Difficulty Rating

Climbs have ratings so that we know what we are getting ourselves into before we start the route.

Different rating systems are used for bouldering and roped climbing because the two disciplines are so different. Bouldering is a short sequence of challenging moves while roped routes are longer and often have significantly easier moves and rests interspersed with harder moves. To make matters more confusing, different grading systems have evolved in different parts of the world. Here we present some basic information about the standard difficulty ratings used in the US.

Roped Climbing: The Yosemite Decimal System (YDS)

The Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) is the most widely used system for classifying the difficulty of roped climbing in the US. It categorizes terrain according to the techniques and physical difficulties encountered when rock climbing. All of the roped climbs at N3C are rated using this system.

YDS begins with a high level breakdown of the different levels of climbing:

Class 1: Hiking
Class 2: Simple scrambling, with the possible occasional use of the hands. Many trails in the White Mountains include some Class 2 sections.
Class 3: Scrambling where just about everyone uses their hands to some degree; a rope might be carried. Trails such as the Huntington Ravine Trail on Mount Washington involve some Class 3 climbing.
Class 4: Simple climbing, often with exposure. A rope is often used. A fall on Class 4 rock could be fatal. Typically, natural protection can be easily found.
Class 5: Real rock climbing on which most people use a rope to catch a fall. All roped climbs at N3C are considered 5th Class. This is why the rating of all climbs here begins with “5.”
Class 6: Aid climbing where the climber weights gear to ascend.

5th Class routes are further broken down by difficulty. The scale is open ended, beginning with zero and currently going up to fifteen. The rating is usually based on the hardest move of the route, but sometimes is a bit higher if it is sustained at that level. The grades are sometimes further postfixed with “+” (harder) or “-” (easier) or with a letter (“a,” “b,” “c,” or “d”) to further distinguish the difficulty range within a single grade. They are denoted with the class and the difficulty separated by a period: “5.0” for a very easy climb to “5.15c” for what is the hardest climb in the world as of early 2015. When verbalizing grades, just say the numbers separately: a 5.2 is “five two” and a 5.10+ is “five ten plus.”

Here is a rough breakdown of difficulties:

5.0 to 5.6: Straightforward climbs that many beginners will be able to climb on their first try. Usually the holds are relatively large and and the moves are intuitive.
5.7 to 5.9: Intermediate or moderate climbs. The moves start getting tricky and the holds get smaller. A lot of really fun climbs are in this difficulty range.
5.10 to 5.11: Advanced rock climbing. This is where things get really hard. Most “weekend warriors” aspire to this level of climbing.
5.12 on up: Extremely difficult! It generally requires climbing multiple days a week for a long time to get this good. (For reference, there might be half a dozen to a dozen climbers in the world who can climb 5.15.)

Bouldering: The V Scale

The V scale is the most widely used bouldering rating system in the US. The easiest problems on this scale are rated V0 and the hardest (currently) are V16. Just as with the Yosemite Decimal System for roped climbs, the V scale is open ended so as climbers ascend harder and harder problems, the scale goes higher and higher.

The easiest boulder problems at N3C are marked as V-Fun. These are designed for kids and beginners. Many of these problems do not go to the top of the bouldering wall (the top holds are marked with a taped “V”).

The V scale officially begins with V0 (“vee zero”). Even though these are the easiest official V grades, they are challenging. Each move should be in the 5.9 to 5.10 range. As the numbers go higher, the problems get harder.