As is the case with rock climbing, also ice climbing covers a wide range of sub-genres ranging from short roadside waterfalls to large-scale expeditions. In addition, ice is extremely volatile medium highly depending on weather conditions. Both aforementioned characteristics make rating ice climbs is very difficult a task. Thus any ice climbing grade can only give a rough idea of the climb, they are substantially less trustworthy than rock grades.

Like is the case with rock grading systems, there are also several different systems to grade ice climbs. Probably the oldest way to indicate technical difficulty of ice and snow climbs is to indicate the steepness as inclination angle. This is often used on the mountain routes. The inclination may be given for the steepest part of the climb and/or as average steepness. Using both figures increases the information dramatically, as it makes a clear distinction between routes that have short steep section and moderate average angle and routes that have long steep sections. Most would agree that a route with 10 meter section with 70-80 degree and average angle of 50° is quite a bit less demanding than a route with for example 1000m of fairly uniform 70°.

Inclination may be sufficient with moderate routes, but falls short when the climbing gets genuinely steep. More modern ice grades were developed to cater for this. As a distinction with rock climbing, changing nature of ice makes grading individual moves inpractical. Therefore, ice grades are mostly consider steepness and the length of continuous steep sections. In the higher grades also the quality of ice under "normal conditions" come into play.

WI-grade

In order to better grasp a wide range of different kinds of ice-climbs, the system used in most parts of North-America and Europe (often referred as water ice grade) consist of two parts: overall commitment or seriousness and technical difficulty. The meaning and deciding factors affecting the grades are discussed in detail in following chapters.

1) Overall seriousness

Overall seriousness (or commitment) is indicated with roman number (Albi Sole Grade, scale 1-7). This grade considers things like length of the approach and route itself, objective hazards (seracs, rock fall, etc.), escape possibilities and descent.

GradeApproximate Description (to give rough idea)
IA short climb (usually 1-2 pitches) with a short approach and easy descent. Time required is an hour, or two.
IIMostly one or two pitch climbs with easy and short approaches with no objective hazards or a single pitch with longer approach. The descent is easy by rappelling or down climbing. Normally no more than few hours are required for a climb.
IIITypically a low-elevation multi-pitch climb with a moderate approach, a long descent or a single pitch with a fairly long approach. The approach is often at least an hour long. There are some objective hazards such as rock fall or avalanches. Descents typically require setting your own anchors for rappel. Time required is half a day including approach and descent.
IVA multi-pitch route at high elevation or in a remote routes requiring mountaineering and winter travel skills. Approach may take few hours and climbs require typically most of the day to complete. Some objective hazards may have to be encountered and descents frequently require knowledge of good descent anchors such as a V-thread.
VA long climb often taking whole day (and often a long one, too) to complete (sometimes two days is required). Climbing is either sustained or threatened by severe hazards (typically avalanches or rockfall), or both of the aforementioned. Climbs this caliber often reside high on the mountains, thus requiring a wide range of winter mountaineering skills. Descents can be tricky and involve multiple rappels off your own anchors.
VIA long, multi-pitch route in an alpine setting. The climb may (and often does) take more than a day to complete and difficulties are sustained. Wide range of skills in alpine climbing are necessary to successfully deal with objective hazards (such as avalanches, falling seracs, crevasses, spell of bad weather, high elevation and remoteness). Due the length of the climb, also excellent physical conditions is a necessity.
VIIThe biggest and hardest Himalayan alpine-style climbs (definition by Jeff Lowe). Climbs with this kind of seriousness have all the characteristics of the grade VI, but are long enough and technically difficult enough to be a grade harder. Usually there are very few attemps and even less successful ones. There are good chances for fatalities.

2) Technical Difficulty

Technical difficulty consist of letters that describe the type of climb (as the medium of most difficult pitch). The type of ice is indicated with letters as follows:

WI
Water Ice, hard ice formed from water.
AI
Alpine Ice, softer porous ice formed from snow under high pressure.
M
Mixed, both rock and ice are encountered on the route.

It is followed by an arabic number indicating the difficulties encountered on the most difficult pitch. Scale runs from 1 to 7 (or sometimes 8) for pure ice routes and is open ended for mixed routes. Signs "+" and "-" are sometimes used to indicate minor differences.

The number should be comparable between different types of climbing, meaning climbs with WI5 and M5 should be technically equally hard. This obviously is subjective, some climbers may find M5 climbing generally easier than WI5 climbing while other climbers may have exactly opposite experience. Seracs aside, true alpine ice is seldom steeper than 70°. This is not to say that there wouldn't be plenty of steeper ice in an alpine surrounding, however it is usually result from freezing melt water and thus more like water ice than porous alpine ice.

