grades are about.
The grade labels
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!
Grades versus difficulty
The grade gives a relative indication of the technical, mental and physical level required to succeed on a route that is in good condition, by climbers that wish to keep to guidebook times. The grade offers indications as to the difficulties that will in fact be encountered on the climb but the actual conditions of the terrain (rock, ice…) and weather, as well as the mental and physical state of the climbers also play a key role in determining how hard it might feel. Unlike the grade which is constant for a given route, its difficulty changes from one day (or hour) to the next.
Grading systems make for endless debates and discussions among mountaineers and climbers. This article aims to clarify how the global alpine grade is used for grading alpine climbs and multi-pitch rock and ice routes in the Alps.
What makes up the alpine grade?
The alpine grade is mainly determined by the maximum technical difficulty on the route that cannot be avoided using aid, be it 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 criteria such as how sustained the difficulties are, the complexity of the approach or descent, the route’s commitment etc. These other criteria are what make the alpine grade “global”.
The grade obtained after weighting will give a more robust and reliable indication of the level required to succeed complete the climb in a reasonable amount of time and with a margin of safety commensurate with the route’s level of commitment.
Maximum obligatory difficulties
The following correspondences give 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 above.
- presence of F3a (obligatory) => PD minimum
- presence of F4a (obligatory) => AD- minimum
- presence of F4b (obligatory) => AD minimum
- presence of F4c (obligatory) => AD+ minimum
- presence of F5a (obligatory) => D- minimum
- presence of F5b (obligatory) => D minimum
- presence of F5c (obligatory) => D+ minimum
- presence of F6a (obligatory) => TD- minimum
- presence of F6b (obligatory) => TD minimum
- presence of F6c (obligatory) => TD+ minimum
- presence of F7a (obligatory) => ED- minimum
- presence of F7b (obligatory) => ED minimum
- presence of F7c (obligatory) => ED+ minimum
- presence of A0 (obligatory) => D- minimum
- presence of A1 (obligatory) => TD- minimum
- presence of A2 (obligatory) => ED- minimum
- presence of WI or AI3 => AD+ minimum
- presence of WI or AI 3+ => D- minimum
- presence of WI or AI 4 => D minimum
- presence of WI or AI 4+ => D+ minimum
- presence of WI or AI 5 => TD- minimum
- presence of WI or AI 5+ => TD minimum
- presence of WI or AI 6 => TD+ minimum
- presence of WI or AI 6+ => ED- minimum
- presence of M3 => AD minimum
- presence of M4 => D minimum
- presence of M5 => TD minimum
- presence of M6 => TD+/ED- minimum
- presence of M7 => ED minimum
Weighting of the maximum technical difficulties
In general, the maximum technical difficulty encountered on a climb determines the minimum alpine grade, which is increased to reflect how sustained the difficulties are, the complexity of route-finding, how hard the route is to protect, the quality of belay stances. In fact, anything which might make the climb harder is taken into account.
The most common criteria are listed below:
- the approach, its length and complexity
- the descent, how it is done, its length and complexity
- the quality, number and location of belays (ledges, etc.)
- the quality of the rock, snow or ice
- the location of the harder sections (at the beginning, in the middle, at the end)
- the aspect of the slopes (E or W, N or S) and thus the required timing
- objective dangers (such as routes under the threat of falling seracs)
- frequent and/or unpredictable bad weather conditions
- commitment (difficulty of retreat)
The alpine grade: an indication of the required abilities
The criteria above can increase the overall difficulty of a climb considerably with respect to what one might expect on the basis of the maximum technical difficulty alone. The alpine grade thus gives a better indication of the level required to succeed on the route, that is finishing on time and without unnecessary risk-taking.
As an example, no pitch on the Parisian’s route at the Trois Becs is harder than F6a+ but the obligatory grade is only F5b because you can “French-free” any sections harder than 5b using in-place pitons. Based on the correspondences above, a maximum obligatory rock grade of F5b would give a minimum alpine grade of D. However, the consensus alpine grade is TD. Why?
