Climbing Grades: The Complete Guide

Ah, climbing grades. They’re the veganism of the climbing world — not inherently a bad thing, but if they’re all you talk about, you might lose some friends.

Grades are a necessary evil. Climbers need a way to talk to each other about the difficulty and seriousness of their objectives, and grades provide a way to do so. Unfortunately, grades also bring their fair share of confusion and debate (plus plenty of bruised egos).

To help orient and understand the systems, here’s what you need to know about climbing grades.

What Are Climbing Grades?

Graded climbing routes

Two climbing routes at an American climbing gym. One has a grade of 5.12b, the other a grade of 5.9.

Climbing grades are a number or number-letter combination designed to correspond to the physical difficulty of a climb. Grades progress in discrete steps, each intended to be a notch harder than the last.

Grading happens both indoors and outdoors. In the USA, both indoor and outdoor routes are graded on the Yosemite Decimal System. Many systems exist worldwide, though the most common are the Yosemite system and the French system — we’ll talk more about the various systems in a moment.

These systems are used in both sport and trad climbing, though different conventions govern different styles. Longer climbs, especially in mountaineering and big-wall climbing, may use different systems (we’ll touch on some of these as well).

The Why

Like most climbing-related developments, grades were born in the world of mountaineering. Climbers needed a way to describe the severity and difficulty they might encounter on a route — in the high mountains, difficulty can be a life-or-death question.

In the long arc of climbing history, today’s free-climbing focus is relatively new. The free climbing ethic didn’t really gain momentum until the latter half of the twentieth century. Climbers needed a stable way to quantify increasingly difficult free climbs. During this time, grades began to take on significance as free-climbing milestones, as climbers began to push for ever more difficult moves and routes.

As free climbing grew in popularity, systems benefited from more routes, more climbers, and more locations for reference. Grades became a widespread way to compare climbs around the world. Training and indoor climbing became common, and grades became a way to mark progress in the gym as well.

The How

In the climbing gym, grades begin with the route setter. Most setters begin each route with a rough difficulty in mind — routes of various difficulties need to be distributed across all the walls. Once a setter has finished their route, they’ll usually assign the grade that they believe is accurate.

In some gyms, that’s the end of the story. In most, however, there’s a trial period in which gym-goers can provide input on whether the route feels too easy, too hard, or just right for the grade. If the consensus indicates that the initial grade is off (or if the setter reconsiders), the grade will be changed.

Consensus card

Consensus cards with places to rate the accuracy of the grade and quality of the climb

Outdoor climbs are set by forces far larger than mankind, and aside from rockfall, erosion, and (hopefully minimal) modification, they do not change. That means that outdoor grades tend to be much more widely established than indoor grades.

Indoors, grades are mostly a way to compare climbs within a single gym. From gym to gym, grades vary wildly. Outdoors, grades hold up to wider comparison, though they may still vary from area to area.

Generally, the first ascensionist is the first climber to assign a grade. Their suggestion becomes the de facto grade until other climbers climb the route, at which point they may enter their own opinions. Given enough time and enough consensus, grades can change.

This is by no means a systematic process — some climbs retain their original grade out of tradition or convention, while other climbs are unceremoniously up- or downgraded. “Consensus” is a vague and slippery term, and the grade of some climbs may depend on who you ask.

The Climbing Grading Systems

Yosemite Decimal System (YDS)

Climbers are not always known for their naming prowess, and the Yosemite Decimal System was a misnomer from the start. That’s because it actually originates in Tahquitz.

In the early 20th century, the Sierra Club was less environmental group and more mountaineering club, specifically for the Sierra Nevadas. In the 1930s they established a class system with five (or six) classes:

  • Class 1: Easy walking on a trail or level surface
  • Class 2: Hiking with steep hills or simple scrambling; occasional use of hands may be helpful
  • Class 3: Steep scrambling with some exposure; requires hands but may usually be descended facing outward
  • Class 4: Steep scrambling or simple climbing with exposure; must be descended facing inward but often does not require a rope
  • Class 5: Steep, technical climbing that requires a rope

The sixth class referred to climbs too difficult to climb by natural means. Many such climbs were later freed, and aid climbs eventually developed their own rating system (described below).

Though many climbs and approaches involve sections of third- or fourth-class, climbing grades tend to deal with the fifth class. To subdivide, the YDS has discrete steps within the fifth class: 5.0, 5.1, 5.2, 5.3…and so on.

There are a few subtleties. A ‘+’ or ‘-‘ may be attached to some routes to denote a climb that is easy or hard for the grade, but not enough to move a full grade. For example, a route graded 5.7+ is harder than a 5.7 but easier than a 5.8 (or 5.8-). This mostly happens within the 5.7-5.9 range.

