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Climbing Magazine Introduces New Objective Climbing Grade Scale

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We consulted the world’s top pros, mathematicians, and medical doctors to devise the best grading system known to mankind.

Photo: Andrew Burr

Our sport has a problem: the grading system is broken. It’s subjective. What may be a 5.9 to one climber may be considered 5.11 to another. Furthermore it’s inconsistent from area to area. Not only does this make things confusing and inaccessible to newcomers, it can actually make a day out dangerous. A 5.8 Boulder Canyon sport climber would be woefully unprepared for, say, the Nose which also goes at 5.8 (with a C2 modifier, who even knows what that means?). Just ask sport climbing superstar Sasha DiGiulian.

“I can climb some 5.14d routes, but not others,” says DiGiulian, and that doesn’t make any sense. If she can climb one 5.14d, she should be able to climb them all.

To make matters even more confusing, route grades don’t apply to bouldering, ice climbing, or mixed climbing, and every country seems to have their own distinct rating scale.

“I fly all over the world to climb,” says Chris Sharma, maybe the best climber on Earth. “It’s kind of annoying to always have to adjust to the local grading system. I mean, I have an app that converts everything, but still.”

In order to improve the lives of climbers everywhere, we here at Climbing have devised a simple, objective, and all-encompassing grading method called the RDHAWRDRBKOFLK Scale. (It’s an acronym.)

Here’s how it works

Photo: Andrew Burr

•First take the height of the route in feet. The taller a route is, the more work you must output to complete it, and therefor the more difficult it is.

“The Dawn Wall was really, really hard because it’s very, very tall,” said Tommy Caldwell, in an email. “That’s why it was so impressive.” 

Makes sense!

•Next take the most severe angle of the route lasting more than 5 feet (short roofs don’t count). Add this number (up to 90) to the base height. If the route is a slab, subtract the number.

Alex Honnold explains: “Steeper routes are harder and slab routes are easier, usually more akin to a very difficult hike than a technical rock climb.”

•Weather factors into the grade of the route. Add 1 point for every degree above or below 40 degrees for the yearly average temperature of the area, then divide the yearly average relative humidity in half and add the number, as well as the average windspeed. The idea here is that it’s harder to climb when it’s hot, wet, or windy. We polled a random group of readers, who had this to say about weather:

“When it’s hot out, my hands get sweaty, which makes them slippery, and sometimes I slip off rock climbs.”

“Wetness in the air as humidity, or falling from the sky as rain definitely makes it harder to climb, for sure.”

“It kinda sucks when it’s really windy out.”

•The R in RDHAWRDRBKOFLK stands for rock. Add 20 points for sandstone, 30 for granite, and nothing for limestone. “Limestone is usually full of holes so it’s easy to climb,” says Jonathan Siegrist, who would know because he climbs 5.15a. We can’t cover the full scope of rock types on this page, but we will soon upload a database laying out exactly how many difficulty points any given rock-type adds (Preview: Schist adds 23 points, but Quartz Monzonite only adds 17 points).

•Measure the longest distance between handholds on the route (in feet). Multiply this number by 10 and add it to the grade.

“This is what we call a ‘reachy’ move,” says Daniel Woods.

•Add 5 points for each individual roof the climber most navigate.

“Roofs are hard because you gotta like, pull up on ’em and sometimes you can’t really get your feet under you,” explains Adam Ondra.

•If the route has bolts, subtract 50 points, even if you will be protecting it traditionally.

“Don’t act like you won’t clip a bolt if things go south,” says Lynn Hill, the first person to free climb the Nose. No big deal.

•Subtract 10 points for every knee bar available on the route. A route may not be considered properly graded until knee bars are counted on rappel.

•If it’s an ice route, the grade is always exactly 100.

“Every ice climb is the same,” says Will Gadd. “If you can climb 20 feet of vertical ice, you can climb pretty much anything. Swing, swing, kick, kick, swing, swing, kick, kick. That’s all it is. It’s not even that fun.”

