Joel indoor bouldering

Climbing Grades – What are they?

I remember when I first got started climbing, I felt incredibly overwhelmed by the amount of information being thrown at me. Climbing grades, conversions, trad, bouldering… What does it all mean? If that wasn’t hard enough, did you know that there are dozens of rock-climbing grading systems? As new forms of rock climbing emerged across…

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I remember when I first got started climbing, I felt incredibly overwhelmed by the amount of information being thrown at me. Climbing grades, conversions, trad, bouldering… What does it all mean? If that wasn’t hard enough, did you know that there are dozens of rock-climbing grading systems?

As new forms of rock climbing emerged across the world, so did the need for distinctions in their difficulty and safety. Today, we’ll cover the most prominent scales from the Yosemite Decimal system to the V Scale.

But first, what are climbing grades and why are they important?

What are Climbing Grades?

Rock climbing grades are numerical, alphabetical, or symbolic terms used to denote the difficulty, length, or time required of a climb in reference to its terrain. Each grading system varies in their scale, though many of them have similarities. Climbing grades are typically determined by the first ascensionist (the first climber to complete the route) and then a consensus is met when more climbers repeat the route and suggest their own climbing grades.

Why are Climbing Grades Important?

Climbing grades are critical to the sport of rock climbing because it minimizes climbers attempting climbing grades that are outside of their skill level, and thus averting injury or even death. Climbing grades also helps climbers to track their progress. For example, my goal is to reach the double-digit climbing grades of the V-Scale.

The V Scale Grading System (Hueco Grade System)

The V Scale, created by John “Vermin” Sherman in the 1990s, is the most popular bouldering scale in the world. It is an open-ended scale which means as more difficult routes are created or discovered, the scale continues to grow. Currently, the climbing grades on this scale ranges from VB or V0 being the easiest routes and V17 being the most difficult (so far). + or – may be used to further note the difficulty of the grade.

Indoor climbing gyms often use colors in order distinguish between different levels of difficulty and will have a key somewhere in the gym.

Here are how the different climbing grades translate:

Climbing Grades
Bouldering uses the V or Font Scale – Climbing Grades
  • VB to V2 (Beginner/Easy)
  • V3 to V6 (Intermediate) 
  • V7 to V9 (Advanced)
  • V10 – V13 (Expert)
  • V14+ (Elite) 

As a boulderer from the United States, I primarily use the V-scale when climbing. However, I try to be knowledgeable about climbing grades outside of this grading system as well. If you’d like to learn more about the different types of rock climbing, check out “What are the Types of Rock Climbing?“.

Yosemite Decimal System

The Yosemite Decimal System, more commonly known as the YDS, is the preferred free climbing grade system among most climbers in the United States though it can be seen used internationally. The YDS was created in the 1930s by the Sierra Club to assign climbing grades to the routes in the Sierra Nevada. It consists of five classes, the first class being the easiest consisting of a beginner’s hike while the fifth is the hardest consisting of climbing. 

The fifth class is further divided into 15 levels marked as 5.0 to 5.15, 5.0 being the easiest climb and 5.15 being only achievable by the world’s best climbers. Levels of 5.10 or higher may be designated with a letter a through d which also further indicates the difficulty. This means that level 5.15d is the most difficult level you can reach. 

  • Class 1 – This is a beginner’s hike with relatively flat, easy terrain. This level poses little to no threat of injury.
  • Class 2 – In this class, climbers may need to use their hands to assist in ascending the route, but generally, this class is pretty easy for novices. There is little implication of injury.
  • Class 3 – Class 3 is defined by an increase in incline. You must use your hands and injuries can be significant without protection. 
  • Class 4 – In Class 4, protective equipment is usually necessary. Otherwise, injuries are imminent. Individuals must use hands and feet to scramble over rock. 
  • Class 5 – Class 5 accounts for a variety of fully vertical climbs ranging from 5.0 all the way to 5.15. Technical climbs that require protective equipment.
    • Class 5.0 – 5.6 – These classes are easy climbing routes.
    • Class 5.7 – 5.9 – These classes include intermediate climbs. 
    • Class 5.10 – 5.14 – These classes are advanced/difficult climbs. 
    • Class 5.15 – This class accounts for the most difficult climbs that very few climbers can achieve. 

The YDS may be used in conjunction with a commitment grade or a protection rating, both of which will be discussed in this article. 

National Climbing Classification System (Commitment Grades)

The National Climbing Classification System, better known as the NCCS, is a grading system consisting of roman numerals I through VII (1 to 7) used to indicate the time spent on the route. It ranges from less than several hours to a week or more. 