The WI grading system used in various areas is supposed to be the same world over. Still, there appears to be rather lot of wiggle room, at least in the grades of WI3, WI4 and WI5. Canada has reputably stiffer grading than most of Europe.

a) pure ice routes

Note that technical grade grades the most difficult section, not the most difficult single move. On pure ice route, the technical difficulty grade is largely related to the length of vertical section. This approach makes grading short but technically difficult climbs somewhat difficult.

GradeApproximate Description (to give rough idea)
F,PD,AD,DLow-angle alpine ice (up to around 50°). As technical grade 1 covers wide range of difficulties, it may be refined by further dividing it using letters derived from french adjectives: F, PD, AD, D (the same cotations are used to grade overall difficulty of alpine ascents). These are not always used and all the climbs falling to these grades may be graded 1. Also, often the inclination is given as a degree (either maximum, average or both).
1Low-angle water ice of 40 to 50 degrees or a long moderate snow climb requiring basic level of technical expertise. Can be climbed with one ice tool and with 10 point crampons (no front points necessary). General angle is around 50 degrees.
2Low-angle water ice with short bulges up to 70°. Climbing is reasonably consistent. Good protection and belays. Experienced climbers frequently solo sections of grade 2 ice.. General angle: 60°.
3Start of "real" waterfall ice climbing. Steeper water that is sustained at 70-80 degrees. May contain short steeper sections, but offers good rests. Ice is thick and secure protection easy to place from comfortable stances. General angle: 70°.
4May include significant vertical sections, interspersed with rests. On 75 to 85 degree ice fairly sustained climbing. Ice is generally thick and of good quality, but can have some technical features like chandeliers. Satisfactory protection is fairly easy to place (however, may require placing protection while on vertical or near vertical ice). General angle is around 80 degrees. There appears to be some inconsistency regarding to how long a vertical section makes WI4 to WI5. Some say that WI4 has up to 10 meters vertical section, some others in turn hold that vertical part may be up to 25m, which others hold as a solid WI5). Also, WI4 routes can vary a lot depending on conditions, as a rather stiff WI4 in "barely there" nick may become a desperate WI5 or even WI6.
5Ice climbing with sustained difficulties and/or strenuous vertical (as in 90°, not 85°) columns with little or no rest possible. Ice is still mostly of good or at least acceptable quality, but can feature chandeliers, cauliflowers etc. Placing sound protection requires often some effort and climbing can require run-outs. Also shorter pitch of thin or really bad ice. Belays may be hanging. General angle is 90°.
6Routes with heightened degree of seriousness. Long vertical or slightly overhanging sections, ice roofs, free hanging curtains or pillars or anything considerably more difficult than consensus grade 5. Also shorter vertical sections with really funky ice. Usually retreat is possibly from almost anywhere on the route, but ice is often rotten with more or less dubious possibilities for protection. Often includes mixed sections. Expert technique necessary. Considered to be roughly equally difficult as trad 5.10 with poor gear and bad rock. General angle: 90+ degrees.
7Full pitch of thin vertical and/or overhanging ice of dubious quality. It may have long overhung sections that are in danger of breaking off if perfect technique isn't applied. Often it involves extended mixed moves and awkward hooks to move from rock to ice. Protection is often only psychological or requires a great deal of creativity to place. Many grade sevens tend to become grade grade 6 with second ascent.
8Hardest pure ice climbing ever done. There are very few (if any) grade 8 climbs. Extremely difficult climbing on very bad ice with lousy protection. Very steep seracs may well be physically hard enough to be grade eight, but unlike other grade 8 ice climbs, they often take good screws.

Albi Sole refers ice grade 5 as the "5.9 of ice climbing". Don't kid yourself. A grade 5 lead is a quite serious undertaking. While the physical demands of grade 5 ice pitch may be roughly the same as 5.9 or 5.10 rock climb, ice climbs should be compared to onsighting a trad route on poor gear and loose rock. If at all.

b) mixed routes

Unlike technical grade for pure ice climbs, technical grade of mixed routes is more concerned about the technical difficulty of the most difficult move or section with far less emphasis on the length of the section in question than is the case with pure ice routes. Thus the system is largely similar to many systems used used to grade rock climbs (such as Yosemite Decimal System or French system).

Sometimes mixed grades may be compared to rock grades. These comparisons normally try to communicate how hard the climb feels regarding necessary strength, ability and experience. Thus the suggested correspondence is not meant to be absolute. For example M5 is suggested to be as difficult French 5b or YDS 5.9. This means not, that M5 is f5b or YDS 5.9, but that it feels as hard. Note that the scale has shifted quite a bit during the years. Jeff Lowe introduced the system in his book "Ice World". Back then M8 was thought to be as difficult as 5.12. Clearly this can't be the case, as it would make the hardest mixed climbs way harder than the hardest rock climbs. Will Gadd introduced shifted conversion table, which is more or less the same as the table shown below.

