The standard disclaimers about how dangerous climbing is and how unreliable anything is you read anywhere apply here as well. This site is far from definitive (and probably far from accurate). It is here for the amusement of myself and friends and possibly to shed some light, though I don't mind a little obfuscation now and again either. Various parts have been adapted and pilfered from sources found hither and yon, though I have tried to make all entries mostly original. So please read, but remember that responsibility for safe climbing is your own.
Oh, the great debate. The great religious argument of great religious arguments.
"Three Pebble Slab" is way too easy for E1 - its a classic HVS.
"No, you've got no protection, and a fall from the top of the slab is guaranteed deck-out. It deserves its E1"
"Look, the crux is well protected, and the slab is easy, HVS"
(Person 3) "When I did it in 1842 it was graded VS, and I think thats about right"
"WHAT!!! VS??? its getting polished these days, E2 is the minimum grade"
etc.....etc....etc.....etc.... On pretty much every route, each person will have a different view of what the grade should be.
OK, what are they on about. Well, English gradings, for starters, which are simple in the way old money was simple. Y'know 240 pennies to the pound, etc.
So lets start with the simple gradings first. French Gradings.
1. French Gradings.
Developed in France (Oh, really? - OK, fair point), they have a simple system. An open-ended (i.e. can be infinitely increased) grading system consisting of one number/letter.
3, 3+, 4, 4+, 5, 5+, 6a, 6a+, 6b, 6b+, 6c,6c+, 7a,7a+, 7b,7b+, 7c, 7c+, 8a, 8a+ etc.
Below 6a there is simply a 5, 5+ and from 6a and above you get a, b, or c added to the number, again with + added for the half-grades.
The idea is the grade represents the entire climb (of which more later), and includes all factors relevant. Hence a heavily overhanging route with HUGE holds and zero technical ability but loads of strength required may get 6b, but equally a delicate slab with no holds might get the same grade. You can see the problem here, but at least its simple.
French gradings are almost exclusively used on indoor walls and bolted routes outside in the UK. A (very) rough guide would be (note, for INDOOR walls only - outside add a couple of grades - i.e. 6b outdoors will feel like 7a indoors)
Huge holds at 12" centres. Very unfit people will be able to get up these on their first session.
Most reasonably fit people should be able to do these on a first session.
Getting trickier. Some finger strength and technique required. A few sessions and these should be possible.
Trickier still. You tend to need to be able to climb - i.e. have some level of balance, strength and technique.
Getting hard. I had done about 100 hours climbing before I managed to get up one of these clean (i.e. no rests, no falls)
Getting very hard. About 250 hours climbing for me before I got there. This is about the top end for people who train 1-2 times a week.
It took me about 500 hours climbing to get here (which is about my current level @ December 2004). Very hard technical routes, requiring a lot of finger strength, good balance and the mental ability to work sequences on the move.
Hard work. Even more technical, more strength required, etc. Very few climbers are at this level, and being at this level would require constant training.
Very talented, very serious people who train all the time and may well have professional coaches. Very, very hard routes. Most indoor walls do not set above this grade
8a and above
Seriously good people who train very hard, are very talented, and take it all very seriously. The elite.
Variations between walls.
Of course, each wall has a different route setter, and what each grade represents varies per wall. It also depends on the type of route - those who like balancy stuff might be able to climb 7a on a slab, but only 6b on an overhang. Those who prefer heavily overhanging stuff may be the reverse.
From my experience, and from the walls I have climbed at, a 6a at one wall might be 6c at another. There is a BIG variation. Indoor grades are really, really variable.
Like I say, if you can climb 7a indoors don't expect to be able to climb 7a outdoors. Indoors you have the holds clearly marked, outdoors you have to find them. Indoors the holds are designed to be tendon-friendly. Outdoors they are not. Outdoor holds can be slippy, polished and break off. Indoors they may spin. Different techniques are required, and although the strength and technique you have built up indoors will be **some** use, you will be, to a certain extent, starting from scratch.
The hardest climbs in the world are graded about 9a/9a+
2. English Gradings.
English Adjectival Gradings.
Back in the old days, climbs were simply given an adjectival grade. "Easy" "Moderate" "Difficult" "Very Difficult" "Severe". The represented the entirely of the climb, in the same way as the French Gradings.
