Bouldering Grades 101: The Complete Guide
Whether you’re new to bouldering or a seasoned climber, bouldering grades can be a confusing topic.
If you don’t understand what the grades on boulder problems mean, how boulder problems are graded, or what that “V” next to the number stands for, I’ll try to clear up your confusion with this article.
Here we go…
Table of Contents
- What Are Bouldering Grades?
- Grading Boulder Problems: Why & How
- The 2 Most Common Bouldering Grading Scales in Use Today
- Bouldering Grading Scale by Country
- Bouldering Grades vs. Sport Climbing Grades
- Common Criticisms of Bouldering Grades
- Final Thoughts
What Are Bouldering Grades?
Bouldering grades are numbers or number-letter combinations used to convey the difficulty of a boulder problem. The grades are relative, so if you have never climbed before then it’s difficult to know which grades you can climb and which you cannot.
Bouldering grades, also called bouldering ratings, are used both indoors and outdoors. Outdoors, the two main grading scales are the V Scale and Font Scale, discussed in-depth below.
Indoors, climbing and bouldering gyms tend to either use the V Scale or Font Scale or make up their own grading system. Some gyms will use a colored-tape system, where certain tape colors indicate certain difficulties. Other gyms will use numbers but assign their own meanings to the numbers. For example, a gym might grade problems from 0 to 4, 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?
As you could expect, boulder problems vary greatly in their level of difficulty. Some problems can be climbed by first-timers and others only by experts.
In the early days of bouldering, boulder problems were largely ungraded, and boulderers might have had no idea how difficult a problem was until someone told them or they tried it themselves.
Thus, bouldering grading scales were developed as an easy way to indicate the difficulty of a problem to someone who had never tried it before. This then allowed any boulderer who knew the grade of a problem to have a better understanding of its difficulty before trying it.
Then, as a result of grading boulder problems in terms of their difficulty, it became possible to make comparisons between problems, boulderers, and bouldering locations.
How Are Boulder Problems Graded?
The Why of grading boulder problems is pretty straightforward. The How is something that the bouldering community has debated for years, and continues to debate. If you are confused or frustrated by the ways problems are graded, know that there are others who feel like you.
First, know that 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 is largely subjective.
Boulder problems given grades under the two most common grading scales are graded solely on how physically challenging the problem is. By this I mean that these scales don’t take into account anything but the physical difficulty when assigning a grade — not the risk of injury, the height of the problem, the mental difficulty, etc.
How does this principle play out in reality? From my experience in the sport, the ways problems are graded in the real world usually manifest as follows, broken down by indoor problems and outdoor problems:
Oftentimes the person who puts up the problem (the “routesetter”) will climb it a couple times 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 a few people at the gym to climb it and give their opinion. They might make a few modifications then 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 might have a better understanding of 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, though, a grade might be settled upon by the people who frequent the bouldering area or the people who have climbed the problem and then word gets out about this new problem being this particular grade and then the grade just kind of sticks. At least as far as I can tell, it’s very haphazard and unorganized.
Further down the line, a guidebook to the area might be published or updated. The author might consult some of the top climbers in the area to get their opinions on the grades of certain problems and then publish those numbers.
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, the V Scale and Font Scale.
The “V” is short for “Verm” or “Vermin”, the nickname of the legendary boulderer John Sherman and the creator of 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 magazine, 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 Verm’s bouldering guide, the V Scale has spread across the United States and is now the standard bouldering grading scale in North America and other parts of the world.
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.)
The concept behind the V scale is simple: the higher the number, the harder the problem. Currently, the hardest outdoor boulder problems in the world are rated V16 and V17. Only a handful of people in the world can climb that hard, though, so indoors you usually see problems max out somewhere in the low double digits.
You will sometimes see a V grade postfixed with a “+” or “-” to further distinguish the difficulty of a problem. These are rather intuitive: a V3+ is harder than a V3, and a V3 is harder than a V3-. Also, a V4- is harder than a V3+. This practice is common for the lower end of the scale, but once you get past V9 or V10 pluses and minuses mostly seem to disappear.
Finally, it might be helpful to know that 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 requires a V8 rating. Some of the current controversy around grades of the hardest boulder problems focuses on whether or not lots of problems are hard V15s or V16s.
The Fontainebleau Scale (AKA the “Font Scale”) is the predominant grading scale in Europe. 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.
