Understanding Climbing Grades
Updated: Sep 14
Rock Climbing Grades Explained
Climbing grades are easy enough to understand. The bigger the number the more difficult the climb. Right? While this is true. Understanding the nuances of rock climbing ratings, either indoor climbing grades or outdoor ones, may give you a little more insight into picking climbs and will also make talking about climbing to other climbers a whole lot easier. Before we get started...
*Disclaimer: The rock climbing grading system is subjective. Hard as we may try, there is no perfect system for grading climbs. While our systems have improved over the years, the fact remains that climbing is a highly individualistic and subjective sport. Our differences make us stronger in some areas, weaker in others, and ultimately unable to bring together a perfect system for grading climbs. This is what makes our sport special, though. So try your best to embrace it!
How are climbs graded?
Is there some kind of climbing litmus test that can determine the exact PH of a route? Sadly no.
Over the years, climbers from around the world have simply gotten a little bit better at figuring out which climbs are as hard as other climbs.
That’s it. I’d love to sit here and tell you that when you climb a V3 for the first time you now send anything rated V3 climbing, but the truth of the matter is that you may hit V3 on day one and then struggle to hit V3 again for another year. Or you might work your way up to V6 and then randomly fall on V3. It’s the nature of the climbing beast. So as you learn about how to read and use the climbing scale, remember that grades are nothing more than the setter or first ascensionist’s best guess at how hard the climb is. While they are excellent, often professional, guessers, they are still making guesses.
SPORT CLIMBING GRADES
Climbers predominantly use two grading systems for sport and top-rope climbing depending on geographical location: YDS and French. So let’s nail down the basics:
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 only used in the U.S., much like English, and feet or yards, you may find the Yosemite Decimal System YDS grades scattered among the French grades around the world. There are 3 parts to a YDS grade. Let’s break it down.
This number refers to “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. All rock climbs in the gym and outside will be graded 5.something. A Class 4 rating usually requires a rope but is not difficult or dangerous enough to be considered Class 5.
The second part of a YDS grade refers to the difficulty of the climb. This second number runs from 2-15 and describes the difficulty of the moves and the holds involved.
After 5.10, climbers add a letter, a, b, c, or d, to describe, in more depth, the difficulty of the climb. 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 letters give climbers a bigger, more specific scale on which to grade climbs. Not all 5.12’s are equal.
What is the French Scale?
The French scale is widely used around the world, except for in the US of course. It is good, however, to be familiar with the French Grading Scale for watching climbing videos and taking climbing trips.
French grades are a bit easier to read than YDS grades but are climbing specific.
Just like the metric system, the French system definitely makes more sense than the American counterpart. The first number is from 1 to 9 and describes the difficulty of the climb.
The letter, a, b, or c, further describes the difficulty of the climb just as it does in the YDS.
The + in French grades is an added level of specificity that allows climbers to more 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.
With the exceptions of a couple of grades, the two grading systems generally line up pretty well. It is fairly simple to know what grade you can climb in the other system just from a glance. So what makes one system better than another? Why have two systems if they are so similar? To understand this, we have to take a look at the two different bouldering scale: the V-Scale and the Font. System.