Grading mixed climbs varies according to ascent style, mostly only in the upper grades though. The reason for this being that usage of heel spurs can make massive overhangs and horizontal roofs dramatically easier. therefore some of the climbers have given different grades depending on whether the spurs are used or not. Doesn't make a whole lot of difference in easier grades though.

There are multiple factors that change the difficulty of mixed climbs as the years go by. Firstly, many mixed climbs exist in the areas where the quality of the rock leave a lot to be desired. Therefore, the routes tend to change not only because of the different amounts of ice but also according to wear and tear of climbing. Usually cracks get bigger with climbing action, so generally what was a delicate crack barely big enough for the tip of the pick may become a bomber after few ascents. On the other hand, due to friable nature of the rock found on many mixed climbs, holds come loose much more frequently than in developed rock climbing venues.

GradeApproximate Description (to give rough idea)FrenchYDSSco T.
M1Comparable technical difficulties to WI1.35.5
M2Comparable technical difficulties to WI2.45.6
M3Comparable technical difficulties to WI3.4+5.74/5
M4Usually slabby to vertical with some technical dry tooling. Comparable technical difficulties to WI4.4+-5a5.85/6
M5Usually sustained vertical dry tooling. Comparable technical difficulties to WI5. Using picks in cracks to torque and dry-hooking is useful to facilitate progress.5b5.97/8
M6Vertical to overhanging with difficult dry tooling.Using picks in cracks to torque and dry-hooking is mandatory. As difficult as WI6 but with good protection5c-6ahard 5.9 or easy 5.108/9
M7Powerfull and technical, usually somewhat overhanging. Typically requires the use of picks and crampons in a fashion that means that the climb would be impossible without using them. Normally less than 10m of hard climbing.5c-6b5.109/10
M8Typically requires the use of picks and crampons in a fashion that means that the climb would be impossible without using them. Involves overhanging and sustained climbing. Generally it doesn't make a big difference whether spurs are used or not.6b-6c5.10-5.1110/11
M9Either continuously vertical or slightly overhanging with marginal or technical holds, or a juggy roof of 2 to 3 body lengths. For steep routes of this grade, use of heel spurs might make the route easier by about a full grade.7a-7b5.11d-5.12b11/12
M10At least 10 meters of horizontal rock or 30 meters of overhanging dry tooling with powerful moves and no rests. Gymnastic ability, physical stamina and strong mind a prerequisites.7b-c5.12b-5.12d12
M11A ropelength of overhanging gymnastic climbing, or up to 15 meters of roof. For steep routes of this grade, use of heel spurs might make the route easier by about a full grade.7b-7c5.12b-5.12d
M12M11 with bouldery, dynamic moves and tenuous technical holds. Use of spurs often brings the grade down to around stiff M10 or soft M11.7c-8a5.12d-5.13b
M13Typically around M11 to M12- with heel spurs.8a+5.13c
M14

There's lack of consistency in how the grading system is used and presented.

  • French: III/WI4 (or III/4). With more complex situation it could be V/M7,WI6,X.
  • Canadian: II-4 (WI is omitted).

Not to make things too simple, it is also possible that the technical part of the route is used alone. There are multiple cases when this is common:

  • Most other places except for France and Canada (and to some extent US, Switzerland and Italy), including but not limited to Austria, Norway, Germany and Sweden, not considering whether the climb is non-alpine or very much alpine in nature.
  • When used in combination with alpine grading, the commitment part is typically omitted.
  • In Finland (if at all graded). In this case it makes sense, as all the climbs locate at non-alpine surrounding.

If the climb has significant difficulties on various terrain, several technical grades can be given, like M6, WI4.

Routes on thin ice and/or with long run outs can be marked with "R" and routes on especially or fragile ice formations may be cotated with "X". Even if the letters wouldn't be used, most grade 6 or harder ice climbs are either R or X anyway.

Some considerations

Route length is given as the length of the climb, not as altitude difference. It can vary quite a bit depending between different sources, partly because some sources consider lower angle ice below and/or above the actual route to be part of the route while some others don't.

Interrelation between the two parts of grade can sometimes look rather odd. It is quite possible to find routes that offer moderate technical difficulties, but are very long and serious (such as Sentinelle Rouge on Mont Blanc). On the other hand, modern mixed climbs may be excellently protectable (thanks to bolts) and locate of roadside crags. However, they typically place extreme technical (and physical) demands for the climber.

Since the length of vertical section plays an important role of grading the difficulty, it is cumbersome at best to grade short but technically difficult climbs. Fortunately, it usually doesn't matter that much, as it is typically possible to see what you are getting into anyway.

