Mt Cook/ Frost Grading System
NEW ZEALAND MOUNTAINEERING GRADES
The ‘guide-book’ mentality is no substitute for trusting your own judgement and knowing what you are and are not capable of. In the end it comes down to reading the mountains, not the book.” -Hugh Logan
A Brief History
Until one or two generations ago, mountaineering routes in New Zealand were not graded. Early guidebooks existed, but to describe difficulty, they used phrases like “A climb requiring modern rock climbing techniques.” Generally, you learned about how hard a route was by talking to people and going to see for yourself.
In 1982, Hugh Logan produced the first edition of The Mount Cook Guidebook. The “Mount Cook” grading system was embraced around the country for the next 25 years.
However, the limitations of a single number to represent a range of factors eventually became
apparent. Climbs could be ‘serious’ but have a deceptively low grade because they weren’t very technical; other climbs received high grades because of their technical difficulty, but were otherwise straightforward.
The first iteration of a two-tiered alpine grading system for New Zealand, with separate Technical and Commitment grades, first appeared in the NZAC Darran Mountains guidebook in 2006.
Fast forward through a few more years of discussion and in November 2018, Rob Frost completes his completely revised and updated fourth edition guidebook ‘Aoraki Tai Poutini – A Guide for Mountaineers’. Mt Cook and Westland National Parks are now properly represented, with all new routes since the 2001 edition added, and the Cook, Copland, Douglas, and Karangarua valleys are all covered for the first time.
• A Seriousness Grade (I to VII)
• A Technical Grade (1 to 8)
Both grading scales are open ended, i.e. higher grades are possible if harder and/or more serious routes are climbed in the future.
Important things to know:
Each grade inevitably encompasses a range of difficulties. Most grade II routes should have a very similar level of seriousness to each other, and grade III routes shouldn’t be a huge step up from that. Conversely, two routes that are both grade V could be quite different from each other, and a VI could be very much harder. More experienced climbers should find it easier to compare the relative difficulty of these routes.
Both the technical and seriousness grades for each route consider the difficulty of that route ‘in condition’. This important point should not be overlooked. Please recognise that your route may be harder than the grade suggests if it’s not in condition.
Remember, the grading descriptions below are only examples; many routes at the same grade will be more difficult in some ways and less in others.
- the objective hazards throughout the climb
- how easy or difficult it is to retreat
- the importance of good route finding
- the length of the route
- and whether or not the easiest descent is on familiar ground.
The start point for a climb is referred to as a ‘base,’ which is considered to be the nearest hut or safe campsite. Climbs starting from remote bases will have a slightly higher Seriousness grade. Whether you walk in or fly in doesn’t affect the grade, but if you walk in, kudos to you.
I Close to civilization with non-technical access and no significant objective hazards. Simple to reverse. Requires good navigation in poor visibility and familiarity with movement in the mountains.
II Generally climbed in a half day to a full day close to a base. Likely to need skills relating to
crevasse rescue, abseiling, and placing snow/ice/rock anchors. Descent is probably the same route as ascent, i.e. on familiar ground. No unusual objective hazards.
III Moderate to long routes close to a base, or shorter routes a few hours from a base. Can be
reversed but this may involve brief sections with tricky downclimbing or abseiling. Easiest descent could be different from ascent route, but if so is straightforward. There could be short sections exposed to significant objective hazards.
IV Getting into the big stuff now. Requires sound mountaineering judgement and experience to complete with a good level of safety and to manage objective hazards. Could be long, but if so should be straightforward to reverse. Routes at this grade that are not so long may require multiple abseils to reverse, or may involve a traverse of the peak to get to an easier descent route.
V Very long routes close to a base, or moderate length routes in a fairly remote area. Likely to
be very tricky to reverse. Easiest descent is moderately complicated and is probably different from the ascent route. Access, climb, or descent could involve significant objective hazards.
VI Routes at this grade are generally very long, and are challenging to reverse even for very
experienced climbers. Potentially major objective hazards. The best descent route is likely to be complicated, and a night out is likely for most parties.
VII Very experienced, strong climbers will have a tough climb. Start of route is remote and route is very long. Retreating from the route would be difficult and would put you back in a serious spot. Easiest descent is probably very complicated and involves a traverse of the peak.
The Technical Grade takes into account the difficulty of the actual climbing moves. It considers both the crux and how sustained the route is. A ‘+’ symbol is used to indicate a greater level of difficulty.
Rock climbing grades referred to below are Ewbank grades (aka ‘Australian’ grades) commonly used in New Zealand, and are underlined to avoid confusion with technical grades. ‘Scrambling’ terrain refers to rock not steep enough for a Ewbank grade, and where in good conditions most parties will be comfortable without a rope. The technical grade is increased slightly if the rock quality is poor.
Most people overestimate the angle of the slope they’re on by 10 to 15 degrees. This means that the angles mentioned below are more serious than they sound.
- Snow up to 25° and/or low angled rock scrambling.
- Sustained snow of 30° to 35° or moderately steep rock scrambling, possibly with a brief section of 50° snow/ice or exposed rock. Ridge travel may have brief exposed sections.
