Whether you’re new to bouldering or a seasoned climber, bouldering grades (aka bouldering ratings) can be a confusing topic.
If you don’t understand what the grades on boulder problems mean, how boulder problems are graded, or even what that “V” next to the number stands for, I’ll try to clear up your confusion.
Let’s get to it!
What Are Bouldering Grades?
Bouldering grades are numbers or number-letter combinations used to convey the difficulty of boulder problems. Grades are given to boulder problems located both outdoors and indoors.
Indoors, climbing and bouldering gyms use the V Scale, Font Scale, or make up their own rating system. For example, a gym might grade problems from 0 to 4, with 0 being the easiest problems designed for beginners and 4 being the most difficult designed for advanced climbers.
Grading Boulder Problems: Why & How
Why Are Boulder Problems Graded?
Bouldering grading scales were developed as a way to indicate the difficulty of a boulder problem to someone who had never tried it before.
In practice, grades help boulderers get a better understanding of how hard problems are before trying them. They help you know which problems you can almost certainly climb, which ones will test you, and which ones are too hard for you.
For example, if V6 problems are hard but doable for you, you know a V2 will be easy, a V7 might test you, and a V10 will likely be too hard.
Grading boulder problems also makes it possible to compare between boulderers and bouldering locations.
How Are Boulder Problems Graded?
Boulder problems are graded solely on how physically challenging the problem is. The grades do not take into account other factors such as risk of injury, the height of the problem, the mental difficulty, and so on.
There is no perfect formula, no golden algorithm, for determining the proper grade for a problem. Though some have proposed making the process more formulaic, it remains very subjective.
Thus, the bouldering community has debated grades for years, and continues to debate them. If you are confused or frustrated by the ways problems are graded, know that there are others who feel similarly.
How does this grading method play out in practice?
From my experience, the ways problems are graded in the real world usually work out as follows:
Oftentimes the person who puts up the problem (the “routesetter”) will climb it once or twice and then assign a grade to it. Simple as that.
However, if they’re not exactly sure what the grade should be, or aren’t sure how someone with a different body type (e.g. shorter, taller, longer arms) will climb it, they’ll ask the other routesetters, or a few of the people at the gym, to climb it and give their opinion.
They get a consensus around a certain grade and slap the number on the wall.
Clearly, it’s a very subjective process. If you’ve ever heard someone at a gym climb a V1 and then remark something like “that’s definitely not a V1, more like a V3,” now you know how that could happen.
Outdoor problems have the benefit of being static. Thus, theoretically, dozens of people can climb a problem and a larger consensus can be reached on a problem’s grade.
However, in my experience, dozens of people’s opinions usually aren’t solicited when grading a problem outdoors. In reality, the person who gets the first ascent of the problem assigns it a grade. Then, after a few more ascents the grade might be adjusted slightly.
Eventually, a grade is settled on by the local climbers or the people who have climbed the problem. Someone adds the problem to Mountain Project or the word otherwise gets out about this new problem being this particular grade. At that point the grade is basically set.
Further down the line, a guidebook to the area might be published or updated. The author might consult some of the top local climbers to get their opinions on the grades of certain problems and then publish those numbers.
V Scale & Font Scale: The 2 Most Common Bouldering Grading Scales in Use Today
Today there exist multiple bouldering grading scales, but you are most likely to encounter two:
- V Scale
- Font Scale
Let’s look at each.
The V scale is an open-ended grading scale, meaning there is no top level of difficulty. Instead, the highest grade will increase as the sport of bouldering progresses. It starts at V0 and currently goes all the way up to V17.
There is also a level called VB — the B stands for “basic” or “beginner” — that is easier than V0. Outdoors, you’ll occasionally see problems graded “V-Fun” or “V-Weird.” These are usually problems that defy normal grading standards and call for some weird climbing technique.
The concept behind the V scale is simple: the higher the number, the harder the problem. Currently, the hardest boulder problems in the world are rated V16 and V17. Only a handful of people in the world can climb that hard. In climbing gyms, you usually see problems max out somewhere around V10.
You will sometimes see a V grade postfixed with a “+” or “-” to further distinguish the difficulty of a problem. These are used intuitively:
- V3+ is harder than a V3
- V3 is harder than a V3-
- V4- is harder than a V3+
This practice is common for the lower end of the scale. Once you get past V9 or V10, pluses and minuses mostly disappear.