There appears to be some inconsistency regarding to how long a vertical section makes WI4 to WI5. Some say that WI4 has up to 10 meters vertical section, some others in turn hold that vertical part may be up to 25m, which others hold as a solid WI5).

Conditions obviously affect the actual difficulty of the route. I have found that WI4 routes particularly can vary a lot depending on conditions, as a rather stiff WI4 in "barely there" nick may become a desperate WI5 or even WI6. On the other hand, very thin difficult routes (say WI5 and upwards) can get much easier in fat conditions. However, due their steepness, they very seldom get easier than WI5.

Just like with rock grade, M-grades are not affected depending on the protection. That is to say that moves on badly protected M7 trad route are exactly as difficult as those on well bolted M7 sport route. Demands for the climber are very different though. If anything, due to typically inferior quality of rock compared to rock climbs, the difference might be even larger.

Following table gives examples of ice routes graded with WI-system. Heights are for the actual climb excluding approach.

GradeExamples
IA short climb (usually 1-2 pitches) with a short approach and easy descent. Time required is an hour, or two.
  • Frankenstein CliffWilley's SlideCrawford Notch, NHI/WI1100m
  • Petite Aiguille Verte3512mNW sideNW faceI/AD - PD; 50-55° 100m 1h
  • Vemorkbrufoss ØstRjukanI/WI4 - Sco IV60m
  • Vemorkbrufoss VestRjukanI/WI5 - Sco V60m
  • Mixed EnotionsLoch ValeI M5 WI4+1 pitch
  • The FangVailI/WI5+/6140m
  • DamocleVal BrembaneI/WI645m
IIMostly one or two pitch climbs with easy and short approaches with no objective hazards or a single pitch with longer approach. The descent is easy by rappelling or down climbing. Normally no more than few hours are required for a climb.
  • Mont Blanc du Tacul4248mNorth faceNorth-West FaceII/AI1 - II/PD-/G2-3/Rus 2A; 40° 700m 2,5-3h
  • Tour Ronde3792mNorth faceNorth FaceII/AI2 - II AD+/D-; Sco II/60° (avg.52°)°, IV (Direct Finnish variant) 350m/10-12 pitch 4h (3-5h)
  • Tour Ronde3792mNorth faceCouloir Decors-PerrouxII/WI2 - II D/D+; 70°, II 350m 4-5h
  • Couloir Nord du Coup SabreLa GraveII/AI2 - D; 60, avg. 54°450m
  • Mont Blanc du Tacul4248mTringle du TaculContamine-MazeaudII WI2 - II AD+; Sco III/65°, IV 350m from bergschrund to the top of the triangle (P 3970), further 280m to the summit approach 1h, face to the summit 4h, descend to Aiguille du Midi 2-3h
  • Mount AndromedaSkyladder
  • Ben Nevis1343mCoire na SisteComb GullyII/WI3 - III D; Sco III/IV/80°135m
  • Ben Nevis1343mCoire na SisteGreen GullyIV/WI2+/3 - Sco IV,4/70°120m
  • Frankenstein CliffStandard RouteCrawford Notch, NHI-II/WI3+90m
  • LillazCogneII/WI3220m
  • La GrotteLa GraveII/WI350m
  • Le PylôneLa GraveII/WI3+70m
  • Cascata di AlpensùValle de GressoneyII/WI3150m
  • West GullyBlack Lake AreaII WI4-3 pitches
  • Lilloz GullyCogneII/WI4200m
  • Frankenstein CliffDraculaCrawford Notch, NHI-II/WI4+ - NEI 4+90m
  • VollokulaHemsedalII/WI4 - Sco IV120m
  • Louise FallLake LouiseII/WI4+110m
  • Mont Blanc du Tacul4248mTringle du TaculGoulotte ChèréII/WI4 - II D+/II WI4; Sco IV/85°350m, 3-4h to the top of the Triangle
  • BakveienRjukanII/WI4 - Sco IV150m
  • Weeping Wall left sideBanffII/WI4160m
  • TungtvannRjukanII/WI4+ - Sco V80m
  • Il DiedroVal FormazzaII/WI4+150m
  • Cascata della ZoccaVal MalencoII/WI4120m
  • AudaceAlpe d'HuezII/WI5
  • Transparent FoolBison FallsII/WI580m
  • Pape SatanAostaII/WI5110m
  • DavidoffFournelII/WI5250m
  • Frankenstein CliffCroplineCrawford Notch, NHI-II/WI5 - NEI 590m
  • GaunertalKaunertalII/WI5150m
  • Nye VemorkfossRjukanII/WI5 - Sco V150m
  • SabotørfossenRjukanII/WI5 - Sco VI150m
  • Val d'AlaCascatone del pian dei MortiII WI5180m
  • Valle Argenteral'Altro volto del PianetaII WI5+130m
  • Val di ChamporcherCascata del GiavinII WI4+/5+60m
  • Val di GaresMostro SacroII WI5+90m
  • Val di SusaCascata della FerraraII WI5170m
  • Shiva LingamArgentière GlacierII/WI6120m
  • Du Lac du Chambon au village de Fréauxversant nordErectionLa GraveII/WI5+180m
  • JuvsøylaRjukanIII/WI5+/6 - Sco VI180m
  • Das FensterRjukanII/WI6 - Sco VII2 pitches
  • LiptonRjukanII/WI7 - Sco VII2-3 pitches
  • OctopussyVailII/M8 WI5+40m
  • Nackschluct EisfallHöhlensteintalII WI4+/5205m
  • ExcaliburSottogudaII WI4+120m
  • Grosser E-werk EisfallZillartal, PfundersII WI4+90m
  • Franziskus EisfallReintalII WI5175m
  • Urspurung EisfallReintalII WI4170m
  • Obstanzer EisfallHochpustertalII WI4250m
