If you’re getting into climbing, either roped climbing or bouldering and are confused by the rating system for climbs, you’ve come to the right place. If you understand the rating systems used in the US and around the world to rate the difficulty of roped climbs and boulder problems, it can help you track your growth as a climber and pick climbs that might be a good challenge for you.
We understand that climbing a grade higher than you previously have can be exciting, but that being said, it is worth noting that although the grading scales we’ll discuss here try to be objective, they are still very subjective. What is difficult for one person or one particular body size or shape may be easy for another person or body size. If you use route and problem ratings as a guideline, you’ll find yourself way less stressed than if you live by ratings, so don’t be too hard on yourself.
How are Climbs Graded by Setters?
If you are climbing indoors, climbs are graded by setters or the people who put up the climbs. This simply means that the people who designed the route and screwed the holds into the wall are the ones who get to designate how hard the climb is. Most climbing gyms rate climbs based on how they compare to other similar climbs. This means that, in theory, all climbs of the same rating at a particular gym will feel of similar difficulty.
Outdoors, climbs are rated by the person who completes the first ascent or first successful completion of the climb. If people disagree with the grade that the first ascent climber assigned to a climb, it will typically change to accommodate what the average climber thinks of the climb. This means that the hardest climbs, such as those in the 5.15 range, are often disputed in ratings because so few people have successfully climbed them.
Climbs are rated based on the hardest move on them, which means that if a climb has a lot of moves that are in the 5.8 range, but a few moves in the 5.9 range, the climb will be a 5.9. This is just something to be aware of, especially as you start climbing taller and longer climbs. It means that even a really long climb could potentially only have a few moves of the grade it is actually rated.
What are Common Sport Climbing Grades?
The grades that you’ll see listed in guidebooks or at climbing gyms vary depending on where in the world you are. If you are climbing in the US, you will see the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS), but if you’re climbing pretty much anywhere else in the world, you’ll see the French Scale. Similar to the distinctions between the metric system and the US measuring system, the US has its own scales for climbing grades.
If someone asks you for your sport climbing grade or your lead grade, they mean the highest grade of sport climb that you can cleanly lead. Many climbers differentiate their sport leading grade from their top-rope climbing grade and their trad leading grade. Generally, people find that the grade that they are able to top-rope is higher than the grade that they can sport lead and that their sport leading grade is higher than their trad leading grade.
Just remember that all of these grades are subjective, and this trend does not hold true for all climbers, so don’t worry if that doesn’t describe you. Grades are just a subjective measure of the relative difficulty of a climb, compared to other climbs in the area. Do your research before going to a new place to make sure you understand their grades and the system that they use. Below we’ll talk about some of the most common systems, the YDS, and the French Scale.
What is the YDS?
The YDS is a scale used to rate the difficulty of climbs in the US. It is a 3 part scale that describes the terrain and its difficulty. We’re going to break down all three parts of the grade to help you better be able to understand what a climbing rating means. We’ll use 5.10b as an example to break down the grade.
5: The first number lets you know what type of terrain this will be. A grade of 1 would be walking on flat ground, 2 would be walking on a slope, 3 would be going up steps, 4 would be a scramble, 5 would be a climb, and 6 is the classification used to aid climbing, or climbs that need more than just the rock to get up. In this case, it’s a 5, so you know that this will be a rock climb.
10: The second number, the number after the point, breaks down the difficulty within the category of the first number. These numbers start at zero and continue up to 16, but could keep going above 16 if harder climbs are done. For numbers 0 – 9, there will be no letter after them, but once you reach the second number of 10, you might start to see letters after the number, breaking down the grade even more.
B: Letters a, b, c, or d will be seen after the second number on climbs rated 5.10 or above. The numbers break down the climbs within each numerical grade more. So a 5.11b is harder than a 5.11a. The letters only appear on 5.10 and above because of the history of climbing ratings. Originally climbs were rated 5.0 – 5.9, but as gear got better and better and climbers got stronger, people were able to do harder climbs. Somewhere along the line, it was decided that they would make a more detailed break down of climbing grades, so they didn’t end up with something like a 5.34.
This means though that a 5.9 can feel very different depending on when it was first climbed. If the climb was first climbed and established a long time ago, 5.9 was just the hardest grade, so the climb could feel much more like a 5.10a, b, c, or d. If it is a newer 5.9, it is more likely to feel comparable to a 5.9 you might find in a gym.
What is the French Scale?
The French Scale is what’s used almost everywhere other than the US to rate the difficulty of climbs. It is similar in appearance to the YDS, with multiple levels of breakdown of difficulty. We’ll use 7A+ for this example.
7: The number is the largest breakdown of grades. It begins at 1 being the easiest climbs and increasing through 9 being the hardest climbs.
A: The letters a, b, and c delineate between easier and harder climbs within the range of the number.
+: The plus symbol indicates that the climb may feel closer to a 7B to some people than a 7A climb. Other climbers may find the climb to be a hard 7A, though, so it’s still rated as a 7A, just with the plus after.
YDS vs. French Scale – Comparing the Two Systems
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The French Scale is to the YDS what the metric system is to the American measurement system. The French Scale is much more convertible between its top-rope and bouldering equivalents, while the YDS and American bouldering scale, the V scale, are not as convertible. Overall, the YDS and the French Scale are fairly easy to convert between, but since they are used in different regions, you are likely to see large regional differences between grades.
How are Bouldering Problems Graded?
Bouldering problems are rated with similar scales to how roped climbing is rated, utilizing one scale in the US and a completely different scale in many other parts of the world. Similar to roped climbing, bouldering problems are rated based on their hardest move, or their crux move. This means that if one or two moves of a problem are significantly harder than the rest of the problem, the problem will be rated the harder of the grade options.
