What are climbing grades?
A grade is a combination of letters and numbers which indicates the difficulty of a particular climbing routes.
There are a number of different grading schemes in use today. Grading schemes vary from country to country and between climbing disciplines. For example, sport climbing routes are graded with a different scheme than bouldering routes and even within the sport of bouldering alone there are different grading schemes in use in different countries.
You can think of climbing grades a bit like parental guidance ratings on movies. Just like you wouldn’t bring a 6 year old to see an NC-17 film in the US or an 18 movie in the UK, you wouldn’t put a beginner climber on a 5.14 lead climbing route.
There are a large number of factors which influence the grade of a climbing route or bouldering problem. Some factors are important in one grading scheme but ignored in others. For example in the V-Scale for bouldering, the length of the route is not taken into consideration whereas in the British Trad Climbing system it is an important factor.
One thing that all grades have in common is that they are subjective. What you might think is a 5.10a, I might think is a 5.10b. A V4 boulder in one region might mean something slightly different than a V4 boulder somewhere else. This variability can make discussion about grades both maddening and extremely animated. It is fundamentally impossible to accurately reduce the realm of mountaineering down to a few letters and numbers but it turns out it’s still fun to try!
Why do they exist?
Climbing grades are an important tool when talking about climbing. Imagine a tourist comes to your local climbing area and asks you to recommend some good routes to them. They likely want to climbing roughly at their ability level. But how can you recommend routes with having some sort of grading system?
Grades are key to understanding which routes you likely can or can’t climb so you don’t waste hours bouncing off a route you simply aren’t going to make progress on.
One common attribute of grading systems is that many of them were developed at a time where people didn’t dare dream that humans would be able to make the free ascents that we see achieved today. They may have done their climbing in hobnailed boots and drank beer for lunch and they never realised they would need a scale that encompassed The Dawn Wall. For this reason, scales sometimes feel like they start uniformly and then get weirder and weirder as they progress towards harder stuff.
What are some common grading schemes?
Each climbing discipline has its own grading schemes.
The two most commonly used schemes in bouldering are the V-Scale and Font grades.
Bouldering grades are assigned purely based on the physical toughness of the problem. The size of the holds, the steepness of the route and the relative distance between the holds might be factors taken into account. Neither height nor risk of physical harm is taken into account which means that a 30 foot highball which might kill you if you fell off it could be graded V2 if the holds were positive and easy to reach.
Examples: V4, V5, V6
The V Scale is an open-ended scale beginning at V0 and ending, for the moment, at V17. If somebody climbs something harder it is possible we will see the scale grow to V18 or higher. There is also a level easier than V0 called “VB”. The B in VB stands for Beginner. There are no fractional grades. The V Scale is the standard in the United States and Canada.
Sometimes we see a ‘+’ or ‘-’ appended to the grade in order to further classify the difficulty. For example a V4- is on the easier end of the V4s but isn’t easy enough to be called a V3. A V4+ is on the harder end but not hard enough to be called a V5.
The V-Scale was named after its creator John “Verm” Sherman. John now regrets giving “the climbing world they could abuse” and believes that “like any rating system, it’s a cancer on the sport”. [source]
Examples: 3, 6a+, 7c
The Font scale is also open-ended, just like the V Scale. Technically the grade starts at 1 and progresses up to (currently) 9a. Practically, routes easier than 3 are rare so the grade is often considered to start at 3.
The grade is simple mathematics between 1 and 6 - the higher the number, the more difficult the climbing. From 6 upwards, a letter can be appended to the number in order to more accurately portray the difficulty. The letter can only be one of a, b or c. For example, a 6c is harder than a 6b but not as hard as a 7a. There is no 6d.
To make things even more complicated, grades can be postfixed with a ‘+’ to indicate a fractional increase in difficulty. For example, 7b+ is harder than 7b.
Font is short for Fontainebleau, a famous bouldering region to the south of Paris in France and the geographical region where the scale developed.
If you thought the bouldering situation was complicated, don’t expect sport climbing to be any different. There’s even more decently common grading systems in the sport climbing world.
Yosemite Decimal System (YDS)
Examples: 2, 5.6, 5.10d
The YDS can grade anything from a leisurely stroll in the woods to the hardest climbs in the world. A YDS grade can be composed of up to three components, the class, the subclass and the safety rating. When talking about climbing, it’s most common to only see the class (which will always be 5) and the subclass.
