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Rock Climbing Difficulty Ratings

Here are the rock climbing grading scales that you need to understand for the various types of climbs that you will come across on a sortie to a rock face. Please be aware that these grades vary enormously from country to country. Many guidebooks will have a conversion table for your convenience. And everywhere you go will have their own guidebooks on their own climbs.

The following guidelines are based on the American grading scales.

The Grading Scale

Each trail or route is rated on a scale from 1 – 6 (with 1 being a relatively easy hike and 6 being a strenuous climb). Class 5 is highly subdivided to include all possible free climbing environments; it’s what you imagine rock climbing to be.

  • Class 1 is characterized by trail hiking. Just a walk in the woods. No rocks are involved. Too easy.
  • Class 2 trails may require the use of hands for support. A couple of rocks but still no climbing.
  • Class 3 trails contain some rocks. Inexperienced climbers may wish to use a rope, but it’s still fairly easy.
  • Class 4 has more difficult rocks. Many climbers choose to use a rope for safety. Usually, natural protection ie: cracks, crevices etc. are easy to find.
  • Class 5 is free climbing. A rope and protection are required. Class 5 is subdivided by the Yosemite Decimal System into fifteen groups from 5.0 to 5.14. Beyond this division, decimals from 5.10 through 5.14 may have an A, B, C or a + or – to further indicate the difficulty level. A general guide for the decimal system is as follows:
  • 5.0-5.7: This range is easy for adept climbers. Most beginners start in this range.
  • 5.8-5.9: Most weekend climbers settle in this range. Specific climbing skills are employed.
  • 5.10: A dedicated weekend warrior may achieve this level.
  • 5.11-5.14: This range is for climbing experts. Extensive training and possible reworking of the route is required.
  • Class 6 is characterized by artificial (aid) climbing. Holds may not be available without the use of equipment.

We think it is probably necessary to put a little perspective into what it is you are achieving when you start climbing. Let’s not forget – you have probably taken an interest in the sport from listening and talking with friends or watching some expert scale a cliff face and no doubt your next port of call is the internet.

Even so, you start your research on where to go and there you see a rock face rated 5.5 – ugh – what does that mean? Below we provide the United States’ standard rating system for describing the difficulty of what it is that you might attempt to climb. It goes without saying that we highly recommend that your ambitions do not overcome your competence – yes it may sound boring but you should start at the bottom and work your way up the scale of difficulty. Rock climbers are a friendly bunch and are always willing to teach, guide, and offer their opinions – do not be afraid to ask the question – we all started at some time.

U.S. Difficulty Rating Schedule for Rock Climbs

The six grades in the schedule start at grade 1 for walking and move higher for hiking and scrambling before the rock climbing grade starts at grade 5 – grade 6 requires an artificial aid, like a ladder, if it is to be climbed. Within grade 5 there are 14 different levels which are sub-categorized as follows:

  • 5.0 to 5.4 – beginners level and easy to climb for any able-bodied person with little experience;
  • 5.5 to 5.7 – intermediate level which will require more skill but no serious climbing equipment will be required;
  • 5.8 to 5.10 – definitely requires significant experience and some decent climbing shoes and good physical ability;
  • 5.11 to 5.12 – you are definitely getting into the very serious grade of rock climbing here – many years of experience required;
  • 5.13 to 5.15 – if you successfully handle these grades you are a dude, you are what Michael Phelps is to swimming, you are a Spiderman – respect.

Remember this is serious stuff so respect the mountains, respect the grades – one mistake and………. The mountains take no prisoners.