The Yosemite Dec­i­mal Sys­tem (YDS) is one of the most com­mon­ly used rat­ing sys­tems for rock climb­ing routes. It’s rat­ings are sub­jec­tive to the user and the area, but here for you today are the basics for talk­ing the talk before you rock the rock. The YDS is bro­ken up into five dif­fer­ent class­es. These class­es reflect the amount of expo­sure, dan­ger, and dif­fi­cul­ty one will face at the hard­est part of the route (the crux). The class sys­tems are described as follows:

Class 1
Don’t get too wor­ried about this one. If you are on a Class 1 route that means you might be tak­ing a walk on a slight­ly ele­vat­ed side­walk, or cruis­ing a bike along a green­way. You don’t need any ropes for this class, and if you do, you’re prob­a­bly doing some­thing ter­ri­bly wrong.

Class 1

Class 2
This is where we can intro­duce sim­ple scram­bling. You may sud­den­ly find your­self using your hands a lit­tle more as you hop from boul­der to boul­der or step onto a slip­pery slope. Once again, if you’re on a Class 2 climb, your ele­va­tion change won’t jus­ti­fy using ropes and your dan­ger lev­el will be at a minimum. 

Class 3
Take Class 2 scram­bling and add a lit­tle height to it, and you get some Class 3 action. Ropes are not yet required because routes with a Class 3 rat­ing tend to offer some sol­id foot­ing, but this is where you need to start think­ing about the con­se­quences of falling. Not that falling on a Class 3 would nec­es­sar­i­ly be fatal, but it would dish up a major incon­ve­nience to your day.

5.0 - 5.6

Class 4
Alrighty, here we go. Class 4 climbs are still going to offer some decent foot­ing and you’re not 100% ver­ti­cal, but clip­ping or tying your­self into a rope at this point is not a bad idea. These falls are not extreme­ly like­ly, but if they do occur, there is a chance that they would be fatal. Think of canyoneer­ing and walk­ing along steep canyon walls. 

Class 5
Now we’re talk­ing. Class 5 is the most com­mon Class for gen­uine free-climb­ing (not to be mis­tak­en with free-solo­ing), and is the class most talked about at the crag site. These climbs are ver­ti­cal, and if you’re like most nor­mal human beings, you will require rope and belay­er to attempt these upward adven­tures. The YDS has gone even fur­ther in the Class 5 rat­ing sys­tems and bro­ken up climbs into, well, into decimals:

5.0 - 5.6

5.0 — 5.6
This first group­ing of Class 5  routes is real­ly good for begin­ners. 5.0 — 5.6 routes will typ­i­cal­ly have two footholds and two hand­holds for every move and are often referred to as “lad­ders.” But make no mis­take, just because they are clas­si­fied as begin­ner routes, does­n’t mean every begin­ner will get them.

This sec­tion is for the non-begin­ners. It takes a bit of time to climb smooth­ly at the 5.7 range and a lot of prac­tice to climb flu­id­ly at the 5.10 range. Footholds began to dis­ap­pear and a lot of reliance is put into crimpy hand­holds. This range reflects more tech­nique, bal­ance, and strength than your begin­ner climbs. 


The most claimed yet un-cov­et­ed set of rock climb­ing rat­ings. To climb at these lev­els (more so as the num­bers increase) one must put a lot of time on the rock or be born with some incred­i­ble unfair amount of nat­ur­al tal­ent. Whichev­er way, who needs hand­holds or footholds when you have either.

Find­ing the per­fect pants for your boul­der­ing adven­tures can be tricky. Sure, you can climb in your every­day jeans, but you might not have a lot of stretch or room to move. Plus, den­im can cause some painful chaf­ing if you plan to have any longer climb­ing ses­sions. And while climb­ing in your run­ning or yoga tights is def­i­nite­ly com­fort­able, they don’t give much pro­tec­tion against the rock face and are like­ly to tear.

So here are some things to look for when shop­ping for boul­der­ing pants:

Rock faces are unfor­giv­ing and abra­sive edges will tear light­weight fab­rics. But you don’t want a fab­ric that is so heavy that it’ll add to the bat­tle against grav­i­ty. So you’ll def­i­nite­ly want some­thing like twill cot­ton, wool-cot­ton blend, sol­id but still stretchy den­im or a fab­ric made specif­i­cal­ly to keep your knees pro­tect­ed from the rock edge. But you don’t want a fab­ric that is so heavy that it’ll add to the bat­tle against gravity.