•Subtract the year the route saw a first free ascent from the current year and add the number.

“I’m a bit of a climbing historian,” says Cedar Wright. “Old climbs are harder because high grades had not yet been invented. Also, many climbers in the ‘60s and ‘70s fought in World War 2 and no longer feared death.”

•If Layton Kor was the first ascensionist add 200 RDHAWRDRBKOFLK points.

“F*** that guy,” says Honnold.

And that’s it! That’s every factor that determines the difficulty of a rock climb.

“While the scale may seem unfairly weighted against boulder problems,” says Climbing editor Shannon Davis. “In actuality bouldering is easier than sport climbing, and sport climbing is easier than big wall climbing, so it is fairly weighted against boulder problems.”

Of course, this is the base RDHAWRDRBKOFLK grade. Many climbers will be perfectly satisfied going by this alone, but climbing difficulty varies greatly from person to person. This is why you may also determine your own personal RDHAWRDRBKOFLK modifier grade for a more accurate assessment of how difficult a given route will be for you.

“If I was Alex Puccio, I’d be able to climb much harder than I do now,” says Joe Kinder. “There’s no doubt. And a good grading scale would take that into account.”

Photo: Andrew Burr

There are two types of personal RDHAWRDRBKOFLK modifiers: static and dynamic. Your static RDHAWRDRBKOFLK score doesn’t change often. Your dynamic RDHAWRDRBKOFLK score will need to be re-evaluated daily.

To determind your static RDHAWRDRBKOFLK score:

•Determine your height in inches and subtract it from 65 (5’5”, the ideal climber height, and the height of most pro climbers). If the answer is a negative value, drop the negative and multiply by 3. If the answer is a positive value, do not multiply it.

•Determine your BMI with skin fold callipers. Square your BMI and add it to your static RDHAWRDRBKOFLK.

“That spare tire’s gonna weigh you down,” says Sachi Amma.

•Determine your ape index (the length of your arm span in inches minus your height). Square this number and subtract it from your static RDHAWRDRBKOFLK. If the pre-squared number is negative, then add it instead.

“My ape index is +17,” says Alex Johnson. “I have freakishly long arms, and this is the only reason I’m a very good climber.”

Your dynamic RDHAWRDRBKOFLK grade is based on your current state. Here’s how to determine it:

•Take the number of days in a row you’ve climbed before today. Multiply by 10 until you reach 4 days, then multiply by 50 or just go back to bed.

•Add 50 difficulty points for every hour less than 9 you slept the night before, adding 10 additional points for every time you woke up through the night, and 3 more points for every toss or turn.

“I like to keep a pen and paper on my night stand to note tosses and turns as they occur,” says Angie Payne. “Otherwise I’d forget them by the time I woke up in the morning.”

•Take number of beers you’ve consumed since waking up and add two zeros for every beer greater than 2. (i.e. one or two beers does not increase your score, but 3 beers increases it by 300, 4=400, etc.). This was a controversial call, but many of our readers insisted that they climb worse when they’re like, super wasted.

•Add 10% to the difficulty if you’re just feeling kind of bla today.

“Some days I’m just not feeling it,” says Kevin Jorgeson. “And that’s when climbing gets hard. I told everyone I had split tips on the Dawn Wall, but really I was just like, you know, ‘whatever, not into it.'”

And there you have it! By carefully calculating all of the above factors, you can determine the accurate difficulty of any rock climb in the world. We, as a community now have a lot of work to do, re-grading everything. In an effort to jumpstart the process, here are some classic routes re-graded under the RDHAWRDRBKOFLK scale:

The Nose (Formerly 5.8 C2) – 3976
Biographie (formerly 5.15a) – 231
The Process (Bishop, Formerly V16) – 77
The Young and the Rackless (Formerly 5.9) – 412

Calculate your own RDHAWRDRBKOFLK grades: Download the app!