10 Things You Didn't Know about Bouldering Grades

Homo sapiens did not stand upright and then go straight to bouldering V16

Homo sapiens did not stand upright and then go straight to bouldering V16. The V-grades and French Fontainebleau grades that are today’s gold standards took time to disseminate, with other scales proposed along the way. In fact, it was John Gill’s B-system, advanced over a half-century ago as Gill devoted himself almost exclusively to bouldering, that set the stage for today’s popular, open-ended V-system.
1.Before Gill proposed the B-system in 1958, problems largely went ungraded—bouldering had been seen as a fun, mildly competitive diversion or “practice climbing” for roped objectives. “As far as I know, we had no bouldering grading system but used the grades we applied to climbs,” says Royal Robbins of the problems he and other California pioneers did at Stoney Point, Yosemite, and elsewhere. “If they were hard enough, we called them 5.9+. It was just training for the real, big stuff.” Gill also used route climbing’s Yosemite Decimal System until he began pulling moves harder than 5.9.

The B-system had three tiers: B1 was “difficult,” denoting the highest level in roped climbing (about 5.10 trad at the time); B2 was “very difficult”—or greater than 5.10—a category for stouter, “bouldering-level” problems; and B3 meant the “limit,” a problem done only once (or, as Gill wrote in his 1969 essay “The Art of Bouldering,” is “very rarely repeated, although frequently tried without success”). Repeats, even by the first-ascent party, automatically dropped the grade.

Gill’s rating scheme never caught fire like the V-scale for two reasons: firstly, because it was too fluid (a B1 put up in 1958 would naturally be easier than one done in 1968, when standards had risen), thus thwarting easy comparison; and secondly, because of Gill’s outlying talent. Says Richard Goldstone, who bouldered with Gill in the Tetons, southern Illinois, and the Needles, “Ninety-nine percent of the existing boulder problems were B1s in John’s system. He was the only person in the U.S. bouldering harder than that.” Indeed by using gymnastic training techniques and employing dynamic motion, Gill had completed, as he wrote, “short pitches or boulder problems—by 1958 and 1959—that would today be rated... V9 to V10, but were then simply ‘more difficult’ than the new 5.10s.”

4. In “The Art of Bouldering,” Gill also advanced an “E-system,” or an elimination system for the hardest problems. An E-1 would be a problem so tough only one person had climbed it, E-2 had only two ascensionists, and so on up to E-10, after which the rating would be dropped. Prescient about today’s endless V-bickering, Gill also wrote, “Reach and body compactness would make the B-system absurd for occasional problems, and climbers of different strengths would dispute the grading.” Not so with the E-system, which emphasized “the accomplishments of certain climbers and not the inherent difficulties of the rock.”

5. Today, the Font scale holds equal global sway as the V-scale, yet despite being around for decades longer, it never crossed the pond—until the last quarter century, climbers rarely bouldered internationally. Nonetheless, like the V-scale, the Font scale’s open-endedness has given it staying power: Michel Libert’s L’Abbatoir, done in 1960, is still le forêt’s first and benchmark 7A (V6), even if Font’s current hardest problem merits 8C or V15. (The Font scale often uppercases the letter to distinguish it from the French route-climbing scale.)

6. Everybody knows that the V-scale takes its name from John Sherman’s nickname, “Verm” or “Vermin.” But did you know it was his publisher for the 1991 edition of the Hueco Tanks Climbing and Bouldering Guide, George Meyers of Chockstone Press, whom we should really thank? When Sherman turned in the manuscript around 1989, he deliberately left its almost 900 boulder problems unrated. “George wasn’t going to print it if I didn’t rate all those things,” says Sherman, so over the next season he set out to adapt and codify an informal scale in use then at Hueco: the V-scale.

