Spot Grading System

Understanding The Tape

Hopefully all you ever wanted to know about The Spot Grading System

Here at the Spot we grade all our problems with a “spot system”.  The system is unique to the Spot, and, as all grading scales are relative anyways, we generally try to avoid admitting a direct correlation to any other system.  This is how we mark our routes:

The two most important parts of this for you are the number of spots and the route rules.  We have three sets of route rules in the Spot.  The most commonly used is N/T, which stands for Naturals/Tracking, and means you can grab and step on any hold carved into the boulders (the naturals) or any hold marked on the problem with tape (the tracking).  Sometimes you will see an O/F or OF, which stands for Open Feet, and means your hands are limited to naturals and taped-on holds but your feet can use any holds on the wall, natural or bolted on, and regardless of their tape color.  The final designation is a circled T, which means Tracking only–you can only use taped-on holds for your hands and your feet.  The exception to this is the top-out–naturals are always on for top-outs at the Spot unless they are taped off that specific problem (for example, if the problem goes left or right of where you are when you near the top of the wall, and the setter wants you to climb through that left or right top-out instead of going straight up).


Outdoor Bouldering in North America: The V Grade System

Though we try to avoid using the V-grade system, since we are all outdoor climbers as well it is pretty much impossible to avoid using it to help us decide how hard problems are when we’re forerunning them.  Spot climbers often want to know what correlation we use so they know how hard they’re training inside and what they should be climbing on when they go outside.

The V system (the most commonly used outdoor bouldering grade system in the United States) was developed by John “the Vermin” Sherman.  It starts with VB and, at the moment, goes up to V16.  The system and it’s origins are explained more fully in Sherman’s guidebook to Hueco Tanks, Texas.  Seriously, it’s an amazing guidebook.  Find it.  Read it.  I know Neptune Mountaineering has some copies, and if you don’t live in Boulder you can call ’em or you can find it on Hueco Tanks, and probably some other places as well.  This is what it looks like:

Funniest guidebook you’ll ever read. If you can find the first edition it’s even funnier.

Anyways, so the Spot system goes from 1 Spot – to 5 Spot +  This means there are 15 grade categories at the Spot.  In addition, just like outside climbing, there are “hard for the grade” and “easy for the grade” problems, even within each Spot rating.  Also, a problem may be harder or easier for you depending on your specific strengths.  When forerunning we try to take these things into consideration, but if you’re good at crimping, a crimpy 4 Spot will probably feel much easier to you than a compression 4 Spot will.  With that in mind, here’s a rough translation:

The Spot Bouldering Gym Spot Scale to V Scale Chart

UPDATE  Feb 2013 – We’ve been trying to get back to a more consistent grade scale so hopefully instead of hitting the brick wall at a certain grade you will be able to see some progression and possibility. Unfortunately, that may mean that you will find some problems at certain grades to be more difficult than you have been used to the past few months. Please don’t think you’ve started sucking, instead know that we are just dialing the system in and there may be a bit of variation until we’ve got the hang of it. We are doing this now because we just had a comp so the gym is basically a blank slate. Thanks and we hope you like it!

Read more about the updated grade scale here.

Why this grade or that?  How do you decide?

We strive to keep the Spot scale relatively accurate (to itself at least) over time.  Because nothing is permanent in the climbing gym mandala, we cannot reference the past when faced with a question of the future.  Therefore, we have to do our best to make educated guesses about each problem’s difficulty.  Some factors we use when forerunning to make our grade decision include:

~ Hold size and orientation

~ Distance between holds

~ Size, number, and placement of feet

~ Wall angle

~ Length of the problem

~ Height and difficulty of the top out

~ Difficulty of the most challenging moves on the problem

~ Style of the most difficult moves (power between jugs, or technical on crimpers?)

~ How many challenging moves there are

~ Grades of other problems up in the gym at the time

Basically, we focus on which factors make the problem difficult, how many of them are there, and how they relate this problem to the other problems in the Spot.  Our goal is not so much to match up perfectly to the scale above, but to create whole-gym consistency, so that, based on these factors, every 4 Spot at the gym is around the same difficulty.  This does not mean you will be able to climb every 4 spot if you can climb one.  If you could, climbing would be boring.  You might not even be able to climb every 3+. The same is true for outdoor climbing–I’ve seen climbers nearly do V12, only to later get shut down on V1 slabs.  Each problem takes a different combination of strengths and techniques to climb.  The good news is, you can discover your weaknesses in this way–if you can do one 4 Spot and not another, why not?  Is it an issue of finger strength?  Technical ability?  Lock-off? Perhaps you need to learn how to pogo?