Like the V Scale, the Font Scale is open-ended. The scale starts at 1 and progresses upwards. However, problems with grades easier than a 3 are rarely found. The Font Scale is also 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 a letter: either 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. For example, a 6A+ is harder than a 6A, while a 6B is more difficult than a 6A+.
Conversion Chart for the V Scale & Font Scale
Below is a chart showing the 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. Thus, a V16 is commonly directly translated to being an 8C+ on the Font Scale.
If you’re trying to get a basic idea for who can climb which grades, then, 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 few months. You’re still learning the basics and making quick progress.
- Intermediate: V3-V5,6A-6C+
- You’ve been bouldering for little while now and are starting to grow 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 at least. The rapid rate of progression you had early on has likely 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. Weekends are spent bouldering outside. You can campus problems that intermediate boulderers are projecting and it makes them super frustrated, but you get a kick out of it.
- Elite: ≥V13, ≥8B
- Bouldering is one of the top priorities in your life at the moment. 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. The B Scale was the first scale ever used exclusively for bouldering problems in the United States. It was developed by the legendary boulderer John Gill in 1958, and it included only three grades: B1, B2, and B3.
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 and described as “quite a bit harder” than B1. Lastly, a 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, Gill 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 John Gill exercising in his late seventies. Now THAT is impressive.
Bouldering Grading Scale by Country
Here is a map of the world indicating which countries use which bouldering grading scale. You’ll notice that the V Scale is popular in North America and the Font Scale is popular in Europe.
- Green = Font Scale
- Purple = V Scale
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, I’ve climbed plenty of V0s in my days and only a few 5.10ds (granted I don’t sport climb too often).
Complaints have arisen in recent years that bouldering problems are now being graded much softer, which could help explain my own disbelief of this comparison. Possibly outside this rule of thumb holds true, but — in my experience — inside a V0 is similar to a 5.7.
Regardless, anyone who has both bouldered and sport climbed will know that the sports are complementary but still different. Sport climbing routes require lots of endurance and are often dozens of feet high, while boulder problems — which are often quite short — can require 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!
Common Criticisms of Bouldering Grades
This is the most common complaint about bouldering grades by far. What one person may see as a V3 another may view as a V4. What might be a V6 for one person could be considered V4 by another.
Since there are as many body types as there are people on this earth, everyone will have their own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to bouldering. For example, I am very tall and lanky so reachy problems are my forte. Problems with scrunched up starts can give me trouble.
These inherent discrepancies lead to the subjectivity of bouldering grades. Routesetters or guidebook writers might try to eliminate some subjectivity through consensus, but complaints about incorrect grades will be ever-present.
“NUMBERS GOT NO SOUL!”
That quote is attributed to John Sherman. Many of bouldering’s founding fathers greatly disliked grading scales and rejected the idea of them. They predicted that grading scales would lead to misguided efforts by boulderers to simply reach the next level of the scale and, as a result, lose sight of the joy of bouldering.
I’ll admit that I myself have focused a lot on grades when bouldering, and some of the fun of the sport has been sacrificed as a result. I still have a blast bouldering, but when I focus too much on the grades I can perceive myself to be better or worse than I actually am.
As Sherman says in his book, Better Bouldering, “learn to mistrust ratings and pity those who are slaves to them.”
NO UNIVERSAL RATING SYSTEM
Some people are frustrated by the existence of multiple grading scales. Many boulderers (including Daniel Woods) make a case for using one grading system universally.
Having two major grading scales, much like the metric system and the US customary system, can cause confusion when boulderers visit locations utilizing different scales or hear about climbers from other parts of the world.
Alternatively, some boulderers uphold the existence of multiple scales as a good thing that should be appreciated. Multiple scales offer multiple perspectives on bouldering difficulty and tell us about the heritage of the bouldering at different locations. In a way, the grading scale reflects the bouldering ‘culture’ of the location.
My greatest takeaway from all the research I put into this article 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 many 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 level in whatever scale you use can lead to serious injuries and cause you to spend inordinate amounts of money on the most expensive climbing shoes.
Grading scales serve a purpose, but they shouldn’t be the obsession of every boulderer. Always strive to grow and better yourself as a boulderer, but don’t do so at the expense of your self-esteem or happiness. Try to lightly acknowledge the number and enjoy the challenge of bettering yourself each time you climb.