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Unraveling the Mystery Behind Aid Climbing Ratings


by Editor

December 29, 2001

The good news about aid climbing rating scales is that the whole world uses a single scale that goes from A1 to A5. The bad news is that there are many interpretations of that scale. It will all depend on where and when that first ascent was made.

For most purposes, the following - general - aid rating scale will do:

A1: All placements are rock solid and easy.
A2: Placements are still bomber, but the placements are awkward and a few difficult may be difficult.
A3: Many placements are difficult, but there is the occasional bomber piece.
A4: There are several placements in a row that will hold nothing more than body weight.
A5: 20 meters (60 ft) or more of body placements in a row.

In Europe, where most aid climbs were made long ago, this scale may be adjusted downward. Put simply, A3 placements are difficult, but will hold a short fall. A4 will involve some body weight placements, but not necessarily many in a row. And A5 is just unheard of. In Europe, A0 is used to indicate that fixed (and solid) pro is in place.

In the USA, modern equipment and the unrelentless drive to climb ever bigger and more difficult Big Walls, has pushed aid climbing to limits that were unimaginable a few decades ago. This has also changed the interpretation of the rating scales. This is how John Long and John Middendorf interpret the modern aid climbing ratings it in their 'Big Wall' book:

  • A0: Hanging from gear, stepping on pitons, pulling up on nuts, etc. Everything that doesn't require aiders and can't be honestly called 'free climbing'. Also known as "french free".
  • A1: Easy aid. Placements are easy and bomber. Each piece should hold a fall.
  • A2: Moderate aid. Solid but often awkward and strenuous placements. Maybe a difficult placement or two above good pro. Falls pose no danger.
  • A2+: Moderate aid, but with more tenuous placements above good pro. There is a potential for serious falls, but these will generally be otherwise uneventfull.
  • A3: Hard aid. Requires many tenuous placements in a row and pieces need to be tested before weighting them. There should be solid placements within the pitch, but they are rather few and far between. During a fall, up to eight pieces of pro may rip out, but there generally is little serious danger. Takes several hours to complete a pitch.
  • A3+: A3, but with a dangerous fall potential.
  • A4: Serious aid. Most placements hold little less than body weight and falls are serious affairs. Being 10 to 15 meters (30 to 50 ft) above the last solid piece is not uncommon.
  • A4+: Very serious aid. Placements are often very marginal and pitches require many hours to complete.
  • A5: Extreme aid. No piece in the whole pitch can be trusted to hold a fall. No bolts or rivets in A5 pitches.
  • A6: A5 with poor belays that won't hold a fall. The leader pops and the whole team is airborne. No one sane has ever done this, and no one insane who tried came back to tell us about it.

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