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Bouldering Grades: The Complete Climbers Guide

Bouldering grades are a common language that represents the difficulty of a boulder problem. The higher the climbing grade, the more difficult the route will be.

In this guide, we will explain what factors determine a boulder grade and what you can expect as you climb through the grading scale. We’ll take a look at all things grading and include tips we’ve learned from some of the best climbers.

Bouldering grades are subjective, and there are many factors in a climb that will influence its difficulty. V3 boulder problems can stump V5 boulderers. This happens. The best thing you can do is forget about grading for a bit and focus on improving your areas of weakness (we all have them!)

Let’s get into it and figure out the differences in grading by starting with the V Scale and Font Scale!

A women climbing an overhung boulder. The overhanging route and small holds play a factor into this bouldering grade.

Why are Bouldering grades important?

Understanding boulder grades is important because it tells your your climbing limit. As you progress to bouldering outdoors, knowing the grade of a climb can save you from a nasty fall. Boulderers utilize indoor gyms to focus on dialing their systems. Training hard propels us through our projects.

Bouldering outdoors has more hazards than our comfy, cozy climbing gym. Outdoor climbs can have a sketchy landing or even an unprotectable landing. A climb could look easy, but in reality, it could be a V10. We wouldn’t want to waltz up to a V10 with a sketchy landing unless we had trained for it! Bouldering indoors in a controlled environment lets us practice in a lower-risk environment.

Chasing harder problems to achieve our “goal bouldering grade” (doesn’t matter if it’s a V3, V4, or a 7a, 7b) gives us a sense of achievement and pride. The grading system gives us real progress to match up against and see our rock climbing improve in real-time.

A dream bouldering grade isn’t the end all be all! Focus on your daily training and systems. That is how we progress, how we learn, and how we improve. If all you focus on is a grade, then what will you have next after achieving your dream bouldering grade?

The Rock Warriors Mentality

Did you learn about dedication and commitment while bouldering? Did your dream grade force you into tunnel vision?

Arno Ilgner is a lifelong climber who has reflected on his bold first ascents and created a mental and physical training program. Read his books The Rock Warriors Way or Espresso Lessons to learn more.

What is a Boulder Grade?

A boulder grade represents a common language for climbers to communicate the difficulty of a route. Climbing routes will vary in difficulty, and without a language to communicate the difficulty, we would be left to our best estimations of how hard a route was.

Grades provide a common language for climbers to understand bouldering problems. Without grades, we would have to describe the difficulty of a route by comparing it to other routes (not everyone has claimed. the same routes), explaining just how small the holds are, or how the footholds are actually glass instead of rock! Instead, we can say, “It’s about a V5 but has a slippery crux.” I’ll instantly have an idea of what to expect just from seeing the climbing grade.

These grades can be represented by just a number and have their own syntax, like in the case of a V grade. It’d be good to know if we were about to hop on a beginner, intermediate, advanced, or professional level climb! That’s not something I want to find out while I’m halfway up!

Boulderers (sometimes called pebble wrestlers), all over the world are pushing the advanced limits of bouldering. We want to celebrate their successes as the sport moves forward and challenge ourselves. Our grading scales help us measure our progress, introduce friendly competition, and help us see how far we have come.

V Scale vs. Font Scale

The V Scale is commonly used in the U.S. and North America. While the Font Scale (Font is short for Fontainebleau) is used in Europe. Both grading systems have no limit set on the hardest difficulty. These scales are open ended and can theoretically continue to infinity. They are only limited by advanced boulderers pushing the grading scale further and further.

A grade within the V Scale starts with a V and then will have a number. V5 and V10 both represent a level of difficulty within the V grade. This scale can also have a + or – at the end of the grade. A route that is in between two grades can get a + or – to indicate that it’s on the verge.

The Font scale usually starts at 3, but some climbs will begin at 1. But at 6, the difficulties are sectioned between A, B, and C.

Just like the V Scale, a Font Scale letter grade can also have a plus sign attached, increasing the route difficulty by degree. Two boulder problems rated 3 and 4 on the Fontainebleau scale represent the same level of difficulty change as two climbs given ratings of 7a 7b.

The V Scale

The V Scale, also known as the Hueco scale, was created by the famous American rock climber John Sherman. Sherman was an early bouldering pioneer. He has over 400 first ascents at Hueco Tanks in Texas between the 1980s and 1990s.

The V Scale begins at V0 and the current limit is at V17. Return of The Sleepwalker in Red Rock Canyon Nevada is a V17 climb first sent by Daniel Woods. ROTS is a sit start to a problem named Sleepwalker V16, which was first sent by Jimmy Webb.

There is one exception to the V Scale and that is the VB. VB climbs are usually beginner climbs or downclimbs to get off a boulder.

The Way Down in Bishop, California has a grade of V-Easy! Surely that isn’t a sandbag…

Climbers carrying bouldering pads march to the boulder fields of Hueco Tanks, Texas.