IIITypically a low-elevation multi-pitch climb with a moderate approach, a long descent or a single pitch with a fairly long approach. The approach is often at least an hour long. There are some objective hazards such as rock fall or avalanches. Descents typically require setting your own anchors for rappel. Time required is half a day including approach and descent.
IVA multi-pitch route at high elevation or in a remote routes requiring mountaineering and winter travel skills. Approach may take few hours and climbs require typically most of the day to complete. Some objective hazards may have to be encountered and descents frequently require knowledge of good descent anchors such as a V-thread.
  • Mont Blanc4808mBrenva faceSentinelle RougeIV/AI2 - IV D+; 55° avg 47°, III, II 1300m 5-6h for the wall, 7-9h from the bivouac to summit
  • Mount Rainier4392Liberty RidgeCascades/Southern Cascades
  • Grand TetonBlack Ice Couloir
  • La Hemos a GodoLa GraveIV/WI3/4200m
  • Du lac Chambu aux paravalanchesversand sudCaturgeas IntegraleLa GraveIV/WI3+600m
  • Les Courtes3856mNorth face North FaceSwiss RouteIV TD-; IV/3+/Sco III-IV (3 pitches)/avg.54° 800m 8-10h
  • Mount Kenya5199mSouth faceIce WindowIV WI3-4 in the narrow gully - AD+/D; 400m, 6h from Darwin Glacier to Gate of Mists
  • Mount RainierWillis WallWillis WallIV/AI31300m
  • Aiguille du Plan3673mNorth faceLagarde-Segogne couloirIV/WI4 - IV TD/TD+; Sco IV/avg. 64°, 5c900m
  • Takakkaw FallsBanffIV/WI4+/5250m
  • Ben Nevis1343mOrion FaceOrion Face DirectIV/WI4/5 - Sco V,5400m (2-4h)
  • Monday MoneyCogneIV/WI4+200m
  • DamoclesFournelIV/WI4+200m
  • Innerkofler3098mNW face NW faceMisticaTD+III/IV WI4+500m
  • GrötenutfossenHemsedalIII/WI5 - Sco V280m/5 pitches
  • Le Bourg d'Oisans-Villard-Notre-Dame et RochailLes Delices de MathildaLa GraveIV/4
  • Long's PeakAlexander's Chimney/The NotchColorado
  • Long's PeakSmear of FearColorado
  • Mount KatahdinCilley-Barber
  • Mont Blanc4808mGrand Pilier d'Angle Grand Pilier d'AngleBoivin-VallencantIV WI4 - IV TD+/ED1; Sco IV/85-90°900m
  • Mount Kenya5199mSouth faceDiamond CouloirIV/WI4+/5 - IV TD; V-1000m/15-18 roped pitches, 9h (Darwin Glacier-Gate of Mists)
  • Mount Tasman3497mBalfour face
  • Oh Le TabernacleBanffWI5/5+55m
  • Ben Nevis1343mOrion FaceSlav RouteIV/WI4 - Sco VI
  • The GiftBritish ColumbiaIV/WI5240m
  • The Black DikeCannon Cliff (NH)IV/WI5- - NEI 5, 5.7200m
  • Le Monde de GlaceFournelIV/WI5200m
  • KjörlifossenLaerdalIV/WI5 - Sco V335m
  • Mount Mendell4179Ice NineSierra Nevada/Eastern Sierra
  • Grand TetonRoute Canal
  • Du Lac du Chambon au village de Fréauxversant nordPhantasmeLa GraveIV/WI5200m
  • Les Droites4000mNorth faceCouloir LagardeIV/5 - IV TD; Sco IV/avg. 54°1050m
  • Mont Maudit4465mEast faceOver CouloirIV WI5700m
  • QuebecLa Pomme d'OrIV/5+/67 pitches
  • Repentance SuperCogneIV/WI6300m
  • Du lac Chambu aux paravalanchesversand sudMoulins IntegraleLa GraveIV/WI6600m
  • Crack BabyKanderstegIV/WI6340m
  • ThorfossenLaerdalIV/WI6 - Sco VI488m
  • Curtain CallBanff/SunwaptaIV/WI6120m
  • Black DecemberRomsdal/IsterdalIV/WI6? - Sco VI400m
  • Pilsner PillarYoho National ParkIV WI6215m
  • CitadelShelter StoneIV/M7? - Sco VII,8240m
  • Mount PattersonRiptide
  • Mont Blanc du Tacul4248mEast facevoie de Nuit450m
  • IlluminatiVallungaIV WI6 M11+165m
  • ZauberflöteGrödenIV WI6 M5,A1/M9155m
VA long climb often taking whole day (and often a long one, too) to complete (sometimes two days is required). Climbing is either sustained or threatened by severe hazards (typically avalanches or rockfall), or both of the aforementioned. Climbs this caliber often reside high on the mountains, thus requiring a wide range of winter mountaineering skills. Descents can be tricky and involve multiple rappels off your own anchors.
VIA long, multi-pitch route in an alpine setting. The climb may (and often does) take more than a day to complete and difficulties are sustained. Wide range of skills in alpine climbing are necessary to successfully deal with objective hazards (such as avalanches, falling seracs, crevasses, spell of bad weather, high elevation and remoteness). Due the length of the climb, also excellent physical conditions is a necessity.
VIIThe biggest and hardest Himalayan alpine-style climbs (definition by Jeff Lowe). Climbs with this kind of seriousness have all the characteristics of the grade VI, but are long enough and technically difficult enough to be a grade harder. Usually there are very few attemps and even less successful ones. There are good chances for fatalities.