By the 1950s, the YDS was catching on at climbing hotspots around the country like Eldorado Canyon and the Gunks. Up to that point, the YDS was not open-ended: 5.9 was the hardest possible grade. But climbers were still getting stronger, and technology was improving. Whenever a climb seemed harder than 5.9, ascensionists would simply call it “5.9+.” If you encounter a route from the 1950s with this grade, be prepared for a wild ride.

Eventually climbers realized that the closed system was impractical, so they flaunted the decimal logic and opened grades at 5.10 and above. From 5.10 upward, grades may be further subdivided with a letter from a to d: 5.10a is easier than 5.10b, and 5.11d is harder than 5.11c.

Some climbs may still be marked simply 5.10 or 5.11, denoting a climb in the mid-range for that number (in the -b or -c range). Other climbs may get a slash grade when they lie around the border of a grade, e.g. 5.12c/d.

In this form, the YDS survived to current usage. It is now an open-ended system, with new grades opened at the upper limits. This happened most recently with Adam Ondra’s ascent of Silence, 5.15d. Hard sport climbing has exploded in the new millenium.

The French System

Outside the USA, much of the world uses the French grading system, especially for sport climbs. Because most of the hardest sport climbs in the world are in Europe, this makes the French system the more dominant.

Brace yourself, because this is where things start to get tricky. The French system begins at 1 and increases up the numerals. Starting at 3 or 4, letters are appended to each number, but only from a to c. Each of these letters or numbers (except, by convention, those beginning in a 4 or a 5) is subdivided with a ‘+’ (but not a ‘-‘).

Confused yet?

The French system looks like this: 1, 1+, 2, 2+, 3, 3+, 4a, 4b, 4c, 5a, 5b, 5c, 6a, 6a+, 6b, 6b+, 6c, 6c+, 7a, 7a+…and so on. These grades loosely (but not exactly) correspond to grades in the YDS. In the French system, Silence is a 9c.

Just to make things even more confusing, the French use a similar-looking (but distinct) system to grade boulder problems. The Fontainebleau scale uses the same numerals, letters, and symbols, but is usually written in all caps (e.g. 7A+) to help distinguish the two.

Protection Ratings

Trad climbing can add an extra element of risk to free routes, and they bear a few attachments to help climbers know what they’re getting into:

  • G: a climb with plentiful, easy-to-place protection
  • PG/PG-13: protection is safe but less plentiful, and may be tricky to place or difficult to find
  • R: for runout — protection is scarce enough that at certain points a fall could result in serious injury
  • X: protection is scarce enough that a fall in the wrong position would likely be fatal

These ratings come at the end of the difficulty grade. A 5.10R climb will be the same difficulty as another 5.10 but will involve sections of run-out climbing.

Wall Grades

NCCS grades, also known as “commitment grades,” are another addition to the YDS and indicate how long a route might take. The system uses roman numerals and looks something like this:

  • I-II: A half day or less of technical climbing
  • III: Most of a day of technical climbing
  • IV: A full day of technical climbing, usually 5.7 or harder
  • V: A multi-day adventure for mortals, fast-and-free for the elite, usually 5.8 or harder
  • VI: Two or more days of hard technical climbing
  • VII: Sometimes applied to remote, difficult, alpine big walls

For example, Temple Crag’s Dark Star is 5.10c, Grade V.

Other Free-Climbing Systems

Numerous other systems are in place around the world. The original mountaineering grading system evolved into the UIAA scale, which uses roman numerals and is often used on alpine routes in places like the Alps.

In the UK, trad climbs are graded on an elaborate scale involving both protection and physical difficulty. South Africa, Australia, and Norway all use simple systems of ascending numbers, but none of them line up.

Trying to move between systems can be frustrating, but most areas will have well-established grades within their respective system.

Other Disciplines

Some routes may involve stretches of aid, ice, or mixed climbing. These disciplines each have their own grading scales.

Aid climbing ratings run from A0-A5 (for aid climbing that requires a hammer) or from C1-C5 (“clean” aid that requires only traditional gear).

Ice climbing ratings increase numerically and with a ‘+’ or ‘-‘, but with a prefix describing the type of ice. WI refers to water ice, and AI stands for alpine ice. Introductory ice climbs will be around WI2, while advanced ice climbers will tackle WI5 and above. Mixed ratings are similar, but with a prefix of M.

When a route requires multiple disciplines, the grades are listed next to each other. The Nose on El Capitan is 5.9 C2, Grade VI. Climbing Mt. Denali via the Cassin Ridge route is 5.8 WI4, Grade V.

