Climbing grades and Wiccan spells

Growing up, we had a witch that lived in our neighborhood. Skinny, long dark hair, black cat and a Ouija board. The whole 9 yards. She would even don the pointy hat on Halloween. Most of us were afraid to even walk past her house. But boys being boys, my friends and I decided that no witch was going to intimidate us. We would fight back and save our otherwise peaceful neighborhood from this invasion of the dark side. This Halloween, we would TP the witch’s house!

All was going as planned. Supplies were in hand, rendezvous points were established, appropriate alibis were created and the sweet sound of freedom was echoing throughout the neighborhood. That was, until the witch’s daughter approached and informed us that her mom was on to our plan. Apparently, the Dark Lord of North 11th Street had learned of our plans after consulting her tarot cards. She advised her daughter to warn us that if we proceeded, the most evil of all Wiccan spells would be cast upon each of us! We chose to leave ‘saving middle earth’ to others more qualified.

We had no idea how she knew and we didn’t care. Witchcraft is what it was and it scared the snot out of each of us.

Climbing grades can be just as mysterious and just as deflating to hope and egos. Setting grades, understanding grades, and congruence in grades are much more witchcraft than science. BUT HAVE NO FEAR! I may have failed exorcising our grade school sorceress, but I will help you, oh little helpless climber, through the dark forest of YDS, Hueco and Font understanding (OK, maybe that was a bit much).

Let’s start with the YDS, Yosemite Decimal System (no, this has nothing to do with libraries in the 80’s). Initially developed in the 1930’s as a way to classify hikes, it consists of 6 grades. Grade 1 would be like hiking a Kansas trail. Grade 2 would be hiking a mountain trail that might require a little scrambling but falling is unlikely to result in significant injury. Grade 3 would be more unstable, probably requiring you to use hands as well as feet, and a fall could be very serious. Grade 4 is simple climbing with good natural protection, but falls could very likely be fatal, so a rope is advised. Finally, grade 5 is what we understand as rock climbing: technical, vertical and a rope is needed to prevent ground falls. (There is also a grade 6, which is aid-climbing, or the use of mechanical devises to get up the route).

So far so good I hope? Now for the controversial part. Obviously, not all rock climbs are equal. And so a second number after the decimal was added to grade the difficulty of the climb. Originally these ranged from 5.0 to 5.9 (say ‘five-nine’. Only noobs say five point nine 😉 ) However, as shoes became more specialized and ropes could actually sustain falls, people started pushing the grades. Instead of just adding a bunch of numbers (which would make sooo much more sense, but no one very said climbers made sense), someone got the bright idea of adding letters after numbers to the higher grades, such that now we have 5.10a, 5.10b, 5.10c, and 5.10d all the way up to 5.15c.

So what’s so controversial you ask? Well, the problem is: ‘who decides what is 5.8 or 5.12b?’ And the answer is: the person who climbed it. Therefore, by its very nature, YDS is EXTREMELY subjective. If you have a climber who loves compression moves, she might feel as if a compression-type climb is much easier than another equally strong and talented climber who excels at dynamic movement. To make it even worse, some areas of the country tend to grade stiffer or softer than other areas.

And then we have climbing gyms.

As climbing gyms have evolved into their own personal style and atmosphere, gym grades have also evolved. But again, grades are set by local climbers and communities; and so between gyms, grades can even vary by much more. I have literally heard from dozens of people, that our grades at Bliss are way harder (stiffer) than grades at other gyms while others have told me our grades are too easy (soft). And even in the same grade range, you very likely may find a 5.9 that seems easy to you and one that is a such a different style that you can’t make a move on it. Now honestly, this is sometimes our fault (we may have completely missed the grade when one of our super strong climbers ran up it and didn’t recognize the challenges the rest of us would feel). But either way, it is important to remember that the grades are really just a subjected, somewhat educated (and more likely Wiccan) guess.

As if that is not confusing enough, bouldering uses its own grading system. In the USA, we use what is called the Hueco V- Grading System. (yes I said USA, because, believe it or not, there are over 20 different worldwide grading systems, including the widely popular European Font system). The Hueco V-Grade was developed by John ‘Vermin’ Sherman at Hueco Tanks State Historic Site in Texas (one of North America’s premier bouldering areas) in the 1990’s. They range from V0 to V16, with the higher the number the more difficult the grade. However, since V0 is supposedly equivalent to YDS 5.9-5.10b, VB (beginner) was also introduced to grade the easier boulder problems. Of course, like in all grading, this is confusing and controversial as well, since it is common to find roped routes graded 5.12d which are much easier or harder than boulder problems graded V6, even though they are supposed to correlate.

The bottom line: grades are simply there to help you broadly quantify what you are climbing. If you are a 5.9 climber, then maybe you don’t want to risk that V8 highball! On the other hand, if the risk is acceptable, go ahead and give a shot at some of the higher grades. You might surprise yourself. Likewise, when you are shut down on a route that is graded somewhere that you feel you should easily be able to accomplish, realize that just maybe the person who graded it was having really good day or even had a different skill set than you have.

At the end of the day, the point is working with the rock (or holds), learning movement, making slow progress, and most importantly, having fun. Don’t let the grades take that away from you.

Of course, if all else fails, you might consider boiling up your cauldron and casting a spell on whoever graded the insanely difficult 5.10a.

Climb hard and Follow Your Bliss,


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