Well, although an obligatory 5b might mean that a climber who is able to climb F5b could theoretically get to the top of the climb (French-freeing the harder moves), in practice he or she will get scared and blow their timing. The recommended level of ability is closer to F6a, which would make it a minimum of TD-. It’s final grade is TD to take into account the length of the climb and the fact that parts of it require placing protection.
This means that if a route is graded TD, a “TD level” is required to climb the route as it should be. Lower-level climbers might be able to finish the climb but will probably take forever and expose themselves to unnecessary danger.
On rock, climbing a route “as it should be” generally means free-climbing most of it except a few moves that are very much harder than the rest of the route (in that case, check out how the maximum aid climbing grade can determine the minimum global alpine grade). The same goes for ice climbs where mid-pitch rests on ice-axes or screws should not be necessary.
Variations in the use of the alpine grade
The alpine grade and harder ice and mixed climbs
In practice, when a climb is steeper than 50-60° for a significant amount of vertical gain, it is common to use the maximum ice and/or mixed grades. F to D routes are thus often graded using a combination of alpine grade and commitment grade while harder climbs are given an ice or mixed grade and a commitment grade, with no indication of the global alpine grade. This is common on ice-falls and goulottes like Rappelle toi que tu es un homme (IV/6/M8).
Unfortunatly, this commitment grade varies widely between authors, depending on whether or not it includes objective dangers and on the type of routes described: road-side ice-falls or high altitude goulottes. For example, the commitment grade on camptocamp is different to the one used in ice-fall specific guidebooks.
Although the alpine grade is not always given for harder ice and mixed climbs, it remains very relevant to these types of routes. It is for example very useful for climbers who wish to know how their abilities on road-side ice-falls will match their mountaineering objectives for the summer.
The alpine grade and altitude
The alpine grade takes into account the difficulties imposed by altitude. This raises the question of how acclimatized the climbers are expected to be when setting the grade.
In his book on mountaineering in the Andes, John Biggar recognizes the specifics of high-altitude alpinism (that is above 5000m) and suggests combining the alpine grade as it would be given in the Alps with an indication of the number of days required to complete the climb from the access point, with climbers acclimatized to the altitude of the access point (i.e. before initiating the approach).
Some high altitude ascents and treks are very demanding physically because of the lack of oxygen without requiring any particular technical abilities, the normal route on Aconcagua (6959m) being a perfect example. John Biggar grades such « walk-ups » using an alpine grade (F) but in fact, hiking grades such as those developed by the Swiss Alpine Club (used on camptocamp) could also be used, coupled with the number of days required and the altitude of the summit or pass. This is the favoured practice in the camptocamp guidebook.
The alpine grade on camptocamp
The camptocamp guidebook covers a very wide breadth of routes both in terms of type of climbing (terrain, altitude) and geography. Having a homogenous grading system for such a wide range of routes is very complex. Indications are given below on how to grade climbs using the global alpine grade.
- The alpine grade must reflect the level required to climb the route as it should be, that is using the usual combinations of free and aid climbing, in a reasonable amount of time and taking no unnecessary risks in relation to overall commitment, on the basis of the correspondence with the maximum technical grade (across all the terrain types) given above. Weighting should be applied to take into consideration how hard the route is to protect.
- The alpine grade will be increased (by a half-grade) if the approach and/or descent are complex in relation to the difficulties of the climb itself.
- The alpine grade will be increased (by a half-grade) if the climb is committed, in particular for alpine climbs with a commitment grade above IV (see the article on commitment grades).
- Climbers are considered acclimatized to the access point, before initiating the approach.
Description of alpine grades with detailed examples
Do not hesitate to add other examples, with explanations as to what makes up the alpine grade.
F (facile = easy)
On an F climb, the alpinist walks with ease. The route is obvious, as in the case of a glacier with no steep slopes and few crevasses and a final scramble up an easy scree slope or short ridge with no hard moves (difficulties below F3). In general, the rope is only used for safety on the glacier (for crevasse rescue).
