When you’re rock climbing or bouldering, knowing precisely how difficult a particular course is can be the difference between having a great time or being seriously exhausted and disappointed.
While the specific difficulty of any given climb is always somewhat subjective, there are rating systems that can help you choose a climb that will be an appropriate challenge for your skill. The climbing grade system we use in the US is called the Yosemite Decimal System, or YDS.
The Yosemite Decimal System
The YDS is a grading system used to rate the difficulty of climbs in rock climbing, mountaineering, and similar outdoor activities. The system was first developed in the 1950s at Yosemite National Park in California and has since become widely used around the world. It is not the only climb rating system, but it is the one most frequently used in North America.
The YDS has two scales. The first YDS scale is primarily used for hiking, and rates routes from 1–5. Routes rated 1–2 are hikes that won’t involve the use of your hands. Class 3 involves some scrambling. In the 4th class, hiking begins to turn into climbing. Once you reach the 5th class, you are getting to vertical or near vertical climbing. Beyond the basic class 5, climbing equipment becomes required.
The second scale measures climbs from 5.0 — 5.15, and further subdivides these climbs to let you know what technical skills you need to have before making an attempt. After the 5.10 difficulty, you will also see lettered divisions within these grades, like 5.10a or 5.11b.
The YDS Scale Ratings
|YDS Class||Description||Special Equipment||Skill Level|
|Class 1||Easy hiking; well-maintained and marked trails||No special equipment||Novice hikers|
|Class 2||Easy to intermediate hiking; may entail simple scrambling (using your hands to climb up and down)||Hiking poles, navigation tools||Beginner to intermediate hikers|
|Class 3||More difficult hiking; steeper terrain, exposed ledges, need for hands and feet to progress||Navigation tools, helmets||Intermediate to expert hikers|
|Class 4||Considered climbs during the class 4 sections; route finding experience required||Navigation tools, helmets, sometimes ropes and other climbing gear||Expert hikers with at least beginner rock climbing skills; climbers may even need to belay each other at times for safety|
|Class 5||All Class 5 routes are technical rock climbs, not simply hikes.||Helmets, sometimes ropes, belaying gear.||All Class 5 routes require rock climbing skills|
|Class 5.0-5.7||Easy to moderate rock climbing, with hand and foot holds that are fairly easy to find and use.||All class 5 climbs need helmets, ropes, belaying gear, and other rock climbing safety gear.||Beginner rock climbers|
|Class 5.8-5.9||Moderately difficult rock climbing, with smaller hand and foot holds that require more strength and technique.||All class 5 climbs need helmets, ropes, belaying gear, and other rock climbing safety gear.||Novice rock climbers who feel comfortable on 5.0 to 5.7 climbs|
|Class 5.10-5.11||Difficult rock climbing, with small hand and foot holds that require precise technique and strength.||All class 5 climbs need helmets, ropes, belaying gear, and other rock climbing safety gear.||Intermediate to advanced rock climbers|
|Class 5.12-5.13||Very difficult rock climbing, with very small holds that require exceptional strength, technique, and endurance..||All class 5 climbs need helmets, ropes, belaying gear, and other rock climbing safety gear.||Advanced rock climbers|
|Class 5.14-5.15||Extremely difficult rock climbing, with holds that are often only fingertips or edges of tiny features.||All class 5 climbs need helmets, ropes, belaying gear, and other rock climbing safety gear.||Only a handful of the most expert rock climbers in the world can safely finish these climbs.|
The YDS also includes ratings for mountaineering and other types of climbing, but these are expressed in a different format than the rock climbing grades, using Roman numerals and other symbols.