Each grade is itself a range of difficulty. For example, there are “hard” V7s and there are “soft” V7s. This occurs because, to continue the example, though a certain V7 might be harder than most other V7s, it might not be so much harder that it calls for a V8 rating.
Some of the current controversy around grades of the hardest boulder problems focuses on whether or not lots of problems are V16s or just hard V15s.
The “V” is short for “Verm” or “Vermin,” the nickname of legendary boulderer John Sherman who created the V Scale. The V Scale was born in the late 1980s in Hueco Tanks, Texas, amongst Sherman and some of his bouldering buddies.
According to an article from Climbing, Sherman never intended to formalize his scale until a publisher made him do it.
He submitted a manuscript for a Hueco Tanks bouldering guide with hundreds of problems, all of which were ungraded. The publisher, George Meyers of Chockstone Press, refused to publish the guide unless the problems were graded. Sherman then spent the next season formalizing his V Scale and codifying each problem.
Since the publication of Sherman’s bouldering guide, the V Scale has spread across the United States and is now the standard bouldering grading scale in North America, South America, Southeast Asia, and Oceania.
Font Scale (aka Fontainebleau Scale)
Like the V Scale, the Font Scale is open-ended. The scale starts at 1 and progresses upwards. However, problems with grades easier than 3 are rarely found.
The Font Scale is similar to the V Scale in that the higher the number, the more difficult the bouldering problem.
Unlike the V Scale, once the Font Scale reaches the number 6, some funky things start to happen.
At this point, rather than simply increasing the number when a climb gets more difficult, the scale adds certain suffixes to the number to indicate changes in difficulty.
The first suffix is one of three letters: A, B, or C. The later the letter in the alphabet, the more difficult the climb. Thus, a 6C is harder than a 6B is harder than a 6A.
Additionally, a “+” can be added after the letter to indicate another change in difficulty which is slighter than changing an entire letter grade. The presence of a plus means the problem is more difficult than the same number-letter combo without a plus. A 6A+ is harder than a 6A, while a 6B is more difficult than a 6A+.
The Font Scale is the predominant grading scale in Europe and parts of Asia. I haven’t been able to find an exact date on when it was established, except that it was “decades” before the V Scale was put into place in the United States.
It originated in France in the magical bouldering forest of Fontainebleau, hence the name. “Font” is short for “Fontainebleau.”
Bouldering Grades Conversion Chart: V Scale to Font Scale
Here is a chart showing the bouldering rating conversions between the V Scale and Font Scale.
At lower grades, a single V grade often translates to being ‘wider’ than a single grade on the Font Scale.
At higher grades, the Font Scale and V Scale become almost directly translatable. For example, a V16 is directly translated to an 8C+ on the Font Scale.
If you’re trying to get a basic idea for who can climb which grades, then, very roughly speaking, the grades can be broken down into the following categories:
- Beginner: V0-V2 / 4-5+
- You’ve either just started bouldering or have been at it for a handful of months. You’re still learning the basics and making quick progress.
- Intermediate: V3-V5 / 6A-6C+
- You’ve been bouldering for a while now and much stronger as a result. You can now flash problems you couldn’t climb when you first entered the gym.
- Advanced: V6-V8 / 7A-7B
- You’ve most likely been bouldering for a few years. The rapid rate of progression you had early on has slowed.
- Expert: V9-V12 / 7B+-8A+
- You have been bouldering and training HARD for many years. You’re probably one of the top boulderers at your local gym and maybe even medal in local competitions. Your weekends are spent bouldering outside. You can campus problems that intermediate boulderers are projecting. It makes them super frustrated, but you get a kick out of it.
- Elite: ≥V13 / ≥8B
- Bouldering is one of your top priorities. You are probably sponsored and in incredibly good shape. People film you bouldering stuff.
B Scale: A Brief Bouldering History Lesson
I’m just throwing this one in here for fun:
Unlike the V and Font Scales, the B Scale was not open ended. At the time of the scale’s creation, a B1 had moves as hard as the most difficult roped climbs. B2 was an incredibly vague grade described as “quite a bit harder” than B1. B3 was a climb that had only ever been done once.
Whenever a problem was climbed a second time, it was automatically downgraded from B3 to B2.
Following this system, John Gill, the father of modern bouldering in America and creator of the B Scale, intended the grades to increase with difficulty as the sport progressed. However, the B Scale never caught on since it required problems to constantly be regraded and thus made comparisons difficult.