  • Grade I – Several hours or less
  • Grade II – A half day
  • Grade III – Over half a day, under a full day
  • Grade IV – Full day
  • Grade V – 2-3 days
  • Grade VI – More than 3 days, under a week
  • Grade VII – A week or more

Protection and Safety Ratings

This rating system indicates the safety of a given route in correlation to available protection. It spans from a G rating (a very safe route) to an X rating (an extremely dangerous route). This system does not necessarily indicate difficulty of the route, simply the potential danger. That is why these climbing grades are so important.

  • G – A very safe route. Protection is either already there or easy to place.
  • PG – Most of the route either has protection or has places to place protection. A fairly safe route. 
  • PG-13 – Protection may be difficult to find or place. Falls may be dangerous. 
  • R – Places for protection are further than previous ratings. Falls can be fatal.
  • X – The protection available is very limited. The route is dangerous and falls are likely fatal. 

International French Adjectival System (IFAS) (Alpine Climbing Grade System)

The International French Adjectival System, similar to British Adjective Grades, is used throughout Europe. The IFAS uses letters, numbers, and the symbols + and – to represent the difficulty of a route. These climbing grades include;

  • F – Facile (easy), Rock scrambling and snow slopes are at a low angle. Ropes are often unnecessary except when crossing glaciers. 
  • PD – Peu Difficile (a little difficult), route with snow may be up to 45 degrees. Climbing becomes more technical. 
  • AD – Assez Difficile (fairly difficult), routes with snow and ice are at an angle of 45 to 65 degrees. Climbers must be experienced. 
  • D – Difficile (difficult), Snow and ice slopes are at an angle between 50 and 70 degrees, rock climbing is hard, poses significant dangers. 
  • TD – Trés Difficile (very difficult) snow and ice slopes are between 65 and 80 degrees; routes can be remote and very dangerous. 
  • ED (1,2,3, or 4)- Extrêmement Difficile (extremely difficult), routes are either completely vertical or very close, these routes can be very dangerous.
  • ABO – abominable (horrible) – as the name might suggest very few can complete routes rated ABO, these routes present many dangers, are very difficult, and are only for those who are very experienced.

The Font Grading System (The Fontainebleau Scale) (The French Scale)

V-Scale Climbing Grades
Joel indoor bouldering- Climbing Grades

British Grading System

The Font Grading System, originating in Fontainebleau, France, is the second most popular bouldering grading scale in the world, second only to the V-Scale. It is most popular in Europe, but is also occasionally used in other parts of the world. 

It is also an open ended scale that ranges from 1 to 9. The letters A, B, and C and the symbols of + or – are used to indicate the difficulty of the problem. The higher the number/the later the letter, the more difficult the route is. The colors yellow or green, orange, blue, red, black or white and purple may be used to reveal the grade. 

  • 1 to 5+ – (Beginner/Easy)
  • 6A to 7A – (Intermediate)
  • 7A+ to 7C – (Advanced)
  • 7C+ to 8B – (Expert)
  • 8B+ to 9A – (Elite) 

Another open ended free climbing grading system is the British Grading System which entails two sub-genres of grading systems, an adjective (descriptive) grade and a technical grade. These two climbing grades are used together so climbers can fully understand what to expect on the climb.

Adjective grades are used to describe the overall difficulty of a climb. The system is fairly simple consisting of 11 grades including starting with Easy and ending with Extreme Severe. Extreme severe includes 11 numerical grades to further divide the grade. 

  • Easy
  • Moderate (may be indicated as M of Mod)
  • Difficult (may be indicated as D or Dif) 
  • Very Difficult (may be indicated as VD or V Diff)
  • Hard Very Difficult (may be indicated as HVD or Hard V Diff)
  • Mild Severe (may be indicated as MS)
  • Hard Severe (may be indicated as HS)
  • Severe (may be indicated as S)
  • Very Severe (may be indicated as VS)
  • Hard Very Severe (may be indicated as HVS)
  • Extreme Severe (may be indicated as E) (typically followed by a number 1-11)

As for the technical grades, it judges the climb based on the most difficult part of the route, otherwise known as the crux. Like many other grading systems, it uses a number (1 to 7) and a letter (a, b, or c).  Charts usually begin with 4a and end with 7b or 7c. Since it is an open-ended scale, this grading system will likely evolve with time as climbers achieve more difficult feats. 

