Understanding Climbing Grades
Updated: Mar 15
Rock Climbing Grades Explained
Climbing grades are easy enough to understand. The bigger the number the more difficult the climb.
While this is true, understanding the nuances of rock climbing ratings for outdoor and indoor climbing grades can be helpful. It may give you a little more insight into picking your climbs and will also make talking about climbing with other climbers a whole lot easier.
Before we get started...
Rock climbing grades are subjective. There is no perfect system for grading climbs. Our physical differences, like height and reach, play a big role in how hard a climb may feel to us. Our differences make us stronger in some areas, and weaker in others. This is what makes our sport special, though, so try your best to embrace it!
How are climbs graded?
Outdoor climbing grades are determined through consensus. The first person to climb a climb ( the first ascensionist ) will assign a difficulty grade. Then anyone who comes in and climbs it after will either agree or challenge the grade.
Debate to determine a climb's most up-to-date grade happens through the publication of climbing guidebooks or website forums like Mountain Project. The comments section on Mountain Project gets pretty lively, especially when something physically changes on a climbing route or a boulder, like a hold breaking.
Sometimes grades can also be called into question when climbers find new beta for a climb like a hidden rest or a knee bar. The addition of knee pads to make knee bars easier have called into question a lot of classic well-established climbs!
SPORT CLIMBING GRADES
Climbers predominantly use two grading systems to determine the difficulty of roped climbing routes: The Yosemite Decimal System and the French Scale.
What is the YDS (Yosemite Decimal System)?
YDS stands for the Yosemite Decimal System and it is a grading system for hiking, scrambling, and climbing. While it is primarily used in the U.S., you can find YDS grades all around the world. There are 3 parts to a YDS grade. Let’s break it down the grade 5.12a.
The "5" refers to the “Class” of the hike, scramble, or climb. A "1" would be relatively flat land while a 5 is a rock wall that requires a rope and/or other gear to climb. A Grade 4 would require the use of hands and feet to scramble over terrain. All rock climbs in the gym with a rope are going to be class 5.
The ".12" refers to the difficulty of the climb. This second number runs from 2-15 and describes the difficulty of the moves and the size of holds on the climb.
The "a" After the grade 5.10, climbers add a letter, a, b, c, or d, to give add more specificity within a given grade. A 5.12a is going to be a lot closer to feeling like a 5.11 whereas a 5.12d is nearly a 5.13. The moral of the story... Not all 5.12’s are equal!
What is the French Grading Scale?
The French Scale, or the Fontainebleau Scale, is widely used around the world and is most commonly seen outside of America. It is named after a famous outdoor bouldering area called Fontainebleau in France, just outside Paris. The French Grading Scale can be used to determine both sport climbs and boulders. Let's take a look at how to read grades on the French scale by examining the grade 7a+.
The "7" refers to the difficulty of the climb, the higher the number the harder the climb. Just like the metric system, the French system arguably makes more sense than the American counterpart. The first number is from 1 to 9 and describes the difficulty of the climb.
The "a" further describes the difficulty of the climb just as it does in the YDS. A climb graded on the French scale will have either an a, b, or c.
The "+" is an added level of specificity that allows climbers to accurately grade their climbs. A 7a+, for instance, may feel closer to 7b for some climbers and closer to 7a for others.
How do these two systems correlate?
Let's take a look our sport climbing grade conversion chart!
The V or Vermin Scale is named after a famous Hueco Tanks climber, John Vermin Sherman. It is a rating system that grades boulder problems on a difficulty of 0-17. Sometimes a "+" or a "-" will be added for specificity.
The flaw with the V-Scale is obvious: not enough variability between grades. It also does not directly translate to sport climbing grades very easily. What is awesome about the French system is that it can be applied to both sport climbing routes and boulders!
Let’s not get discouraged though, because, as we have mentioned before, all climbing grades are subjective!
The conversion from the American climbing grade systems into the French ones are pretty messy, but here are the approximate conversions.
Burden of Dreams
The climbing industry is constantly working on establishing new industry standards to better appeal to new customers. This includes the reimagining of what indoor climbing grades can look like. We want to build the best climbers at Sportrock; using the circuit grading system creates an environment where climbers are more focused on mastering the climbing and not the indoor climbing grade.
Circuits allow a climber to spend more time climbing and less time looking for a climb within a specific grade range in the gym. As noted above, the V-Scale is highly biased and subjective. There are many factors that can affect how both the climber and the setter perceive and grade the climb. Everyone has different skill sets and body types so no one climb can fit all.
We’re hopeful that members will inadvertently be trying harder climbs that before they would have written off as being ‘too hard’. Not being boxed in by preconceptions about one specific number grade gives our members the opportunity to push themselves on harder climbs without even knowing it.
Check out our blog on Types of Holds and How to Use Them.