- Sustained snow of 40° to 45° or sustained steep rock scrambling (unlikely to require rockshoes), possibly with small near-vertical steps. Crux sections involve 60° snow, grade 10 rock, or a short step of WI2 ice. Ridge travel may involve some tricky gendarmes or very exposed sections.
- Sustained snow/ice of 50° to 55° or sustained rock climbing around grade 10-12. Crux steps may involve WI3 ice, M3 mixed, or rock climbing around grade 14. Ridge travel likely to involve massive exposure or numerous steep gendarmes.
- Sustained 60° to 65° ice/mixed climbing or rock climbing around grade 13-15. Crux steps may involve WI4 ice, M4 mixed, or rock climbing around grade 17.
- Sustained WI3+ ice, M3-4 mixed climbing, or grade 16-18 rock. May have crux sections of WI4+ ice, M5 mixed, or grade 20 rock.
- Sustained WI4+ to WI5 ice, M5 mixed climbing, or grade 20 rock, involving tenuous, delicateclimbing, with crux sections of WI5+ ice, M6 mixed, or grade 22-23 rock.
- Sustained M6 mixed climbing or grade 23 rock, with cruxes of M7 and/or grade 25-26 rock.
Making sense of all these grades will only start to click in to place if you are motivated to have a look for yourself. If you build your knowledge and skill set from the ground up with a broad base of grade I, 1 climbs, then you’ll be able to venture into grade I, 2 or I, 3 climbs without exposing yourself too much. Without tasting the definition of mild, how will you know what medium or hot curry means.
I asked Rob Frost, the new Aoraki/ Tai Poutini Guidebook author for other definitions or ways to use the grading system and he responded with the following words of wisdom, ‘People should figure out if they have the technical ability to do a certain technical grade, or if they have the experience to do a certain seriousness grade’.
And he also added, ‘If people have a certain climb in mind that they want to do they could look for another route with the same technical grade that is maybe one or two seriousness grades lower, and see how they find that. That will give them the type of terrain they’re after, but in a slightly less serious location, and see how they find it’.
Visually, the ‘Frost grading system’ is a lot harder to compare with the old ‘Logan grading system’ or other international grading systems, but with a bit of luck this unique Kiwi grading system could be adopted by other countries and the comparison charts made redundant.
In lieu of that happening, here is a rough (read ‘very rough') comparison chart, as the two tiered grading system does not align perfectly with itself, let alone others – a grade two seriousness is not equal to a technical grade two – as you should have picked up by now. The grades are completely independent. A grade I seriousness is unlikely to have a grade 8 technical grade, and a grade VII seriousness is unlikely to have a technical grade of 8, but it’s not impossible.
The old Mt Cook/ Logan Grading System
The old Mt Cook system, devised by Hugh Logan in his 1982 ‘The Mt Cook Guidebook’ is a grading from 1 to 7 with + and – variations. Factors that determine grade are (in descending order of importance): technical difficulty, objective danger, length, and access.
In general, the easier grades tend to be harder than expected compared to the French. There are some very committing NZ 2 climbs; often, the challenge of the route comes from the fluctuating maritime climate and the long approach and descent, rather than technical difficulty. These challenges tend to have the opposite effect for the upper grades; heavy packs and multi-day access result in a higher grade than elsewhere.
As such, they are just a guideline and with experience you will see that one NZ grade 3+ is not the same as another NZ grade 3+. You are far better off referring to the new ‘Frost Grading system' above if you are new to mountaineering in New Zealand.
- Grade 1: Easy scramble. Use of rope generally only for glacier travel.
- Grade 2: Steeper trickier sections may need a rope.
- Grade 3: Longer steeper sections generally. Use of technical equipment necessary. Ice climbs may require two tools.
- Grade 4: Technical climbing. Knowledge of how to place ice and rock gear quickly and efficiently a must. Involves a long day.
- Grade 5: Sustained technical climbing. May have vertical sections of ice.
- Grade 6: Multiple crux sections. Vertical ice may not have adequate protection. Good mental attitude and solid technique necessary. May require a bivvy on the route and be a long way from civilization.
- Grade 7: Vertical ice/rock which may not have adequate protection. Rock grades in the high 20s (Ewbank). Climb may be in remote area. May require a bivvy on route.
International Mountaineering and Climbing Grade Comparison Chart
A direct comparison between the New Zealand (Mt Cook/ Frost grading system) developed in 2018, and the French Alpine Grade, UIAA Grade and the Russian Grade is no longer as linear as the Mt Cook/ Logan grading system of 1982. When I first looked for a useful comparison between all these systems over 10 years ago there were no sources which directly compared them all with that of New Zealand.
|NZ||Alpine Grade||UIAA Grade||Russian Grade|
|7||ED3 and up||VII||6B|
International French Alpine System
The French adjectival alpine system evaluates the overall difficulty of a route, taking into consideration the length, difficulty, exposure and commitment-level of the route (i.e., how hard it may be to retreat). The overall grade combines altitude; length and difficulty of approach and descent; number of difficult pitches and how sustained they are; exposure; and quality of rock, snow and ice.
