Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Climbing Grades (at least in the U.S.)
by Paul Nelson
Though many people like to pretend that they don’t matter, climbing grades are foundational to this sport. They are indicators telling us what we may or may not be able to get up when we go to new areas, they are symbols of big jumps in difficulty, and yes, they can even be used for annoying spray around the campfire as bros attempt to posture and out-do each other by dropping big numbers in attempts at validating their own fragile senses of self-worth.
|Ima' let you finish, but first I've got to spray about that 5.13 I onsighted third try!|
How did climbing grades in the United States come to be? How do they relate to bouldering grades, or other nations’ own climbing grades? What about ice grades? Alpine grades? Commitment grades? Danger grades? We’ll try to go over all of these in this article. Although the primary focus here will be on American rock climbing difficulty grades, by the end of this article, you should know what it means when a climb in a guidebook has the parenthetical “IV, 5.10a/b, WI3, A2, r/x.”
There are many different factors that go into trying to quantify something as multifaceted as a climbing route. How hard is the hardest move? Is it pumpy; what are the recovery spots like? What are the consequences if you fall off the hardest move? What about if you fall off easier moves? What if you have to aid through something? How long will it usually take to finish? Grades try to quantify all of these factors, though not always entirely successfully.
Difficulty: The Yosemite Decimal System (YDS), which ranges from 5.0 to 5.15c, is intended to describe the overall difficulty of an entire pitch of climbing. The V-rating system, which ranges from v0 to v16, is used for unroped bouldering.
Commitment: The National Climbing Classification System (NCCS) uses Roman numerals to indicate how long a given climb might take. It ranges from I or II, which describe climbs that might only take a few hours to half a day, through III and IV, which might take full days or require climbing through the night, to V, which requires an overnight bivy, and ultimately ends in VII, which would be a very remote wall, climbed without fixed ropes, for many days. All of these grades are assuming the time that an average team might take; there are plenty of grade VI bigwalls that have been done in just a few hours.
Danger: The consequences of a fall and the availability of gear placements get movie ratings! Originally, only R and X were used– R meant that if you fall at the crux, injury was likely, and X meant that death was likely. However, climbs at some places can also get a G rating, meaning that there is good gear everywhere, a PG rating, which means that gear might be a little spaced, but still safe, or a PG-13 rating, which means that big falls might be taken, but probably not with injury. Be aware that danger ratings are probably the most subjective climbing rating.
Aid Ratings: When you have to pull or stand on gear to make upward progress, aid ratings come into play. They use a number system ranging from 0 to 6, with the prefix “C” for “clean climbs that can be done with removable gear like cams, stoppers, and hooks, or the prefix “A” for climbs that might require nailing in pitons or copperheads. Roughly quantified, an A0 or C0 would involve just pulling on bomber cams or bolts without even the use of aiders. A1 or C1 would be standing in aiders while moving up a crack with very secure placements. A/C2 and A/C3 involve more committing moves on gear that is only good for body weight, although falls would be safe onto bomber gear. A/C4 and A/C5 indicate significant chance of injury and huge falls if any gear pops, and A/C6 in theory means that if one piece pulls, the entire chain of gear, including the belay will fail, although there is some debate on the actual existence of this rating.
Ice Ratings: Ice can fall either under “Water Ice” (WI) or “Alpine Ice” (AI) prefixes, depending on whether the route follows a seasonal ice flow, or more permanent mountain alpine features. Either way, the numbers range from 1, indicating low angle ice that might not even require tools, up to 7 or 8, which are incredibly steep, with thin ice and possibly bad protection. The consequences of falls are much more severe in ice than on rock, and WI and AI ratings can incorporate both difficulty and danger, increasing as the numbers rise.
Mixed Ratings: Climbs with an “M” prefix indicate “mixed climbs” that can involve dry tooling up steep rock faces with crampons and tools, before meeting a hanging icefall (not to be confused with rock climbs that have both bolts and trad gear, also called “mixed”). M ratings range from M1 to M12. In the lower ranges, up to M6 or so, they roughly correspond with WI ratings, but with no focus on danger. Above M6-7, they indicate very difficult, steep, roof climbing with dynamic movement and thin holds.