Bag­gy or stretchy:
The last thing you want when high step­ping or tra­vers­ing is pants that are too con­stric­tive to allow the move you need to make. So either look for pants that are a lit­tle bit loos­er or have a lot of stretch. Don’t be too embar­rassed to test them out in the store, either—don’t try to climb the store’s sur­faces, but def­i­nite­ly make sure you can lift your knees pret­ty high with­out the fab­ric con­strain­ing or get­ting uncomfortable.

Mois­ture management:
You can get pret­ty sweaty while climbing—especially if it’s hot outside—so you’ll def­i­nite­ly want some­thing that wicks sweat away to keep you cool and dry on your more dif­fi­cult prob­lems. Climb­ing can be dif­fi­cult, but climb­ing when you’re over­heat­ing quick­ly is miserable.

Tapered legs:
While you want to be able to have loose cloth­ing for max­i­mum move­ment poten­tial, look for some­thing with a skin­nier or tapered leg, or a pair of pants that has ties at the ankle to keep it tight. Why? Pic­ture this: you’re on a rock wall and you look down to see where you can put your feet to get them high­er for the next reach and your pant legs are too bag­gy and are block­ing your view of your feet. So look for a skin­ny leg and enjoy being able to see where you’re stepping.

Yosemite Valley

Boul­der­ers are badass. Opt­ing to for­go the ropes and har­ness­es that keep oth­ers from falling, these climbers rely on their chalked-up hands, a pair of climb­ing shoes and (if they’re cau­tious) a crash pad to help cush­ion their falls. Less a test of an individual’s endurance, this kind of climb­ing is about strength and skilled, care­ful movement.

Boul­der­ing is def­i­nite­ly a social sport, so grab your friends and head out to these sev­en scenic boul­der­ing spots:

Yosemite Valley

Yosemite Nation­al Park, California
Yosemite Val­ley fea­tures some of the best gran­ite boul­der­ing the world has to offer. And in heart of Yosemite Nation­al Park, it also has some of the great­est views. Glac­i­ers, water­falls and for­est sur­round the boul­ders in Yosemite Nation­al Park, and the beau­ty of the High Sier­ra will help make up for any frus­tra­tion that aris­es because of how dif­fi­cult these climbs are—because they are difficult.


Joe’s Valley










Joe’s Val­ley

Joe’s Val­ley was prac­ti­cal­ly made for boul­der­ing. The sand­stone rocks that line the hill­side have skin-friend­ly tex­ture and the approach­es are almost always 5 min­utes or less. Plus, the black and brown boul­ders against the sage­brush and high desert green­ery make for awe­some scenery—especially in the fall when the leaves turn orange.


Utah Ibex



Seat­ed on the perime­ter of a dry desert lake in South­ern Utah, Ibex’s giant red quartzite cliffs and blocks aren’t just gor­geous, they make for some epic boul­der­ing. With no civ­i­liza­tion for 50 miles, the area has a des­o­late, eerie feel­ing, and the boul­ders are tall, so it’s per­fect if you want to climb high.


Bishop CaliforniaBish­op
Bish­op is locat­ed on the east­ern slope of the low­er Sier­ra Neva­da Moun­tain range and is one of the most pop­u­lar boul­der­ing des­ti­na­tions in the world. But don’t let the gor­geous moun­tain views of the Sier­ras and high desert scenery dis­tract you from your climb, because you’ll need to focus your atten­tion on mak­ing your way up and around the dif­fi­cult prob­lems on these gran­ite and vol­canic boulders.


Horse Pens 40 AlabamaHorse Pens 40
Locat­ed in the foothills of the Appalachi­ans, this his­toric park is full of sand­stone boul­ders you’ll be dying to climb. With some big­ger rocks and more dif­fi­cult prob­lems, Horse Pens 40 also allows overnight camp­ing and night climb­ing, so be sure to pack your tent and head­lamp. Go in the fall when the leaves are chang­ing col­or and you’ll be treat­ed to a chal­leng­ing boul­der­ing expe­ri­ence sur­round­ed by gold­en, orange and red trees.


