Rock Climbing Grades: The Complete Guide for Free Climbing

By: Ashley Vitiello | Last Updated on January 14, 2024
A break down of the main rock climbing grades for free climbing routes, which includes the Yosemite Decimal System, the French system, and more.

Rock climbing grades are numbers (and sometimes number-letter combinations) assigned to routes in order to give a guideline on the overall difficulty. It’s a scale where the lower numbers represent easier climbs, and they gradually increase to the most difficult climbs currently established.

These numbers are based on a variety of factors and work for both indoor and outdoor routes, and are commonly set by the route setter or first climber. These ratings typically follow the italicized name of the route and are set in parenthesis, for example: Silence (5.15d) is a route in Norway.

Generally, the main use and intention of these grades is to give climbers an idea of whether or not a climb fits within their abilities, but it’s started to take on new meaning as well. Where most grades should be taken lightly (see below – the downsides of grades), they have also become more significant as the most elite climbers use them as milestones to push the higher limits of the sport around the world.

There are several rock climbing grade systems, each with their own history and regional use, but the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) and the French scale are the two grading systems used most. They are for grading sport climbs and traditional climbing, but we will also cover the bouldering grades V-scale and French (Font).

Though bouldering and climbing have a similar set of skill requirements, they are different enough to have their own grading systems. There are also several other grading systems for different nationalities and different types of climbing (e.g., ice versus aid), but we will be focusing on free climbing grades in this article.

How is a Grade Established?

Whether you’re rock climbing indoors or out, the same basic principles apply for determining the grade of the route. The technical difficulty would be suggested by the first climber, and repeat climbers would suggest their own rating, which could be the same or an upgrade or downgrade from the original suggestion. Once a few climbers have suggested a grade, the ratings should point towards a consensus for the route’s difficulty.

For indoor routes, the difficulty begins with the gym’s route setter, who will usually start with a grade in mind. Once they create the route, they will then confirm the route difficulty and label it for future climbers. Some gyms will have a system that allows repeaters to suggest a grade as well, so they can get a consensus on the grade.

For outdoors, the difficulty grade is usually set by the climber who makes the first ascent. After several repeats, there will be a better idea of a consensus. On harder routes that have fewer repeats, you may have to rely on the word of the first climber for a while.

Keep in mind that the people who can climb the most difficult routes have also climbed their fair share of lower rated ones, so they generally have a pretty good idea of what the rating should be.

Until a grade has been widely established and accepted, downgrades are common. This can be due to new beta that makes the climb easier or for a variety of other reasons. In rare cases, a crucial hold can break on a route, which would then make the difficulty go up post-break.

The Downsides of Grades

It’s worth noting that there’s a long running discussion about the validity of climbing grades within the climbing community. Even though putting a number on something has its pros, there’s frequent conversation about the accuracy and how hard it can be to judge a climb depending on a variety of factors such as climbing style, body shape, and more.

Ultimately, climbing grades are subjective.

Technical grades can be personal because each climber is shaped differently and may have different strengths and/or styles. A tall person will climb differently than a short person, and ape index can play a factor as well (though it’s limited). A climber who excels at dynos or crimps may rate a route on the easier side than someone who climbs the same thing but has a weakness in those areas.

A great example route is Chris Sharma’s Three Degrees of Separation (5.15a), which requires three huge dynos in a row. If you’re a short climber or have a weakness in jumps, you would rate this route harder than someone who is taller or more agile, who can therefore reach the dynos more easily.

Chris Sharma sending a dyno on Three Degrees of Separation (5.15a).

Grades can be environmental and based on conditions as well. An ascent on a perfect spring or fall day may be rated more easy than the same route that was climbed on a hot or wet day. Ratings can be regional, and depending on your location locals may tell you that people tend to rate high or low in that area.

Essentially, rock climbing grades are great for giving context to the suggested technical difficulty of the climb, but also shouldn’t be used like they’re set in stone. Many routes over the years have been upgraded or downgraded, so use them as guidelines to find routes that inspire and challenge you without being too difficult.

Trad & Sport Climbing Grades

Yosemite Decimal System (YDS)

The Yosemite Decimal System or YDS is a grading system commonly found in North America and was originally used to describe a full range of backcountry travel, which included both hiking and climbing. It was initially developed as the Sierra Club grading system in the 1930s to rate trails in the surrounding mountain ranges, and has been modified over the years to the system we know now. The route classifications are as follows:

  • Class 1: Walking on an established, mostly flat trail.
  • Class 2: Hiking on slightly steep or rocky terrain that may occasionally require you to use your hands for balance.
  • Class 3: Hiking that requires significant hand usage for balance, usually involves moderate exposure but can be traversed without ropes.
  • Class 4: Terrain that is steeper and more difficult – may require the use of ropes in order to travel. Could have dangerous fall potential.
  • Class 5: Technical rock climbing grades that require roped climbing and protection. Not for beginners. A fall would be catastrophic.
Although this hiking trail is steep, it’s still considered Class 1 because you don’t have to use your hands to traverse the terrain. You may have some exposure to Class 2 on more difficult parts of the hike. Location: Blue Lakes.