The Yosemite Decimal System (YDS), that illogical and anti-mathematical number sequence that goes from “5.0” to “5.infinite and beyond!” has a long and complex history. First off, the “Yosemite Decimal System” name is a bit of a misnomer, since this grading system was born on the Southern California granite walls of Tahquitz Rock, where climbers first attempted to categorize all the roped routes on a scale from 5.0 (the easiest) to 5.9 (the most conceivably difficult).
But what about that whole “5” prefix? Well, to get into that, we need to delve even further back into early 20th century mountaineering, back when the Sierra Club was more an adventure club and less an environmental organization. In classifying different terrains over which they hiked on outings, the Sierra Club had six different classes of difficulty:
- 1. simple hiking on a trail or cross-country
- 2. hiking in which occasionally hikers might need to use their hands to steady themselves
- 3. steep, uphill scrambling
- 4. very steep, ridge traversing, and easy climbing in which a fall would result in death
- 5. the point at which most people would rope up on a scramble or climb
- 6. climbing that is so difficult that artificial aid is required (fun fact: Monty Python is the only group to have ever turned first class into sixth class.)
The fifth class level of hiking/scrambling, then, is the one that California climbers eventually saw needed to be subdivided into different levels of difficulty as free-climbing standards gradually rose (in theory, we could even list aid ratings as “6.x,” but that never really caught on). Similarly, in climbing slang, you occasionally might hear someone describe a free solo as “third” or “fourth-classing” a fifth class route, meaning that it was done without a rope.
|The first "official" 5.9, and still a mega-classic|
By this time, the Tahquitz System was being used across the United States. It had spread to Yosemite and the High Sierras, which had long been the prime objectives of many Sierra Clubbers and thus spurred the renaming “Yosemite Decimal System. Because Yosemite was such a mecca for climbers from around the nation, the YDS began taking hold in other hubs of North American climbing– notably Eldorado Canyon, CO, and the Gunks, NY. However, there was no consensus as to what to do about the fact that decimal points END in 5.9, even as climbs kept getting more and more difficult. At many of these “old school” crags, we see this in “sandbagged” 5.9s from the 1950s– routes that feel much harder than their grades. The Gunks in particular still have many climbs that are historically “5.9,” but may have moves that range well into the 5.10 range. Climbers pushing the limits would often just add a “+” to the end of their 5.9, resulting in a grade that even today can elicit caution from climbers.
|Run Away! Duck and Cover!|
|Goodro's Wall, image taken from supertopo.com|
At any rate, by the end of the 1950s, climbers nationwide had reached the consensus that, rather than keep adding pluses to the ends of their 5.9s, they would abandon decimal logic and simply go with “5.10.” And then 5.11, 5.12, 5.13, and so on. Through the 1960s most climbers still preferred to get to the top of features rather than try to free every move, so many routes were hybrids of aid and free climbing, but the best climbers of the time, such as Layton Kor in Colorado, Chuck Pratt in California, and Jim McCarthy in New York were solidifying the 5.10 grade around the country.
Again, in some backwaters, grades were being pushed even further. In the early to mid-60s, Greg Lowe of Ogden, Utah, was using the isolated high desert granite domes of City of Rocks, ID, as a simple training ground for his mountaineering objectives. Although he often would not even name his routes, he was climbing solid 5.11 with such classics as Crack of Doom (5.11c).
However, you may have noticed that climbs which are more difficult than 5.9 get an additional suffix– the letter a, b, c, or d. This idea was proposed by Jim Bridwell in the late 1960s, who realized that as climbs increased in difficulty, more subtlety was needed in describing them. Today, we do not think of these letter grades as even subdivisions within their number, but as significant steps in difficulty– the difference between 5.10c and 5.10d is just as significant as the difference between a 5.8 and 5.9.