Spot :: Sport

It has been requested that we compare the Spot scale to the Yosemite scale, and though bouldering and route climbing are difficult to compare, comparisons have always been (and always will be) made.  On the internet and in guidebooks you will find all kinds of theories as to the V grade / Yosemite grade correlation.  The climbing rankings site has a large scale correlation page, but it’s Yosemite scale to V grade scale seems way off, so I didn’t take it into account for this. I’ve long held the belief that climbing a V4 is around the same difficulty as climbing a 12a, so this scale also stems from that:

Spot Chart / Yosemite Chart

Spot :: Bleau

Finally, and just for fun, here is a conversion chart from the Spot scale to the French bouldering scale.  This scale was developed on the magnificent sandstone boulders in the forest of Fontainebleau, hence the “Bleau” scale. This scale should be relatively accurate to the grades you find on as it is widely used in Europe and other parts of the climbing world:

Spot Grade / Font Grade

One more thing:

In my experience, it’s more fun (and more possible) to climb hard boulder problems outdoors than indoors.  Artificial walls and holds, no matter how artfully made, cannot replicate the intricacies demanded by real rock problems.  The texture of real rock, also, cannot be remade indoors.  In fact, it has been suggested, and many believe, that indoor climbing and rock climbing are two entirely different sports.  I only say this because I believe that most Spot climbers I see are capable of climbing one or two (or more!) grades harder outdoors than they are in the Spot, unless they are extremely practiced indoor climbers.  This is good–the Spot trains you for great success outdoors!  So don’t limit yourself to only trying V5s outside if you have only managed 4 Spots.  Try harder, and see what happens!  Just make sure you don’t forget your crashpads!

  1. eric chastang
    March 4, 2012 at 9:22 am

    Do you really feel that 4+ equals V6 outside. I feel that your system is at least 2 grades off. most 4+ feel about V4, with the occasional one feeling V5. And most 4- feel about V1 or V2 at hardest, no where near the V4 on your chart. I think it would be a good idea to recalibrate your lower grades. Now once you are in the 5- to 5 grades, you are getting a little closer. 5- feels from V5-V7, so that is at least closer. 5 feels V7-V8. Anyway, would love to hear back on this.

  2. Jackie
    February 10, 2013 at 10:03 am

    Eric, we are working on it!

  3. phillip
    February 23, 2013 at 2:21 pm

    Why change the rating system at all. If the V scale is good enough for outside, why not use it in the gym? It’s more consistent and less confusing.

  4. Mark E
    March 29, 2013 at 8:02 am

    I’m fine with a grading system outside of V grades. If you travel to climb you realize that V grades (like route grades) vary greatly from location to location, even from one boulder to the next at times. For example, Flagstaff V4 and V5 feels almost exactly the same as Hueco V6 and V7 to me (but maybe it suits my strengths better). All I really care about is consistency within the gym — I don’t think you can equate things easily to outdoor grades because there isn’t really a gold standard anymore (used to be Hueco grades but I think we’ve moved past that). I think the Spot’s grades are fairly consistent, though 3 dots seem most problematic — some 3+ problems feel quite stout while most 3/3- problems are very easy. I usually max out at 4+ or 5- problems (multiple attempts but finishing them in a single session) and they seem consistently challenging to me. My other suggestion is that you need grading advice from people who climb at the level you’re grading. It’s pretty much impossible for a V12 boulderer to assess the difference between V2 and V3.

    • Jackie
      March 29, 2013 at 2:32 pm

      Thanks for sharing Mark. We agree that it’s hard to grade by considering outdoor grades (for example, have you ever climbed Initial Friction, a V1 in Yosemite?!) and in the gym we try to be consistent, though we don’t always succeed. For dividing between V2 and V3 we try to objectively consider things like hold size, wall angle, and movement size and type. Sometimes it is really really hard for us to decide though. If we’ve blown it, we are always glad to hear feedback about specific problems that are harder than they say (and why, for example, “I think the red 3 spot on the Font should be 3+ because the crossover move 3/4ths of the way up the wall is too big” or something to that effect that will allow us to understand specifically what we were missing when we graded it. Thanks!

  5. October 10, 2013 at 8:39 pm

    I’ve been training at Spot for almost two months now, after a three-year climbing hiatus. At first, the dot system made little sense to me, although since getting used to it, I find it pretty consistent. I think the best way to find the comparison to V-ratings is to do a bunch of dotted Spot problems that are challenging for you and then go outside and find real boulder problems that feel similar in difficulty. The correlations should start to reveal themselves with repetition.

    I find the widest disparity in the 5-dot range, although that might be because I am just getting back to that fitness level, and I get shut down more easily on the power problems in that range as opposed to technical ones. I really like the rating system, overall, and the route setting keeps me engaged. My only criticism is in so many of the contrived starts. I really don’t think that they add much to technique development. There is enough real estate, imo, that contrived starts seem unnecessary. Just my 2¢.

    Props to the routesetters. Great work!

  6. Jackie
    October 13, 2013 at 6:22 pm

    Hi Ken!

    Thanks for writing! The 5 spot range is definitely a difficult one to rate, especially considering that each 5 spot incorporates a couple of grades. 5- is supposed to be V7/8, 5 spot V9/10, and 5+ V11 and up. Considering there can be soft and hard problems of each V grade, that leaves a lot of room for stuff to fit you or not. Hopefully that also gives you stuff to work on. : )

    For the starts…lots of outdoor starts around here, especially in the harder grades, involve low starts or weird starts. I think we set them sometimes because we find it interesting and also because it is more like some of the stuff outside at areas we climb at around here. We will definitely keep your thoughts in mind though and make sure there is enough variety so you can skip the problems with starts you aren’t in to.

    Thanks again!

  7. March 17, 2015 at 8:07 pm

    I guess I just don’t understand, what’s the point?

  1. April 6, 2010 at 6:27 pm
  2. April 10, 2010 at 10:40 am
  3. September 14, 2011 at 8:52 am
  4. September 2, 2012 at 12:00 pm

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