The rating systems of climbing are probably the most confusing aspects of the sport, primarily because, well, they weren’t really thought through very well. I’m going to cover the Yosemite Decimal System, the British System, the French System, the Australian System (because it is, hands down, the easiest—gotta love those Aussies), and the system I know we use for bouldering (WHICH IS SO SIMPLE it’s great).
The Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) was developed by a bunch of climbers who went to Yosemite and figured that 1-6 would be plenty to rate ALL the climbs. In the entire park. Really? (For not having bigger imaginations, we glare at you.) When they realized that there WEREN’T, in fact, enough numbers (that they could count, at least) to cover everything, they went into the a, b, c, etc, thus giving us a really confusing system (nothing like the UIAA system though—they don’t even use numbers). Here is YDS:
- 1: VERY easy. Like walking-down-the-street-on-paved-road easy.
- 2-3: The sidewalk ends, and you have to step around some logs and pebbles. Scary stuff, guys.
- 4: Hiking, say, Angel’s Landing. For those who aren’t familiar with that glorious hike, it can be done by just about anyone, but it does involve a little more care—like not quite climbing, but too hard to be considered the usual hike.
- 5: This is where you get in to actual rock climbing. This is also where the fun starts.
- 5.1 through 5.3, or even a 5.4, is like what you take your kid on. Left, right, left, right…like walking, but vertically.
- 5.4-5.7 get gradually more difficult, but still pretty straightforward with the occasional sketchy hold or tiny ledge.
- 5.8-5.9 is where the real fun starts. Some interesting footwork, some crappy (or super weird) holds, reaches, crosses…all that stuff. You actually have to be strong to do these.
- 5.10 is where ratings go interesting. It starts with 5.10a (the easiest of the 5.10s); 5.10b is the second easiest, then 5.10c, then 5.10d. Once you get to 5.10 and above, it’s often just referred to as a 10a or a 10c, as opposed to 5.10c.
- The same a-c ratings apply for 5.11, 5.12, 5.13, 5.14…The hardest climbs to date are rated 5.15b, and no one’s gone higher than that. No clue what would have been so hard about going with 5.2, 5.3, 5.4… Oh well.
If people disagree about a rating, they might give it a +. So for example, if you see 5.11a+, that means someone thought it was an 11a but someone else thought it was more of an 11b, so they compromised with the 11a+.
Please note that in the gym, climbs are MUCH easier—I know guys that kill 5.12s indoors and freak at 5.9s outside. Don’t go outside expecting to match the rating you do inside—in fact, it’s best to ALWAYS start with a guide!!!! Climbing outdoors is COMPLETELY different than climbing in the gym.
Now. The UK grading system consists of two parts, an adjective grade and a technical grade. The adjective grade describes the overall difficulty (including length, exposure, protection, etc) while the technical grade describes the hardest move on the climb (or the pitch—if you’re climbing a multi-pitch route, each pitch gets its own rating). The Adjective grade goes as follows, as submitted by spunky British climber and tumblr user punchingaunicorn:
- Easy (I have never seen this one - it doesn’t exist. Climbs this easy are normally graded as Scrambles… of which there are 3 grades. Some grade 3’s require a bit of rope work for the faint of heart but a lot of them are beautiful days out.)
- Moderate (Mod)
- Difficult (Diff)
- Decidedly Difficult (yes, this exists. I saw this once in a very very old guide book. Seriously. Stop doubting me. It exists and it is hilarious I felt like a GENT.)
- Very Difficult (VDiff)
- Hard, Very Difficult (HVD - not a common one actually)
- Mild Severe (it’s like severe… but mildly so.)
- Severe (S. Nice grade to chill and solo on)
- Hard Severe (HS, like a severe but you might not solo it)
- Mild, Very Severe (MVS, although said Mild VS. VS is a whole new grade)
- Very Severe (VS - some of the best routes are very severe. There are a lot of classics in this grade. Lot’s of climbers aim for this before eventually aiming for their first E1, VS is also where the numbers start to begin solidly)
- Hard Very Severe (HV motherfucking S. Some of these bad boys are just well protected E numbers. A hard grade for the intermediate climber, really).
- Extremely Severe, which is broken down into 11 (ten last year) subgrades, from E1 to E11. Some people solo E numbers. They are crazy folks.
Also some routes are given stars for “route quality”. It goes from one star (*) to a three star (***) classic climb. I don’t actually know how the stars work or who gives the routes stars but the guides are usually right… *** climbs are normally lovely.
The technical grades usually start around S and go 4-7. Each number has 3 subgrades a, b, or c (so 4a, 4b, 4c, 5a, etc…) There might be something higher than a 7c out there, but that would be the equivalent of scrambling up a glass wall. Covered in ice. Upside down. Now for example, if you have a long route with very little protection or bad bolts or whatnot but pretty straightforward climbing, it might be rated as E2 5a. On the contrary, a good route that’s short and well protected but with that one really sketchy section might get a rating of VS 5c. To really get the hang of this system, you have to climb it—but once you get a feel for it, it’s much more logical than YDS. I remember once climbing a 5.9 and getting all the way up, no problem, and suddenly having absolutely zero handholds. That one part probably raised the whole rating of the climb from a 5.7 to a 5.9, but there was nothing that warned me.
Now the French System is pretty straightforward. It’s actually becoming more popular, used predominantly in Italy and Spain as well as France. It starts with 4, then uses a-c when you hit 5. The + comes in when you get to 6a, and the grades go up to 9a+ (the hardest—pros only). It follows a pretty basic pattern:
- And so on, so forth, all the way up to 9a+
The Australian System is known for being the most logical. Why?
It just goes 4-36. A round of applause to the Aussies for figuring out that numbers keep increasing!
Bouldering in the US is also pretty simple. Developed in Hueco (which is BOSS and everyone should go), it is denoted by a V, followed by a number. In the climbing gym, the most basic will be V-Intro (or maybe V0). Outdoors, it’s usually a V0. V1 is the first actual climbing thing, then V2, V3, so on, up to V16. (See Ondra’s Gioia ascent on Youtube. If they took it down again because they’re losers, look through some of my videos.) I’m actually not sure how widely used this system is, but it seems to be pretty popular (Gioia is in Italy, after all). A problem (OH—for those who missed this, a bouldering climb is called a “problem” and climbing it is called “solving” it, or “sending”) that is, for example, a little difficult for a V3 but not quite a V4 might be a V3+ but this is pretty unusual.
For a conversion table, go to http://www.warwick.ac.uk/~masfz/Grade_Table.html
That’s the rating system in a (really big) nutshell. It’s the simplest way I could think of to explain it. If there’s anything wrong with something I’ve said, or if you want to add something, shoot me a message!