Top 5 International Climbing Grade Rating Systems
If you’re climbing abroad, you should be familiar with other systems, including the French grading system, the UIAA grading system, and a handful of others.
|Grading System||Used In||Description|
|YDS||United States and Canada||Scale of 1-5, with additional divisions after 5 up to 5.15|
|French System||France, certain routes in the UK, many other places in the world||Scale of 1-9, with lettered subdivisions (5a, 5b, etc.)|
|UIAA Scale of Difficulty||Germany, Austria, some routes in Italy, Eastern Europe||Roman numerals with + or – designations|
|Great Britain||Most UK routes||Two subgrades, an adjective grade (Moderate, Very Difficult, etc.) and a technical grade describing the hardest move of a climb|
|Australian||Australia and New Zealand||Simple numerical scale with a single number that gets bigger as the climbs get more challenging|
Climbing Grades Compared
While there are other grading systems, these five are the most commonly used. The chart below shows how these scales’ grades compare to each other. Not all levels of a particular scale have a direct comparison to all of the other scales.
|YDS||French||UIAA||GB (Technical)||GB (Adjective)||Australian|
|5.9||5b||VI-||5a||Hard Very Severe||17|
|5.10a||5c||VI||Extremely Severe 1||18|
|5.10c||6a+||VII-||Extremely Severe 2||20|
|5.11a||6b+||VII+||Extremely Severe 3||22|
|5.11c||6c+||VIII||6a||Extremely Severe 4||24|
|5.12a||7a+||IX-||Extremely Severe 5||26|
|5.12c||7b+||IX||Extremely Severe 6||27|
|5.13a||7c+||IX+||Extremely Severe 7||29|
|5.13d||8b||X||Extremely Severe 8||31|
|5.14c||8c+||XI-||Extremely Severe 9||34|
In North America, bouldering problems use a different scale than climbing routes. The YDS does not apply to bouldering routes; instead, either the French Scale (usually referred to by its other name, the Fontainebleau Scale or Font Scale for short) or the Hueco V Scale is used.
The V Scale goes from 0 to 17 and may have a + or – for further specificity. These two scales are used interchangeably, so it’s useful to know how they correlate.
|V Scale||Font Scale|
|VB (V-beginner, the easiest bouldering problems)||3|
The V scale is even more subjective than the YDS for climbing routes. The concept is simple; the higher the number, the harder the problem. However, determining how hard a bouldering problem truly depends on the climber. This has caused controversy over how effective these ratings can be in some cases.
What Grade Ratings Can’t Tell You
It is very important to understand the climbing grade ratings. Failing to do so and choosing a route that’s too difficult could end in serious injury or worse. But ratings can’t tell you everything about a route! Here are some key considerations about rock climbing grade ratings to keep in mind before choosing your next route.
Grades Are Subjective
Rock climbing grades are assigned by climbers who have completed the route, not an outside authority. This means that there are variations in difficulty based on personal experience and climbing style.
Additionally, grades can be influenced by outside factors. A 5.2 could easily become a 5.4 in bad weather. Route conditions like recent landslides or extra scree can make a route more challenging, too– and of course, individual fitness and experience impact your climbing ability. If you can normally complete a 5.11 but you’re recovering from an injury? Better ease your way back up to your higher grade.
Grades Are Determined By The Hardest Move
The hardest move of a route determines the grade. This means it isn’t always a good estimation of overall difficulty. A climb with relatively easy moves but one really hard move will have the same grade as a climb with uniformly hard moves that match that one really hard move in difficulty.
Grades Are Not Always Consistent
Grades aren’t just subjectively assigned by climbers; they can even vary from one climbing area to another. In some places, you’ll see grades that feel inconsistent due to the local geography or the local climbing culture.
Grades aren’t consistent through time, either. As more climbers complete a route, their feedback may lead to the potential re-evaluation of the grade. Grades are almost always entirely determined through local consensus, so make sure to research your route to see if the grade has changed.
Grades Aren’t Everything
Grades can be helpful when you’re choosing a route, but they don’t tell you the whole story. Local geography plays an enormous role in how difficult a climb can be; as Sierra points out, local climbing styles may feel easy for the nearby community, but be much more difficult for somebody who’s never climbed in the area.
Route length, exposure, terrain, and equipment needed can also make a climb seem easier or harder. This is why it’s a great idea to climb with a partner who knows the route or to hire a guide who knows the terrain.
Grades Do Not Relate To Danger
Climbing grades tell you how difficult a route is based on its most difficult move. What the grades cannot tell you is how dangerous the route actually is.
