Grading system

Even if you have yet to find yourself on a sheer rock face, you’ve probably heard someone talk about doing a “5-point-something” climb when describing a route they’ve attempted or mastered. What they’re describing is the difficulty level of the climb and the rating is from the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS). Though it was born in the outdoors, the system is also used to rate route difficulty in climbing gyms.

Sport Climbing

Much like the difference between U.S. and the metric measuring system, other countries’ climbing systems are different: Germany, England, France and Australia all have their own gradings. Below you will find a table that compares the different climbing grades across the five most popular systems:

France (Fontainebleau Scale) – The French system is an internationally recognized system for grading sport climbs and is therefore is used on bolted routes across the world.

UIAA – This system is used in Germany, in other areas of Eastern Europe and in Italy for the classic routes.

United States – Yosemite Decimal System(YDS) is a grading system commonly found in the United States, starts with a 5.something. Grades 1 to 4 refer to walks of increasing difficulty, by the time you reach 5 you are assumed to be scrambling over rocks which equates to about 5.0.

Sub-Grade (Yosemite Decimal Scale) – The sub-grade ranges from 1 to a theoretically infinite number (today the highest number is 15). The number is increased when a “harder” climb is developed. 

Great Britain – The UK system is made of two sub-grades, an adjective grade and a technical grade. The adjective grade describes the overall difficulty of the climb taking into consideration how strenuous the route is, the amount of exposure and the availability of protection. The adjective grades are as follows: 

  • Moderate (M), 
  • Very Difficult (VD), 
  • Hard Very Difficult HVD), 
  • Mild Severe (MS), 
  • Severe (S), 
  • Hard Severe (HS), 
  • Mild Very Severe (MVS), 
  • Very Severe (VS), 
  • Hard Very Severe (HVS), 
  • Extremely Severe (E). 

The Extremely Severe grade is also broken down into 10 further sub grades from E1 to E10. The numerical technical grading describes the hardest (crux) move on the climb.

Australia – The system used in Australia and New Zealand is perhaps the most logical of all. There are no letters accompanying the grades, just a single number which gets bigger as the routes get harder.


The “crux,” or hardest part of the climb, is the basis for the rating. Some guidebooks provide further clues to difficulty by adding a “+” or “–“ to a designation:

+ indicates that a route sustains its level of difficulty most of the way

– indicates that just one or two spots will be as difficult as the crux

Even though the numeric system is standardized, ratings can and do vary. A little context can help you get the most from climbing ratings:

Photo by Rahadiansyah on Unsplash

Gradings are environmental: When you move from the gym to the crag, start at a lower level because weather and weathered handholds and footholds make things more challenging.

Gradings are regional: Gradings may be relative based on their difficulty compared to other climbs nearby. When you’re in a new area or gym, ask the locals if the ratings tend to be high or low there.

Gradings can be personal: Gradings may be based on the climbing style or body type of the climber who developed the route.

Gradings are informational: Gradings are guidelines, not Gospel. Don’t obsess about a number. Use the grading system to pick routes that are inspiring, challenging and fit the level of climbing you prefer.

 Gradings are situational: Pay more attention to the climbers at the crag than the posers at the pub.