Scottish system

Scottish system was originally developed to grade winter climbs of Scotland. Originally the system uses Roman numbers to indicate difficulty of the route with no different separete grade for technical difficulty and overall commitment or seriousness. The system used to be (up until early 90s) closed-ended running from 1 to 6. So "old" grade 6 climbs may be considerably harder (anything between VI and VIII) than "new" grade 6's. Since grade VI was the upper end of the scale, it wasn't used too keenly, thus there may well be old grade V climbs, that are as hard as new grade VI or even VII.

Nowadays, the system has been made open ended and the grade has been split in two. The Roman number represents the overall difficulty as a balance of seriousness, length and how sustained climbing is. The latter part uses arabic number to indicate purely technical difficulties. No separate technical grade is given below grade IV.

The interrelation of tehnical and overall grades can give the idea of seriousness of a climb. For example, Point-Five Gulley (Ben Nevis) gets V,5 as the benchmark grade 5, whereas Zero Gully gets V,4 being technically easier, but just as serious due to poorer protection (runouts of almost full pitch at crux pitches). Conversely some of the modern mixed routes can be technically brutal, but due to the presence of lots of rock are much better protected, and so grades like IV,5 V,6 and even IV,6/7 are common.

Scottish grade has been (mis)used to grade ice fall climbs as well. The Scottish system is applied in Norway in it's older form to grade ice climbs. It is also sometimes used to indicate technical difficulties encountered on alpine routes. Note that in this case, Scottish grade is just technical grade, not the overall grade. Norwegian is not quite consistent though, at least Laerdal, Romsdal and Hemsedal are supposed to have stiffer grades than Rjukan (or the real Scottish ones, grading in those areas is rather similar to WI grades).

Scottish technical grades are somewhat milder than equivalent WI or M-grades-

GradeApproximate Description (to give rough idea)
IPossible to walk up the ice with the use of crampons. These are usually major snow gullies or scrambley ridges and can usually be climbed with a single axe. Often no more than 45 degrees and occasionally used as descents. May be exposed to cornices.
IIA pitch of 60 - 70 degree ice, reasonably consistent with few short steep steps. Good protection and belays. Two axes are essential.
IIISustained 70 - 80 degree ice, usually thick and solid. May contain short steep sections but will have good resting places and offer good protection and belays. Typically sustained technical ridges, or gully lines with short but steep ice and easier buttresses or snowed up rock routes.
IV or technical 4This is where it begins to get technical. Sustained 75 - 85 degree ice, separated by good belays or a less steep pitch with significant vertical sections (WI3-4). Generally good quality ice, offering satisfactory protection. Technically harder gullies.
V or technical 5A noticeably more strenuous pitch of steep, 85 - 90 degree ice. Can be considered in terms of rock grade 6 (Scandinavian) or 5a (English) for technical ability required (WI4-WI5). The classic hard grade of the 70s. Usually the top grade for gully climbs. Snowed up rock routes can be VS in summer and will require knowledge of techniques such as torqueing.
VI or technical 6A very steep strenuous pitch with few resting places and often a hanging belay. The ice may not be of top quality and protection may well be poor or difficult to find (WI5-WI6). Typically The harder buttress climbs and snowed up rock routes are likely to be at least VS in summer with steps of vertical cracks with poor footholds.
VII or technical 7The preserve of the expert. A pitch of vertical or overhanging ice which may be thin and/or of poor quality. Sound protection is difficult to place or non existent (WI6-WI7). Snowed up rock routes could have overhanging sections even roofs.
VIII or technical 8Hardest ice climbing ever done, there are very few ice climbs of this grade (WI7). Snowed up rock routes follow the lines of summer E1s and 2s and often veer away from obviously protectable cracks.
IX or technical 9The equivalent of E9 or 10 on verglassed rock.

