Get the scoop on climbing difficulty levels and safety ratings here: what they are, what they mean, and why they’re important.
Climbing notes are used to describe the difficulty of climbing routes. The grades are used in climbing gyms and outdoors on the cliff. Before starting a route, it can be helpful to know the route rating, which is determined by the consensus of those who have climbed the route.
Grades can be a useful framework for measuring your own climbing progress as you learn new strengths, skills, and techniques.
Climbers use many different ranking systems. Typically, rating systems are determined by geographic region and climbing style. For example, the standard scoring system for rope climbing in Australia is not the same as that used by rope climbers in France.
Bouldering, which is a form of rock climbing that takes place over free-standing boulders and shorter rock faces that don’t require a rope for safety reasons, has a different scoring system than longer climbing routes. which are climbed with a rope.
Climbers also use protection and safety ratings to describe routes and warn each other of dangers.
Read on for a breakdown of complex climbing rating systems for difficulty and safety.
American Climbing Grades and the Yosemite Decimal System
In America we use two main scoring systems to assess the difficulty of rock climbs. Let’s start with the scoring system for rope climbing, known as the Yosemite decimal system (YDS). The YDS was developed by members of the Sierra Club in the 1950s in the Yosemite Valley and other North American climbing areas.
YDS class system
There are five âclassesâ in the YDS. Classes 1 and 2 are used to describe walking and hiking terrain. Classes 3 and 4 describe steeper, more technical terrain that is often exposed and requires a bit of rock scrambling and the use of all four limbs on the ground to climb safely.
Think of Classes 1 and 2 as a walk in the woods and Classes 3 and 4 as a technical hike or a steep mountain ridge. Climbers generally refer to classes 1 to 4 as “first, second, third and fourth”.
Class 5, or fifth class, covers technical climbing. This is subdivided into parts, which currently range from 5.0 to 5.15. Early supporters of the system added the decimal to divide the fifth class into tiny incremental notes that allow climbers to describe the difficulty of a route with a high degree of accuracy.
The fifth low class, from 5.0 to 5.5, is considered easy terrain by most climbers. Once the scale reaches 5.9, letters are used to further subdivide each number rating. Note 5.10 is divided into 5.10a, 5.10b, 5.10c and 5.10d – which is then followed by 5.11a. Currently, the most difficult climbing routes in the world are rated 5.15d, and only two routes of this rating currently exist.
As a guide, the rating range 5.6 to 5.8 is generally considered a beginner level escalation. 5.9 to 5.10 is roughly intermediate, 5.11 to 5.12 can be considered advanced, and 5.13 and beyond is very difficult elite level climbing.
The YDS is used by most climbing gyms in North America and other areas where the YDS is preferred. In these areas, any form of rope climbing, from sport climbing protected by bolts to traditional climbing protected by removable equipment, will be evaluated using the Yosemite decimal system.
An itinerary that is classified according to the YDS and incorporates all of its different parts may appear written like this: Flight of the Albatross, 5.10c A4 PG-13 Grade VI.
YDS Aid Escalation System
The YDS also includes an Assisted Climbing Rating System that describes the difficulty and safety levels of routes that can be climbed by placing equipment in the wall and pulling on it to progress on the route.
The help escalation scale goes from A0 to A5. An A0 rated route will require simple assisted climbing techniques and is considered relatively safe. An A5 rated route will require a very special skill set and will come with significant danger.
Additionally, Yosemite’s decimal system includes an optional Roman numeral note that describes the overall length and âlevel of engagement – or severity – of the route. Grade IV suggests 1-2 hours of climbing, grade II suggests less than half a day, grade III suggests half a day, grade IV suggests full day, grade V suggests 2-3 days , And so on.
These Roman numerals are more relevant for big wall climbing and mountaineering and are not often included in the description of short rocky climbs.
