So you started rock climbing and you want to climb all the things! The super cool route that has a weird baby head hold on it. The route over in the corner with all blue holds that you saw some strong chick hang from her toes (bat hang) on. But definitely not that route that you saw some shirtless, scruffy dude climb using only his arms (campusing).
But how do you know which routes you could actually climb?
In the US, the difficulty of a climbing route is classified based on the Yosemite Decimal System. This system features five classes that range from walking on a well established trail (class one) to technical climbing often with the use of a rope (class five). The class is usually determined by the hardest move, called the crux.
Class Five is unique in that it has sub-grades to further explain the difficulty of a route: 5.0 to 5.15. At 5.10, the scale breaks down further by adding an a, b, c, or d after the initial class and grade: 5.10a, 5.10b, 5.10c, 5.10d, etc. Typically, climbing gyms feature rope routes that range from a 5.6 and up. From my experience, “novice” climbers can climb 5.7s without much issue, “intermediate” climbers can tackle 5.8-5.10, while 5.11 and up would be better suited for “advanced” climbers.
Bouldering in the US uses a different scale: the V Scale. This scale ranges from V0-V16. This scale works in the same way that the YDS works: the bigger the number, the harder the climb. In my gym, novice climbers will likely focus on V0-V1, intermediate climbers on V1-V4, and advanced climbers on V4 and up.
A couple important notes about route grades: these grades tend to be subjective to the type of climbing (overhang vs. slab and crimps vs. slopers) and the setter or initial climber. Grades can also expand over time: the hardest climbing grade used to be considered a 5.11, but now the hardest grade is considered a 5.15c (with two rumored project 5.15ds).
Now that you know how to distinguish how difficult a route is, it is important that you do not let route grades box you in to only climbing certain grades. So what if the hardest thing you have ever climbed is a V1? If you see a V3 that intrigues you and (this is key!) will not cause you physical harm from trying it, then try the V3! Sure, you probably won’t get the route from start to finish, but if you are having fun then who cares? Step out of your comfort zone and you just might learn something new!
In my opinion, grades are more important for safety while climbing outside. Grades give a general idea of how skilled a climber should be to climb the route. No one wants to be in a precarious position on a highball boulder that they thought was a V1 only to find out that the route is mostly a V1 with a V3 move 20 feet off the ground. Talk about sweaty palms… Chalk, please!
Now that you are in the know, go climb something! Climb something hard, climb something fun. Just go climb!
Until next time! Climb on!
P.S. If you would like to read more on the climbing grades, Rock and Ice has a good article that provides some more in-depth information than what is listed here (including multi-pitch).