Examples of F routes
- [img=picto/snow_ice_mixed.png]alpine snow, ice, mixed[/img] The NE slope of the Dôme de Neige des Ecrins (normal route) (F): Moderate glacier (35° slope) with no technical difficulties when climbed early enough in the season.
- [img=picto/mountain_climbing.png]alpine rock[/img] The Grand Galibier by the Clot Julien (F): Off-trail hike with several sections of easy scrambling.
PD (peu difficile = somewhat difficult)
A PD route is harder than an F route, with for example a more complex glacier to negotiate (some crevasses) or some harder climbing, but that is easy to follow and protect (above F3 on rock but without any F4 sections that are hard to avoid), or snow or ice slopes of moderate inclination (between 35 et 45°) where the steeper sections are short. Some abseiling might be necessary on the way down.
Examples of PD routes
- [img=picto/mountain_climbing.png]alpine rock[/img] [img=picto/snow_ice_mixed.png]alpine snow, ice, mixed[/img] L’W ridge of the Barre des Ecrins (PD): A section of F3b that is not very sustained, the rest being either easy rock (maximum F2) or a moderate glacier (35°)
- [img=picto/mountain_climbing.png]alpine rock[/img] The N ridge of the Dibona (normal route) (PD): Short (100m) F3b rock climb on good rock and with good in-place protection.
- [img=picto/rock_climbing.png]rock climb[/img] The E slabs of the Charmant Som (PD): F3b or F3c climbing on angled slabs (~45°), with good rock and easy to protect using natural rock bridges.
AD (assez difficile = fairly difficult)
An AD route is harder than a PD route and often requires some belayed climbing. The party will for example have to negotiate a crevassed glacier (but a small bergshrund), F4 difficulties on rock or more sustained ice or snow slopes up to 40-55° (on ice, the maximum grade will be AI or WI3+. Maintaining adequate an adequate level of safety without wasting too much time pitch-climbing will require a wide range of protection and progression techniques and thus appropriate experience.
Examples of AD routes
- [img=picto/snow_ice_mixed.png]alpine snow, ice, mixed[/img] The Mont Blanc by the Bionnassay ridge (AD): Technical difficulties are moderate (F3c) but the route is long, committed, and several sections might be iced-up.
- [img=picto/mountain_climbing.png]alpine rock[/img] The NNE >> S traverse of the Crête de la Mourelle (AD): 3 sections of F4b (one which is easy to avoid) on very good rock that makes protection reliable.
- [img=picto/rock_climbing.png]rock climbing[/img] The Directe route of the Aiguille de Sugiton in the Calanques (AD): A short sport climb, homogeneous in the F4 grade, and with an easy descent.
- [img=picto/ice_climbing.png]ice climbing[/img] Easy Rider at Ceillac (AD): A short WI3 ice climb with an easy access and bolted belays.
D (difficile = difficult)
A D route is harder than an AD route and is a serious undertaking which requires proficiency at a wide range of protection techniques and good route-finding skills. The party will need to pitch-climb several pitches in a row to overcome long sections of sustained rock climbing (as soon as there are sections of F5 or sustained F4 climbing), steep snow or ice slopes (50-70°, but not more than WI or AI 4+ on ice) or very crevassed glaciers with large bergshrunds. Having to overcome some sections by placing your own aid points (A1) rather than French-freeing (A0) would make the route TD (see below).
Exemples of D routes
- [img=picto/mountain_climbing.png]alpine rock[/img] [img=picto/snow_ice_mixed.png]alpine snow, ice, mixed[/img] The Küffner ridge on Mont Maudit (D): The technical difficulties are moderate (F4b on rock, 50° snow slopes) but the route is committed and high in altitude, which explains the generous weighting.
- [img=picto/mountain_climbing.png]alpine rock[/img] The W ridge of the Tête des Fétoules (D): Sustained F4 climbing and a 5b move in the first part. The rest is easier but the quality of the rock requires care.
- [img=picto/rock_climbing.png]rock climbing[/img] Pujolidal on the Tête de la Maye (D): The obligatory grade is F5b hence a minimum alpine grade of D. Commitment is slow, the climb is well protected (bolted sport climb) and not sustained and thus no weighting is applied.