YDS Protection and Safety Ratings
Another optional assessment indicates the quality and spacing of protection available from a route to a competent climber. Funnily enough, the letter codes associated with the different levels of protection are based on the American film rating system:
- G: Good quality, sufficient protection
- PG: Usually good protection with a few sections of poor protection
- PG-13: Fair protection that can lead to long and potentially dangerous falls
- A: Loosely refers to ‘failing ground’, where protection is limited and the possibility of serious injury
- X: No protection and overall the road is extremely dangerous.
Small historical note: At the start of the YDS, many climbers believed that climbing beyond 5.9 would be humanly impossible. Royal Robbins climbed the first 5.9 confirmed in 1952 when he completed Open Book in Tahquitz Rock, California.
As training methods and climbing equipment have developed over the past decades, the level cap on climbing continues to rise. Adam Ondra established the world’s first 5.15d, Silence, in 2017. And in 2020, the world’s second itinerary of this difficulty, Bibliography, was climbed by German phenomenon Alex Megos.
Block and scale V
What is the V scale?
While the YDS is used to rate just about all roped climbing routes in America and beyond, the boulder uses a completely different system. Like the ratings for roped climbing routes, bouldering ratings indicate the difficulty of a rock problem to a climber who has never tried it before.
The “V” in the V scale is short for “Vermin” or “Verm,” which is the nickname of the iconic boulderer John Sherman, credited with creating the V scale. Sherman spent time at bouldering at Hueco Tanks, Texas in the 1980s and decided there should be a consistent scale to measure the difficulty of bouldering problems.
After a climbing guide editor refused to publish Sherman’s guide to Hueco tanks unless a scoring system was added, Sherman spent time formalizing his scale and noting the rocks in his delivered.
Rock problems in America are classified using the V scale. Like the YDS, the V scale is fully open and the highest rating on the scale will continue to increase as the sport progresses. Currently, the scale starts at V0 and goes up to V17.
Sometimes VB is used to describe beginner level block problems that are easier than V0. Usually, problems between VB and V3 are considered beginner level, V3 to V6 is considered intermediate, V7 to V10 is advanced, and V11 and beyond is very difficult or elite. The V scale is commonly used in climbing halls.
A note on block notes
The rating of a boulder problem takes into account the entire boulder climbing experience. The individual moves from one take to the next are sometimes scored themselves, but the accumulation of all the moves adds up to the final score of the entire block problem.
For example, a block problem with 10 V5 moves in a row without rest will likely be rated higher than V5. Indeed, a series of movements of a given level is more difficult to achieve than a single movement of the same level.
A V10 block problem can include a bunch of easy moves leading up to a single V10 move, or it can be a sequence of smaller moves that overall require V10 effort to connect. For example, the problems with existing V13 blocks have been described as “several V10s in a row”. After the first climber climbs a rock and recommends a certain note, other climbers come in and offer their own opinions until there is finally a consensus.
Block notes are often used to describe the specific difficulty of simple movements in sporting or traditional climbs. For example, a sport climber climbing a route rated 5.12a may describe the most difficult section of the route as a V3 block problem. Block notes are a useful tool for climbers of all styles to describe the difficulty of short sections of climbing.
Escalation levels and consensus
Because different climbers have different strengths, weaknesses, body types, and skills, all climbing ratings are subjective. Climbers often disagree on the difficulty or grade of a given route. As mentioned above in the context of bouldering, climber difficulty ratings are based on consensus.
If 10 climbers think a route is 5.10d, but 10 other climbers think the same route is 5.11b, by consensus the score may settle in the middle at 5.11a. On the Internet and in guides, routes are marked in specific ways, but these notes should always be seen as fluctuating as the consensus of the masses can change over time.
Other filing systems
Outside of the United States, several other rating systems are in common use. The French rating scale starts at 1 and currently goes up to 9, using letter increments in between. Escalation level conversion between the French scale and the YDS is simple and straightforward. Most of the roped routes in Europe and beyond are classified according to the French system.
The Fontainebleau scale, also native to France, is widely used to classify blocks. It can be easily converted at scale V.
Other examples include an Australian rope climbing grade scale, which simply ranges from 1 to 39 and does not use letter increments at all. A British scoring system for roped routes – intended specifically for traditional climbs – takes into account the daring factor of each route.