AAC Publications - http://publications.americanalpineclub.org

The UIAA Climbing Classification System

The UIAA Climbing Classification System

Fritz Wiessner

Interest and activity in all phases of mountaineering increased tremendously in nearly all countries following the last world war and in recent years the interchange of information and increasing comraderie among international mountaineers emphasized the need for a uniform system for the grading of difficulties used in route descriptions. Such a system had to be acceptable and easily understood by climbers of all nations.

The Union Internationale des Associations d’Alpinisme (UIAA) under President Dr. E. Wyss-Dunant had received proposals for such a system for several years, the first in 1965 from the Federación Española de Montañismo. No action was taken at that time. In 1967 at the General Assembly of the UIAA in Madrid, the Spanish Federation, the American Alpine Club and the Tyndeclub Norvegian proposed that an international committee of active, well known alpinists be formed for this purpose. This was done and this committee of ten members under the chairmanship of Professor Jean Juge met from November 3 to 5, 1967 in Geneva.

After long deliberations the committee arrived at a proposal using as a basis the Alpenskala agreed on in 1947 at the International Mountaineering Congress in Chamonix. This Alpenskala had become very disputed and eventually unacceptable in particular to American, British and some European climbing groups. Its use had deteriorated in practice so that for instance numerous high-degree routes in the Alps with pitches possible only with artificial aid, were rated as free (non-aid) climbs. Others were downgraded because on the most difficult places, which formerly were climbed free, it had become general custom (for most climbers) to use pitons, stirrups, etc. for aid. There are famous routes, which when climbed free, would rate the absolute limit of 6+ while with pitons for aid the route could not be called more than a grade 4+ Further there was no uniformity in the use of subdivisions in the lower grades. The latter are important to the vast grOup of alpinists whose limit may be a grade 3 or even a 2 and who will find differences in these grades which an expert may not notice at all.

The committee also proposed a table of conventional signs for route diagrams based on suggestions received from the Spanish Federation, the Tyndeclub Norvegian and on signs already in use. This table, on which all the signs are explained in six languages, will make it possible for alpinists to overcome language barriers in route descriptions.

The proposals were sent out by the UIAA president during November, 1967 to the 23 member organizations for discussion and hopefully their approval. Several early answers and approvals were soon received but a majority of the organizations were not ready to give their decisions when the proposal was again presented and discussed at an executive meeting of the UIAA in Munich during April of 1968. Numerous consultations and meetings of committee members with various UIAA member organizations were necessary during the following months to arrive at the final form of the proposals. The writer, a committee member and delegate of the American Alpine Club, discussed the proposal with many of our leading American climbers in 1967. On a few points in the proposal, amendments were necessary to fit established American custom. These were accepted by the Geneva committee together with the changes for which European member organizations had asked. At the Annual Meeting of the American Alpine Club, December 4, 1967 in Berkeley, the proposal was again discussed and finally approved with the provision that all other UIAA member organizations should also approve. At the UIAA Annual Assembly, October 7 and 8, 1968 in London a few points were still under discussion. They were resolved and finally on the eloquent motion of Eugene Gippenreiter, delegate of the Russian Mountaineering Federation, the vote was taken and the proposal unanimously approved by the delegates of the 23 member countries.

This writer is greatly indebted to Royal Robbins, who also represented the American Alpine Club in London, for his valuable assistance at the Assembly and in previous conferences. Both of us owe our success in the American acceptance of this project to the sincere support and advice given by the top climbers of the U.S.A. and the presidents of the American Alpine Club, Lawrence Coveney and Nicholas Clinch.

The international committee had solved a most difficult task and had worked together in full harmony. The writer, as roving coordinator for the committee, is also particularly grateful to the presidents, experts and delegates of the Austrian, British, Czechoslovak, French, German, Greek, Italian, Russian, Spanish and Swiss Alpine organizations for their warm friendship, advice and splendid cooperation in arriving at an international agreement.

The UIAA Grading System, the UIAA table of conventional signs for diagrams and a table showing comparisons between the older American grading systems and the new UIAA grading system follow.

UIAA Climbing Classification System

1. All descriptions of climbs should make a clear distinction between the evaluation of "free” climbing and that of climbing using artificial aids. Thus, if a route or parts of it is graded as "free,” it must be understood that pitons, wedges, slings or other aids are used only for belaying and not for progression, as handholds or footholds. The grading for climbing which is entirely "free” is expressed by the Roman numbers I to VI with the additions of + and —. If on a "free” route the character of the rock is such that expansion bolts are necessary in place of normal pitons for belaying, the symbol "e” should be shown after the number. The grading of artificial climbs is expressed by the symbol "A” with Arabic numbers 1 to at least 4; if expansion bolts are necessary, "e” must be added after the number.