Conversion Chart: YSD vs. French Grades

YDS and French grades don’t always line up precisely, but below is a comparison chart showing how they compare.

Climbing grades conversion chart

Climbing Grades vs. Bouldering Grades

If you’re familiar with the V Scale, you might be wondering how boulder problems stack up against route difficulty. By nature, the two are difficult to compare — route grades may gain difficulty from endurance, while boulder problems tend to emphasize power.

This wasn’t always the case. When the YDS was gaining traction, routes were graded purely based on the hardest move on the climb. A climb with one 5.7 move would bear the same grade as a climb on which every move is 5.7.

Under these terms, the moves on a 5.10 climb loosely correspond to the moves you might find on an outdoor V0. Grade boundaries do not correspond neatly — a V4 is four grades harder than V0, but usually corresponds to a route difficulty of 5.12a.

Later, route climbers recognized how much of a role endurance can play, and ratings began to reflect it. A climb might have no move harder than V3, but the hard sections are so long and sustained that the climb still warrants a 5.12 rating.

Instead of trying to compare bouldering grades and route grades directly, bouldering grades can add a dimension to a climb’s description. For example, a route might involve a long stretch of 5.11 climbing leading into a V5 boulder problem.

Breaking down routes this way helps describe what makes a route difficult (and it can help you approach your project, too).

Controversy & Criticism

Sandbagging

A “sandbagged” route is a climb considered “stiff” or hard for the given grade. Some areas are notorious for being full of sandbagged climbs (Joshua Tree and the Gunks are frequent suspects).

In general, old-school trad climbs tend to be “stiffer” than modern sport routes. That’s not to say that stiff sport climbs don’t exist, but 5.10 means very different things in Eldorado and Boulder Canyons.

Grade Inflation

On the other side of the spectrum, many climbers believe that modern sport climbing has inflated grades beyond reason. Sport climbing areas like the Red River Gorge are often accused of bearing “soft” grades, especially in comparison to established trad lines.

Others come to the defense of sport areas, arguing that the nature of sport climbing makes finer distinctions (and higher grades) more achievable, and that these areas are just as internally consistent as many trad-only areas.

Indoor climbing hasn’t helped. Many gyms are accused of inflating egos by grading climbs on the soft side. This is another tough comparison to make — a given move will feel much easier in a gym than outside, and the environments and surfaces are different enough that direct correlation seems too much to ask. Some gyms prefer soft grades, some prefer stiff, but as long as they’re internally consistent it doesn’t matter too much.

Grade Disagreement

At the upper frontiers of the sport, grades becomes less predictable. Some climbers are reluctant to believe that their new route warrants a groundbreaking grade, while others are all too happy to claim a futuristic difficulty.

Because fewer climbers reach this level and their styles are so individual, it can be hard to tell how hard a climb really is. Consensus is still common, but grade changes are much more common in the upper echelons.

The Takeaway

In summary: climbing grading systems are nebulous, inconsistent, fickle, unscientific, and constantly changing.

Much of this is inescapable. A climb’s “difficulty” is always going to be subjective on some level, and as humans we’re not the best at accurately reporting our struggles and strengths. Consensus helps, but even within a system like the YDS, grade disparity is wide.

Instead of scientific accuracy, grades usually end up associated with some sort of story. The tireless effort you put in to send your first 5.11. That time your buddy dragged you kicking and screaming up a slabby 5.8 R. The time you got slapped by a sandbag of a Gunks 5.9.

This is a part of how we communicate to ourselves and to each other: by creating narratives, telling stories. Grades are one tool to communicate with. Just like most languages, their rules don’t always make sense.

The important part is that the story starts with the climb, not the grade. If your narrative is about chasing grades, you’ll never be satisfied — there is always another grade — and you’ll miss out on some great stories in the meantime.

Wanting to improve is healthy, normal, and part of what makes climbing so rewarding. Training to get stronger is great, if that’s your jam. But spend your time and energy chasing the feelings and stories that got you into climbing in the first place. Otherwise, you’re not climbing rocks anymore — you’re just climbing a ladder.

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About the Author:

Willis is the rare local who was actually born in Boulder, Colorado, and he has been climbing mountains since he was small. He appreciates all styles of climbing and enjoys skiing and running on the side. Favorite climbing spots include Rocky Mountain National Park, Wild Iris, and Tuolumne. He attended college in Massachusetts and currently resides in Philadelphia. He loves cats, green tea, and endurance climbs. You can check out his adventures on his Instagram account.