This week I will try to shed some light on the often-confusing grade system used in Bouldering. Here at SUBSTATION we have adopted the V grade system, however, this blog offers a useful comparison, hopefully if you meet a friend who is used to one of the various other grading systems you’ll hopefully have some idea about how you compare.

Bouldering grades are number/letter combinations used to convey the difficulty of a problem. The two most common are the V-Scale and the Font scale which are used both for indoor and outdoor climbing. Some gyms may have their own system which you will just have to get to know on a case by case basis.

In the early days, problems were often ungraded, and you never really knew what you were going to get unless you tried it yourself or knew someone that had. As popularity for the sport has grown the grading systems now provides a really quick and easy way of knowing where to start when you arrive at a new location.

Even with a recognised system, ultimately the gradings are subjective and what is easy for one climber may be difficult for another. For example, some problems will be easier for taller climbers with a longer reach, whereas others may reward flexibility or strength. For this reason, there will always be debate about where a problem falls on the scale… In my opinion a little bit a variance doesn’t hurt, it’s good to challenge yourself in different ways especially when climbing with a friend. It should also be noted that the ratings don’t take into account the risk of a climb or the mental effort required to complete it, this becomes more noticeable, and often sketchy, when climbing outdoors where you may find an easy rated problem is very exposed. In my experience, this will always feel a lot harder (sweaty palms don’t help grip either)!

In the case of indoor bouldering a route-setter will create a problem, climb it and assign a grade to it. The most common grade for indoor bouldering in the UK is the V-scale. Which was invented by a guy in the USA called John Sherman whose nickname was Verm hence the V. He published a bouldering guide that was quickly picked up across the US and has since been adopted globally.

At Substation we have adopted this system purely based on its simplicity, starting at VB (essentially V-1) and becomes increasingly more difficult. The great thing about the scale is its limitlessness, so as boulderers become ever more challenging, the scale can be increased. Currently the top pros are up to V16 or V17, for anyone who has tried bouldering this is truly mind blowing!  Most of us mere mortals will easily achieve V2-3 with a bit of practice. After a while V5-6 is achievable and those that train hard, work on strength and flexibility will eventually be able to hit V8 and above. Further testament to how incredible the top pros are!

The font scale, short for The Fontainebleau Scale is the predominant scale used in Europe and has been for a long time. As in the V scale the problems start at 1 and become progressively more difficult. However, and confusingly, when you reach 4, the scale is suffixed by + signs and then the letters a, b or c the later in the alphabet the more difficult.

Please see below a comparison scale which I hope you find useful. I would love to hear your feedback after you have tried a few problems at SUBSTATION.

Simon Stanway