2. Six grades should suffice for "free” climbs since the addition of + and — (beginning at least with grade III) no fewer than 14 separate gradations are available. Free climbing of grade VI+, which is intended to relate to the absolute limit of the humanly possible, will always be feasible only for a very limited number of climbers who possess unusually good technique, strength, courage and endurance. As an explanation of the six main grades, the following are the adjectives normally employed at present (with the British system in parenthesis):

I — Easy (easy)

II—Moderate (moderate/moderately difficult)

III — Moderately difficult (difficult/very difficult)

IV—Difficult (severe)

V — Very difficult (very severe)

VI— Extremely difficult (hard/very severe and upwards)

For "artificial climbs,” at least four grades should be employed and assessed as follows: Al—the placing of pitons and other aids is relatively simple and no great strength, endurance, courage, etc., are required of the climber. With the higher numbers, the difficulties of placing pitons, etc., increase owing to deviation from the straight forward line, compact, rotten, finely splintered, vertical or overhanging rock, roofs, etc., and an ever increasing demand on technique, strength, endurance, courage, etc.

3. The following attributes and information shall be given at the head of the route descriptions, where they apply, after the grade numbers:

Exposed or poorly protected

Often or mostly overhanging

Friction climbing

Objective dangers, such as falling stones or ice

Rotten rock

Route finding difficult or complicated

Return difficult or close to impossible after a certain point

The length of single pitches

Character of rock

Climatic information, such as prevalence of bad weather or storms

Bivouac places

Number of absolutely necessary pitons, ice pitons, bolts, slings, etc.

Total height

Average time

Comments on overall quality of route

At the head of the description, particularly in the case of long and difficult climbs, some comparison should be made with a popular climb of similar standard in the same area and also with a well known climb in some other popular area.

4. The grading of a route is decided by its most difficult pitch but if • most of the pitches are of lower standard, the grading for such pitches should be stated immediately afterwards. If a route has both free and artificial pitches, they must be separately assessed according to their respective norms. An overall grading for a route seems not desirable as no definite norm for this can be established. The overall difficulties of a route can be assessed from the grades given for individual pitches, the attributes described (see paragraph 3), the total height, and the routes with which it is compared.

5. The evaluation of degrees of difficulty shall be based on normal conditions and on the natural state of a route without pitons, slings, etc., in place. However, in the case of popular routes, the difficulty of which has changed with the placing of many permanently fixed bolts, numerous pitons, etc., cutting of holds, removal of rotten rock, etc., the grading should then indicate the actual state. In addition it is also recommended that the grading of the route as it was originally climbed should be shown.

6. Apart from the route of ascent, there shall be a precise description of the easiest route of descent starting on the summit down to the foot of the mountain; directions left or right should always be given as if the climber were facing the valley. The places for rappelling and the rings fixed for rappelling shall also be mentioned.

7. The technical difficulties of snow and ice climbs cannot be described with the usual grades since they depend on conditions at the time, and no standard can be established for this. (For instance, an ice wall with a cover of frozen snow can be straightforward but if it is bare ice it can present a most strenuous and difficult problem.) In the description of such routes, the inclination of the ice and snow slopes and ice walls should be given as exactly as possible. Any danger of avalanches, cornices, etc., should be pointed out. If the route is a combination of ice and rock, the rock pitches should be graded in the normal way.*

8. In the description of new routes, the assessment of degrees of difficulty made by the first party should be noted with reservation at least until further reports are available. Example: "Report from first ascent party—VI+. A3, 50 hours—no further report at date of publication.”

9. In the introduction to a guidebook, a table with a complete explanation of the UIAA system should be given, in addition to some of the points made above. If necessary, there should be a tabulation of comparisons with the system that up to the present time has been used in the area for which the guide is written. Examples should be given comparing climbs in the area with internationally known climbs in other areas. If some countries feel that in their guidebooks it is necessary also to print the grades which were formerly in use locally, these should be shown after the UIAA gradings at the head of their descriptions.

10. A system of conventional signs for drawings of routes is also suggested, which should make it possible for any climber to read such drawings without verbal description, thus overcoming the problems of language. A table containing these signs is attached.

11. After approval of the present UIAA system, it should be employed in all new editions of guidebooks. Only when this is done will new guidebooks be allowed to bear the international trade-mark of UIAA.

September, 1968





Explanations for the 6 main grades



F 1



2 and 3

F 2



F 3






F 4

Moderately Difficult

IV —




F 5




V —




F 6

Very Difficult



F 7

VI —


F 8



F 9

Extremely Difficult




* With the further development of mountaineering at the very highest altitudes, some additions will become necessary in the future.