Fontainebleau Bouldering Grades

The Fontainebleau scale, also known as the Font scale, is primarily used outside of North America. This grading scale was created in the legendary boulder fields of Fontainebleau, France. The Font scale is specific to the types of boulder problems in Fontainebleau. Font is known for slippery footholds and climbs that require precise, delicate, and technical movement.

Fontainebleau is a legendary climbing destination and should be on your climbing bucket list. Similar to Yosemite, if an area is immortalized in the naming convention for grading systems, it’s worth a visit. Don’t forget to grab a croissant while you’re there!

A climber bouldering in Fontainebleau, France. This climb uses the Font scale for its bouldering grade.

What is a good grade for bouldering?

V5 6c is a good grade for bouldering. Unlocking V5 will mean you have much more terrain to climb on. Many classic routes will be within this range and you will be able to project climbs that are a harder level. Keep testing yourself on problems and you will be there in no time!.

How do the grades compare?

There isn’t a perfect comparison for how the climbing grades compare. Having a crimp, gaston, or dyno on a climb doesn’t automatically mean it’s going to be a V5 6c climb.

I think of climbing like climbing a regular household ladder.

But I envision the climb as a tricky ladder. When I normally climb a ladder, I have all my weight on my feet and it feels like climbing a vertical staircase. I progress from one rung to the next, moving my hands and feet in a methodical manner.

As the climbing difficulty increases, the ladder becomes trickier! I may have to skip a rung in order to progress higher. One rung may be slippery and requires precise footwork and mental concentration to stand on top of it.

Bouldering will progress the same way. Sometimes the route will be slippery, have a bad handhold, or be overhung, parallel to the ground. That’s just the name of the game. Do your best to stay on the route and scale the mountain!

Other scales and grading systems

Next time you’re on an international bouldering trip, take a look at the bouldering grades for the country you’re in. Climbing and bouldering grades can appear different in new regions, but the difficulty should be consistent in the climbing area.

The Ewbank Grading System

The Ewbank system, which is used internationally by Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, was developed back in the 1960s by a man named John Ewbank. Ewbank was originally born in Yorkshire, England where he first learned to climb. But after emigrating to Australia, he became a pioneer in Australian climbing. He developed hundreds of new routes around the Blue Mountains and made the first ascent of the Totem Pole in Tanzania

An epic rock climbing route up the totem pole.
Ed Dudens, CC BY 2.0

The Ewbank system begins at 1 and is an open ended system, meaning there is no maximum limit. Ewbank grades take all factors of a climb into account. Systems like V Scale Font may not always take a route’s exposure or protection difficulty into consideration.

Ewbank wanted this system to take everything possible into account. The technical difficulty, exposure, length, quality of rock, and protection all play a role when determining the grade of a route.

Dankyu System

Widely used throughout Japan, the Dankyu system grades boulder problems like a martial arts ranking system.

These grades are broken into two categories Kyu and Dan. Boulder problems on the Kyu side will be easier than on the Dan side. The easiest problems will vary from 8 Kyu to 6 Kyu (which translates to VB or V0 on the V scale). The hardest Kyu problem is 1 Kyu.

Once a climb exceeds the 1 Kyu difficulty, it will increase on the Dan scale. These climbs will start at 1 Dan and continue on. 1 Dan is will begin at V7/V8 and continue as the climbing difficulty is pushed further.

And if you ever find yourself at a bouldering gym in Tokyo, don’t get discouraged if the climbs are sandbagged. The indoor climbs at these gyms are deliberately set to be harder than the outdoor bouldering problems in the area. Test yourself in the great outdoors!

Are there better systems to use for grading climbs? Leave us a comment below with your thoughts!

John Gil “B” Grading System

John Gil is known as the father of modern bouldering, but he was also a mathematician and served in the United States Airforce!

Gil came up with one of the first systems for grades known as the B Grading System. There were only three grades: B1, B2, and B3. These grades corresponded to the outdoor trad grades at the time of the ascent.

B1 was a difficult climb and corresponded to the highest grade in rope climbing at the time of the ascent.

B2 was harder than any of the rope climbs that existed at the time of the ascent.

B3 was futuristic and was relegated for climbs that had only been climbed once with no repeats. Any repeat ascent, including one by the first ascensionist, would drop the grade down to a B2.

Only having three grades caused problems when attempting to use this scale. Problems graded at B1 could be easy for an advanced climber, but an intermediate or beginner climber may struggle on these routes.

The subjective nature of routes and variance between advanced and beginner climbers led to more climbers using the V Scale.

Who Determines Bouldering Grades?

In the outdoors, bouldering grades and sport climbing, are determined by the first ascensionist. Once they have sent a route, they will suggest a grade for the route. Once the grade has been suggested, climbers and the community will verify the difficulty grade is accurate by climbing the route. Grades are subjective, so it is a community effort to determine the grade.

Indoors, the route setters will set a route on the climbing wall and then give it a grade they feel is accurate. As you climb in the gym more, you’ll start to see the different setter’s styles. Indoor climbs will have the grade, the date the route was set, and who set it on a tag at the start of the problem.