The Class 5 category of technical climbing is then further broken down into the climbing ratings for the YDS:

  • 5.1-5.4: Easy climbing with large handholds and footholds, suitable for beginners.
  • 5.5-5.8: Intermediate climbing that requires some skill on small handholds and footholds.
  • 5.9-5.10: Intermediate but more technical grade that may have overhangs.
  • 5.11-5.12: Hard to difficult, technical and vertical. Dedicated climbers may reach this grade with lots of practice.
  • 5.13-5.14: Strenuous climbing that’s extremely difficult. Best for expert climbers who have lots of training and natural ability.
  • 5.15+: Only expert and extremely talented climbers reach the extremely severe grade of 5.15, with even fewer reaching 5.15c and 5.15d. There are only four 5.15c sport routes and two 5.15d – four of these were established by Adam Ondra.

Initially, the YDS stopped at 5.9 for the most difficult climbs, but as modern climbers continue to push human limits, the need arose for higher ratings. Numbers in the six range were already used for aid climbing, so class five was broken down into a sub classifications.

After 5.9, it gains a decimal point and adds a, b, c, and d further break down each number. For example, 5.9 is easier than 5.10a, both of which are easier than 5.10b or 5.10c. You could also add a plus sign to denote a route that’s slightly harder, but isn’t hard enough to illicit another level harder. This mostly happens between 5.7-5.9 and would show as 5.7+.

The system used to only account for the difficulty of the hardest move. For example, a climb that consisted of mainly 5.7 moves but one 5.11b would be graded 5.11b, which would be the same as a route that was all 5.11b moves. Nowadays, climbers can take into consideration how sustained or strenuous the climb is, in addition to the level of difficulty of the individual moves.

Protection Ratings

Additional letters can be added to these routes to describe the extra element of risk in trad climbs. These letters will come after the route rating, for example: 5.15R.

  • G: plentiful protection that’s easy to place
  • PG: safe but protection is less plentiful
  • PG-13: protection may be hard to find and/or tricky to place
  • R (Runout): protection is scare, a fall could result in serious injury
  • X: protection is very scare and a fall would be catastrophic

Commitment Grade

Once you understand the difficulty of a route, how do you determine how long it will take you? The National Climbing Classification System (NCCS) assigns Roman Numerals to give you an idea, but this additional information is optional when grading a route. They are denoted with a comma, for example a route may be 5.12c, Grade IV.

  • I: Less than three hours
  • II: Half day or less (3-4 hours)
  • III: Almost a full day (4-6 hours)
  • IV: A full day (8-12 hours)
  • V: More than one day but less than two, requires overnight
  • VI: Two or more days but less than a week
  • VII: Remote and difficult alpine walls that require a long and major big wall expedition

To further explain, a route like Alex Honnold’s Freerider on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park is rated 5.13a PG13, Grade VI. While Alex climbed it solo in only a few hours, most climbers take several days to complete the 3,300-foot, 30-pitch climb. On the other hand, most climbers focus on short climbs that are easily accessible (like Grade I or II), even if it may take several days of projecting in order to claim an ascent.

Alex Honnold on Freerider (5.13a) on El Capitan. Photo credit: Jimmy Chin.

Fun fact: There’s also a Canadian Winter Commitment grade for serious alpine terrain. It combines length, hazard, and overall challenges in regards to high alpine routes and hazards.

French System

Most of the world outside of North America uses the French scale, making it the internationally recognised system. It starts at 1 and goes up to 9, but in between there it can be a bit complicated. A plus sign denotes a harder version that’s not difficult enough to increase a whole number grade – for example, 3 is easier than 3+. Once you reach number 4, you start to add a letter to further denote difficulty – for example there’s 6a, 6a+, 6b, 6b+, 6c, and 6c+.

The French numerical system roughly corresponds to the YDS, and a conversion table can be found below. Note that there’s also a French system for bouldering grades, but usually the letters are capitalized to differentiate between the two.