The late 60s and early 70s saw many other shifts in climbing grades that went beyond just letter subdivisions. Probably the biggest one was a gradual move towards grading climbs based on the overall difficulty of the entire pitch, rather than just on the single hardest move, which the YDS had originally intended. This was partly brought on by the free climbing and clean climbing revolutions. Climbers began valuing routes less for their summits, and more as a “game” in which the objective was to “free” an entire pitch without falling or relying on aid. In terms of clean climbing, stoppers and later cams could be placed quickly and one-handed much more than hammering pitons or hand drilling a bolt, making the whole free climbing thing easier, but sometimes more risky.
|Bridwell's Outer Limits in Yosemite, a 5.10 with no move harder than 5.9|
Another more recent development, particularly in trad crack climbing, has been a return to simplicity by abandoning letter subdivisions. As David Bloom’s guidebook to Indian Creek explains, crack climbing is incredibly subjective– it is endurance dependent, and even more so comes down to the individual sizes of climbers’ hands and fingers. For this reason, using letter subdivisions just brings up too much debate and squabbling. Rather, Bloom’s guidebook subdivides climbs harder than 5.9 as “minus,” “plus,” or “solid.” A climb that is 5.10a or easy 5.10b will get 5.10-. A climb that is “hard” 5.10b, or 5.10b/c will get 5.10. A climb that is hard 5.10c or 5.10d will get a 5.10+. In many ways, this is a return to the older notion of adding a “+” to 5.9 back when climbers were hesitant to bump their grades up a notch, and I personally like the return to simplicity, although it can sometimes get ridiculous (Bloom lists “Quarter of a Man,” which I always considered solid 5.12- or 5.12a, as 5.11+++).
Today, many climbers will use both YDS and bouldering ratings to describe a climb’s overall endurance aspect and single crux moves. For example, I could describe the classic New River Gorge route Apollo Reed as follows:
Easy 5.8-9, up to a cryptic v3-4 kneebar boulder problem that feels easier once you figure it out, followed by about 40 feet of pumpy 5.11+ to a final v3 redpoint crux, followed by more 5.11- moves out a roof.
All of this can add up to 5.13a, even though there are no moves anywhere near 5.13a on the route.
So, how did bouldering grades, which presumably focus more on the single hardest move of a sequence and can be great for describing even the individual cruxes of a YDS route, come about?
First off, bouldering is not a recent development in climbing, despite what the hordes of pubescent shirtless beanie-clad cockroaches at the gym might lead you to believe. Climbers going back to Royal Robbins and earlier all used lowball, safe boulders as places to refine their techniques for use on bigger routes– Robbins was famous for establishing no-hands boulder problems, and Bob Kamps had a notoriously technical circuit at Southern California’s Stoney Point, which probably honed his reputation for being able to stand on 5.10 micro-edges for hours while hand-drilling bolts.
None of these climbers who considered boulders mere “practice” really were concerned about grading, beyond saying, “yeah, this boulder is 5.9.” John Gill, however, who anticipated the free climbing revolution by seeing bouldering as an end to itself, however, very quickly moved beyond the highest levels of the YDS. By the end of the 1950s, he had established problems such as Jenny Lake, WY’s “North Corner” that were well into the v8/5.13 range, at a time when most climbers on ropes were maxing out at 5.10, if that.
In terms of grading, Gill knew that he was doing moves that not only most climbers could not do, but that furthermore would be insane to even try to do on roped, possibly dangerous climbs. For this reason, he came up with a grading system that assumed that hard boulder problems went beyond the highest limits of roped climbing.The “B” system, as Gill called it, was elegant in its simplicity, and it worked for bouldering all the way into the 1980s. Here’s how it worked: was a boulder problem of the same difficulty as various roped climbs? Then it just got a B5.9, B5.10, etc. Was it right at, or maybe just beyond the hardest free climbing moves of the day? B1. Was it well beyond the hardest free climbs? B2. Was it a B2 that shut down other great boulderers, remaining unrepeated? B3, until it did get repeated, then it was back down to B2.
The cool thing about the B-scale is that it is sliding, and adjustable, depending on when a problem was graded. A B1 that went up in 1959 might be 5.10a, or barely v0 in our modern bouldering rating system (more on that shortly). But if a B1 went up in 1972, it might be more like 5.11+, or v3/4. B2’s could be across the board: Gill put up B2’s in the 1950s
|Jim Holloway on one of his notorious B3's|
As cool and elegant as Gill’s B-system was, however, it would simply not be feasible today. The entire scale relied on the fact that, when climbing was more risky and “the leader must not fall!” there were some moves, especially out-of-control dynos, that nobody would do on rope. By the free-climbing revolution of the early to mid-70s, climbers (most of whom were excellent boulderers as well) began pushing the limits more, and were more willing to pull out a B2 dyno while roped up. By the late-1980s, bolt-protected sport climbing’s entire objective was that crux moves should be incredibly hard and safe, and the whole assumption that there were moves that should only be reserved for bouldering was thrown out the window.
