Snow, Ice & Alpine Grades Explained

There are a variety of different systems used around the world to grade snow, ice and alpine climbs. On this page we’ll describe the two main systems that British climbers will come into contact with.  The first is the Scottish winter grading system used throughout the UK.  The second is the Alpine grading system used in the European Alps and increasingly in the greater ranges.

Scottish Winter Grading

The Scottish Winter Grading system was developed by the SMC and is a two tier system made up of an overall grade and a technical grade. The overall grade describes the overall difficulty of the climb taking into consideration its length, angle of slope and the different climbing techniques required. The technical grade as with the UK rock climbing system, describes the hardest section (crux) of the route.
The following table outlines the different overall grades available:

Overall Grade Description
I Snow gullies of around 45 degrees or easy ridges.  A single ice axe is all that is usually required, although cornices can present problems. These routes are often used as descent routes by climbers coming of other routes so beware descending traffic!
II Steeper snow, with potential for short ice pitches.  Ridges at this grade would generally be easy scrambles in the summer. A second tool should be carried and cornices maybe difficult. Any difficulties encountered will generally be short in duration.
III Sustained gullies or ridges and steeper than grade II routes.
IV Routes start to become more technical in nature at this grade, with snowed up easy rock routes being climbed. Route will normally contain steep sections of ice, either long sections of between 60-70 degrees or short vertical steps. On mixed routes, more advanced techniques such as torquing will generally be required.
V Potential for sustained steep ice at 60-70 degrees.  Mixed routes could be up to VS summer routes and may require the linking of multiple advanced moves.
VI Long vertical sections of ice, sometimes poor in quality and with little chance of rest. Mixed routes will be as for grade V but harder. Mixed routes will be at least VS summer routes.
VII As VI but longer and harder. Could include overhanging sections so strength, stamina and skill is required!
VIII onwards As VII but even longer and even harder!

Scottish winter routes are easily susceptible to changes in the weather. To cater for this it is quite common to find routes that are given a split grade, for example II/III. This indicates the wide variation in the route depending on conditions.
The following table outlines the different technical grades available:

Technical Grade Description
1 Easy angled ice with no particular problems
2 Slight steeper than 1 but of good quality with excellent protection available
3 Ice up to around 60 degrees, generally of good quality with good belays
4 Ice up to 70 degrees, good ice and gear
5 Ice up to 80 degrees, ice is generally not as good as grade 4 and there may be few opportunities for rest
6 Vertical ice! Ice formations such as overlaps may exist and protection will be limited and difficult to place.
7 onwards As 6 but longer, harder, poorer ice and less protection!

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Alpine Grading

The Alpine system is popular in the European Alps and increasingly in the greater ranges. As with the Scottish system, routes are given an overall grade to describe the difficulty of the route. In addition to this, the UIAA rock grading system is used to describe any rock pitches on the route.
The overall grade takes into consideration all of the following factors:

  • the approach route, length and complexity
  • the descent route, method, length and complexity
  • the quality and availability of stances
  • the quality of rock, snow and ice
  • the level of objective danger
  • the location of hardest section on the route
  • the aspect of slope
  • the exposure to weather

It should be noted that as with all grading systems incorporating snow and ice, the alpine grade can be significantly effected by the weather conditions, not only during the climb but in the weeks before.
The following table outlines the different alpine grades used:

Overall Grade Description
F Facile (Easy) A straight forward route, possibly describing a glacier approach with simple scrambling. Any snow or ice will be of an easy angle allowing the climber to walk up it.
PD Peu difficile (not very hard) Harder than routes graded F, with more complex glacier routes, harder scrambling and objective dangers. Routes may also be longer and at altitude.  Snow and ice slopes of up 35-45 degrees may be encountered.
AD Assez difficile (fairly hard) More significant slopes of snow and ice will be encountered up to 40-55 degrees. Rock climbing up to grade III may also be encountered but are unlikely to be sustained
D Difficile (hard) A more serious undertaking with possibility of rock climbing at around grade IV & V and snow and ice slopes of up 50-70 degrees.
TD Tres difficile (very hard) Significant and sustained snow and ice slopes of up 65-80 degrees are likely encountered. Hard rock climbing is also a possibility at grades V - VI with some aid routes also a possibility. Routes at this grade are a serious undertaking with high levels of objective danger.
ED Extremement difficile (extremely hard) Extremely hard routes with vertical ice slopes likely and rock climbing at VI to VIII. Aid pitches are also possible with exceptional objective danger.
ABO Abominablement difficile (Abominable) Pretty self explanatory!

It is now common for routes to be given a + or - within the grade to cater for superior of inferior routes. In addition to this, if you are reading an Alpine Club guide, you may also find that some of the ice pitches are described using the Scottish Technical Grade (see above).

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Further Information

If you’d like more information about the different winter grading systems or more information about winter climbing in general, then I would recommend taking a look at the following sites:


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Article written by Giles Thurston on January 15, 2008

Comments

Posted by Fabienencordoba on November 09, 2009

An article by camptocamp.org contributors explains the alpine grade. It details on how the grade relates to terrain-specific grades for rock, ice etc. and analyses some examples. The article is at http://www.camptocamp.org/articles/188413/en

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