The American V-scale and the French Font scale are the two international standards for rating the difficulty of boulder problems. This guide uses neither. Instead, we have adapted a color system that loosely corresponds to overlapping V-scale grade ranges.
In place of the V-scale, we have indexed each problem within a color range. The colors act as a rough guide for the subjective feeling of difficulty in climbing a boulder problem. You can think of it as a probability curve that maps problems to a difficulty range. For example, many “yellow” problems will feel about v7, some will feel closer to v6 or v8, and you might find one that you’d rate v5 or v9. So, some “yellow” problems might feel easier than the grade suggests while others might feel harder.
Even these broad difficulty guidelines have limitations. If you’re considerably taller or shorter than 5’10”, or you have an extreme set of strengths and weaknesses in your climbing, you might find that even this broad grade range misses the mark. Thus is the nature of subjectivity. All we can do, as guidebook authors, is gently direct you towards problems that we think you’re disposed to enjoy.
Over the last 10 years of climbing at Black Mountain and working on this guide, we came to the conclusion that we should shift away from the definitive nature of grading that modern bouldering has embraced. We’ve discussed grades extensively among ourselves and with many climbers from various backgrounds. Out of these conversations came the decision to opt out the traditional V-scale, a decision we came to based on four main reasons. Is this the right thing to do? We’ll all find out together, over time.
Many of the problems at Black have only been climbed by a handful of people, mostly men, of similar skill levels and body type. Traditionally, grades are determined through a broad consensus, but for these problems, there isn’t a diverse pool of climbers who know the movements and can arrive at a consensus on their difficulty. There is only the subjective assessment of a few like minded (and like sized) boulderers.
In other words, we haven’t graded problems because meaningful consensus does not exist for the majority of the problems in this book.
A printed guidebook is not the authority on grades! If precise, numerical grades are an important part of your climbing experience, there are plenty of ways to contribute to the grading of boulder problems at Black. Group discussions, in person or online forums, are great avenues for establishing broad consensus on grades. The fixed format of a printed book, however, is incapable of adapting to the continually changing nature of boulder problems and the way they are climbed. Holds break, new beta unlocks easier sequences, weather and environmental conditions change, and problems clean up over time.
If exact grades are not a top priority for you, then hopefully you enjoy the format of this book.
When we quantify something using subjective measures in other areas of study, there is a method and purpose. What exactly are we assessing when we grade the difficulty of boulder problems? In the case of the V-scale, we’re talking about how hard a problem “feels.” In doing so we are ignoring many variables. Body types, skill sets, natural abilities, conditions, and many other factors. These factors can make a single problem feel radically different to different people. Consequently, we can only make broad generalizations about how something is likely to feel for others. The V-scale is a representation of how hard a problem feels in relation to past experiences, but there are no established standards for the conditions under which we grade a problem and who does the grading.
The V-scale fares particularly bad on Black Mountain granite. The holds are often far apart and the difference between easy and impossible can be measured in inches. This leads to large inconsistencies in climber's experiences and claims to difficulty. Who is right? Further, the conditions in the middle of summer are drastically different than a crisp winter morning. So we ask: Who is supposed to determine the grade and when are they supposed to do it?
A difficulty scale for climbing should take into account these subjective experience of difficulty. If a climb feels radically harder for different people depending on height, it doesn’t make sense to continue to propose there is one objective grade that applies to everyone.
History of B Scale
SoCal has a history of describing the difficulty of boulder problems with broad strokes, and for years the B-scale was the standard. The scale only has three designations: B1 was the harder than 5.12 rope climbing, B3 has only been bouldered once, and B2 is somewhere in between. As you may infer, problems constantly move from B3 to B2, since the only difference between these two grades is the number of times a problem has been climbed.
Because the B-scale was used at Black Mountain for decades, the V-scale is the historical anomaly. It was broadly introduced in the mid 90’s, and after 20 years of use, is still the young upstart. Avoiding precise numerical grades in favor of elastic difficulty guidelines is actually in keeping with the history of the area, a history we wish to respect in this guide.
The B-scale was consciously designed to deter bouldering from becoming a numbers game!