However, sometimes you will see a danger rating attached to a YDS number. This scale borrows its terminology from the movie industry.
|G||Good quality protection– and plenty of it|
|PG||Generally safe, potential danger of a short fall from bad bolt or gear placement|
|PG-13||Little to no objective danger from a fall if your belayer catches you|
|R||Injury is probable in the event of a leader fall|
|R/X||Death is possible in a leader fall|
|X||A leader fall will certainly result in serious injury or death|
Grade Ratings Do Not Relate To Time
This next part gets a little confusing. So far, we’ve used the term “grade” and “grade rating” interchangeably. This is standard practice and virtually every climber does it. However, when you’re researching a route, you may find that a YDS hike has a Roman numeral grade attached to its rating at the end. What’s that about?
This numeral is also referred to as a grade, and it indicates the time generally needed to complete a hike. Indoor climbs will never have this grade attached, since you won’t get stuck on a gym wall overnight. And unless you’re planning a multi-day expedition, it’s unlikely you’ll need to worry much about these grades. We’re including this chart for reference, and to explain what these grades are if you ever come across them.
|Time Grade||Time Required|
|Grade I||Approximately two hours|
|Grade II||Approximately four hours|
|Grade III||Four to six hours/most of the day|
|Grade IV||One very long day|
|Grade V||Two days (requires an overnight stay on the rock)|
|Grade VI||More than two days|
|Grade VII||A major expedition|
Just like every other climbing grade, these grades are also subjective. Don’t push yourself to go too fast– if you need all day for a Grade I climb, then you need all day for a Grade I climb. It’s always better to be safe.
Rock Climbing Routes & Their Difficulties
So now that you understand the different rock climbing grades, what’s the best way to use this knowledge? It really helps to have climbs to use for comparison. Knowing how some well-known climbs are graded can help you figure out where your abilities are as you choose your next climbing route. Here are some well-known climbs and their grades. If you haven’t done any of these, look up some routes that you have done to determine their grades.
|“East Slab” (First Flatiron)||Boulder, Colorado||5.3|
|“The Maiden”||Eldorado Canyon State Park, Colorado||5.5|
|“South Face” (Petit Grepon)||Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado||5.5|
|“Royal Arches”||Yosemite Valley, California||5.6|
|“The Bastille Crack”||Eldorado Canyon State Park, Colorado||5.7|
|“Snake Dike”||Yosemite Valley, California||5.7|
|“The Shield”||Yosemite Valley, California||5.8|
|“The Nose”||Yosemite Valley, California||5.9|
|“The West Face” (Leaning Tower)||Yosemite Valley, California||5.11a|
|“The Rostrum”||Yosemite Valley, California||5.11c|
|“The Yellow Wall”||Eldorado Canyon State Park, Colorado||5.11d|
|“The Incredible Hulk”||High Sierra, California||5.11d|
|“Moonlight Buttress”||Zion National Park, Utah||5.12d|
|“Free Rider”||Yosemite Valley, California||5.13a|
|“Rainbow Wall”||Red Rock Canyon, Nevada||5.13b|
|“Monkey Face”||Smith Rock State Park, Oregon||5.13d|
|“The Diamond”||Longs Peak, Colorado||5.14a|
|“Perfecto Mundo”||Cave of San Lorenzo, Margalef, Spain||15.5c|
|“La Dura Dura”||Oliana, Spain||15.5c|
|“Silence”||Flatanger Cave, Norway||15.5d|
Currently, Silence is the only 15.5d route anywhere in the world, and is considered the hardest climb on Earth.
We hope that this guide and the charts we’ve provided are helpful when planning your next climb. Remember to check with local guides and consider the climbing styles you’re used to, as well as safety when you’re planning a climb. After all, rock climbing grade ratings are a guide– not an objective set of rules!
Max DesMarais is the founder of hikingandfishing.com. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor adventure, travel, and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. Max grew up hiking all around New Hampshire and New England. He became obsessed with the New Hampshire mountains, and the NH 48, where he guided hikes and trail runs in the White Mountains. Since moving out west, Max has continued his frequent adventures in the mountains, always testing gear, learning skills, gaining experience, and building his endurance for outdoor sports. You can read more about his experience here: hikingandfishing/about