What Does V Mean in Bouldering?
In the US, climbers use the V scale to rate boulder problems. The V in V scale is named for Vermin, a famous climber out of Hueco Tanks, who created the rating system to grade the climbs in his area. The scale began being assigned to other climbing areas and being published all across the US.
It was accepted as it was simple to understand, as the number after the V goes up, so does the difficulty of the climb. So a V2 is easier than a V3, for example. The scale goes from V0 or VB (V beginner) all the way up to V17. Sometimes the grade will have a plus sign after it, but other than that, there aren’t any delineations of difficulty besides the number.
Before the V Scale existed in the US, John Gill tried to implement the first bouldering scale in the US in 1958. He called it the B Scale, and it only had three grades; B1, B2, and B3. A B1 climb had a similar difficulty of moves to roped climbing, a B2 climb was significantly harder, and a B3 climb was one that had only been climbed once. This meant that once a climb had been climbed a second time, it was downgraded. People found this confusing, and as a result, the scale never caught on in the US or elsewhere.
What’s the Font Scale?
The Font Scale is the bouldering equivalent of the French Scale. It utilizes numbers, letters, and plus signs in the same way as the French Scale to allow for more specificity when rating climbs. It goes from a rating of 4 up through a rating of 9A and can be easily converted between the Font Scale and the French Scale. A 6A move on the French Scale will feel similar to a 6A move on the Font Scale, making switching between bouldering and roped climbing simple.
How Do You Convert the V Scale vs. the Font Scale?
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Converting between the V Scale and the Font Scale takes some effort since the Font Scale has so many more grade options than the V Scale. This means that for some grades, such as V6, there are multiple Font Scale grades that fall into the category of V6. Both 6C+ and 7A on the Font Scale convert to around a V6 on the V Scale, making converting between the two a very imperfect science.
General Climbing vs. Bouldering Grades FAQ:
Is Climbing a 5.10 Good?
There isn’t a cut off grade that if you can climb it, you’re considered a good climber. Climbing is extremely subjective, and what one person might think of as good is another person’s warm-up climb. Since climbing is such a personal thing, it’s hard to say that climbing a 5.10 is good, but 5.10 is often talked about as the start of the harder grades. This doesn’t mean that every 5.10 is equal, though, as some will be significantly easier than others.
What is the Highest Climbing Grade?
The highest climbing grade, as of February 2020, is a 5.15d (9c). It is a route called Silence and has only been climbed once, by Adam Ondra. There are currently over 300 climbs rated somewhere in the 5.15 range, all of which are impressively high climbing grades. It used to be rare for anyone to climb a 5.15, but it’s becoming more common. In 2018 alone, there were around 50 ascents of climbs in the 5.15 range and about 20 first ascents in that range.
What is a Good Bouldering Grade?
A “good” bouldering grade is entirely subjective. Any bouldering grade can be a good climbing grade, depending on the person climbing it. Bouldering grades on the V Scale tend to be clumped together, so breaking into the next grade clump can be exciting. For example, V2 and V3 climbs are both considered a small step up from true beginner climbs, so climbing your first V4 or V5 can sometimes be really exciting. The average boulderer probably climbs around a V4 to V7, but don’t worry about comparing yourself to others.
Just remember, climbing is a personal experience, and this is especially true of bouldering. If you’re having fun and safe, then you’re doing it right. The only grade you should be trying to beat if you choose to focus on grades is your own personal best.
How do Bouldering Grades Compare to Sport Climbing Grades?
If you’re using the Font and French Scales, it should be easy to understand one if you understand the other scale. The Font Scale and the French Scales both utilize the same numbers and letters, and these ratings are transferable from one scale to the other. That means that if you climb routes rated 7A, you will likely be able to do the moves of boulder problems, also rated 7A. This makes it easy to switch from roped climbing to bouldering using the Font and French Scales.
However, if you’re in the US and using the YDS and V Scales, you may struggle to know off the top of your head what boulder grade you could climb if you climb a certain rating of roped climbs. This is because the grades are rated using the same number of intervals. While the V Scale breaks down the difficulty of boulder problems into 19 different levels of difficulty. The YDS breaks down the difficulty of roped climbing routes into 31+ different levels of difficulty.
This means that there isn’t one YDS grade per V Scale grade. Many climbers in the US don’t always understand exactly what YDS grade they’re climbing if they climb a given rating of boulder problems. Most US climbers just know what grade of climb they climb on the YDS and on the V scale, and they don’t try to compare them.
How to Use Climbing Grades to Choose Routes
While grades can help you pick routes, it can be hard to switch from one climbing area to another climbing area, since the grades might be totally different. The grades at outdoor climbing areas can vary based on the type of rock, who set the first ascent of the climbs, and how old or established the climbing area is. For example, a 5.10 in the Gunks in Eastern New York is going to feel significantly harder than a 5.10 in the Adirondacks in Northern New York.
If you tend to climb at one particular climbing gym, then grades can oftentimes give you a really good idea of how well you’ll do on that climb. This is because the climbs will be set and rated by the same team of people at a given gym, meaning that there is likely to be some consistency between the climbs. That being said, if you go to a new gym, you may find that the grades are totally different from what you’re used to.
Wrapping Things Up: Climbing vs. Bouldering Grades
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Grades can seem confusing, but that’s ok, they’re all subjective anywhere. It’s probably a good idea for you to understand whatever style of rating climbs are used where you climb and for the style of climbing that you do, but don’t stress yourself over understanding every grading system ever. While grades can give you a good idea of the level of difficulty of a climb, they aren’t the end-all-be-all of climbing. With this knowledge, you can go out and figure out what grade you want to climb and where you want to climb. Maybe you’ll end up with a favorite rating system!
Did you find this helpful? Then also check out other climbing tips here.