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Understanding Rock Climbing Grades

Here's a brief introduction to how rock climbing grades are applied and how they differ from outdoors to indoors

Whether you’ve recently started climbing or you’ve been climbing for a little while, you may have some questions about grades. Like, where do climbing grades come from? Why do some V4s feel impossible when others feel easy? Why do grading systems vary from one gym to another? Why do grades feel different when I go to other gyms? Why do grades feel different when I go outside?

Route grades: in North America are part of the Yosemite Decimal system (YDS). The YDS rates the difficulty to ascend various terrains designated by classes 1 through 5 (interpretations vary slightly on the divisions): (1) Flat ground; (2) Uneven or inclined ground; (3) Steep hills and hikes that may require occasional use of hands (easy scrambling); (4) Very easy climbing (exposed or hard scrambling); people may want to use a rope; (5) Climbing that requires use of hands and a rope for protection. The 5 in that 5.8 grade at the gym indicates a class 5 terrain, according to the YDS. Class 5 climbing is then subdivided into its own range of difficulty, from 5.4-5.6 (easiest) to 5.14-5.16 (hardest). Starting at 5.10, grades may be further subdivided by the letters a, b, c, or d. For example, a 5.10a route is easier than one graded 5.10d. You might also see – or + signs that correspond to an easier or harder version of the grade. So 5.11a and 5.11b could also be written 5.11- and 5.12+ is a 5.12c or 5.12d.

Bouldering grades: in North America use what’s called the V-grade system. The V comes from a nickname of John “the Verm” Sherman (or Vermin Sherman), to whom the system is attributed. It is a linear, open-ended grading system that begins at V0 and goes to V17 (for now, once confirmed). There are no subdivisions but occasionally – and + signs are used to indicate an easier or harder version.

Rock climbing grades

Behind the grades: Grades are often debated in climbing because they aim to measure difficulty in objective terms, but the many variables in what makes a climb hard, and who is doing the climbing, make objectivity impossible. That said, even with a degree of subjectivity, climbers benefit from the attempt at a universal rating system so they can choose what routes and problems they can safely attempt and to gauge personal progress.

Who decides on a Grade? Outdoors, grades are determined based on a consensus among the usually elite, dominant user group. The first ascensionist proposes a grade, which is confirmed or contested by a majority of peers. Indoors, a route setter will propose a grade and, typically, the grade is confirmed by the other members of the setting team.

What Makes A Climb Hard? There are a variety of factors that affect a climb’s difficulty rating, e.g., the size of the holds, the distance between the holds, the angle of the wall, and the complexity of the moves. Outdoors, friction and exposure or danger can also contribute to the grade. Generally speaking, the more power, strength, endurance, flexibility, body awareness, technique and technical ability required, the harder the grade.

Debatable Factors: There are factors that sometimes give rise to debate over grades. For example, a grade might be given because a climb is long and “pumpy,” i.e., not a single hard move but a series of hard-ish moves that when climbed in sequence is hard. But the exact same grade might be given to a climb that has one super tough move, and the rest are relatively easy. In this case, the grades are the same but the skill set required to climb the routes/problems is different. Climbers often prefer and excel at one style of climbing over another. There are also competing philosophies about whether climbs should get a grade based on how hard it is to red-point versus how hard it is to on-sight. In other words, should a grade be based on how hard a climb is when the “beta is dialed” (i.e., after all the moves have been figured out) or based on how hard it is at face value – to do on your first go? For some routes/problems, depending on how complex and subtle the movement required, these two grades would be quite different.

Subjective Factors: Finally, the same route/boulder can feel easier or harder depending on one’s physical traits, e.g., a small or large ape-index (wingspan vis-à-vis height), being short or tall, having small or large fingers, etc. Not to mention one’s preferred style of climbing and favoured terrain. In this respect, climbers often talk about grades being personal. That said, many climbers with perceived disadvantages will argue that these differences are not as consequential as they are made out to be. Indeed, there are elite climbers of drastically different heights and varying body types.

All of these factors give grades a subjective quality that climbers love or hate to talk about.

Gym Grading: Gyms in North America use the Yosemite Decimal System for route grades. For bouldering, on the other hand, there are varying systems in place. Some gyms use the classic V-grade system, marking each boulder problem with a V-grade on a tag or piece of tape at its start. Many gyms use a coloured V-grade range system, wherein the colour of the tape or holds on a problem correspond to a range of V-grades. For example, yellow = V2-V3, green = V4-V5, blue = V6-V7, etc. They may or may not be specific V-grades assigned as well.

Some gyms have developed their own grading systems. For example, the Calgary Climbing Centre gyms use C-grades from C1-C8 and The Hive gyms in Vancouver use little hexagons (from 1 to 6), which are also colour-coded:

Similarly, Seven Bays, Allez-Up, Up the Bloc, Joe Rockheads & Boulderhouse use a coloured circuit system which has problems marked by colours that correspond to a legend showing relative difficulty, but no V-grades. The boulders are designed such that every coloured “circuit” contains a series of problems in different styles at a similar (but still varying) difficulty range.

Despite efforts to create a consistent, internal system, notably different from other gyms and outdoors, these gyms are often pressured by clientele to provide a legend indicating how their systems correspond to V-grades.

Indoors vs. Outdoors: It’s important to know that gym grades do not and cannot translate perfectly to grades outdoors. This is particularly true for the lower range of bouldering grades. It is not uncommon for someone who regularly climbs V0-V4 in a gym, to struggle with climbing V0-V4 outdoors.

For one, outdoor climbing is harder by nature; the easiest climbs outdoors are still harder than those indoors because indoor climbs are set with designed and shaped, clean, often frictionous holds and the routes are colour-coded. Rock feels different to the skin and you may not intuitively know where the holds are or how to hold them. Likewise, footholds outdoors are often so many you waste energy figuring out the most efficient ones to use.

Also, the user groups are different. There are usually more beginners indoors. As such, it is in the best interest of the gym owners to provide a wide range of easy problems and so instead of subdividing V0s and V1s for indoors, the lower range of V-grades are softened a bit, and that can affect the intermediate grades as well. Upper and elite-level grades indoors, however, are often closer to what you will find outside.