However, people got better, so "Hard Severe", "Very Severe", "Hard Very Severe" and "Extremely Severe" were added. There was also a little used grade called "Exceptionally Severe (XS)".
People still got better, and more and more climbs were graded "Extremely Severe", to the point where climbs of vastly different difficulties were all in the same category.
Hence the "Extremely Severe" category was split into E1, E2, E3, E4, E5, which also allowed for future climbs to be graded at higher numbers (E6, E7, etc).
The full English adjectival gradings are now...
Hard Very Difficult*
Hard Very Severe
**Almost never used
*Not used that much
OK, now you've got stage 1 out of the way, we move onto stage two of English Gradings.
English Technical Gradings.
A while back, people realised that the above adjectival grading didnt really tell the entire story, hence an alphanumerical grading was introduced for assess the hardest technical move. Starting 1a, 1b, 1c, 2a, 2b, 2c, etc. In practice grades below 4a are almost never used. NOTE These grades bear NO RELATIONSHIP to the French grades. English 6a does NOT equate to French 6a. English 6a is "roughly" equivilent to French 6c/6c+.
Hence a grade of E1 5b means extremely severe, hardest move graded 5b.
This is useful. Really useful.
Most VS climbs are graded technical 4c.
VS 4b means that the climb is less than usually technically difficult for a VS grade. This means that something else is harder. Either there is poorer than usual protection, or its steep, or the landing is bad.
VS 5a means that the climb is more than usually technical for a VS grade. This means that something else is easier. i.e. user-friendly angle, very good protection.
The "usual" grades are
A real world example. "Sunset Slab" at Froggart Edge is graded HVS 4b. Technically it is an easy slab. Mentally its not fun at all as the last bit of gear is about 10ft up a 40ft climb. If you fell from the hardest technical move (which is at the top), you would fall 40ft and hit the ground, and probably be seriously injured or dead. That is why it is given HVS, despite the low technical grade.
Hence, together with an idea of the steepness of the route (overhanging or slab, etc) the English grades give a pretty good idea of what you can expect from a climb.
What is hard?
The hardest climbs in the world are about E9/E10
E5 and above is very serious stuff - the really good climbers.
E3 and above is a very good climber
E1 and above is a good climber
HVS and above is a decent climber
VS is a competent climber
S is an OK climber.
VDiff is a beginner.
What about a 400ft Vdiff in the Lakes? That's not beginner stuff AT ALL. So it depends on other characteristics of the climb.
The other point is that in order to lead you need other skills, like rope management ability (most trad climbs in the UK use TWO ropes), gear placement skills, etc. It is not just about the technical grade at all.
Hence all gradings should be taken with a pinch of salt, and remember that no grading will ever encompass all the factors of a climb for all people.
A Word on "Local" Gradings.
You are a keen climber, and live near a quarry which the nice quarry men let you play in when it isn't being used. Given its a few seconds from your house, you and your mates are there all the time, and put together a selection of routes, but there's one route which is a bit of a pain. You try it again and again, making hundreds of failed ascents, and eventually you get up it. "Actually, its not bad" you think "I'll call it "John's Wall" and grade it E1 5b".
A bit later in your life, the quarry falls out of use and is bought by the BMC. You have been climbing all over it for 10 years, and offer to put together the topo - the route list - for the forthcoming guidebook. In fact, you were probably involved in the negotiations to get the quarry for the BMC in the first place. You therefore faithfully put down all the routes you and your mates came up with all those years ago, including "John's Wall (E1 5b)".
The guidebook for Yorkshire gets published, and is bought by thousands of climbers.
Some unsuspecting and very unlucky climber who can lead E3 in trainers reckons "John's Wall" at E1 5b should be a nice warm-up for the day out.
"CHRIST!!!" He thinks, as he flails helplessly halfway up it (at the bit you got around on your thirtieth attempt) "E1 5b??????? What utter idiot graded this????"
On the next publication of the guidebook "hard for the grade" is added below the route description.
Several points, as I'm sure you gather.
Some places carry gradings which may differ SUBSTANTIALLY from "the norm" elsewhere. Gradings are rarely altered. "hard for the grade" is a bit like "needs improvement" in estate agent's speak. If at a new location start ******really****** low, to get a feel for the gradings.