Bouldering grades

Bouldering Grades

Climbing scales were devised as a way to assess the difficulty in any given climbing route. Many types of scales exist across different climbing disciplines (bouldering, sport climbing, and ice climbing). In bouldering, the most widely used systems are the V Scale and the Font scale.

The V Scale is used mainly in North America while the Font Scale is primarily used in Europe. Your location will determine which scale youʼll need to familiarize with.

Font Scale

The Font Scale is named after the Fontainebleau region in France just South of Paris which is known for its magnificent and concentrated bouldering areas. Just like the V Scale, the Font Scale is open-ended. It starts at 1 and goes to 9a – but, itʼs rare to see any route graded easier than a 3, so for all purposes, the scale starts at 3. Once the number 6 is reached, a suffix (either a, b, or c) is added to the end as difficulty increases. A 6b is, therefore, more difficult than a 6a and a 6c is more difficult than a 6b and so on.

Additionally, after grade 5 a “+” can be added to the end to clarify further the difficulty of a route without changing the grade. Accordingly, a 6a+ is more difficult than a 6a but more manageable than a 6b.

The V-Scale

This scale is named after bouldering legend John ‘Verminʼ Sherman who created the system in the 1990ʼs while climbing the boulders at Hueco Tanks, Texas, with some climbing buddies. The system is intuitive with the scale starts at VB (for beginner) which is the easiest route and then proceeds to V0 through to V17 as the difficulty increases.

The system is open-ended, meaning that there is no top difficulty and the scale will continually increase as the sportsʼ top climbers are able to complete them. Additionally a “+” or “-“ is added to the number to give you more indication of the difficulty of a route. Hence, a V3- is easier than a V3 while a V3+ is more difficult.

Comparison

At a quick glance, the scales look entirely different but are mostly comparable to one another. The V Scale is broader in its grades while the Font Scale is much narrower. Most agree that at the lower end of the scale it is more difficult to make a direct comparison, but at the higher end, they can be directly translated. So if youʼre usually climbing V4ʼs and V5ʼs you can be sure that youʼre in the 6 range on the Font Scale. However, to know exactly where you land (a, b, or c), you will need to climb a few routes.

Bouldering grades Font Scale and V scale Image

Climber Levels

Roughly speaking, VB-V2 or 3–5+ are beginner levels and are where youʼll start to learn the basics of bouldering while making quick progress.

After climbing for a little while and getting stronger, youʼll find yourself in the intermediate range from V3-V5 or 6a–6c+. Keep up bouldering for a few years, and youʼll land in the advanced range of V6V8 or 7a–7b where getting to higher grades is slow and painful. Experts are in the range of V9-V12 or 7b+–8a+, and at this point, you have been bouldering and training hard for many years and are probably one of the top dogs at the gym or local area. Anything higher than V13 or 8b is considered elite level. At the elite level, climbing is your lifeʼs primary focus, and you probably have a sponsorship.

How are Grades Determined?

Routes are graded solely on how physically challenging they are and donʼt take into account the mental difficulty, height, and so on. Indoors, the route is graded by the person who set it (the routesetter) and it is up to them to determine the difficulty.

Outdoors, the route is static and can be climbed many times before being assigned a grade but is usually set by the first person to complete it. Thereʼs no formula or process to determine the difficulty and as you might imagine it makes grading the difficulty of a route quite subjective.

Criticisms

A common complaint of the grading system among bouldering enthusiasts is that the grading is too subjective. What one may see as a V3 another may see as a V5 or vice versa. Everyone has different physical characteristics, strengths, weaknesses, and so on. You might breeze through a V5 with small crimps but not be able to even start a V4 with pinches. Being tall and lanky or short and stocky might make a route easier or more difficult depending on if the holds on a route are more bunched up or spread out.

Some bouldering experts strongly dislike the grading scales and have argued that people focus solely on reaching the next grade rather than on having fun. According to this argument, itʼs easy to focus on the numbers rather than the route itself and then perceive your own skill by the numbers. In light of this criticism, many bouldering experts have agreed to use the grading system merely as a guide rather than the determining factor of skill. Use the scales to measure your progress but not to determine the results.

Comparisons to Sport Climbing

Bouldering and sport climbing are two different disciplines in the same field. Sport climbing has grading scales of its own: the Yosemite decimal system and the French scale. Sport climbing goes much higher and requires more endurance while bouldering routes are shorter but need powerful and dynamic moves.

For this reason, it is challenging to make a direct comparison although the Font scale can be lined up with the French scale due to their similar nature. One can therefore speculate that a 7b+ move on a boulder is roughly the same difficulty on a wall.

Wrapping It Up

Now youʼll know the difficulty of a route whether youʼre climbing outside in the deserts of California or inside a gym in the middle of Germany. One important thing to remember is not to obsess over the numbers. Some people will progress faster while others more slowly, but all that matters is enjoying your time on the rock. With this in mind, skill will come naturally.

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