The History of Climbing Grades and Why They Are Subjective

By method
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The history of climbing grades, a journey that spans over a century, is a fascinating tale of evolution and growth. From the early days when climbers struggled to communicate their experiences to the present where grading systems have been agreed upon, this history is a treasure trove of knowledge. Yet, the subjectivity of climbing grades adds a layer of intrigue. Delve into this captivating history, explore what has endured, and understand why climbing grades remain subjective.

The History of Climbing Grades

Europe

Over a century ago, in 1894, to be exact, Fritz Benesch introduced the first known climbing grading system. As a prominent Austrian mountaineer, he introduced his grading system to rock climbing. That became known as the “Benesch scale.” The Benesch scale has seven levels of difficulty and works in descending order from easiest to hardest. Level VII was the easiest, and I was the hardest. As more challenging climbs were established, this grading system needed to be fixed, and the grades 0 and 00 were added.

It wasn’t until 1923 when German mountaineer Willo Welzenbach switched the order of the scale and compressed it to indicate the intricacies of each grade. This change was significant as it allowed for a more nuanced understanding of the difficulty of climbs. Then, in 1967, the “Welzenbach scale” became the formal UIAA (International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation) scale for rock climbing. Roman numerals from I-VI were used, in conjunction with a “+” or “-” to refine each grade.

Unfortunately, the modern climbing scale in Europe doesn’t have an exact date for when it was established, but it can be traced back to the 1960s. It is known as the “Font scale,” named after the worldwide popular bouldering area in Fontainebleau, France. This open-ended scale starts at one and increases in single-digit steps but uses a “+” to refine each grade. Beginning with a capital “F,” this bouldering system also introduces a capital “A,” “B,” or “C” after grade 6 to further refine the grading. Currently, the most challenging grade on the Font Scale is 9A.

The Font scale uses capital letters to separate bouldering and sport climbing grades. In contrast, the sport climbing grades use a lowercase. The most demanding sport climbing grade is currently 9c.

side vew of a man claimbing a wall showing climbing grades

United States of America

In the meantime, the United States adopted a version of the Welzenbach scale in 1937 from the Sierra Club. That transformed into the YDS (Yosemite Decimal Scale) in the 1950s, adding a decimal to the class 5 grade. A typical YDS grade looks like “5.4, 5.5, or 5.6.” Also, an open-ended grading scale in the 1960s, this scale was amended. It introduced the letters “a,” “b,” “c,” and “d” further to separate the grades after the grade “5.9”. Which looks like “5.10a”, 5.10b”, 5.10c”, and 5.10d”. Currently, the highest YDS grade is 5.15d.

Often, instead of using a letter to delineate specific grades, the YDS is sometimes seen with a “+” or “-.” If you see a guidebook or climb on Mountain Project with this grade, a “+” refers to the more complex end of the grade, while a “-” refers to the more accessible end. Also, if a guidebook uses this style of the YDS and doesn’t include a “+” or a “-,” it means a climb is in the middle of the grade.

The U.S. didn’t have a standard scale for bouldering until 1991, after the introduction of John “Verm” Sherman’s guidebook of Hueco Tanks, a popular bouldering area in Texas. Originally known as the “Hueco scale,” the “V-scale” is an open-ended grading system that starts at “V0” and details harder boulders as the number ascends.

You may also find “VB” in some guidebooks or on Mountain Project, which delineates as “V-beginner” and is easier than “V0.” The V-scale also uses a “+” or “-” to further distinguish between grades. Currently, the most complicated grade on the V-scale is V17.

Why Climbing Grades Are Subjective

Climbing grades are subjective because many factors go into the decision of what to call it. Things like a climber’s height, ape index, the style of the climb, or even where the climb is located can make a climb feel harder or softer than you believe. A climb feels more effortless if you’re taller and can reach past the crux of a problem! Alternatively, a climb may feel more arduous if you must do a sit start, which is easier when you’re shorter.

Since climbing grades can be everywhere, sites like Mountain Project are great! Mountain Project allows climbers worldwide to climb the same rocks and gives them insight into the climbing grade. What may feel like a V3 to somebody may feel like a V4 to another. On Mountain Project, you can voice your opinion about a climbing grade, and if enough people agree, the grade of the climb may be changed. This feedback system is crucial in maintaining the accuracy and relevance of climbing grades.