A V-Scale Refresher
In my previous Return to Competitive Bouldering article, I said I competed in the intermediate category. However, I realized that I didn’t explain what that meant. So, I’m clarifying what I wrote and jogging your memory on the bouldering V-Scale.
The categories are based on where a person’s skill level is and what they usually climb in the gym grade-wise. For example, grades V0-V1 or V2 are considered for a recreational or beginner, V2-V4 (which is what Threshold used) or V3-V4 or 5 for intermediate, and so on. These ranges can be subjective to the gym, so sometimes you might take your best guess to whether you’re in one or another.
You might be thinking, “wait, back up. What do the grades even mean?” Glad you asked.
The grades represent in a numerical form how hard a problem can 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.
Brush Up on Bouldering History
Before the V-Scale was recognized, boulders weren’t graded until the late 1950s. In Climbing Grades: Comparison Chart and Rating Systems Overview, Moja Gear writer Natalie Siddique states the V-scale/system was established by John “Vermin” Sherman in the bouldering mecca of Hueco Tanks, in Texas. The V-scale ranges in difficulty from V0 (easiest) to V16.
John Gill started using a bouldering grade called the B-Scale in 1958 as stated in 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Bouldering Grades by Climbing Magazine’s Matt Samet. This scale only had three grades in ascending order: B1, B2, and B3. The issue with it though was that the categories were too loose in their definition of difficulty.
However, the V-Scale wasn’t created until the late 1980s. It’s named after Sherman’s’ nicknames “Verm” or “Vermin.” He first used the scale in his guidebook at Hueco Tanks. 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 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 set up the V-scale.
How Hard is it?
Since then, the V-Scale is the standard grading scale for bouldering in North America. As the chart below indicates, the scale starts from V0 to V16, easiest to hardest. It’s easy to see here that the larger the number, the harder the problem is.
Sometimes one might see a plus or minus next to a V grade. This marking further distinguishes 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 the grades themselves have a range of difficulty. The terms “hard” and “soft” are also used to describe the trickiness of the climb. For example, a V5 might be soft because it’s easier than other V5 rated problems. On the other hand, a V6 may seem hard because it’s harder for the grade. I’ve come across some of these before. It ultimately comes down to a climber’s skills plus subjectivity.
When it comes to bouldering grades, I do take it into account before hopping on. However, I try not to let it dictate what I can or can’t climb. If there’s a harder problem that looks fun, I’ll do it 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.” At least it gets me climbing and trying new ways of doing it.
As a little side note, I’ve mentioned this in previous articles, but I want to remind you that outdoor grades will feel much harder than what you’re used to in the climbing gym. My time bouldering in Bishop, CA is an excellent example of it. It’s something one must work on to feel comfortable with when they’re outside, but you’ll get it eventually.
I hope this article gives you a better understanding of what the V-scale is. Or at least a refresher about it. Until next time, happy bouldering!