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Understanding Climbing Ratings and Grades

20-Nov-2009
By

Most climbers want to know how difficult a climb is, either to keep us from biting off more climb than we can chew, or to compete overtly with others or ourselves. Many different rating systems are used worldwide, but in the United States, we use the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS).
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Although some climbers eschew any type of quantification, most of us want to know how difficult a climb is, either to keep us from biting off more climb than we can chew, or to compete overtly with others or ourselves. Hence, like kayakers, climbers have a system to rate the difficulty of our chosen medium. Many different rating systems are used worldwide, but in the United States, we use the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS).

Mountain climbing is divided into classes, from Class 1 (walking down a trail) to Class 5 (technical climbing). When you get to fifth class climbing, the scale used exclusively for free climbing breaks down into technical sub-grades. Hence, a climb might be 5.8. If it is slightly harder than 5.8, but not quite 5.9, it’s rated 5.8+. If it’s slightly easier than 5.8 but harder than 5.7, it might be rated 5.8-.

Once you pass 5.9, we add on a suffix from “a” to “d” to note whether a climb is at the bottom, middle, or the top of the grade. For example, 5.10 breaks into 5.10a, 5.10b, 5.10c and 5.10d. Sometimes letters are left out, usually when climbers are unsure of the rating. The hardest confirmed grade climbed to date is 5.15a. The chart shown here compares the YDS with grading systems of other countries.

Be aware that grades don’t adequately compare different types of climbing. Don’t assume that since you can cruise a 5.8 friction slab, a 5.8 offwidth will feel the same. Likewise, a 5.11a hand crack requires altogether different skills than a 5.11a sport route. Additionally, the numerical ratings don’t factor in the danger element. In America, an “R” or “X” may follow the number grade, for example, 5.10a R. The R suffix means the route may be runout or difficult to protect, with the possibility of a long fall. An X rating means the route is dangerous, with marginal protection and the possibility of a fatal fall.

For multi-pitch climbs, a Roman-numeral grade is tacked on, from I to VI, to indicate the time it might require to complete the climb. For example, the grade for Death Climb 2000 might be IV 5.9. Following is the breakdown, based on the progress of an average party. A fast team might climb a Grade V in an easy day; on the other hand, if you’re a neophyte, attempting a Grade IV might be more than you can climb in a day. 


Grade I: a one- or two-pitch climb. This grade is normally not even used.

Grade II: a climb that will take an average party a few hours to complete. Again, this grade is rarely used.

Grade III: the climb will take a half-day or so.

Grade IV: an all-day route for an average party.

Grade V: a two-day climb, requiring a bivouac.

Grade VI: a three-day (or more) climb.


In the past, boulder problems were ranked with a three-grade system (B1, B2, B3) devised by John Gill, for easy, medium and hard. Today, boulder problems in America are graded using the V scale. V0 connotes a boulder problem roughly equivalent to 5.10 or below. V4 is concomitant with mid 5.12. The scale currently tops out at V16!

Take grades with a grain of salt. They are only approximations and vary from area to area, or even within the same area. Don’t get too wrapped up in them as they can mess with your head and limit you. Free climbing may be your ultimate goal, but don’t think climbs done with a move or two of aid are invalid in any way. In climbing, as in many things in life, it’s the experience that counts.

See International Comparison Ratings on next page >>


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