The current V-scale for bouldering was thought up by John Sherman as his 1991 guidebook to Hueco Tanks bouldering was going to print; Sherman had originally intended to leave all the problems ungraded, but his publisher insisted on some system of rating. The V-scale, so named because of Sherman’s nickname “Verm,” is a simple, open ended numeric system, with v0 (roughly 5.10a) at the bottom end, and the top end currently at v16. Sherman has since stated several times that he wishes he had never come up with this scale, because of the competition and ego-stroking that it fosters.
|Yup, this guy came up with modern boulder grades after much prodding|
The interesting thing is, although you might assume that v-grades come down to individual hard moves, even boulder problems factor in a slight bit of endurance. Obviously, cutting-edge mega-traverses or long cave lines such as Australia's "Wheel of Life" or "Witness the Fitness" in Arkansas almost defy v-ratings and would be more appropriately graded as routes. But even standard 5-8 move boulder problems often come down to endurance. For example, as Dave Graham says of his benchmark v15 "Story of Two Worlds," it is really one v14 sequence into another. Daniel Woods, arguably the best boulderer on earth, has said that no move harder than v11 or v12 exists; in other words, there are no one-move v13s or harder! Or are there?
There is still a lot of confusion about how V-grades and YDS relate to one another. Most comparison charts that you find online basically put v4 as equivalent to 5.12a, v7 to 5.13a, v10 to 5.14a, and so on. However, anyone who has climbed both V-rating and YDS knows that they are nowhere near equivalent! Not too many v4 gym boulderers are able to go out and quickly send 5.12a, and there are even 5.13a climbers out there who struggle to send v7. This discrepancy comes down to the fact that endurance is a huge factor in YDS climbs, so that the majority of 5.12a’s will never have a single move approaching v4, and that the “flow” of route climbing is something that many boulderers do not know. Rather than think of v4 as being equal to 5.12a, think of it this way: a “one-move-wonder” 5.12a might have a v4 crux. Or, no honestly graded 5.12a will ever have a move harder than v4, but plenty will have lots of moves easier than v4.
Today, grades are still all over the place, and we haven’t even gotten into international rating systems. The French system of lettered numbers is gradually achieving dominance for sport climbers due to the website 8a.nu. Some French areas, such as the multipitch sport paradise Verdon Gorge, also use “obligatory” ratings, which tell a climber what the sheer minimum difficulty of a route is, even if a climber decides to pull on bolts (in other words, there may be a route that is 5.12c to redpoint, but possible for a 5.11c climber to get up while hanging and pulling on gear). The English system of combining difficulty and danger ratings, is very useful for facey, runout trad areas such as the Peak District. And then there are the beautifully simple Australian or South African systems that just goes from 1 to the upper 30s.
|Rough equivalents of climbing grades.|
Even just in the U.S., grades can be confusing and sometimes contradictory. "Witness the Fitness" has more moves on it than Rumney's The Fly, but because it is unroped, it gets a v15, while The Fly gets 5.14d. Some of Kevin Jorgeson’s insane highballs in Bishop are basically free solos, but because they are in an area known for bouldering, they get v-ratings. Perhaps most familiar to all climbers who like to travel to different crags, there are some areas that might feel easy for their given grades (soft), and others that might feel hard (sandbagged). And this is not even factoring in the fact that many areas simply have unique styles of climbing that take some getting used to; a solid 5.11 leader from Smith Rock might get completely shut down on Indian Creek 5.10s. Even today, with grades shooting into the stratosphere, it is the rare climber who can walk up to any given crag and onsight a 5.12a. We may have progressed beyond the constraints of what the YDS was originally intended for, but our grading systems for all climbs still seem to do pretty well.
Just don't spray too much.