Other Grading Systems

The British system (or UK Traditional climbing grades) is used in the UK and Ireland and starts with Severe (HS), Mild Very Severe (MVS), Very Severe (VS), Hard Very Severe (HVS) and Extremely Severe (E). The Extremely Severe is further broken down on a scale of numbers starting at one. For example, E1, E2, E3, and so on. The numerical technical grading describes the hardest part of the climb, also known as the crux.

The Australian system is used in Australia and New Zealand and it does not use letters or secondary grades. It’s just a single number that gets larger as the route gets harder. For example a 5.7 (YDS) or 5a (French) would be a 15 on the Australian scale. Silence is a 5.15d (YDS) or 9c (French) or 39 (Australian).

The UIAA is used in Germany and some parts of Eastern Europe, as well as classic routes in Italy. You can read more about this grading system here.

The aid climbing grading system has a closed grade from A0 to A6, with A2 and up having an optional plus sign. As part of a ‘new wave’ of aid climbing, there’s a parallel C0-C5 for routes that can be climbed clean, which refers to routes that can be completed without a hammer and the associated pitons.

Ice climbing grades increase numerically and can have a plus or minus sign. They will have a prefix that refers to the type of ice, such as WI for water ice or AI for alpine ice. Ratings are based on thin or bad ice, the degree, the amount of rests, the length of the pitch, and more.

Mixed climbing grades generally go from M1 to M12, with M13-16 in existence but not typically used. The current hardest route in a M13 at Helmcken Falls in British Columbia, Canada.

For a more in depth look at all the different climbing grade systems, check out this article from Explorers Web.

Bouldering Grades

V-Scale (or Hueco Scale)

The V-Scale is the most common bouldering grading system and was named after John “Vermin” Sherman, who worked with his climbing buddies in the 1980s and 90s to rate routes in Hueco Tanks, a famous bouldering area in Texas. It’s the nationally recognized scale in North America, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Thailand, and Estonia.

The scale currently goes from V0 (easiest) to V17 (hardest), but is open ended and can increase as more and more difficult grades are proposed. Two of the proposed V17’s have since been downgraded, but there’s still two that have yet to see a repeat, one of which is Daniel Woods’ Return of the Sleepwalker.

It’s worth noting that the grade of a boulder doesn’t take into consideration danger or fear, and is solely based on the physical challenge. Look at the descriptions for further information about features like a ‘highball’ for an exceptionally tall boulder or if the ‘landing’ has sketchy terrain, both of which could indicate an extra layer of difficulty for that specific project.

Daniel Woods on Return of the Sleepwalker (V17 / 9a). Photo credit JP Melville.

French (Fontainebleau or Font)

If you’re bouldering in Europe, you’ll probably see the French or Fontainebleau (or Font for short) scale. This system originated in Fontainebleau, a famous bouldering area in France. While it’s similar to the French scale for sport and trad climbs, it’s its own distinct system. It doesn’t line up as evenly as other scales, but overall has pretty direct comparisons between the V-scale and French scale. This grading system is used in countries like Peru, South Africa, India, Russia, and pretty much all of Europe.

It technically starts at zero, but routes below a difficulty of four are essentially non-existent. A 4 would be equal to the V-scale’s V0. Four and five can have an optional plus sign to further describe climbing difficulty, then numbers six and above have both a number and letter on top of the optional plus sign. For example, within the six range there’s 6a, 6a+, 6b, 6b+, 6c, and 6c+. The current hardest route is V17, which would be 9a.

Bouldering Difficulty Ratings

Here’s a breakdown of what the difficulty grades generally mean on the bouldering scale.

  • V0-V2/4-5+: Beginner levels of bouldering that are best for learning the basics.
  • V3-V5/6A-6C+: Intermediate level climbs. You can probably flash boulders you couldn’t even climb when you first started.
  • V6-V9/7A-7B: Advanced climbs for people who have spent a lot of time bouldering.
  • V10-V13/7B+-8A+: Expert climbs that require years of bouldering training experience. You climb more than just weekends and perhaps may compete in competitions.
  • V14+/8B+: Elite climbs that are usually only for professional and sponsored climbers who have a natural ability and are in peak shape.

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About The Author

Ashley is an adventurous soul who loves all things nature, especially warm sunshine, wildflowers, scenic snacking, and mushrooms. She is an avid outdoor enthusiast who has spent years enjoying time outside doing things like hiking, camping, and rock climbing.
Her goal with Know Nothing Nomads is to make these hobbies easily accessible through knowledgeable content and how-to's based on all the stuff she's learned on her journey. If she isn't writing an article, she's probably in a forest looking at big mountain views and tiny pieces of moss on the side of the trail.

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