Escalation Notes, Safety Notes Explained
Get the inside scoop on climbing difficulty and safety ratings here: what they are, what they mean, and why they matter.
Climbing grades are used to describe the difficulty of climbing routes. Grades are used in climbing gyms and outdoors on the cliff. Before starting a route, it can be useful to know the steepness of the route, which is determined by the consensus of those who have climbed the route.
Grades can be a useful framework for measuring your own climbing progress as you acquire new strengths, skills and techniques.
Climbers use many different grading systems. Generally, grading systems are determined by geographic region and climbing style. For example, the standard grading system for rope climbing in Australia is not the same as that used by rope climbers in France.
Bouldering, which is a form of rock climbing that takes place on freestanding boulders and shorter rock faces that do not require a rope for safety, has a different grading system from longer rock climbing routes that are climbed with a rope.
Climbers also use protection and safety ratings to describe routes and warn each other of dangers.
Read on for a breakdown of complicated rock climbing rating systems for difficulty and safety.
American Climbing Notes and the Yosemite Decimal System
In America we use two main grading systems to rate the difficulty of climbs. Let’s start with the rope climbing rating system, known as the Yosemite decimal system (YDS). The YDS was developed by Sierra Club members in the 1950s in Yosemite Valley and other North American climbing areas.
YDS class system
There are five “classes” in the YDS. Classes 1 and 2 are used to describe walking and hiking terrain. Classes 3 and 4 describe steeper, more technical terrain that is often exposed and requires a bit of rock scrambling and the use of all four limbs on the ground to ascend safely.
Think of classes 1 and 2 as a walk in the woods, and classes 3 and 4 as a technical hike or a steep mountain ridge. Climbers generally refer to classes 1 through 4 as “first, second, third and fourth”.
Class 5, or fifth class, covers technical climbing. This is broken down into parts, which currently range from 5.0 to 5.15. Early proponents of the system added the decimal to divide the fifth class into tiny incremental grades that allow climbers to describe the difficulty of a route with a high degree of accuracy.
The low fifth class, 5.0 to 5.5, is considered easy terrain by most climbers. Once the scale reaches 5.9, letters are used to further subdivide each numerical rating. Note 5.10 is divided into 5.10a, 5.10b, 5.10c and 5.10d – which is then followed by 5.11a. Currently, the most difficult climbing routes in the world are rated 5.15d, and only two routes in this category currently exist.
As a rough guide, the 5.6 to 5.8 rating range is generally considered beginner level climbing. 5.9 to 5.10 is about intermediate, 5.11 to 5.12 can be considered advanced, and 5.13 and above is very difficult elite level climbing.
The YDS is used by most climbing gyms in North America and other areas where the YDS is preferred. In these areas, any form of rope climbing, from sport climbing protected by bolts to trad climbing protected by removable equipment, will be rated using the Yosemite decimal system.
A route that is graded according to the YDS and incorporates all its different parts may appear written like this: Flight of the Albatross, 5.10c A4 PG-13 Grade VI.
YDS Help Climbing System
The YDS also includes a climbing aid rating system that describes the difficulty and safety levels of routes that can be climbed by placing equipment in the wall and pulling on it to progress the route.
The climbing aid scale ranges from A0 to A5. An A0 rated route will require simple climbing techniques and is considered relatively safe. An A5 rated course will require a very particular set of skills and will involve significant danger.
Additionally, Yosemite’s decimal system includes an optional grade in Roman numerals that describes the overall length and “commitment level – or severity – of the route. Grade IV suggests 1-2 hours of climbing, the grade II suggests less than half a day, grade III suggests half a day, grade IV suggests a full day, grade V suggests between 2 and 3 days, etc.
These Roman numerals are more relevant for climbing and mountaineering on large walls and are not often included in the description of short climbs.
