Rock Climbing Grades Explained: What Should You Climb?

Climbing grades are the aggregated determination of how easy, moderate, or difficult a particular climbing route is.

While the idea should be fairly straightforward, when delving into the particularities of a grade when applied to bouldering, sport climbing, alpine, ice, trad, or mountaineering, the grades change based on the local climbing area or by the international standard.

In other words: climbing grades are almost meaningless when taken at face value.

The American system of climbing grades is based off the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS), which ranges from class 1 (hiking) to class 5 (technical rock climbing) with the class 5 being divided into difficulty grades from 5.0 to the current highest grade in the world: 5.15.

Difficulty Can Vary Based on Location

The key to understanding how a route is graded is as much in a route's construct and location as it is its moves. For example: The Utah desert is almost exclusively known for its very particular style of slab and crack climbing. For the local community, a 5.7 would be the grade for someone who is intimately familiar with that type of climbing, but if you aren't used to this type of climbing, these routes will feel more difficult.

Rock Climbing Grades Explained

In Colorado or Yosemite, climbing routes were established in the 1950s and 1960s, when the hardest grade was up to a 5.8 or 5.9. Many of the climbing grades were established before the technical innovations required to climb harder, so they are based on a historical scale that remains unchanged to preserve the integrity of the route.

In General, Here's What to Expect from Climbing Grades

Typically, climbing grades do fall into a rudimentary scale of difficulty. A 5.0 to 5.7 is considered easy, 5.8 to 5.10 is considered intermediate, 5.11 to 5.12 is hard, and 5.13 to 5.15 is reserved for a very elite few.

Rock Climbing Grades Explained

Climbing grades do not take into account the danger factor; they only describe the physical difficulty of the route. Objective dangers and protection are rated on a movie-like G, PG, PG-13, R, and X scale. So a climb that has moderate moves but is in a location where falls could be potentially dangerous could be graded as 5.8 R.

Climbing ratings are almost exclusively determined by local climbers, being further broken into numbers and + or - to determine the difficulty of that particular grade. A 5.9+ may be closer to a 5.10a, which is harder than a 5.10+ and so on.

Bouldering is Measured Differently from Sport or Trad Climbing

American Bouldering is graded on its own scale, known as the Hueco System or the V-System. This system ranges from V0-V16, with V0 considered to be easy and V16 saved for the elite. Like the Yosemite system, it takes into account the difficulty of the holds, foot placements and muscular moves, not the danger of the route.

Rock Climbing Grades Explained

Essentially, it's impossible to measure ability based on climbing grades since it's almost entirely subjective. Look up the climbing culture and tradition of a certain area and go from there. In the end, grades are a suggested number, not a guideline. By following ability and not grades, climbing is much more enjoyable.

Learn more about climbing through Sierra Trading Post's Climbing Guide.

posted by
Michael Restivo
Blogger at Mike Off the Map
Michael is a climber and writer from Seattle, Washington. He has traveled extensively worldwide, working in Italy and Nepal. When he's not out climbing, looking for snow, or planning his next trip, Michael works in a ski shop and shares his adventures through his blog, Mike Off The Map. Team Sierra bloggers receive promotional consideration from Sierra Trading Post.
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