Understanding Climbing Route Ratings

gideon-climbIf you’re new to rock climbing, you’ve probably heard friends talk about climbs using numbers to talk about the difficulty of a climb. But what do these numbers actually mean? Let’s dive into them, shall we?

The number system is called the Yosemite Decimal System and it is used to rate all terrains that humans can traverse in the world with ratings using 5 classes, starting at Class 1 and going through Class 5.

Yosemite Decimal System by Class:

  • Class 1- Your arthritic grandma loves Class 1. Basically flat, completely even terrain, such as a mall or a nice, well-kept paved road.
  • Class 2 – A bit steeper and more uneven, Class 2 usually describes hiking trails or beaches and other variable terrain. If you fell it’d hurt but you’d be fine.
  • Class 3 – You’re starting to use your hands to get over the terrain at this point, such as large boulders and rocks. If you take a tumble you’ll be hurt and might even break a bone but ropes aren’t needed yet and would look a bit silly.
  • Class 4 – Mountaineering techniques start to come into play for Class 4 and these ratings are often found on hikes in high areas where ropes are sometimes needed. If you fell it would be a serious injury but it’s still pretty easy.
  • Class 5 – Ropes, hardware, and anchors are necessary to prevent bad things, like death or serious injury. You need to use both hands and feet with technical maneuvers to keep going up (or to even stay on the rock!).

Class 5 is divided into subdivisions, starting at 5.1 and continuing onwards as the difficulty increases. When the system was originally developed, 5.9 was considered the hardest difficulty and no one thought you could climb something more difficult. But as climbers have pushed boundaries and the sport has exceeded expectations, it’s gone up to 5.15. Even still, climbers still needed more subdivisions and added letters, from a to d with increasing difficulty, to expand more. Thus a 5.1a is easier than a 5.1d which is easier than a 5.15a.

Who sets the numbers? The first person to climb the route sets a rating and then the rest of the climbing community weighs in and makes adjustments as needed to the rating. Part of the issue is that advanced routes are more difficult since few people can actually climb them. The hardest reported route climbed is generally accepted as a 5.15c.

How is the number set? The hardest part of the route, called the crux, is what sets the rating. A route could be mostly a breezy 5.9 but if it has an intense 5.11b crux, the route is a 5.11b.

Hope this helps make sense of climb ratings! Of course this rating system doesn’t work in other countries but for starting climbing here in the States, you’ll use this system.

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