V0, V5+, what the heck is a V14? These numbers are grades that one would see at the start of a boulder problem. They represent in numerical form how difficult a problem could be for a climber. In general, the numbers are part of what’s known as the V-Scale. According to Learning to Climb Indoors author Eric J. Hörst, these measurements are from an open-ended scale for grading the difficulty of boulder problems.
A Little History
Before the V-Scale was created, problems weren’t graded until the late 1950’s. One of bouldering’s pioneers, John Gill, started using a grade called the B-scale in 1958 as stated in "10 Things You Didn't Know About Bouldering Grades" by Climbing Magazine author Matt Samet. This particular scale only had 3 grades in ascending order: B1, B2, and B3. The issue with the scale though was that the grades were too loose in its definition of difficulty.
It wasn’t until the late 1980’s when the V-Scale was created. Climbing website 99boulders.com says this scale was published by legendary boulderer John Sherman. Posted from the site's "Bouldering Grades: The Complete Guide" article, the V-Scale was named after Sherman, in particular, after his nicknames “Verm” or “Vermin”. Sherman first used the scale in his guidebook at the popular climbing site, Hueco Tanks, in Texas.
Since then, the V-Scale is used as the standard grading scale for bouldering in North America. As the chart below indicates, the scale starts from V0 to V16, easiest to hardest. The YDS scale (Yosemite Demical System) shown on the left side is used to grade roped climbs. This is to compare the two scales in terms of difficulty. It’s easy to see here that the larger the number, the harder the problem (or route) is.
Sometimes one might see a plus or minus next to a V grade. This marking further identifies the difficulty of a problem. These are rather intuitive: a V3+ is harder than a V3, and a V3 is harder than a V3-. Also, a V4- is harder than a V3+. 99boulders.com states that this practice is common for the lower end of the scale, but once past V9 or V10 pluses and minuses mostly seem to disappear.
It’s wise to mention that the grades themselves have a range of difficulty. The terms “hard” and “soft” are also used to describe the levels of difficulty on the scale. For example, a V5 might be considered soft because this particular problem may seem easier than other V5 rated problems. On the other hand, a V6 may seem hard because it appears harder for the grade. I’ve come across some of these before. It ultimately comes down to a climber’s ability and skills due to whether or not she/he finds the problem hard or easy.
For me when it comes to bouldering grades, I do take it into account before bouldering. However, I try not to let it dictate what I can and can’t climb. If there’s a higher grade problem that looks fun, I’ll do it just to say I attempted it. It might go on my list of problems to work on, it might not. There are others I look at and say “nope, not that one.” At least it gets me climbing and trying new ways of doing it.
Now that you know more about how boulder problems are rated, the next question is how to get up the boulder? Boulders have their own holds to help climbers move upwards. Those holds can help solve or make the problem even harder. Next time I’ll show you what those holds are and how they can be used to solve the problem.