Hueco Tanks State Park


Hue­co Tanks
Just out­side of El Paso, Hue­co Tanks is the ulti­mate des­ti­na­tion for climbers every win­ter between Novem­ber and March. The 860-acre area has over 2,000 prob­lems and is known for its won­der­ful­ly dry, sun­ny weath­er, sub­lime rock for­ma­tions and bombproof igneous rock—so basi­cal­ly: it’s flip­ping gorgeous.


Joshua Tree National Park CaliforniaJoshua Tree Nation­al Park
“Oh hey there, beau­ti­ful,” said every­one ever who vis­it­ed Joshua Tree. In all seri­ous­ness, the views at this boul­der­ing des­ti­na­tion in the Mojave Desert are, indeed, awe-inspir­ing. Home of the Joshua tree the park is named after, the land­scape fea­tures hills of bare quartz mon­zonite rock bro­ken into small­er boulders—making for some epic climbs.

Yosemite Nation­al Park is breath­tak­ing. If you’ve been, you know. If you haven’t, you should. Cap­tur­ing its beau­ty in a sin­gle snap-shot is an impos­si­bil­i­ty, but put a cam­era into the hands of thir­ty film­mak­ers to spend a day in the Val­ley, and you’ll get a glimpse of what such grandeur can mean to so many peo­ple worldwide.

Den­im Vs. Softshell

Here in Port­land, we like cloth­ing that’s as func­tion­al as it is fash­ion­able. Enter  Thun­der­bolt Sports­wear, a home­grown, Ore­gon-based com­pa­ny that has been sell­ing its high-end soft­shell jeans since 2010 and per­fect­ing and devel­op­ing that con­cept since 2008.  These guys know the ins and outs of vari­able weath­er con­di­tions, and the result is a high-func­tion­ing, well-thought-out style piece that can dou­ble as an every­day pant.

Thun­der­bolt jeans are made with Schoeller Dryskin, which is import­ed from Switzer­land and con­sid­ered to be the best soft­shell fab­ric on the mar­ket today. The fab­ric is treat­ed with Nanos­phere, a durable water repel­lent (DWR). It does­n’t make the Thun­der­bolt jeans quite water­proof but will ensure that you stay much dri­er than if you were wear­ing den­im if caught out in the rain.

Sun­shine and every­thing in between

The first time that I put the jeans on I was sur­prised at how nice the cut was. Most soft­shell pants I’d used seemed square cut and suf­fered from a bag­gy crotch area, which result­ed in me feel­ing that I always had to be pulling my pants up—especially if I was hik­ing with a pack. Thun­der­bolt jeans fit snug­gly, like a tai­lored pair of dress pants. I was also sur­prised at how com­fort­able the brushed inte­ri­or felt against my legs. So far the Thun­der­bolts proved to be a good fit but I was eager to put them to the real test.

First, I made them my dai­ly rid­ing pants for the week. My bike com­mute is a lit­tle over six miles one way, so I was able to get a good sense of how the pants felt under the sad­dle. The week start­ed off with beau­ti­ful sun­ny skies and chilly temps that dete­ri­o­rat­ed to dri­ving rain by mid-week. In all con­di­tions, the jeans per­formed well, block­ing wind and rain, keep­ing my legs warm, but allow­ing mois­ture to move through the fab­ric and pre­vent­ing me from over­heat­ing as I warmed up. As an extra bonus, I was able to tran­si­tion direct­ly from the bike to the office with­out chang­ing clothes. Thun­der­bolts real­ly do look that good.

Look at that stretch!

Next on the agen­da was climb­ing in Cen­tral Ore­gon. Due to the dry, cold and usu­al­ly windy con­di­tions, boul­der­ing in the high desert dur­ing the win­ter months is per­fect for test­ing soft­shell fab­rics. The four-way stretch of the fab­ric and its abil­i­ty to block the wind made these pants the per­fect tool for the job. I will def­i­nite­ly be adding these pants to my climb­ing quiver and would even con­sid­er wear­ing them for larg­er alpine objec­tives. (Stay tuned for an El Cap report!)

