Rock Climbing Ratings

Climbers love talking not only about gear but also about numbers. All climbs get rated using one or more grading systems, and climbers just cannot seem to talk about their climbs without tossing the numbers around.

Rarely do you hear a climber back from the crag say, ‘it was a beautiful climb with interesting moves, wonderful positions, and long sections of exhilarating face climbing. I found it just within my limits.” You are more likely to hear, ‘it was eight pitches, mostly 5.7 with some 5.9 sections, a strenuous 10b crux of inch-and-a-quarter hands, and a short section of A2 that I think would go at 12c. It’s definitely not Grade III, there’re too many pitches under 5.8, but it should get an R rating for the crux pitch, which fortunately was well below my level. Oh, and did I mention I on-sight 11c, redpoint 12b, have worked all the moves on a 12d, and last week climbed a V7?”

Yes, climbers love their numbers. It is a way of comparing one climb to another-and one climber to another. Most other countries around the world that have a significant climbing history and tradition have their own rating systems. In the United States, all rock climbs are rated according to:

  • Grade – a commitment rating that tells how long it should take a competent party to complete the route.
  • Class – a general difficulty rating that ranges from hiking and scrambling to free climbing and aid climbing. Many different systems have evolved to measure technical difficulty.
  • Seriousness – a three-point scale that describes how well a free climb is protected.
  • Bouldering – a rating system for boulder problems that take into account only the sheer difficulty of the moves.

Grade (Commitment)

Roman numerals I through VII measure the commitment of the clinch, its overall nature, and, specifically, how much time it will take. The fictitious “average climber” is used to figure the time.

Expert climbers can speed up a route in a few hours which could take less talented climbers days to complete. The grade rating only really applies to traditional climbing. Sport climbs are generally one-pitch routes that are easily accessible; they are not referred to as Grade I. Multipitch climbs are where the grade rating is applied:

  • Grade I: 1 to 3 hours.
  • Grade II: 2 to 4 hours.
  • Grade III: 1 to 6 hours. Most of a day.
  • Grade IV: 1 full day.
  • Grade V: I or 2 days. Most parties will bivouac.
  • Grade VI: Several days.
  • Grade VII: Many days, combined with extreme difficulties, length, and exposed, alpine positions.

Remember, expert climbers have completed more than one Grade VI in a single day in Yosemite National Park, so the grade rating is relative to your experience, fitness, familiarity with the route, and motivation.

Class (Difficulty)

Rating the technical difficulty of a climb is a tricky thing to do. Many factors contribute to the difficulty of a climb, and each climber experiences the climb slightly differently.

Class ratings are, therefore, based on the consensus of many climbers who are experienced at climbing in many different areas. Ideally, a route with a certain rating in the Shawangunks in New York state will feel as hard as a climb with the same rating in Joshua Tree National Park in California. Climbing is broken into the six following classes:

  • Class 1: Walking on easy terrain-most hiking trails.
  • Class 2: Rugged, often steep, rough trails.
  • Class 3: Easy scrambling that uses occasional hand – and footholds but does not require the use of a rope, even for a beginner. A slip on Class 3 terrain will not become a fall. To “thirdclass” a route means to climb it without a rope-many extremely difficult rock climbs have been soloed this way, but climbers take the ultimate risk in doing so.
  • Class 4: Easy climbing, but with enough exposure to warrant a rope and belay. A slip could become a fall. Intermediate protection points are used sparingly. Climbers often move together.
  • Class 5: Difficult “free climbing” wherein each hand – and foothold is chosen specifically. Belays and intermediate protection are required. One climber moves at a time. This rating is further subdivided into an open-ended scale of decimal fractions from 5.0 to 5.14; the categories of 5.10 (pronounced ‘five-ten”) and above are then subdivided by the letters a through d, currently up to 5.14d. r his system is referred to as the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS). Indoor climbing ratings are usually based on the YDS 5.0-5.14d scale, although the system is not consistently applied. Because of the positive nature of indoor holds, routes often feel easier than a similarly graded route outdoors. The YDS is used primarily in the United States. Most other countries with a significant climbing history and tradition have their own rating systems.
  • Class 6 (aid climbing): I land- and footholds are no longer sufficient to make progress and the climber must use artificial assistance to move upward. Specialized equipment is needed. Today, aid climbing is rated Al through A5 – the higher the number, the less secure the protection placements are, and the greater the risk of a long and dangerous fall.


Not all traditional climbs protect well-they do not always provide consistently solid protection. Guidebooks usually use “R” and “X” ratings to alert the potential leader of dangers. If a climb does not have a protection rating of R or X, it is assumed that it can be protected relatively safely by a competent leader.

If a climb has a K rating, it means that the protection is sparse, difficult to place, or insecure (for example, little nuts behind an expanding flake at the crux), and the leader risks a long fall and the possibility of injury. Before you step onto an R-rated climb, be sure you are mentally, physically, and technically prepared.

If a climb carries an X rating, it means that protection is lacking or of terrible quality, and a falling leader could be seriously or fatally injured. Do not take this rating lightly, especially if the difficulty rating is near your limit leading an X-rated climb is akin to soloing, and you had better be prepared to take the risk.


In the United States, the “V” system is used to rate bouldering problems. It currently runs from V0 to V14. For comparison, a V0 is about 5.9, a V5 is about 5.12, and a VII is 5.14.