Bouldering Grades vs. Sport Climbing grades

Bouldering and sport climbing are both disciplines within climbing but vary between the technique and style to climb these routes. In North America, Sport climbing utilizes the Yosemite Decimal System for the grading system. The Yosemite Decimal System, or YDS for short, is an open ended grading system that starts at 5.0 and is currently capped at 5.15d, thanks to Adam Ondra!

A sport climb requires more endurance than a boulder problem, but it’s not uncommon to find a boulder problem in the middle of a sport route. Usually, the crux of a route will feel like a hard boulder problem, you just happen to be 65 feet off the ground and attached to a rope while you do it!

A new era of grades combines the YDS with the V scale. Newly developed routes can have a YDS grade of 5.10 but have a V2 crux. Combining bouldering grades with traditional climbing grades lets us know what to expect for both endurance and power.

Rock climbing is a funny sport, the different disciplines all use the same grading scale! Bouldering, sport climbing, and trad climbing all have their own intricacies and grades don’t always match up between the disciplines. But having good technique and regularly training between the three will help you be the best climber you can be.

Sport climbing routes in the USA will use the Yosemite Decimal System.

How are climbs graded?

Bouldering grades are determined by the difficulty of the climb. The difficulty is subjective since all climbers have strengths and weaknesses in different areas.

Generally, a climb receives its grade from the first ascensionist. Climbing ethics dictate that the route name, protection (if there are bolts), and the grade come from whoever first climbs the route. But it’s not uncommon for any of these variables to change over time.

Factors that go into grades include strength required, the technique needed, exposure factor, and explosive power you’ll use to lift off the ground.

What gear do I need for bouldering?

You only need climbing shoes, a chalk bag, and a bouldering pad.

You don’t need to break the bank when buying gear for bouldering. We’ve already researched package deals to save you money on bouldering gear.

If you’re starting out indoors, the good news is that the pad is already provided by the gym and you will be able to rent shoes while you find a pair you like.

A bouldering pad is 100% necessary once you begin climbing outside. Don’t tweak an ankle on an awkward landing, that’ll mean no climbing for a few months! Buy a pad and you’ll get more time on the wall.

Are you a beginner? Check out a list of the best climbing exercises to get a jump start on your journey!

Which is harder, bouldering or climbing?

Bouldering is like a sprint while traditional rope climbing is like a long endurance run. Bouldering routes are quick and powerful climbs that are usually less than 15 feet tall. Longer rock climbs will usually be less than 100 feet long. These longer climbs can still have a bouldery crux, so you will need bouldering strength in addition to your endurance.

What bouldering grade is intermediate?

V5 is an intermediate grade for bouldering. Once you can climb V5 you will be close to the harder grades (V6 and up) while still able to climb easier problems. V5 allows you to train volume on easier problems and project harder climbs.

What is the highest bouldering grade?

As of now, the highest outdoor bouldering grade is V17/9a and there are only two of these problems in the whole world. Burden of Dreams located in Finland was first climbed by Nalle Hukkataival. This is the first route in the world that has received a proposed rating of V17.

Return of the Sleepwalker in Red Rock Canyon, Nevada was first climbed by Daniel Woods. This route is a sit-start extension to a problem called Sleepwalker that was graded V16. Sleepwalker was first climbed by Jimmy Webb, a close friend of Daniel Woods. After an epic battle, Daniel Woods was able to complete Return of the Sleepwalker and proposed a grade of V17.

We will see more V17 grades as more climbers complete advanced routes. Who will be the first climber to send V18? We think it could be you!

What are the most famous boulders?

Midnight Lightning V8 Yosemite National Park

Nestled in the boulders of Camp 4. Midnight Lightning is an iconic problem. First climbed by Ron Kauk in 1978, legendary climbers like Lynn Hill and Adam Ondra have gracefully mantled over the crux lip.

Even if you can’t climb this grade, stop by and get a photo of the famous chalk lightning bolt drawn at the start of the climb

Jedi Mind Tricks V4 Bishop, California

The alpine bouldering desert of Bishop, California is a surreal environment. On a 100 degree summer day, you can gaze at the snow-capped craggy mountains in the distance. Within the Pollen Grains area lies the Jedi Boulder. At 25 feet tall, Jedi Mind Tricks is a mental battle to send this highball boulder. The first ascent of this problem is unknown.

Nobody Here Gets Out Alive V2 Hueco, Texas

The North Mountain of Hueco Tanks, Texas holds one of the best V2 grades in the world. This climb is ultra-classic and boulderers flock to the deep heart of Texas to scale this route. Bat hang the start holds for extra style points!

That’s everything about climbing and bouldering grades!

Bouldering and rock climbing are incredibly fun sports. You get to train physically by strengthening your body to send a route. And you train mentally, solving a problem and pushing yourself past a limit that you were convinced was otherwise impossible.

Have you ever been hung up on climbing grading? Leave a comment below and let us know how you overcame it!

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