Home » Climbing » Grading, It’s time for change!

Grading, It’s time for change!


Grading. Why is it so important to us as climbers? And why is it the bone of so much contention? All the time you hear climbers plead that it’s not important to them or that too much emphasis is placed on grades, only to see the same climbers rushing away to update their scorecard on 8a.nu or arguing for hours about the grade of some piece of choss that no one in their right mind could be bothered repeating anyway.

After the excerpt of my interview with Daniel Woods where I quizzed him on grade compression at the upper end of grading I received a lot of emails and comments about certain problems and whether our disregard in mentioning them was a slight against the perceived difficulty of the problems in question or the credentials of those who graded them. If you go back and reread the excerpt though you will notice that Daniel only mentions one problem by name. One! And that is purely discussing its aesthetics in an anecdote about life before youtube.

Sure Courtney mentions Daniels problem ‘The Game’, but again that is as an example of a problem which has experienced grade compression after repeat ascents.

So, getting back to the original query that I raised, why are grades so important to us? Indeed why do we grade in the first place?

Daniel made a comment about just this in his interview, a comment I removed from the excerpt as I felt it was superfluous to the discussion we were having. How wrong I would prove to be. Daniels comment on grading was as follows.

Numbers are irrelevant, it’s like how do you post a number to a rock climb? It just basically shows progression, that’s all it labels. It’s more of a safety mechanism so that if you’re a V6 climber you’re not going to go and try V14 and get really hurt, like pop your tendons or eat shit onto your back and be done. I see it that way, but it is a cool way to be like “oh I’m improving” you know.

And in that one comment he pegged the two most important aspects of grading to climbers. Safety and progression.

Daniel was way to busy holding on to worry about the grade on this line.  If you're wondering he's attempting Paul Robinsons Rise Up Lights 7|12

Safety is important whether it be on a sport climb or boulder problem, and even more so on a traditional, multipitch or alpine climb. When someone makes an ascent putting a grade on it gives perspective to the objective. Much the same as giving a name can set the tone of a route. Calling a problem “Shitty razorblades of skin eating death” isn’t going to have you expecting skin friendly open hand slopers all the way to the top!

Progression on the other hand is the nightmare. Calling a problem or climb a certain difficulty is exposing your ego and there are climbers out there who by their very natures will enjoy nothing more that undermining the achievements of others.

The simple fact is we all want to improve so we can enjoy climbing as much rock and as many climbs as possible. If you go to a bouldering area like the Grampians your options are limited if you are a V3 climber. Progress your ability to V6 and the number of problems open to enjoy increases massively. Likewise if you were to move the bar again to V9 or V12 the scope of available problems increases again. So progression is important and grading gives us a measure of that progression.

Jamie Emerson working hard on yet another Hollow Mountain Cave test piece.

The simple fact is however that bouldering grades are confused and fundamentally flawed.

Ask a boulderer what the grade of a problem reflects and they’ll give you one of two answers. The grade given either reflects the difficulty of the hardest move of the problem, or it reflects the cumulative difficulty of the moves. Two very different answers with two very different outcomes.

The Grampians mega problem ‘The Wheel of Life’ is the perfect example of this conundrum. Originally the unheard of grade of V16 was thrown around, the mythical 8c+ that has been strived for over many years. However speak to the ascensionists (I’ve spoken to several), and you’ll hear them give the hardest individual move no more than V9. So if we are going by the hardest move school of thought we are left with the world’s hardest pumper V9…

Australian powerhouse James Kassay making it looking easy on the test piece The Wheel of Life 70-9

On the other hand if we give a cumulative grade based on the overall difficulty of linking the problem we see a far more difficult grade associated with the problem. But then a fit (super talented) sport climber like Germany’s Alex Megos will come along and dispatch it with little difficulty at all… So maybe it doesn’t deserve the higher grade after all…

The solution is simple. It’s time to consign V grades and Font grades to the same scrap pile that contains Gill grades (B1, B2 and B3) and other defunct systems. It’s time to replace them with a new grading system that reflects both the Safety through indicating the overall difficulty and progression through outlining the actual maximum difficulty.

So I propose the following.

Break the grade of a boulder in to several separate components that when joined give the overall difficulty of a problem. Similar to the English E grade system but tailored for boulderers.

The first component we will give is the overall length of the problem, just how many moves is it? So on a long problem like The Wheel you’ll see a huge number like 70. Whereas a problem like Fontainebleau’s Rainbow Rocket will get a far more reasonable looking 1. We will call this the Full grade

The second component will be using the symbols on any modern keyboard to indicate the predominant angle of a problem. So The Wheel, being a roof, gets a -. On the other side of the spectrum Duel would get / for being a slab and Unrepeatable in Castle Hill would get a ^ as a mantle. Nice and visual for the current generation of instagrammer’s and iphone beta video watchers.

Australian Bouldering World Cup Team Physio Claire Langmore looking strong on If The Shoe Fits 4\8

Next we will have the Ultimate grade. How hard is the single most difficult move on the problem? In isolation. So now we are looking at a grade that will resemble this in a guide book. The Wheel of Life 70-9 or Duel 7/11.
Penultimately for the guide we will have the option of giving the problem up to two letters. The first letter would be C for contended. Confirmation can only be given by repeat ascensionists, preferably climbers more fashionable and better sponsored than the first ascensionist.

Lastly, and because safety is important we have an optional D to put on the end if a problem is dangerous. So an established, reasonably safe problem like Duel getting a simple 7/11 but Eagles Nest in the Grampians as a sand bag V8 by today’s standards would end up with a grade something like 14I8CD. In itself the length of the grade should deter less experienced suitors.

Paul Robinson making the most of all the hours in the day. Here seen climbing Genesis 5\13 at Crumbly in Sydney

This I am calling the Full Ultimate (F.U) grading system. Contentious problems would get a F.U.C Grading until such time that they are confirmed and potentially dangerous problems will be known as F.U.C.D!



  1. wicoxfreedom says:

    Two things:
    (1) It took me far too long to pick up on your sarcasm on the new grading system (my fault not yours)
    (2) On a serious note, I do like the use of the term “progression”. I always viewed “progression” as moving the sport as a whole, but I like it used on a personal note, “I am personally making progress”
    Well written

  2. yepnope says:

    there are only 2 grades in any kind of climbing, yep, or nope!

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