As you enter the world of climbing and make your way around a climbing gym or outdoor crag, you'll face numerical and alphabetized measures of difficulty, otherwise known as climbing grades. That is, all climbing grades essentially are a measure of difficulty. Climbing grades are designed to be as objective as possible. But grades are inherently subjective because individuals climb the climbs and reach a consensus. Because of this, grades can vary across gyms and areas. However, in general, you can assume that climbs with higher grades are more challenging than those with lower grades. At a climbing gym, you will find two types of climbing: roped climbing and bouldering. In the United States, each gym has its own variation of the standard grading systems. However, many equivalent grading systems are used globally for routes and bouldering.
Grading Routes - Different but Equivalent Systems
The Yosemite Decimal system, YDS, is used in the United States to grade routes. This system contains five classes of difficulty (the first number), with roped climbing falling into Class five since class five climbs require safety gear, and you cannot walk up them. The lowest YDS Class five grade is typically a 5.4, although most commercial climbing gyms start around 5.5 or 5.6. The grades increase by one up to 5.15; however, because the scale is open-ended, that top-end could continue to rise as elite climbers push the bounds of climbing worldwide.
The YDS system also introduces subgrades at the difficulty level 5.10. Subgrades add a letter, a - d, to the numerical grade, with 5.10a being the easiest and 5.10d being the hardest. While most outdoor climbs are sub-graded, most commercial gyms will opt for a +/- scale for 5.10 or higher routes. Similar to the alphabetical subgrades, a 5.10- is less challenging than a 5.10, which is less complicated than a 5.10+. You may be wondering why sub-graded climbs only start at 5.10. When you reach 5.10 climbing, the difference in skill, strength, and technique required for a 5.10 versus 5.11, or 5.11 versus 5.12, is more significant than the difference between 5.7 and 5.8, or 5.8 and 5.9.
Now that you understand the Yosemite Decimal System used in the United States, it pays to be familiar with the French grading system. While a handful of other grading systems are in place, the French and YDS systems are the most commonly used. The French system also uses a combination of numerical, alphabetical, and +/- measures to grade their climbs. However, the French system utilizes numbers one to nine with the potential to expand above nine if climbers establish routes at that difficulty. The system also uses the letters a-c but only adds + to the grade. While you won't need to be familiar with the French system when climbing in the U.S, the global climbing community utilizes the French system. Don't worry; you can quickly type 'climbing grade conversion chart' into Google and get instantaneous results!
Bouldering - The Two Main Grading Systems
Like the route grading systems, there are two widely used grading systems for bouldering. In the United States, the Vermin (Named after climbing legend John "Vermin" Sherman), or V, Scale is used to grade boulders. The lowest difficulty is V0, and the hardest is V16. Most commercial climbing gyms only set (create climbs) up to difficulty V10, while outdoor climbing locations house higher graded boulders. Additionally, some indoor climbing gyms put up boulders with a difficulty VB or V-Fun, designed with first-time climbers in mind.
The second most used grading system is the French system known as the Fontainebleau, aka Font, system. Like French route grading, this utilizes an open-ended scale of numbers ranging from one to nine. While the V-Scale does not use subgrades or +/- like in route grades, the Font scale begins to incorporate subgrades a-c and plus signs at difficulty six and above.
Yes, all this information might seem like a second language, but you'll get the hang of it quickly! Don't be afraid to ask fellow climbers for help, as they are likely familiar with the grading system. Also, take a look around your local climbing gym. More likely than not, the gym will have posted a sign explaining the grading systems or how they have graded their climbs. And, if all else fails, remember this simple rule: the greater the number and later in the alphabet the letter, the more difficult the climb!
Good luck sending, and let us know what grades you've sent in the comments below!