7. Sherman, who just came out with his updated Better Bouldering handbook, said the V-scale was mostly a half-joking “ego yardstick” he and friends used to compare their Hueco feats to classic B2s like Gill’s Pinch Overhang at Horsetooth Reservoir, Colorado. Wanting to refine the broad B2 category, the climbers had proposed three V tiers: the original V1 was Bob Murray’s Center El Murray (today V6); the original V2 was Mike Head’s Mushroom Roof (today V8); and two benchmark V3s were Nachoman and Sex after Death(today V9s). When Sherman tweaked the scale for his guidebook, he expanded it and made it open-ended, realizing the limitations of the closed B-system. (Gill, too, had originally played with an openended system, but discarded it because he feared it might encourage number-chasing; and as Sherman jokes, “Numbers got no soul. People need to get over that stuff.”) Sherman came up with most of the book’s V grades himself, though he handed out questionnaires to solicit consensus ratings for harder problems (roughly V5 and up) from a dozen climbers, the entire pool of qualified Hueco boulderers at the time.

There has been much speculation about where the scales currently top out: Does true V16/Font 8C+ exist? Two American V16 contenders, Daniel Woods’ The Game and Paul Robinson’s Lucid Dreaming, went up in 2010, though the former was repeated using new beta and suggested to be V15, while the latter was downgraded to V15/16 by Robinson himself, despite zero repeats to date. In 2011, Adam Ondra established a V16, Terranova, at Holjsten in the Czech Republic, and repeated Christian Core’s 2008 problem Gioiaat Varazze, Italy, saying that both felt like V16. In an interview, Ondra said: “If these two are to be only 8Cs, OK, but in that case, grading doesn’t make sense anymore and every single top-grade boulder problem would have to be downgraded.”

9. If V16 exists, what about V17 or V18? Wouldn’t you just run out of handholds? While it’s true that rock can become too blank, Robinson thinks that such stratospheric grades will be realized through specialization: finding lines that cater to one’s specific strengths. For Lucid Dreaming, Robinson proposed V16 because the problem demanded two back-to-back “limitesque” (V12/V13) moves on the micro-holds he excels at. Robinson says a V17 or V18 will require that the climber simply link more sequences like this.

10. If all these scales weren’t number soup enough, consider the primary Japanese bouldering scale, the kyū/dan system, based on martial arts levels and put into play on the boulders at Ogawayama. The easiest problems, as with the easiest (student) martial arts level, start at 10-kyū and work their way down to 1-kyū, at which point you attain black-belt mastery called shodan, or “the first step” (roughly V7). The world’s current hardest problems are thus rokudan or 6-dan. In other words, climbing V16 makes you a sixth-degree black belt!


Previous Comments

@Chris don't get me wrong I like having a trading system but I would definitely advise trying things that you think are to hard for you. Maybe while you're searching through the guidebook finding those v0s and v1s you could try to do the first few moves on all the other climbs on the boulder you find. Since a lot of the harder problems are more specialized than the easier one you might just find which type if climbing you're best at by trying the start of harder climbs. Either way, never stop climbing! =D

Dan the Irish King - 11/16/2014 10:45:37

+1 to Chris' comment below. Sure, its possible people can "chase ratings" and get lost in their ego if that is how they roll, but grades are just a tool and a damn useful one at that.

Ted - 11/15/2014 7:19:25

"V7?" "No, V10. Well, maybe V9. Hell, maybe V7." "I don't know, maybe it is closer to V10." "Ah, fuck it, let's just settle it as a V8." "Yeah, who really cares about that shit anyway?" "Yeah, is that hog's leg still going?"

Ron Swanson - 11/15/2014 5:29:45

As a new climber, I don't understand people who fail to see the value in ratings. They help you know what to climb, they help you see and quantify your climbing progress, they help you know who are ideal climbing partners, and they save you time knowing where to climb for effective workout routines. As a new boulderer, I would go to areas and all I could do was hunt for V0 and v1 boulders, which were very spread out. With no ratings I could have easily spent a day searching and climbing very little. Also when my gym attempted no boulder ratings, unanimously all beginners were frustrated. Only the elite 10% climbing v7 and higher liked the system.

Chris - 11/14/2014 6:27:02

Can someone elaborate on the Ondra quote? And/or provide a link to where the comment is for context?