YDS Safety and Security Ratings
Another optional rating indicates the quality and spacing of a route’s available protection for a competent climber. Amusingly, the alphabetic codes associated with the various ingress protection ratings are based on the American film rating system:
- G: Sufficient and good quality protection
- PG: Generally good protection with some sections of poor protection
- PG-13: Fair protection that can lead to long and potentially dangerous falls
- A: Loosely refers to a “flight ground”, where protection is limited and the possibility of serious injury
- X: No protection and overall the course is extremely dangerous.
A little historical note: At the start of the YDS, many climbers assumed that climbing above 5.9 would be humanly impossible. Royal Robbins climbed the first confirmed 5.9 in 1952 when he completed Open Book at Tahquitz Rock, California.
As training methods and climbing equipment have developed over the decades, the ceiling for the climbing score continues to rise. Adam Ondra established the first 5.15d in the world, Silence, in 2017. And in 2020, the second world course of this difficulty, Bibliography, was climbed by the German phenomenon Alex Megos.
The block and the ladder V
What is the V scale?
While the YDS is used to rate just about every rope climbing route in America and beyond, bouldering uses a completely different system. Like grades for roped climbing routes, bouldering grades indicate the difficulty of a block problem to a climber who has never tried it before.
The “V” in the V Scale is short for “Vermin” or “Verm”, which is the nickname of the iconic rock John Sherman, credited with creating the V Scale. Sherman spent time at bouldering in Hueco Tanks, Texas in the 1980s and decided there should be a consistent scale to measure the difficulty of bouldering problems.
After a climbing guide publisher refused to publish Sherman’s guide to Hueco Tanks unless a grading system was added, Sherman spent time formalizing his scale and grading rocks in his book. .
Block problems in America are classified using the V-scale. Like the YDS, the V scale is completely open and the highest rating on the scale will continue to increase as the sport progresses. Currently, the scale starts at V0 and goes up to V17.
Sometimes VB is used to describe beginner level block problems which are easier than V0. Generally, problems between VB and V3 are considered beginner level, V3 through V6 are considered intermediate, V7 through V10 are advanced, and V11 and above are very difficult or elite. The V scale is commonly used in the climbing halls.
A note on block notes
The grade of a bouldering problem takes into account all the climbing experience of the boulder. The individual moves from one hold to another are sometimes given a grade on their own, but the accumulation of all the moves adds up to the final grade of the whole block problem.
For example, a boulder problem with 10 V5 moves in a row without rest will likely be rated higher than V5. Indeed, a series of movements of a given grade is more difficult to perform than a single movement of the same grade.
A V10 block problem can include a bunch of easy moves leading up to a single V10 move, or it can be a sequence of lesser moves that overall require V10 effort to bind together. For example, existing V13 block issues have been described as “several V10s in a row”. After the first climber has climbed a rock and recommended a certain grade, other climbers arrive and offer their advice until there is finally a consensus.
Boulder grades are often used to describe the specific difficulty of single moves in sport or traditional climbing. For example, a sport climber climbing a route rated 5.12a may describe the most difficult section of the route as a V3 boulder problem. Boulder ratings are a useful tool for climbers of all styles to describe the difficulty of short sections of climbing.
Climbing notes and consensus
Because different climbers have different strengths, weaknesses, body types and skills, all climbing ratings are subjective. Climbers often disagree on the difficulty or level of a given route. As mentioned above in the context of bouldering, climber difficulty ratings are consensus based.
If 10 climbers think a route is 5.10d, but 10 other climbers think the same route is 5.11b, by consensus the score may settle in the middle at 5.11a. On the internet and in guidebooks, routes are rated, but these ratings should always be considered evolving as the consensus of the masses may change over time.
Other grading systems
Outside of the United States, several other rating systems are in common use. The French grading scale starts at 1 and currently goes up to 9, using letter increments in between. Climbing slope conversion between the French scale and the YDS is simple and straightforward. Most roped courses in Europe and beyond are graded according to the French system.
The Fontainebleau ladder, also from France, is widely used for leveling rocks. It can be easily converted V scale.
Other examples include an Australian rope climbing grade scale, which simply goes from 1 to 39 and does not use letter increments at all. A UK grading system for rope routes – aimed specifically at traditional climbs – takes into account the daring factor of each route.