Understanding Climbing Grades
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 climbing grades, both in the climbing gym and outside, 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: Climbing grades are 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 climb V3, 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 grades, 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?
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 YDS grades scattered among the French grades around the world. There are 3 parts to a YDS grade. Let’s break it down.
5 – 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.
5.12 – 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.
5.12a – 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.
7 – 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.
7a – The letter, a, b, or c, further describes the difficulty of the climb just as it does in the YDS.
7a+ – 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 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 grading systems: the V-Scale and the Font. System.
The V-Scale, short for Vermin and named after a famous Hueco Tanks climber, is a simple rating system that grades boulder problems on a difficulty of 0-17. Occasionally you may see a “+” or “R” thrown in next to a V rating, but these merely note the height dependency of a problem and are not widely used.
The flaw with the V-Scale is obvious: not enough variability between grades. Take a look at the Font. Grading system. It reads the exact same way that the French system does for sport climbing and thus allows for an immense amount of specificity when grading a boulder problem.
This is not a coincidence. The coolest part of the French and Font. Grading systems are that they can be used alongside one another. While they are not the same system and do not perfectly coincide, a 7a+ move is a 7a+ move is a 7a+ move . . . theoretically. This conversion using the Amercian system is all kinds of messy. Once again, America is behind the curve.
Let’s not get discouraged though, because, really, these systems are just great climbers taking a great crack at standardizing the un-standardizable. It’s truly admirable.
Using Grades to Pick Climbs
Now that you have a solid understanding of how to read grades and what grades are, let’s talk about how to use climbing grades in your climbing. Most importantly, I have said it before and will say it again, never treat climbing grades as the end-all-be-all of your climbing. The goal of your climbing is up to you. Maybe you want to get stronger, improve your technique, enjoy the community, or send a specific climb outside. These are reachable, healthy, measurable goals in climbing. And how to do you measure them? By using grades. Grades ought to be used to measure your progress, not determine the results. You will find yourself infinitely unhappy if you aim your climbing goals according to climbing grades. Why? Because climbing grades are moving targets, so you are going to miss 100% of the time.
Example: Run 4x4s (climb the same 4 climbs 4 times each in a set amount of time). What grades are those climbs? Maybe one month you climb 2 V3s, a V4, and a V5 and the next you are able to bump these up to 2 V4s, a V5, and a V6. This is one of many ways to measure your progress in pursuit of larger goals.