  • 4a – equivalent to the VD/S adjective grade 
  • 4b – equivalent to the HS adjective grade
  • 4c – equivalent to the HS/VS adjective grade
  • 5a – equivalent to the HVS/E1 adjective grade
  • 5b – equivalent to the E1/E2 adjective grade
  • 5c – equivalent to the E2/E3 adjective grade
  • 6a – equivalent to the E4/E5 adjective grade
  • 6b – equivalent to the E5/E6 adjective grade
  • 6c – equivalent to the E6/E7 adjective grade
  • 7a – equivalent to the E7/E8 adjective grade
  • 7b – equivalent to the E8/E9 adjective grade
  • 7c – equivalent to the E9 adjective grade

The UIAA Grading System

The UIAA Grading System, created by the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation, is another climbing grade system used throughout Europe. Generally, it uses the Roman Numerals I through XI (1 to 11) to describe the difficulty of the route, though since this is an open scale, higher grades exist. Some climbers may use a + or – to further denote the difficulty of a time. 

  • I (First Grade) – (Novice) Easiest form of rock climbing or scrambling
  • II (Second Grade) – (Novice) Simple routes with a plentiful amount of hand and foot holds
  • III (Third Grade) – (Novice) Solid holds on a steeper route than previous grades
  • IV (Fourth Grade) – (Beginner) Smaller and less frequent holds, meant for climbers with some experience.
  • V (Fifth Grade) – (Beginner) Holds are small and opportunity for supports becomes fewer and farther apart
  • VI (Sixth Grade) – (Intermediate) Meant for advances climbers, very small holds, few opportunities for support.
  • VII (Seventh Grade)- (Intermediate) Holds are small and far apart, opportunities for support are far apart.
  • VIII (Eighth Grade) and above – (Advanced) these routes are meant for elite climbers.

To learn more about the UIAA, you can visit their website at www.theuiaa.org.

 Water Ice Grading System (WI Grading System)

The WI Grading System is one of the main grading scales in the world of ice climbing. These climbing grades accounts for water ice climbing which means that you are climbing a frozen flowing source of water unlike in alpine climbing where you are climbing ice in a mountain environment. 

Unlike other forms of climbing, routes may change from season to season, or even from day to day, which is an appealing factor to many climbers. For this reason, assigning climbing grades to these routes can be very difficult. 

Despite its complexity, the grading system itself is quite simple. It simply uses the letters WI (standing for water ice) followed by a number 1 to 7, WI1 being the easiest and WI7 being the most difficult. 

  • WI1 – A climb below 60 degrees, no tools are required, suitable for beginners.
  • WI2 – A climb around 60 degrees, suitable for beginners, lots of availability for good protection, crampons may be necessary.
  • WI3 – A climb around 70 degrees, may have cruxes around 80 or 90 degrees, has availability for good protection, may be suitable for some beginners with experience.
  • WI4 – A climb around 80 degrees, may have cruxes around 90 degrees.
  • WI5 – A climb between 85 and 90 degrees, may be difficult to find solid places for protection or find places to rest, intended for experienced climbers.
  • WI6 – Climb is entirely vertical and may have some overhangs, very difficult to find solid protection and places to rest, intended for very experienced climbers.
  • WI7 – Climb is entirely vertical and has overhands, almost impossible to find places for protection and places to rest, low-quality ice, intended for elite ice climbers.

Aid Rating System (A-scale)

The A Scale consists of the letter A followed by a number 0 through 6 used to indicate the difficulty of the climb and the availability to place good aid and protection. A + or – sign may be used to further indicate the difficulty of a climb.

  • A0 – Pulling on equipment instead of rock.
  • A1 – Easy and solid aid. The risk of aid and protection falling out is very little. Potential falls pose little threat. 
  • A2 – Placements of protection and aid may be difficult but falls are not life threatening. 
  • A3 – Hard aid. May include many difficult placements consecutively. The risk of falling is still low. 
  • A4 – This grade requires many body weight placements consecutively. Injuries at this level may be severe. 
  • A5 – Fall at this level may be at least 20 meters and may be fatal. 
  • A6 – Falls at this level are very dangerous and may be lethal. 

The clean climbing scale is graded in a very similar fashion. The main difference between the two scales is that the clean climbing scale considers the fact that clean climbers do not use any equipment that may damage the rock such as bolts, and that the grade is indicated with the letter C instead of the letter A. 

A Reflection

These grading scales are just a few of many that exist. Many regions and mountains have their own scales with unique climbing grades to accommodate the unique features of their terrain.

In my own practice, as a boulderer in the United States the climbing grades I use is the V-scale. After becoming familiar with boulder-culture, the scale has become second nature to me. I enjoy its simplicity and how easily it makes it for me to track my progress. 

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