Whether you see “5.10b” in a gym or guidebook, understanding climbing grades is not intuitive. As you climb more, understanding climbing grades becomes second nature. One thing to remember throughout this guide is that climbing grades are ultimately subjective. For another climber, a route that feels 5.8 to you may feel more challenging or more manageable.
Disclaimer: these are the grading systems used in the U.S. If you’re traveling to another country to climb, brush up on their grading scale.
This guide will describe two types of grading systems:
- Sport Climbing Grades
- Bouldering Grades
Many factors play a role in how a route is graded. How small/ample are the handholds? How overhung is the route? Are there dangerous consequences to falling at a particular spot? These are some of the components that go into the decision-making process for rating a route.
Yosemite Decimal Scale
We’ll start with the “5-point-something”. This scale is known as the Yosemite Decimal Scale (YDS). The “5” is known as the difficulty of class and indicates that the climbing is technical and rope belaying with protection is required.
Class 4 is not as tricky of terrain as Class 5 but has the potential for dangerous falls. Then, as you go down through the classes until you reach Class 1, this being the easiest.
Onto the number after the “5-point”. The YDS scale starts at 5.0 and ends at 5.15 for now. People are still pushing the boundaries of climbing grades. That section is quite simple; the higher the number, the more complex the route.
Here is a guide with an approximation of how hard climbing grades are: (climbing experience varies, this is not specific to every climber)
5.0 – 5.4 Very Easy (most people)
5.5 – 5.7 Easy (first week or so of climbing)
5.8 – 5.10 Intermediate (achievable by climbing regularly)
5.11 – 5.12 Difficult (experienced climbers)
5.13 – 5.14 Expert (very strong, sometimes professional athletes)
5.15+ Elite (very few climbers in the world)
Now for the algebra lesson. Including numbers after a route harder than 5.10 allowed climbers to further subdivide between grades. The letters “a” through “d” further express a route’s difficulty. “a” being the most accessible while “d” being the hardest. You may also run into grades with a “+” or “-” instead of a letter. The plus indicates the route is on the harder side of the grade, while the minus means it is on the softer side.
Still trying to figure it out? Don’t worry. Learning climbing grades takes time. The easiest way to improve your understanding is to keep climbing new routes.
The V-Scale was developed by John “Vermin” Sherman and is how boulder problems in the U.S. are rated. This scale is more straightforward than the YDS Scale and ranges in difficulty from V0-V17. However, like the YDS Scale, it is still increasing as climbers send more challenging problems. The V-Scale will sometimes show a plus or minus after the grade indicating whether it is harder or easier.
A quick mention: VB is sometimes used to describe a boulder problem easier than V0.
Here is a guide to a consensus of bouldering grades: (climbing experience varies, this is not specific to every climber)
VB Easy (most people)
V0 – V2 Easy to Intermediate (first month or so of climbing)
V3 – V6 Intermediate to Difficult (achievable by climbing regularly)
V7 – V10 Difficult to Advanced (experienced climbers)
V11 – V13 Expert (very strong, sometimes professional athletes)
V14 – V17 Elite (very few climbers in the world)
If you climb outside, you’ll likely run into climbing grades with a movie rating such as “PG13” or “R” at the end. That is the protection rating. The more dangerous a route, the harder protection rating a grade will receive.
G Solid protection throughout the climb.
PG Solid protection but may be slight runout (longer space between each protection point) which will cause longer falls.
PG13 Greater risk of injury if the leader falls due to environmental factors and/or there is a longer runout.
R A lead fall here could cause serious injury due to environmental factors and/or being runout. The leader will likely land on a ledge or take a ground fall.
X A fall at this rating is almost certain to cause severe injury or death to the leader. Extremely runout and/or difficult to protect with good gear.
As stated earlier, climbing grades are ultimately subjective and can even be region dependent. What may be rated 5.11a at one crag in the U.S. could feel like a 5.10c at another crag you’ve climbed. Remember, respect the protection grade. These are here to warn you of the possible consequences of a route.
Many factors go into deciding a climbing grade, but this guide is here to help you better understand them! However, the best way to learn climbing grades is to keep climbing new routes.