This guide serves as an introduction to the two main grading systems in the United States: the V-Scale for bouldering and the Yosemite Decimal System for roped climbing.
Established by John Vermin Sherman in the bouldering mecca of Hueco Tanks, the V-Scale ranges in difficulty from V0 (easiest) to V16. Occasionally, a plus (i.e. V2+) will designate a bouldering problem being on the harder side of the the grade, while a minus indicates a climb being on the easier, or “softer,” side of the grade. Also, a VB rating may be used to designate a problem easier than V0 and intended for beginners.
Yosemite Decimal System (YDS)
America’s grading system for roped climbs is the Yosemite Decimal System which is divided into five classes. Roughly outlined, these are as follows:
- Class 1: walking
- Class 2: hiking; occasional use of hands
- Class 3: scrambling with the use of hands
- Class 4: basic climbing at elevation; a fall could be fatal and ropes are often used
- Class 5: technical rock climbing on steep terrain and requiring ropes, harnesses, belay equipment, etc.
For the purposes of modern rock climbing, all grades occur within Class 5 and range in difficulty from 5.0-5.15c. When established by the Sierra Club in the 1930s, however, Class 5 grades were intended to range from only 5.0-5.9. Anything above 5.9 was previously regarded as impossible.
Unable to contain breakthroughs of the last half-century, grades have steadily been pushed upward. Additionally, letters a, b, c, and d have been implemented above the 5.9 rating to further distinguish individual grade increments. Ana is indicative of the easier side of the numbered grading level, followed by b, c, and d as the hardest. Note that the difference between 5.11a and 5.11b is theoretically the same difference in difficulty between 5.7 and 5.8.
Although grades are implemented as a system for consistency, they can vary greatly between indoors, outdoors, and across different climbing destinations. Locations such as Joshua Tree are notoriously hard or “stiff” in the gradings, whereas modern sport climbing crags may be softer.
In addition to the number and letter grade above, outdoor roped climbs may also include a protection rating. This rating is a combination of the danger of the climb, along with the degree of spacing between protection/bolts (how “run-out” the climb is). These ratings correlate with the movies:
- PG: occasional run-out sections
- PG-13: these climbs tend to be fairly run-out, and the leader should be very competent at the grade
- R: designated for very run-out or dangerous climbs where a fall could be fatal
- X: these climbs are truly “no-fall” climbs; there exists little to no quality protection