Ben - 10/09/2014 8:02:01

Excellent article!!

Jason Wolf - 08/31/2014 4:42:24

Really there are only two bouldering grades. If you can do the problem its easy, if you can't its hard.(thanks to Mike Waugh. ;-))

Chris Wegener - 08/31/2014 8:58:55

Let's not forget that the first widely used open-ended system was in fact the Ewbank system, invented in the Blue Mts in the early-mid 1960s by the great man himself, John Ewbank (RIP).

Peter - 08/29/2014 9:54:48

This article has more depth to it than I expected. It's very interesting to see the thought process of those who push or pushed boundaries in the progression of creating the modern form of bouldering that we know today. It is at once inspiring to think about what could come in the future, and thought-provoking to see how the ideas of older generations prevailed. Robinson's ideas regarding specialization are particularly interesting to me as a climber who was introduced to the sport and lifestyle at a time when V16 was already an established grade. I personally chase numbers in the sense of self-improvement. But, I believe that true climbing lies in beautiful execution fitting to both the difficulty and the style. Part of its attraction is that climbing is open to interpretation by all-- there is no "right" way to climb, just the way you discover for yourself.

CC_Climber - 08/08/2014 8:52:33

I think grades can be a good way of showing your how you are progressing in the sport, if you don't like grades then just don't buy the guidebooks or don't worry about what others rate things just climb what you think looks fun. Bouldering grades are subjective but at the same time most climbs within a grade are similar enough that they are good as a rating standard (+-a grade or so).

Dan - 05/21/2014 2:10:03

Hey Chrislikestoboulder, as with routes boulders can maim ya. For example I might feel comfortable on a high ball V1, but a V10, not for me. Right? Bouldering grades do suck the life out of bouldering in a sense. Number chasing can turn bouldering in to just another ego game, not unlike the rat race we face in our modern material culture. In the end we all have to make a conscious choice about what is important to us, grades? money? fame? esthetics? soul searching? For me boulder problems are like Buddhist koans, irrelevant in the greater scheme of things, yet life affirming and probably most importantly they push me to examine myself and my motivations, and how I live my life in great and excruciating detail.

Dan - 05/13/2014 9:37:03

@Jen. I can only think of two reasons for why there are boulder problem grades. 1. For you to try a problem, you need to know if they are within your boundary or not. I did my first ever V6 today, but I know for a fact I couldn't do a V10. So, if I was to go on an outdoors tip to only be faced with problems I couldn't do, I would be a little annoyed! 2. Bragging rights :/

John - 04/22/2014 8:18:17

I've seen a long of strong people that aren't necessarily strong climbers, who have been climbing seriously for about a year show up and try and warm up on a V6 or V7 simply because the starting holds are jugs. Not all climbers have the knowledge to tell what might be difficult and what might not, so they also aren't likely to know what will strain tendons and what will not. So grading just for the sake of knowing what routes to warm up on is nice. Other than that, grades can really limit people, they are incredibly subjective, and can be a huge pain in the butt.

Jen - 04/04/2014 9:19:38

Why are boulder problems graded? What is the point or goal of grading boulder problems? I understand grading multpitch and sport routes, you especially don't want to start a multpitch beyond your capabilities. But in bouldering, grades really has no function. I dont't understand it. No one I have asked has been able to give me a good answer, 'cept that it can help in deciding to which area on a bouldering spot you want to go to. Nevertheless, it doesn't require a specific boulder grade on each problem.

Chrislikestoboulder - 02/27/2014 8:05:46

Also worth a mention on the bouldering grades: Jim Holloway, really(!) hard boulderer from the 1970's also had his own grading system, JHE (Jim Holloway Easy), JHM (Medium), and JHH (Hard). JHH may include V13(?), pretty impressive stuff.

Andrew - 02/15/2014 11:37:00

Thanks for the catch Jeremy!

Ed. - 02/04/2014 12:34:00

"zero repeats to date." D woods just got the SA of that rig

Jeremy - 01/31/2014 11:33:42