The class and the subclass refer only to the difficulty of the hardest technical move on the route or, in the case of multi-pitch climbs, the difficulty of the hardest pitch. The length of the route or the easy of finding protection are not taken into account. That’s where the other components come in.
The YDS was adapted from the Welzenbach grading method (which later became the UIAA scale) by the mountaineering Sierra Club in the 1930s. It was initially capped at 5.9 but was extended in the 1960s as training methods, techniques and technology improved.
First there’s the Class:
|Class 1||trail walking. The steepness of the trail or surface makes no difference to the grade. As long as you don’t need your hands for balance it’s Class 1.|
|Class 2||Trail walking on very rough terrain. Hands may be used for balance or light scrambling but not relied on.|
|Class 3||Hands become common and will be used for scrambling but not for fully supporting the body weight. The route is possibly steep but not vertical. A rope is not needed.|
|Class 4||Contiguous use of the hands. It is likely vertical or close to it but will have many large and easy to reach holds. If a ladder was natural terrain it would be Class 4.|
|Class 5||Technical climbing. It requires continuous ropework (ignoring Honnold for a second), skill and practice to perform.|
Class 5 is further broken down into subclasses. This is where the decimals come into play. There’s also a single letter appended to the subclass when talking about the stuff on the harder end of this scale.
- 5.0 to 5.4 is “easy” climbing with lots of solid holds. These routes will be similar in difficulty to hard Class 4 climbs.
- 5.5 to 5.6 will still have an abundance of holds but they may be slightly difficult for beginners to find or trust.
- 5.7 to 5.9 Climbs in this range are almost never overhanging. Your skinny beginner friend who is really good at sports might be able to top rope a 5.7 in the gym on his first attempt but it’s unlikely. Considerable skill is sometimes required at these levels outdoors. Probably multiple attempts at the route for most climbers. This is solid amateur climber territory.
- 5.10 to 5.12 A lot of skill is required to climb at these levels. Many hours of time invested to learning and practicing routes. Climbs from 5.10 up are regularly subdivided by appending letters to their grade, similar to what is done with the Font bouldering grade. The letters used are a, b, c and d. A 5.10a is easier than a 5.10b. Usually there will be a noticeable difference.
- 5.13 to 5.14 This is professional climber territory. Most people have little to no chance of attaining this level. Those that do have invested countless hours reaching the level. Routes will have tiny holds and extended overhanging sections.
- 5.15 is as hard as it gets at the moment. Only a handful of people have ever climbed at this level.
Routes harder than 5.10 may have an optional “+” or “-“ appended to them. A plus indicates that there are multiple hard moves at the overall level contained within the pitch whereas a minus indicates that there is only one hard move and the ready are easier.
Because the class and subclass only indicate the difficulty of the hardest move on the route, we sometimes see a safety rating which belies the easy of placing protection. This protection rating has multiple names including “safety”, “protection” and “seriousness” rating. It was introduced by James Erikson in 1980.
|G||Good, solid protection from top to bottom.|
|PG||Pretty good. A few sections of poor or missing placements.|
|PG-13||Protection is adequate and if it is placed correctly there is no danger of long falls.|
|R||Protection is sparse and there is danger of long falls.|
|X||Protection is almost non-existent. Falls could be very long or even fatal.|
National Climbing Classification System (NCCS)
Example: I, III, IV
National in this instance means the United States. This is a more comprehensive grading scheme than the YDS in terms of the number of factors it takes into account. It can be used to describe a multi-pitch route with a single indicator. This is different than the YDS where people will usually describe each pitch with its own grade.
When defining the NCCS rating of a climb, the following factors can be taken into account:
Length of climb
Difficulty of hardest pitch
Average difficulty of pitches
Total ascent time
Difficulty of finding or staying on the route
Total number of difficult pitches
The scheme works as follows:
- Grade I: Relatively short climb taking an hour or a couple of hours. There will usually be not more than two pitches.
- Grade II: Half to ¾ of a days climb. The technical difficulty isn’t really taken into account at this end of the scale.
- Grade III: A day’s climbing with some technical climbing.
- Grade IV: A full day with the hardest pitch being at least 5.7 on the YDS.
- Grade V: Requires a day and a half with the hardest pitch being at least 5.8
- Grade VI: Requires multiple days with multiple pitches of hard technical climbing.
- Grade VII: More of the same but even more of it. Expedition like.