In the following table examples of routes graded with Scottish system are given. Heights are for the actual climb excluding approach.

GradeApproximate Description (to give rough idea)
IPossible to walk up the ice with the use of crampons. These are usually major snow gullies or scrambley ridges and can usually be climbed with a single axe. Often no more than 45 degrees and occasionally used as descents. May be exposed to cornices. Sections of I are typically found on alpine routes graded between F and AD, eg. "Spencer Couloir" (Aiguille Blaitière, AD, 45/50°); Mera Peak normal route (North face, IV PD, 40-45°; 890m).
IIA pitch of 60 - 70 degree ice, reasonably consistent with few short steep steps. Good protection and belays. Two axes are essential. Sections of II are typically found on alpine routes graded between AD and D, eg. Obergabelhorn North face (D, 55°), Lyskamm North face "Norman-Neruda" (D+, 55°), Tour Ronde North face (II D- (60-65°, avg.52°)), Midi-Plan-traverse (III AD- (40°)), Mont Blanc du Tacul "Contamine-Grisolle" (Sco II/III; II AD (50°)).
IIISustained 70 - 80 degree ice, usually thick and solid. May contain short steep sections but will have good resting places and offer good protection and belays. Typically sustained technical ridges, or gully lines with short but steep ice and easier buttresses or snowed up rock routes. Sections of III are typically found on alpine routes graded between D and TD, eg. Alpamayo, "Ferrari Route" (V AD+/D; 70°, avg 45-55°; 600m) and Khan Tengri West Ridge (normal route; D/Rus 5A; 3000m).
IVThis is where it begins to get technical. Sustained 75 - 85 degree ice, separated by good belays or a less steep pitch with significant vertical sections (WI3-4). Generally good quality ice, offering satisfactory protection. Technically harder gullies. Sections of IV are typically found on alpine routes graded between TD, eg. Aiguille du Triolet, North Face "Gréloz-Roch" (TD-; V/AI2 (60/65°, avg. 54°)), Les Courtes, North Face "Swiss Route" (TD-, IV/AI3+ (70°, avg. 54°), Shivlign West Ridge (normal route; Sco III/IV; 2100m), "Charlet-Bettembourg" (Aiguille de Chardonnet; Sco IV; III TD-; III WI4/80°; 450m) and "The Shroud" (Grandes Jorasses North Face; Sco IV/IV WI4/75-80°, avg. 60°).
VA noticeably more strenuous pitch of steep, 85 - 90 degree ice. Can be considered in terms of rock grade 6 (Scandinavian) or 5a (English) for technical ability required (WI4-WI5). The classic hard grade of the 70s. Usually the top grade for gully climbs. Snowed up rock routes can be VS in summer and will require knowledge of techniques such as torqueing. Sections of V are typically found on alpine routes graded between TD and ED1, ie. Ushba North Peak, West Face Direct (RUS 5B), Les Droites "Ginat" V,5 (ED1, IV/WI5) abd North Face of Aiguilles des Grands Charmoz (Sco V,6/V M4+/65°; 900m)
VIA very steep strenuous pitch with few resting places and often a hanging belay. The ice may not be of top quality and protection may well be poor or difficult to find (WI5-WI6). Typically The harder buttress climbs and snowed up rock routes are likely to be at least VS in summer with steps of vertical cracks with poor footholds.
VIIThe preserve of the expert. A pitch of vertical or overhanging ice which may be thin and/or of poor quality. Sound protection is difficult to place or non existent (WI6-WI7). Snowed up rock routes could have overhanging sections even roofs. Sections of VII are typically found on alpine routes graded ED3 or more, eg. Aiguille des Pelerins "Beyond Good and Evil" VII,7 (ED2/3, V/WI5+,5c,A1/A2).
  • West Buttress DirectissimaBeinn EigheVII,7
  • BulgyCairngormsVII,7
  • Big DaddyCoire an LochainVII,7
  • Jirishanca6094mSE face South FaceFear and LoathingVII++ - VII ED3/4; VII/WI6+, A21050m, 25 pitches
  • Pinnacle GroovesLochnagarVII,7
  • Tower VariationSgurr an FhidhleirVII,8
  • CitadelShelter StoneVII,8 - IV/M7?240m
  • Das FensterRjukanVII - II/WI62 pitches
  • LiptonRjukanVII - II/WI7150m/2-3 pitches
VIIIThere are very few ice climbs of this grade (WI7). Snowed up rock routes follow the lines of summer E1s and 2s and often veer away from obviously protectable cracks.
IX-XIIHardest ice climbing ever done. IX or technical 9 is supposed to be more or less equivalent of E9 or 10 on verglassed rock. XI is supposed to be about as difficult as M11+ but with trad gear and XII the same but like M12.
  • Guerdon GroovesGlencoeIX,8
  • DuelGlencoeIX,9
  • The SecretIX,9 - M7+30m
  • Stob coire non LochanThe TempestGlencoeX,9 - M930m
  • The HurtingCoire an t-SneacdaXI,11 - M9+/10, E4
  • Ben Nevis1343mDon't Die of Ignorance
  • Ben Nevis1343mAnubis