Thun­der­bolt jeans can han­dle just about any­thing that you can throw at them. The only sit­u­a­tion that I encoun­tered where they might not be ide­al was com­mut­ing in the down­pour. There is def­i­nite­ly a chance that rain could seep in dur­ing an extend­ed ride in those con­di­tions. That being said, I still stayed warm, and the jeans dried almost instant­ly. When com­par­ing these jeans to the den­im alter­na­tive, and con­sid­er­ing an active, urban lifestyle, I have to say, they rock!

Today’s guest blog­ger, Austin How­ell (Dream­ing of Gnar), shares how he made peace with boul­der­ing.

Hue­co is magic.

I always hat­ed boul­der­ing, some­thing about the fact that I’m ter­ri­ble at it was always a turnoff for my occa­sion­al­ly ego­cen­tric per­son­al­i­ty. But half-way through a crush­ing fall semes­ter, when some friends gave me two days notice that the vehi­cle had room for one more to Hue­co, I jumped on it. Some­thing was dif­fer­ent. I’ll nev­er for­get see­ing my first sun­rise in Hue­co, despite the fact that we were all deliri­ous from the long haul between the hours of 4pm and 5am. No rest for the wicked I sup­pose, but I was smit­ten, and six months lat­er I returned on my own initiative.

For months I planned, scrib­bled, and dreamed about my objec­tives… As soon as I pulled into the park, all that went out the win­dow as I real­ized “DUDE! I’m in HUECO!” Sud­den­ly that was all that mat­tered. 11 Days and end­less boul­ders were mine to savor. First day of climb­ing was just accli­ma­tiz­ing to the area, and try­ing not to get too ter­ri­bly sore.

Day 2 was a solo explo­ration, and prob­a­bly the real rea­son behind the trip. I’ve found a cer­tain con­tin­u­um of men­tal­i­ty through­out my jour­ney as a soloist, and it’s been inter­est­ing to explore and observe the process. My first solo was hap­haz­ard, hor­rif­ic, and acci­den­tal. I learned from that and years since, and have a huge list of things to avoid, to stay calm. Calm is safe­ty. For a soloist, Trad-man, Sport climber, or Boul­der­er, Calm is safe­ty. This trip was an explo­ration of that zone. Deal­ing with the wind, occa­sion­al loose rock, onsight­ing off route, 1500ft of endurance and it felt normal.


Pho­to cour­tesy of Austin Howell

Weird. I mean…  It wasn’t weird, but THAT’S def­i­nite­ly weird.

But I final­ly made my peace with boul­der­ing! I quit send­ing and start­ed just play­ing with rocks, jump­ing on climbs entire­ly out of my league, and that turned every suc­cess­ful move into a bless­ing. With fail­ure expect­ed, the ego sub­sided and I actu­al­ly start­ed climb­ing hard. Not hard in the grand scheme of things, but hard for me. I start­ed hold­ing on at lev­els of inten­si­ty that once made me give up, with­out even real­iz­ing I had. Some­where in Hue­co, I found calm in the face of inten­si­ty amongst the boul­ders instead of my usu­al ego-fueled frustration.

Pho­to cour­tesy of Austin Howell


Every time I come home from a climb­ing trip, I feel I’ve learned some­thing. Some­how, in this strange desert oasis in time, ecol­o­gy, and moder­ni­ty, that effect is mag­ni­fied. Each time I leave to head home, I feel sat­is­fied with what­ev­er passed.

Hue­co is magic.


Pho­to Cour­tesy of Austin Howell

Almost all of my friends grow­ing up were ath­let­ic. They played soc­cer and soft­ball and bas­ket­ball. I did bal­let and swim lessons. I don’t think I real­ly start­ed to notice until mid­dle school, when school sports teams were cool and I was not on one. I was a small kid and I began to dread PE class, with all the run­ning and throw­ing and catch­ing… I am one of the least coor­di­nat­ed peo­ple (when it comes to con­ven­tion­al sports at least) that I know – when I lat­er start­ed play­ing ulti­mate Fris­bee, it took me a sol­id year to learn to throw a fore­hand, some­thing I’ve since seen new play­ers learn in a mat­ter of days.