Example: 1, 6a+, 9c
The French sport climbing grade system looks a lot like the Font system for bouldering. It consists of a number followed by an optional letter, followed by an optional + or -. It was introduced in the late 1980’s by prominent guidebook writer Francois Labande.
It’s used heavily in Europe, mostly for sport routes. It’s an overall assessment of a pitch. It takes into account more than just the technical difficulty of the hardest move on a pitch. A shorter 8c route will generally have more individual hard moves than a long 8c route. Keep this in mind next time you’re comparing two climbing gyms of different heights!
You can get a sense of the difficulty of each of the French grades by using the converter at the top of the page to compare them against the Yosemite Decimal System.
Ewbank or Australian (Australia and New Zealand)
Example: 1, 7, 23
The Ewbank is the simplest (in terms of nomenclature) grading system in the world. It’s an open ended system starting at 1 and using numbers only to represent the grade of the route. It takes into account not only the technical difficulty but also the seriousness of the ascent (exposure, difficulty of placing protection etc).
It was created in the 1960s and is named after its creator John Ewbank. John was an English man who emigrated to Australia.
Ewbank (South Africa)
Example: 1, 7, 23
Exactly the same as the Australian Ewbank system above except the seriousness of the route is not taken into account when assigning the grade.
The UIAA is primarily an Alpine scale which grew out of the Welzenbach Scale (of YDS fame) in 1967. It has two parts, a technical assessment of the route and an assessment of other factors.
The technical part originally spanned the Roman symbols from I to VI followed by the “+” or “-“ sign but it was extended in out to VII (seventh) 1976 when it was belatedly realised that the sport of climbing had advanced. In 1985 the decision was made to open the scale and we have subsequently seen it expand out to it’s current limit at XI.
|I||First Grade||Easy scrambling. Hands frequently used.|
|II||Second Grade||Proper climbing. One limb at a time. Holds abundant.|
|III||Third Grade||Very steep or vertical rock. Rare holds and you might find you have to pull yourself up with your arms.|
|IV||Fourth Grade||Climbing technique becomes advanced. Holds are still more rare. Cracks, corners, stemming appear.|
|V to XI||…||More of the same. Smaller, less frequent holds. More steep terrain. More complicated moves.|
In the UIAA technical scale, grading individual moves within a single pitch is encouraged. This idea comes from it’s roots in Alpinism where the goal is to find the easiest path up a difficult route.
The second part of the UIAA scale represents the “Global Difficulties” of the route. It is similar in aim to the NCCS grade discussed above. It attempts to grade a climb based on factors such as
- Type of gear placement
- Possibility of retreat
- Approach and decent
- Objective dangers
- Difficulty of finding the route
|PD||A little difficult|
You may be wondering how “F” corresponds to “easy” and “AD” corresponds to “AD”. The grade was originally prescribed in the French language. The French for easy is facile. Azzez difficile is fairly hard.
Each category can be subdivided with the inf and sup postfix to indicate the lower and higher ends of the category.
How are routes graded?
How a route gets it’s grade depends on a number of factors but we like to cover all the bases so we’ve split this section up into indoor and outdoor.
Outdoor routes and bouldering problems are graded partially by the first ascender, partially by consensus. Outdoor crags usually have a group of locals who frequent the area and know each other. When one of them makes the first ascent of a new problem they will assign it a grade. This is often considered to be a provisional grade.
Other people who repeat the problem might recommend that grade is adjusted up or down. Over time, with enough opinions, a consensus grade is agreed.
Because grading is often done by the people who climb in an area most frequently, it is somewhat common to have all of the problems in one geographic area graded similarly to each other while being different to a another geographically distant location.
Eventually someone might write a guidebook and list a grade in there. That makes the grade even more permanent.
Another way grades can change is when one of the holds breaks. This sometimes can happen accidentally when a climber pulls on it really hard. This might make a route more difficult or even impossible.
Climbing gyms employ routesetters who put up the routes in the gym. There’s even a route setting association and you can do a course to learn how to route set.
Routesetters will test problems as they set them, maybe asking one or two other people at the gym to validate their grade if required. When they set the problem, they give it a grade.
It does happen that routes or their grades are sometimes changed in the first few days after initial setting if it appears they are drastically too hard or two easy for the grade.
Some gyms grade boulders in “circuits” where all the routes of a particular color are approximately the same level. This is especially common in Europe but less so in the US. Summit Gyms wrote a blog post talking about why they switched from non-circuit to circuit.