How Are Climbing Routes Graded?

If you’ve been climbing a couple of times, you may have noticed that some climbs graded at the same level seem easier or harder than each other. So I decided to research how climbs are graded.

How are climbing routes graded? In the YDS and V grading systems, the hardest move on the route is used to grade the climb whereas the British and French systems are based on the cumulative difficulty. In addition to a technicality, the YDS, V and British grading system include subjective input based on how the climb “feels.”

Even the French grading system that is solely reliant on technical moves seems more or less difficult than each other of the same grade. This is likely due to the strengths and weaknesses of the climber and what techniques they are well-practiced at when they choose what grade to assign to the climb.

How Outdoor Climbs Get Graded

Climbs are graded by the first few climbers that climb the route or by the climber that adds bolts to the route, however, climbs frequently get adjusted by popular opinion before getting added to a guide book. Below is a step by step of how climbs get graded.

  1. A climber climbs the route and compares it to other climbs they have completed with similar techniques required.
  2. The climber decides what grade they think the climb is. For example, if they have done a climb previously that was a 5.10 and this new route seemed the same difficulty, then they may choose to document the new route as a 5.10 as well. If one move in the climb is slightly harder than any other movement from the previous climb, then they may grade it as a 5.10a or 5.10b
  3. The climber records what they think is the grade in a climbing database such as Mountain Project or they just post it on a forum such as Reddit.
  4. Other climbers do the same so there are a few different grades recorded in the database and often a discussion about what the correct grade is included.
  5. Someone that intends to include that climb in a guidebook will review multiple climbing databases and discussion threads and decide what to rate the climb in the book. Sometimes the author of the guidebook will also depend on their personal experience.
  6. The guidebook gets published.
  7. Climbers use the guidebook and generally use the guidebooks recommended grade when communicating with other climbers about the climb.
  8. In some cases, updated guidebooks may be released with updated grades (due to popular opinion or a hold breaks, etc.) and the new grade circulates in communication until it is adapted or changed again.

Even though there is great thought put into what makes the climb that level, it is still, as you can see, somewhat subjective. 

To help minimize subjectivity, some climbers pay attention to the different techniques required or how many difficult moves there are to make the grading system more objective. However, outdoor climbs have additional environmental difficulties that make this more difficult. Here are a few things that climbers look at when they decide how difficult a climb is:

  • The length of the climb
  • How weathered handhold and footholds are
  • How long it takes to do the climb
  • How difficult the safety gear is to add/clip into
  • How dangerous a fall might be
  • The incline of the climb

How Indoor Climbing Routes Are Graded

In comparison to a number of climbers discussing what they think the route should be graded in outdoor climbing, the grade of indoor climbing routes is graded by the person who set them.

The standardization of route setting grading, however, is far from being “well established.”

There are a few books that have been released in the last 10 or so years about tips for route setting, but even then, they don’t frequently detail what moves are what difficulty.

Because of this, commonly a different skill/technique required for each grade depending on the gym you go to. This is because gyms have their own route setters, and thus their own experience and subjective opinions on how hard a move is.

However, there are a few key techniques that route setters look at when they are creating a route with the intended difficulty.

Techniques Considered By Route Setters

Though route setters will try to include a few of these techniques in all of the routes. The difficulty of such techniques is adjusted based on what grade they intend to set for the route. 

If the route setter wants the climb to be more difficult, they will use their own experience and understanding of how difficult a technique/move is and adjust the route to make it more difficult. This adjustment is usually adding more technical movements required for the climb or by making the move requiring that technique more difficult.

Here are a few techniques that route setters use to increase or decrease climbing grades:

  • Foot placement: Where the route setter intends for the climber to place their feet.
  • Route reading: How straight forward a route seems when reading the route.
  • Balance: How many moves and how difficult it would be to make the moves based on balance.
  • Strength in overhangs: The angle that a climber’s body is at while climbing.
  • Flexibility: How flexible a climber needs to be to reach the next hold or do the next move
  • Underclings: The placement of these climbing holds either requires you to position your body in a way that allows you to leverage them, or it is a position in a way that makes it difficult to use and thus makes the climb more difficult.
  • Layback: A move that requires the climber to push away from the hold with their feet so that they can leverage a handhold in a pulling position.
  • Smearing: using your feet against the wall when there aren’t any footholds.

The Difficulty of Climbs/Grades Depends On The Area

Since climbing grades are subjective by nature, it is common for climbers to notice grade difficulty changes when going from an area to another. This differentiation is because of the group of climbers who climbed the route and assigned the grade to it to have different strengths and weaknesses. 

Thus, they may feel a climb that is more suited to their strengths is easier than one that requires techniques they aren’t well-practiced at.

Because of this subjectivity, it is common for climbers to notice a difference when they climb in one area compared to another area.

The same goes for indoor climbing as well. The route setter that created the route with an intended grade has different experiences and opinions on how difficult a climb is. This makes it so that every gym you go to, unless they have the same route setters, feel different at the same level.

In addition, you can even see (or “feel”) a difference between the route setters in the same gym. Sometimes I will look at who made the route (oftentimes gyms attribute the route to the route setter) so that I can compare between route setter. And yes, I have my favorite route setters, people I’ve never met but set routes I always enjoy.

What Are The Different Types Of Climbing Grades

There are many climbing grades around the world, here is a quick list of the most common ones:

  • Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) – USA
  • V-Grade – USA
  • French Scale (Fs) – France
  • British Scale – Great Britain, Ireland
  • International Climbing and Mountaineering Association (ICAA) – Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary
  • Brazilian Scale – Brazil
  • Ewbank –  Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa

Is Bouldering Indoors Less Difficult Than Outdoor Climbing?

Climbing outdoors often poses more obstacles than climbing indoors and thus, many climbers feel outdoor bouldering is more difficult. For example, you are more likely to get injured when you fall outdoors, so the fear of falling is more prevalent and thus makes the mental side of climbing harder, which in turn, makes bouldering more difficult outdoors.

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