Lizzy climbs Swedin-Ringle in Indi­an Creek, UT (pho­to by Luke Stefurak)

But just before my self-esteem could take a per­ma­nent dive, I found rock climb­ing. I rejoiced in this activ­i­ty that felt nat­ur­al to me, unlike tra­di­tion­al sports. My nat­ur­al bal­ance and strong shoul­ders from years of swim­ming meant that I could already climb routes that chal­lenged my more ath­let­i­cal­ly-dis­posed friends.

I dived in head­first and took my first trip to Joshua Tree Nation­al Park when I was 14, where I first dis­cov­ered my niche with­in climb­ing. It was on this trip that I encoun­tered my first hand crack. It was short, ver­ti­cal, and rat­ed 5.10a, and it was close to impos­si­ble with­out using the appro­pri­ate crack tech­nique. I must have strug­gled for twen­ty min­utes at the base of the route, but when I final­ly exe­cut­ed my first per­fect hand jam, it was amaz­ing. The route sud­den­ly became easy, even though 5.10a was still a chal­leng­ing grade for me at the time.

Lizzy boul­ders Jaws at Mt. Wood­son, CA (pho­to by Kyle Murphy)

As the years passed and I learned to lead climb, my love for crack climb­ing grew. Phys­i­cal­ly, climb­ing cracks allowed me to use my tech­nique and foot­work, rather than requir­ing raw pow­er and crimp strength. Men­tal­ly, lead­ing cracks also appealed to me – fig­ur­ing out which gear to place at each point and then fit­ting it in with the sequence of moves was an excit­ing puz­zle for me to solve. It also elim­i­nat­ed the frus­tra­tion and fear I often faced when lead­ing sport climbs (clip­ping bolts instead of plac­ing my own gear) when bolts were placed too far above a clip­ping stance for me to reach, or when the pro­tec­tion was more run-out than I would have liked.

Fur­ther­more, crack climb­ing is a nec­es­sary skill for many of the most clas­sic and awe­some mul­ti-pitch climb­ing objec­tives. Big clas­sic routes in Yosemite, Zion, the North Cas­cades of Wash­ing­ton, Squamish, etc. – you can’t climb these with­out the skills to climb and pro­tect crack climbs. Although I often pre­fer the relax­ation of crag­ging, I, like many climbers, enjoy my spec­tac­u­lar sum­mits, too. Climb­ing mul­ti-pitch trad routes has brought me on amaz­ing adven­tures in wild places – these expe­ri­ences are an inte­gral part of why I love to climb.

Through crack climb­ing I have become a hap­pi­er, more con­fi­dent per­son. My hard­est sin­gle-pitch sends have all been on crack climbs and I have to admit, along with the adren­a­line surge of send­ing, I love the look of awe on dudes’ faces when I get back to the ground. Before, that would have embar­rassed me, but now I’m proud of my accom­plish­ments, rather than offer­ing up some excuse why the route was eas­i­er for me. I’m proud of the faint scars on the backs of my hands from all those pitch­es of jam­ming. I’m proud of the cre­ativ­i­ty it takes to climb a beau­ti­ful, split­ter crack. Instead of a set sequence of chalked crimps, gas­tons, and slop­ers, it’s up to me to decide whether to jam my hands or fin­gers thumbs up or down, whether to shuf­fle my hands or cross-through, whether to jam or smear my feet… the list goes on. Crack climb­ing, to me, is the ulti­mate free­dom of expres­sion in climb­ing – just test­ing my strength, skills, and imag­i­na­tion against the rock. It doesn’t mat­ter any­more that I can’t play soc­cer or catch a ball – when I’m try­ing my hard­est, it’s an all-con­sum­ing activ­i­ty phys­i­cal­ly, men­tal­ly, and emo­tion­al­ly. I’ve yet to find anoth­er activ­i­ty that is so com­plete­ly demand­ing and yet com­plete­ly ful­fill­ing at the same time. And that is why I climb cracks.

Lizzy boul­ders Hard Crack in Bish­op, CA (pho­to by Luke Stefurak)

Lizzy is a grad stu­dent at Stan­ford work­ing towards a PhD in geol­o­gy. She likes to study real­ly old (3.5 bil­lion years old) rocks that are gen­er­al­ly no good for climb­ing. You can read about the adven­tures of Lizzy and her fiancé Luke at their blog, Dream in Ver­ti­cal, or fol­low Lizzy on Twit­ter.


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