If you plan to take on the technical world of sport climbing, you will need to understand the climbing grading systems.
And that’s exactly what you’ll be learning about in this article!
This comprehensive guide delves into the nuances of sport climbing grading, demystifying the cryptic numbers and letters that adorn route descriptions.
Whether you’re a seasoned climber looking to refine your skills or a curious beginner, this exploration of grading systems promises to shed light on the key elements that shape climbing challenges.
Without further ado, let’s take a look into the cryptic world of sport climbing gradings:
What Is Sport Climbing?
Before we get into the grading system, I think It’s worth spending some time to explain what sport climbing is.
Sport climbing is when the climber uses fixed protection instead of placing gear in the wall while climbing.
As the climber starts the climb, they’ll notice fixed bolts in the wall, which they can attach their clip draws to and then clip their rope to.
Their belayer will slowly feed out the rope and provide slack for them to clip their next piece of gear. And, of course, they‘ll be ready to lock the rope off if their partner slips off the wall.
There is some controversy around sports climbing, and that’s because people drill holes into the crag to place the bolts.
And even though sport climbing has become accepted and has opened the door to climbs that trad climbing can’t, a small group of people still don’t agree with the ethics.
One of the best things about sport climbing is you need very little knowledge to get started because you don’t have to learn how to place protection. It’s already done for you!
And this makes sport climbing reasonably safe, even if you’re a beginner.
The aim of sports climbing is to make your way to the top of the crag using the power of your feet, hands, knees, and other body parts.
Using the fixed gear to pull yourself up or getting your belayer to pull the rope tight is considered cheating.
What Are Climbing Grading Systems?
Climbing grades have been used to describe the subjective difficulty of a climb and are usually provided by the person that sets the route (climbs it first).
The problem with this is:
Climbers have big egos, which usually meant the route setter would place a more complicated sport climbing grade on the climb, which has led to many overstated climbs.
Another aspect of the grading systems that needs to be clarified is that they are usually location-specific, meaning different grading systems are used worldwide.
And this can make things very confusing with your climbing in Europe, the UK, and the USA.
This has meant climbers traveling the world have had to learn multiple grading systems to avoid trouble while climbing abroad.
Let’s take a deeper dive into the different grading systems:
The Different Climbing Grading Systems
There are 4 grading systems that you should learn unless you don’t plan on climbing abroad, then you can just stick to your country’s grading system. These are:
- Yosemite Decimal System
- British Trad Adjectival
- British Trad Technical
- French Sport (European Grading)
Yosemite Decimal System
The Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) was introduced around the 1930s but was initially categorized into five classes:
- Class 1: Easy walking on a trail or level surface
- Class 2: Hiking with steep hills or simple scrambling; occasional use of hands may be helpful
- Class 3: Steep scrambling with some exposure; requires hands but may usually be descended facing outward
- Class 4: Steep scrambling or straightforward climbing with exposure; must be descended facing inward but often does not require a rope
- Class 5: Steep, technical climbing that requires a rope
A sixth class was added for climbs that were too difficult for natural means, although that still didn’t stop people from climbing them.
Later, the fifth class was further separated, which became 5.1, 5.2, 5.3, and so on. And this was to help distinguish between more challenging climbs.
By the later 1950s, the YDS grading had spread around the USA, becoming their official grading system. It is used for both sport climbing grading and trad climbing.
Later on down the line, climbers realized that further separation was needed to help distinguish between climbs, so they added letters from a-d. You could then find routes labeled 5.10a, 5.10b, 5.10c, and 5.10d.
This is an open-ended system, with the hardest routes in the world currently being rated 5.15d (or French 9c).
The French System
Unfortunately for US residents, the YDS system didn’t make it out of the US, and much of the rest of the world uses the French system as the sport climbing grading convention.
Now, this might get confusing…
The French system starts at 1 and uses letters from a to d. I know it’s pretty confusing, right?
Well, maybe it is not!
The French system looks relatively similar and looks a bit like this:
1, 1+, 2, 2+, 3, 3+, 4a, 4b, 4c, 5a, 5b, 5c, 6a, 6a+, 6b, 6b+, 6c, 6c+, 7a, 7a+.. And it continues in the same fashion.
British Climbing Grades
Now, if you’re a climbing sport route in the UK, they use the French sport climbing grading system, but they do have their own grading system for trad climbing, which I think is worth mentioning.
The UK combines two systems for trad climbing grading:
- British Trad Adjectival
- British Trad Technical
The adjectival grading describes the overall difficulty of the climb; this can include things like the endurance needed or the lack of protection on the wall. When looking in the guidebook, you’ll likely see something like:
- M (Moderate)
- D (Difficult)
- VD (Very Difficult)
- HVD (Hard Very Difficult)
- S (Severe)
- HS (Hard Severe)
- VS (Very Severe)
- HVS (Hard Very Severe)
- E1 – E11 (Extreme)
And like the YDS, the technical system describes the most complicated move on the wall. Officially, it starts at 1, but you probably won’t find anything lower than a 4a.