- [img=picto/ice_climbing.png]ice climbing[/img] The integral version Caturgeas, La Grave (D): Technical difficulties neve exceed WI3+ but the route is particularly long and sustained and thus weighted to D (this also takes into account objective dangers related to the climb’s aspect).
TD (très difficile = very difficult)
A TD climb is harder than a D climb. TD routes are very serious undertakings with important difficulties on rock (above obligatory moves of F6 or sustained sections of F5) or long and steep snow or ice slopes (between 65 and 80°, with maximum AI or WI 5+ on ice) that require climbing a large number of pitches. Objective dangers can be important at this level of difficulty.
Examples of TD routes
- [img=picto/mountain_climbing.png]alpine rock[/img] [img=picto/snow_ice_mixed.png]alpine snow, ice, mixed[/img] The N face of the Pointe Fourastier on Ailefroide (TD): AI4+, M4+ and F5b and thus a minimum of D+, but weighted up to TD because of commitment and the poor quality of the rock in the final sections.
- [img=picto/mountain_climbing.png]alpine rock[/img] The N >> S traverse of the Aiguilles d’Arves (TD): Some F6a moves on trad gear with the complete traverse being very long (more than 10h are spent in the difficulties).
- [img=picto/rock_climbing.png]rock climbing[/img] The Parisians’ route on the Trois Becs (TD): A route for climbers who on-sight F6a, with old equipment (see above the detailed analysis of this example).
- [img=picto/ice_climbing.png]ice climbing[/img] The Géant des Tempêtes ice-fall in the Fournel (TD): WI5+ with no other difficulties.
ED and EDx (extremely difficult and extension thereof)
ED climbs are routes of extreme climbs, generally fairly committed, with sustained F6 climbing (or long sections of delicate aid climbing) or long sections of steep or vertical ice.
Beyond ED, the use of the ABO (abominable) grade has spread in France to grade rock climbs that are extremely steep or overhanging, with sustained F7 climbing. In practice, this has led to putting a lid on the grades as no one dares grade above ABO+. Can climbing get harder than abominable?
French alpine climbers have not taken up the ABO so readily and in fact, it is hard to grade beyond ED+ even though the first ED climbs date back to the 1930s. If we imagine that climbers have gotten better in the past 80 years then it is likely that there has been a problem with the grading of the hardest climbs.
In other regions, the alpine grade is open-ended and the ED level has been subdivided into ED1, ED2… with routes up to ED5 (e.g. S face of the Aiguille du Fou with 350m of free-climbing up to 7b/c). This use has spread among British alpinist in particular, and avoids the problem of making everyone stop at ABO+.
In the camptocamp guidebook, the alpine grade used to stop at ABO+, reflecting common practice among multi-pitch climbers in France. However, since November 5th 2009, the grade has been modified and climbs beyond ED+ are now graded using the extended ED grade: EDx:
… TD TD+ ED- ED ED+ ED4 ED5 ED6 ED7 …
The correspondence with the ABO grade does not make much sense as the grading of many ABO routes was wrong anyway as they could not be set beyond ABO+ but only few routes on camptocamp are concerned. Several corrections will probably have to be made to ED+ routes however.
Examples of ED and EDx routes
forthcoming, do not hesitate to offer examples!
- The routes described in the camptocamp guidebook for, en alpinisme, rock climbing and ice climbing .
- Handy alpine grade facts on Summitpost.org
- An article on the specifics of alpine climbing on Summitpost.org
- Ari’s base camp
- UKClimbing forums
- Alpine Climbing: Techniques to take you higher by Mark Houston & Kathy Cosley
- The Andes – A guide for climbers by John Biggar
- The Grade Comparison Chart of the American Alpine Club
- HELP: Guidebook - Grades for snow, ice and mixed routes
- HELP : Guidebook
- HELP: Guidebook - Grades for rock
- AIDE : Topoguide - Cotation cascades et dry tooling sur c2c
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