Other systems to grade Ice-climbs

The NEI (New England Ice) system is very similar than the system used in other parts of North America and in central Europe. However, seriousness grade refers only to the amount of time required to complete the climb. Besides that, the top of the technical scale is commonly 5+.

Most systems to grade ice climbs are closely related to each other. However, many people find Scottish grades to be slightly milder than technical grades of water ice system and conversely NEI grades to be slightly harder than technical grades of water ice system. Luckily ice grading seems to be moving towards universally adapted single system (WI-grade). At least NEI system seems to be dying out, also use of WI system is spreading to Norway as well.

Finally many longer ice-climbs (and some short ones, too) locate in alpine surroundings. Thus alpine grading system used in the area may well be the most relevant way to grade the route. That being said, WI grade, when used with commitment grade, is exellent alpine grade for pure snow/ice routes.

WI gradeDescriptionSco/Nor OSco TNEI
WI1Low-angle water ice of 40 to 50 degrees or a long moderate snow climb requiring basic level of technical expertise. Can be climbed with one ice tool and with 10 point crampons (no front points necessary). General angle is around 50 degrees.I/II1/21
WI2Low-angle water ice with short bulges up to 70°. Climbing is reasonably consistent. Good protection and belays. Experienced climbers frequently solo sections of grade 2 ice.. General angle: 60°.III32
WI3Start of "real" waterfall ice climbing. Steeper water that is sustained at 70-80 degrees. May contain short steeper sections, but offers good rests. Ice is thick and secure protection easy to place from comfortable stances. General angle: 70°.IV43
WI4May include significant vertical sections, interspersed with rests. On 75 to 85 degree ice fairly sustained climbing. Ice is generally thick and of good quality, but can have some technical features like chandelliers. Satisfactory protection is fairly easy to place (however, may require placing protection while on vertical or near vertical ice). General angle is around 80 degrees. There appears to be some inconsistency regarding to how long a vertical section makes WI4 to WI5. Some say that WI4 has up to 10 meters vertical section, some others in turn hold that vertical part may be up to 25m, which others hold as a solid WI5). Also, WI4 routes can vary a lot depending on conditions, as a rather stiff WI4 in "barely there" nick may become a desperate WI5 or even WI6.V54
WI5Ice climbing with sustained difficulties and/or strenuous vertical (as in 90°, not 85°) columns with little or no rest possible. Ice is still mostly of good or at least acceptable quality, but can feature chandeliers, cauliflowers etc. Placing sound protection requires often some effort and climbing can require run-outs. Also shorter pitch of thin or really bad ice. Belays may be hanging. General angle is 90°.VI65
WI6Routes with heightened degree of seriousness. Long vertical or slightly overhanging sections, ice roofs, free hanging curtains or pillars or anything considerably more difficult than consensus grade 5. Also shorter vertical sections with really funky ice. Usually retreat is possibly from almost anywhere on the route, but ice is often rotten with more or less dubious possibilities for protection. Often includes mixed sections. Expert technique necessary. Considered to be roughly equally difficult as trad 5.10 with poor gear and bad rock. General angle: 90+ degrees.VII75+
WI7Full pitch of thin vertical and/or overhanging ice of dubious quality. It may have long overhung sections that are in danger of breaking off if perfect technique isn't applied. Often it involves extended mixed moves and awkward hooks to move from rock to ice. Protection is often only psychological or requires a great deal of creativity to place. Many grade sevens tend to become grade grade 6 with second ascent.5+
"It's always further than it looks. It's always taller than it looks. And it's always harder than it looks."

- The 3 rules of mountaineering

Links