If you’re confused about how all these grades transfer, below, I’ve provided you with a table showing the grading systems and their equivalent grade.
Climbing Grades Conversion Chart
|Yosemite Decimal System||British Trad Adjectival||British TradTechnical||French Sport|
|5.0||Mod – Moderate||1||1|
|5.2||Diff – Difficult||2+|
|5.4||VD – Very Difficult||4a|
|5.5||S – Severe||4a||4b|
|5.7||HS – Hard Servere||4b||4c|
|5.8||VS – Very Severe||4c||5a|
|5.9||HVS – Hard Very Severe||5b|
|5.10b||E1 – Extreme||6a|
Bouldering Vs. Sport Grading
There’s one more grading system you should probably have an understanding of, and that’s the V-grading system. And in this section, we’re going to be talking about the differences between bouldering and sport climbing grades.
Because of the two very different climbing styles, it’s pretty difficult to compare the grading systems. But I’m going to give it the ago.
Sport Climbing Grading Considerations
Sport climbing grading works differently from bouldering grades. With sport climbing, the grade focuses on the most complex move on the wall.
In other words, if the climb is graded 5.10, there are at least one or more moves with a 5.10 movement.
Because of this, it can make it pretty challenging to understand how difficult the climb is because even if every climb were a 5.10 move, it would still be graded as a 5.10… can you see the problem here?
As you can see, you’ll never know how hard the climb actually is, which can be a real issue for climbers looking to up their grades.
Bouldering Grading Considerations
Bouldering uses different grading systems altogether, and one of the most used is called the V-scale. The opening grade is V0, and while there’s no direct correlation, you could say it’s close to a 5.10 move.
One of the great things about introducing the bouldering grade is that you can use them to add more description to the route.
And with newer climbs, you’ll start to see people recognize that. Climbers now understand that endurance plays a huge part in the climb’s difficulty.
A climb might only feature V0 move, but it still warrants a more complicated 5.12 grade because of the endurance needed to top it out.
Instead of comparing the grades, combine them to add more description to the route. For example, if a climb has a long 5.12 stretch of climbing but leads into a V5 move just before the top, you can add it in the description to give the climber more information on the climb.
Breaking down routes this way makes the route a lot more descriptive and helps people find a climb that’s right for them.
The Big Problem With Sport Climbing Grading
As I mentioned earlier, there have been some problems regarding climbing grades, and I wanted to use this section to help you understand the issues.
Let’s take a look:
Grade inflation has been a massive problem among climbers, with many people thinking the grading is soft.
Many people believe that climbing egos push people to grade their routes harder than they should. But, it might not be as clear-cut as you may think.
Climbing walls could also be to blame for the controversy around sport climbing grading. Many climbing walls have been accused of inflating egos by grading routes too softly.
And this has made it difficult for new climbers to compare the grades, which could be true.
Either way, you need to consider it when climbing outdoors.
Sandbagging is on the other side of the problem. It’s when grades are a lot harder than what they’ve been graded. And this can lead to newer climbers being left in sticky situations when they can’t tackle the moves.
Grade inflation and sandbagging are both common problems you’ll need to deal with. But in my opinion, sandbagging is the worst.
Not only does it make you feel terrible for being able to conquer what you think is an easy climb, but it can also put you in a dangerous situation if you’re not careful.
At the higher end of the spectrum, we face another problem: the grades become less predictable than the lower grades.
Here’s the thing:
Some climbers will be more than happy to put wild grades on their climb, looking to set new boundaries in the climbing world. Other people are a little bit more modest and are reluctant to increase the sport climbing grading on a new route.
Not many people reach this level of climbing anyway, and the ones that do, have very different styles. And this can make it hard to tell how difficult the climb is because not many people will actually climb these routes.
In the end, this makes for a lot of grade disagreement at this level, so don’t be surprised to see grade changes on these climbs.
Final Thoughts & Takeaways
So, in conclusion, sports climbing grades play a massive role in climbing and have become an essential method of communicating the difficulty of routes.
It gives climbers goals to work toward as they progress their skills and experience. But understanding how to interpret these grades has become vital, and I hope this article has helped.
But we have to remember that these systems aren’t without flaws. Climbing grades are very subjective, so you must focus on your abilities.
Ultimately, sports climbing grades serve as valuable guides. Still, they should not overshadow the essence of climbing itself – a pursuit of self-improvement, a connection with nature, and a strong sense of community among climbers.
Climbers must remember that the thrill of scaling a route lies not solely in the difficulty grade but in the experience and memories forged on the vertical walls.