So you want to learn to climb rocks and stuff. You roll up to the gym or craig or ice or whatever you are climbing and someone starts rattling off something that you conclude is the grade of difficulty. It has decimals, letters, numbers, and maybe some roman numerals. Ok… why can’t it just be easy? To complicate things further, different grade systems are used in different countries.

This Yosemite Decimal System that is widely used in the Unite States is kind of a cool system that encompasses anything the average or not so average person might encounter as far as rocks and the walking around in the outdoors go. This system is broken into 6 classes which are further broken down. I made a nifty chart for all of us visual people.



Additional Grading



Walking on rocks




Walking on rocks-you might use your hands




Walking on rocks-you could almost call it climbing and will use your hands




Climbing on rocks-exposure present. Some people might feel better using a rope. A fall could injure or kill you. Natural protection is easy to come by




Vertical rock climbing-use of protection mandatory unless you are Alex Honnold, a similarly skilled climber, or want to die.


Very simple climbs-very few climbs actually rated this low. Almost could be called class IV.


A lot of gyms start their grading here.


Some gyms start their grading here.


After this, climbs tend to get more complex and less straightforward.


At the time this scale was created, the hardest known climbs

5.10a, 5.10b, 5.10c, 5.10d

If I could consistently climb outside at this level, I would be stoked.

5.11a, 5.11b, 5.11c, 5.11d

If I ever climb one of these outside I will be stoked.  

5.12a, 5.12b, 5.12c, 5.12d

If I could cleanly send a 12a at the gym that would be fantastic.

5.13a, 5.13b, 5.13c, 5.13d

I would be stoked out of my mind to send one of these. Like best day ever stoked.  

5.14a, 5.14b, 5.14c, 5.14d

You are probably a pretty big deal if you send these. Please be my friend and take me climbing?

5.15a, 5.15b, 5.15c

At the the time this article was written, 5.15c is the most difficult route ever sent.


Aid Climbing- you aren’t getting up this on your own power without help from your gear.


This article does not cover aid climbing.


Ok, so there is your pretty chart. Well, it isn't my best work as far as charts go, but I had to make it using html and that is hard. Moving on, in short, rock climbing grades in America are rated 5.0 through 5.15c. The higher the number, the harder it is. But then someone had to throw some random letters into the system to complicate things.

Since nothing can be that easy, once the ratings reach 5.10, they also get a letter. Why not the gradings lower than 5.9? When this scale was originally created, 5.9 was the hardest route humanly conceivable. Since humans are pretty cool and are constantly pushing the boundaries of what is possible, we have completely blown that out of the water. What happened is there were a bunch of routes much harder than a 5.9 that were graded as a 5.9+ because there was nothing higher to grade them.

Someone then had the brilliant idea to just add to the scale. All those 5.9+ routes were designated as 5.10. This lead to the problem of not all 5.10s being created anywhere remotely equal. Instead of re-grading everything, the letters a through d were added to these routes. All grades above a 5.10 follow this pattern. Keep in mind, the increase in difficulty from a 5.10a to a 5.10b is the same as the increase between a 5.9 to a 5.10a. Each letter is a whole grade harder.

Some things to remember about this scale:

  • The entire route is graded by the hardest move, or the crux. A route that is otherwise a 5.6 could have one horrendous move and be graded a 5.11d.

  • Gym climbing and outdoor climbing grading do not translate well. If you climb 5.11s at the gym, you might be climbing 5.9s or 5.10s outside to start with. The technique is different.

  • Grading is arbitrary. Some routes are sandbagged (the route is or feels much harder than it is graded)

  • Grading is independent of the climbing style. Great if you are a crimp master and can crimp the shit out of a 5.13a. That doesn’t mean you can climb a 5.13a crack.

  • Grading can vary from area to area. Some climbing areas are notorious for being sandbagged.

  • Different rock types can affect how a route feels. Climbing on granite vs. sandstone vs. conglomerate are all very different.

  • The length of the route affects how the grade feels. A longer 5.9 might feel like a 5.10b just due to its length.

The take-away to remember here is: grading is completely arbitrary. It is just a starting point for figuring out what routes you want to do. Not all 5.whatevers are created anywhere near equal.

To further confuse things, Class V climbs also get a protection rating, just like the movies (really). You won’t see these ratings in the gym. Once you get a guide book and start climbing outside, these will become much more relevant. The protection ratings are irrelevant to the difficulty ratings.

Protection ratings give the climber an idea of what kind of fall they can expect to take on a given climb. For the average recreational climber, staying away from the R and X ratings is a good idea. Unless you like staring death in the face, going to the hospital, or spending time being injured both physically and psychologically.




Protection is good-yay!


Protection is pretty good.


Protection is pretty good with maybe a section that could result in a large fall.


Protection is placed such that significant runout is imminent in the case of a fall. Injury on a fall is very likely, death possible.


Protection is shit, if existent in any form one might consider protective. A fall resulting in death is likely, getting away with just horrible injuries is possible.


What is runout you might say? As predominantly a top-roper for most of my climbing years, I, too had that question. Runout is how far above your last piece of protection you are. This affects how far you will fall before your rope catches you. If your protection is placed close together, this distance will not be far and runout is not a concern of yours. If your protection is placed far apart, say 20’, you will be going a  40+’ (+ for whatever rope stretch the fall causes) freefall before the rope catches you. No bueno. Sure, 40 feet isn’t that far to fall. It isn’t the fall that kills and injures; it’s the deceleration. If your protection is really shitty, like X shitty, your runout might be so much that you will hit the ground before your rope catches you. Again, for the more graphically inclined, here is a sketch.


There are additional grading factors included in the Yosemite decimal system. However, for the casual (or serious) weekend warrior, they are not so relevant. They are not typically included in the standard area rock climbing guides and thus not covered here. The internet is out there for the ambitious and curious. So, all you need to know about the commonly used U.S. climbing grade in a nutshell.

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