Sunday 5 November 2023

Southern Sandstone Grades Update

With the release of the Rockfax Southern Sandstone Climbs guide in 2017, the UK Tech grade in terms of its use by Rockfax and UKC would enter a period of transition from UK Tech to the French grade. The printed guide presented a dual system for this transition and the Rockfax app would present only the French grade. 

It was always envisioned that the next major update would take a further step towards the single use of the French grade, and six years after the release of the printed guide came the Southern Sandstone Climbs 2023 App update. As such and upon its release the UKC logbooks moved to only using the French grade and new route submissions only accepted French grades. 

The French grade has now been widely adopted on southern sandstone along with the Font grade for bouldering. The UK Tech grade now offers nothing more than a wide scope to which any number of grades could be applied, famously 6b which measures anything from French 7a to 8a. The continual use of the UK Tech grade presents many problems including the fact that it was never intended to be used independently and requires adjective grades to function properly.

Southern Sandstone since 1947 had been using an incremented and accumulative Willo Welzenbach grading system which over the years had to expand and adapt to rising standards.  Other countries also used this system which over time mutated in their ways to adapt to rising standards. These mutations became known as the font grade, French grade and the UIAA grade. The UK did not mutate its Welzenbach grade but instead changed its use of it into something entirely new, UK Tech.

In the 1970s the Welzenbach system as used on southern sandstone and for multipitch climbs made its way into single-pitch climbing for a time, though quickly entered a period of restructuring as the grade adopted a new identity to measure the single hardest move whilst working only alongside the British adjective grading system. This in turn meant it was not compatible with other independent accumulative grades found elsewhere around the world and would only work alongside British adjective systems. 

This new identity was not widely realised when it was implemented in 1981 when southern sandstone was aligned with the new perception of the numerical system used elsewhere in the UK, (UK Tech), and the effects on southern sandstone were not seen for another 14 years, when this new measure of grading was eventually put in print and reflected upon. 

Over the years UK Tech in isolation would collapse in on itself and guidebook authors needed to move to alternative grading systems instead of one which had grown its own perception but was not compatible with those growing new ones.  There have been other systems used on southern sandstone to combat this issue of which the UK Tech + systems, and font grades have both been used in the past.
The subject concerning the move to the French grade has not been taken lightly and significant research into the grading systems used in the UK has been done and will be published in 2024 to support historical information concerning grading in the UK and specifically southern sandstone. 

One important part of the transition to the French system on southern sandstone is the need to understand what a move entails. A conversion from UK Tech to French grades was not possible so UKC logbooks, opinions and significant research have been undertaken to arrive at the first version of the new grading system. Continued development is now down to consensus grading, to home-in on and tweak where necessary and this is the first time an area has had the opportunity to do this on such a large scale, specifically through ukc logbooks.

It's also worth noting that some climbs through the transition have seen significant re-grades, primarily at the lower end of the grading spectrum and this in some cases is set to continue. 

French grading is more of a course correction in reality, as in 1981 if the French grade was used more widely and the full implications were known regarding UK Tech, Southern sandstone could well have mutated much more into what the French grade is today.