- F: facile (easy). Straightforward, possibly a glacial approach, snow and ice will often be at an easy angle.
- PD: peu difficile (slightly difficult). Routes may be longer at altitude, with snow and ice slopes up to 45 degrees. Glaciers are more complex, scrambling is harder, climbing may require some belaying, descent may involve rappelling. More objective hazards.
- AD: assez difficile (fairly difficult). Fairly hard, snow and ice at an angle of 45-65 degrees, rock climbing up to UIAA grade III, but not sustained, belayed climbing in addition to a large amount of exposed but easier terrain. Significant objective hazard.
- D: difficile (difficult). Hard, more serious with rock climbing at IV and V, snow and ice slopes at 50-70 degrees. Routes may be long and sustained or harder but shorter. Serious objective hazards.
- TD: très difficile (very difficult). Very hard, routes at this grades are serious undertakings with high level of objective danger. Sustained snow and ice at an angle of 65-80 degrees, rock climbing at grade V and VI with possible aid, very long sections of hard climbing.
- ED1/2/3/4: extrêmement difficile (extremely difficult). Extremely hard, exceptional objective danger, vertical ice slopes and rock climbing, with possible aid pitches.
Often a + (pronounced Sup for supérieur) or a − (pronounced Inf for inférieur) is placed after the grade to indicate if a particular climb is at the lower or upper end of that grade (e.g., a climb slightly harder than “PD+” might be “AD−”).
The Darrans system was introduced by Alan Uren and Craig Jefferies to grade winter routes in their The Darran Mountains guidebook (2006). This system introduces a ‘commitment’ grade to indicate the overall seriousness of a route, alongside technical grades.
- I–II: A short to medium day; generally low risk of objective danger on access, route and descent; relatively close to shelter (camp or hut).
- III: A long day; moderate objective danger possible on access, route and descent; may be several hours from hut or camp.
- IV: Speed and efficiency needed to complete in a day; access, route and descent may involve known objective hazards; may require lengthy return to hut or camp.
- V: Bivvy gear required; access, route and descent may require lengthy exposure to objective hazards; may require lengthy return to hut or camp.
- VI: Multi-day route; access, route and descent may require lengthy exposure to objective hazards which may be difficult to assess; no helicopter access possible; may require lengthy return to hut or camp, or descent into adjoining catchment.
For snow, ice and mixed climbing, technical ratings broadly match those listed above in the Mt Cook system. Rock difficulties are rated using the Ewbank system (see below). Aid, Water Ice (WI) and Mixed (M) systems may also be employed.
For technical alpine routes (about grade 4 and above on the Mt Cook system) this is now the recommended system to use in the New Zealand mountains.
The open-ended Ewbank system grades the technical difficulty of rock climbs in Australia and New Zealand.
Water Ice (WI) grades are usually applied to shorter pure ice routes, but may be useful to grade the technical difficulty of ice on alpine routes. Grade indications are from the American Alpine Journal grade comparison chart.
- WI1: Low angle ice; no tools required.
- WI2: Consistent 60º ice with possible bulges; good protection.
- WI3: Sustained 70º with possible long bulges of 80º–90º; reasonable rests and good stances for placing screws.
- WI4: Continuous 80º ice fairly long sections of 90º ice broken up by occasional rests.
- WI5: Long and strenuous, with a rope length of 85º-90º ice offering few good rests; or a shorter pitch of thin or bad ice with protection that’s difficult to place.
- WI6: A full rope length of near-90º ice with no rests, or a shorter pitch even more tenuous than WI 5. Highly technical.
M grades are used when dry tooling – climbing rock (and usually also ice) with crampons and ice tools. Grade indications are from the American Alpine Journal grade comparison chart.
- M1–3: Easy. Low angle; usually no tools.
- M4: Slabby to vertical with some technical dry tooling.
- M5: Some sustained vertical dry tooling.
- M6: Vertical to overhanging with difficult dry tooling.
- M7: Overhanging; powerful and technical dry tooling; less than 10m of hard climbing.
- M8: Some nearly horizontal overhangs requiring very powerful and technical dry tooling; bouldery or longer cruxes than M7.
- M9: Either continuously vertical or slightly overhanging with marginal or technical holds, or a juggy roof of 2 to 3 body lengths.
- M10: At least 10 metres of horizontal rock or 30 meters of overhanging dry tooling with powerful moves and no rests.
- M11: A ropelength of overhanging gymnastic climbing, or up to 15 metres of roof.
- M12: M11 with bouldery, dynamic moves and tenuous technical holds.
Aid climbing is rare in the New Zealand mountains. ‘Original’ rather than ‘New Wave’ aid ratings are used. (See the American Alpine Journal grade comparison chart.)
- A0: Occasional aid moves often done without aiders (etriers) or climbed on fixed gear.
- A1: All placements are solid and easy.
- A2: Good placements, but sometimes tricky.
- A3: Many difficult, insecure placements, but with little risk.
- A4: Many placements in a row that hold nothing more than body weight.
- A5: Enough body-weight placements in a row that one failure results in a fall of at least 20 metres.