Understanding Route Grades
When listening to climbers, among the other jargon that you’ll often hear and find confusing is the grading scale. All climbing routes are graded based on their difficulty and given a matching number. The USA uses the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS), Germany uses the UIAA and France uses its own system which we call exactly that.
Perhaps annoyingly, there are quite a few grading systems, sometimes even within the same country (Germany uses at least two) but luckily there are two major ones which will you you through most of world: American and French.
Climbing Grades: The American System
The American Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) has 5 classes ranging from 1 to 5, which are used to classify all possible terrain based on the difficulty for people traveling across it.
Class 5 is where rock climbing starts and is further subdivided from there. The climbing grades for YDS were first implemented at Tahquitz rock in Southern California by early climbers including Royal Robbins and Yvon Chouinard amongst others. Later, both climbers went on to make many famous first big wall ascents in Yosemite, breaking many of the existing technical barriers and establishing important ethical guidelines for future climbers.
Yosemite Decimal System Overview:
Class 1– Easy walking on flat ground.
Class 2 – A bit steeper, uneven ground. Think an easyish hiking trail, rocky beach or so. If you fall, it’s still no big deal.
Class 3 – Starting to scramble. Here you have to start using your hands sometimes to move upwards. Falling would almost certainly result in injury. However, ropes and climbing gear are still not required.
Class 4 – Real scrambling with hands and feet. The consequences of a mistake would be serious injury or death. There will usually be pretty good exposure as well. Class 4 means it’s usually easy enough to scramble and ropes would be a bit too much, though they may sometimes be used.
Class 5– Vertical. Now you’re climbing. You are on vertical or almost vertical terrain that requires a rope and specialized hardware or anchors to ascend safely. You are using technical maneuvers with both hands and feet to ascend. If you fall without a rope or protection, you’re probably dead or severely injured.
Now that we are in Class 5, the ratings get subdivided using a decimals, numbers and later letters. 5.1 is the first division, followed by 5.2, followed by 5.3. The higher it goes, the more difficult the climb.
In the past, 5.9 was seen as the hardest possible climb but with new gear, that was quickly broken and the system then became further subdivided into letters, e.g. 5.10a breaking with its earlier consistency. UIAA for example, has no such problem and remains consistent. Routes are rated according to the difficulty of the hardest move (crux).
Unlike modern gyms, the rock outside is not uniform or made for humans. This means that just because you can climb 5.11 in the gym doesn’t meant you can outside. In fact, it’s best to start way below your gym level at first to get a feel for things.
Ratings are established at first by the climber who made the first ascent (FA) of the route, and then adjusted as others climb and give feedback. This can create controversy at the upper limits of climbing where only a handful of climbers can even attempt, much less finish the route.
As of writing, 5.15c is the hardest route that has ever been climbed. To get an idea of how insanely difficult that level is, see this video of Czech climber Adam Onda on a 5.15c:
Finally, climbing is an art form, and grades will always be somewhat subjective. Some routes favor shorter climbers while other favors tall ones. For children’s small hands, every hold seems like a jug while adults complain about tiny crimps. At the end of the day, the important thing is to enjoy yourself!
Yosemite Decimal System – Grades:
The Yosemite Decimal System also includes an optional Grade rating though it is usually only found for long multipitch climbs and out of the way places.
Grade I: 1-2 hours
Grade II: < half day
Grade III: Half Day
Grade IV: Full day
Grade V: Two days
Grade VI: Multiple days
Grade VII: More than a week
Yosemite Decimal System – Protection Ratings
The Yosemite Decimal System Protection Ratings tell climbers how well the route is protected using either fixed or placed protection. This rating, combined with the class rating (e.g. 5.7, 5.11a, etc) helps the climber evaluate the risk and if a fall is likely based on their ability level. The ratings are:
G: good, solid protection. If using correct techniques, the climb is quite safe.
PG: Pretty good protection. A few moves might risk a dangerous fall, but the climb is generally safe.
PG-13: Iffy protection. The climber may have to climb high above the last piece of gear, but a fall will probably not be fatal or cause serious injury.
R: Poor protection, or “runout.” The climber will have to climb very high above their protection and a fall will result in death or serious injury.
X: Extremely dangerous. Terrible protection options. Fall and you’re dead.