For more fun, check out Gill exercising in his eighties. Now THAT is impressive.
The B Scale was the first scale ever used exclusively for bouldering problems in the United States. It was developed by the Gill in 1958, and it included only three grades: B1, B2, and B3.
Bouldering Grading Scale by Country
Here is a map of the world indicating which countries use which bouldering grading scale.
- Red = V Scale
- Blue = Font Scale
You’ll notice that the V Scale is popular in North America, South America, Southeast Asia, and Oceania while the Font Scale is popular in Europe and parts of Asia.
Note: This map is a work in progress, so if you know of any country’s standards please send me a message or let me know in the comment section below!
Bouldering Grades vs. Sport Climbing Grades
Bouldering and sport climbing are two related but different disciplines and therefore different grading scales have been created for each. It isn’t too helpful to compare across scales, but it’s difficult not to wonder…if I can boulder a V6, which routes can I climb?
The rule of thumb is that a V0 boulder problem is roughly comparable to a 5.10d on the Yosemite Decimal System. However, this is almost never true at climbing gyms.
Possibly outside this rule of thumb holds true, but — in my experience — indoors a V0 is similar to a 5.8.
Regardless, anyone who has both bouldered and sport climbed will know that the sports are complementary yet still different. Sport climbing routes require lots of endurance while boulder problems typically call for more powerful, dynamic movements.
When a boulderer starts sport climbing the first thing they’ll notice is how damn tired and pumped they’re getting with each climb — you’re not used to climbing for that long!
Bouldering Grades FAQ
1. What is a good bouldering grade?
I don’t like this question, but I’ll answer it the way I would if a close friend asked me:
In my experience, the vast majority of boulderers rarely climb problems graded V7 (7A+) or harder indoors and V5 (6C/+) or harder outdoors.
This claim comes from countless hours spent at climbing gyms and crags over the years, watching other climbers and noticing which grades most of them never reach.
It’s by no means a hard and fast rule.
And it doesn’t mean that you aren’t a “good” boulderer if you never reach these grades, or that the V2 you nabbed yesterday wasn’t a “good” send.
I’d rather you compare your climbing progress to yourself alone rather than how hard others are climbing or what I say is a “good” bouldering grade.
2. What does the “V” stand for in bouldering grades?
The “V” stands for “Vermin,” which was the nickname of John Sherman, a legendary boulderer who created the V Scale for grading boulder problems.
His nickname was sometimes shortened to “Verm.” So you might also see this as an answer around the web.
3. Is bouldering harder than sport climbing?
I don’t like this question either because any type of climbing can be any level of difficulty. However, I’ll again answer how I would if asked by a friend:
Yes, bouldering is harder than sport climbing.
Every friend I’ve ever taken climbing for the first time can top-rope lots of beginner climbing routes. But, almost without fail, whenever they try bouldering they can barely climb the easiest boulder problems in the gym.
4. What is the highest bouldering grade?
Currently, the highest bouldering grade is V17 (9A).
Check out our list of the hardest boulder problems in the world for more info.
5. Why is outdoor bouldering so hard?
Outdoor bouldering is harder than indoor bouldering because most climbing gyms don’t grade their problems to reflect the difficulty of outdoor problems.
If they did, their problems wouldn’t be beginner-friendly. Climbing even a V0 outdoors requires a level of fitness and technique that hardly anyone who doesn’t climb has.
Replicating this difficulty indoors would be discouraging. No one would come back, let alone buy a membership. So instead, gym owners and routesetters simply delay that feeling of discouragement until your first trip outdoors. 😁
The Bottom Line
From all my years of climbing and all the research I put into this article, my greatest takeaway is this:
Don’t stress over the numbers.
Some people will progress faster than others, some problems suit one person’s style better than others, some problems aren’t graded well, and so on.
There are some issues with bouldering grades and paying too close attention to a subjective and poorly designed system can detract from your enjoyment of the sport.
Pushing yourself too hard to reach the next grade can lead to serious injuries and cause you to spend inordinate amounts of money on the most expensive bouldering shoes.
Grading scales serve a purpose, but they shouldn’t be the obsession of every boulderer. Work hard to get stronger as a climber, but don’t do so at the expense of your self-esteem or happiness. Try to lightly acknowledge the numbers and enjoy the challenge of bettering yourself each time you climb.