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E Grades: Whats the point anyway?

In 2008, Sonnie Trotter repeated Rhapsody E11 and reflected on the meaning of "E" grades in the 2008 December issue of Gripped magazine

The letter E can represent many words, entertaining, effort, ego, take your pick. In this case, the E stands for Extreme, as in Extremely Severe. When ‘Severe’ and ‘Hard Very Severe’ were not enough to capture the intensity of modern rock climbs, British climbers invented the open ended E grades. E1, E2, E3 etc…

These days, the rating game goes up to about E11, but E10 is still a very serious endeavour. I spent some time in the UK recently and played on the gritstone and the rocky sea cliffs of Scotland. I got a fairly rough feeling for the E-grade, especially in the higher numbers and this is what I was able to make of it.

The way the E grades or the adjectival grades form a “two-tiered, sliding system,” a combination grade that gives us the overall effort it takes to climb a route. For example, a dangerous E6 could have much easier moves than a safe E4. Here in North America we have a two rating system for most rock climbs, a technical grade (i.e. 5.10) and a danger grade (i.e. R/X). We do not blend the two together to create a third overall grade; we keep them separate from each other to deliver accurate information for the climber to decide.

Of course, we need to consider that the rock climbing in the U.K. is much different from the rock climbing in other parts of the world. The Grit tends to be shorter and the gear more sparse. In fact, each part of the World has a different rock type, a different style and different etiquette. This, of course, leads to creative rating systems to classify the rock’s difficulty.

I can’t begin to imagine where I’d start if someone asked me to develop a single grading scale for all types of rock around the world, it would be a near impossible task, but I do know that I would keep it simple. In my opinion, the E grade fails because it tells us less of what we need to know and makes educated guessing more prominent.

Personally, I have a hard enough time trying to decipher the vague differences between 5.12d and 5.13a or R and X, let alone what the “combined effort” might be for someone I don’t know to get up the thing, onsight. I’m starting to feel that our over-analytical minds are what’s strangling the beautiful simplicity of climbing.

We need to remember that collecting experience is more important than collecting numbers, because at the end of the day, nearly everything about climbing is subjective anyway; height, weight, foot size, finger size, brain capacity, strength ratio, ape index, determination, fitness, age, survival skills, tenacity and whether or not you have a full time job or a family. All of these things play an enormous roll in our day-to-day climbing life and it’s easy to get obsessed.

The achievement of a unique line is what counts, not the way you combine the letters and numbers at the end of it and certainly not when you try to compare one to the other. Let us remember to celebrate each climb’s unique nature.

Recently, I made the second ascent of a climb called Rhapsody, in Scotland. It was the first rock climb in the world to be rated E11 and to me looked like a classic experience. Rhapsody is a long, pumpy and technical climb offering really good gear that keeps a climber from hitting the ground.

After my ascent in June, I was bombarded with emails and interviews about the grade from reporters wanting to know if it really was an E11. The only confirmed E10 is a climb called Equilibrium, in England. Equilibrium is a very short, very bouldery and fairly threatening Gritstone climb, a climb completely opposite in style and commitment.

I have never tried Equilibrium, therefore I was in no position to comment on Rhapsody, but it occurred to me right then and there, that by mixing the technical and danger grades together (as the U.K. does) one has created a third, separate and even more controversial grade.

The overall “effort” however is only relevant in context with something else. Just like apples and oranges, both of these climbs are completely unique with a distinct flavour. My question, is even if you could compare Rhapsody to Equilibrium, why would you want to?

Trotter on Rhapsody E11