Many of us long for a sense of adventure. That heart racing action you get from watching a suspenseful film, the adrenaline rush that fills your body after a close call…or for some of us, the thrill you get by scaling a vertical rock face using nothing but your own power.
Rock climbing is a deeply personal activity. For some, it’s enough to simply watch documentaries like Free Solo and be amazed by the physical and mental fortitude of professional climbers like Alex Honnold. For others, the local climbing gym is enough to satisfy the desire for a hair raising experience. And for a few really passionate climbers, rock faces around the world become their home and obsession.
There is no right or wrong way to take part in this sport, as long as you do it safely. But what is rock climbing? And what kind of options are available for those looking to pursue a more hands on approach?
Types of Climbing
The name says it all: rock climbing is the art of climbing rocks. Now, these rocks can be large, small, vertical, subvertical, overhung, smooth, rough…well, you get the idea. There’s a lot of different ways to climb rocks. We’ll list the different ways you can do this, so that you have a better idea of what’s out there and what you might want to try out.
As the name implies, bouldering is the art of climbing large rocks, usually about 10-25 feet in height. Though not the easiest form of climbing by any means, it does take the least amount of individual gear. Since it doesn’t require a rope, you won’t need a harness either. Quickdraws, cams, nuts, slings, carabiners, and many other items are also unnecessary. All you need to safely boulder are a pair of climbing shoes, chalk, and enough crash pads to cover the ground you’ll be climbing over.
That being said, bouldering does tend to be the most dangerous form of climbing. Because there’s no rope to catch you, every time you fall, you’ll land on the ground. This makes it very easy to twist an ankle, break a wrist, or hit your head if you come off the wall at a bad angle or don’t know how to fall properly.
Best for beginners, top roping is arguably the safest and easiest form of climbing out there. The rope is attached to an anchor at the top of the route, so both ends of the rope fall back to the ground. The climber will take one end and tie it to their harness, while their belayer will take the other side.
This is the safest form of climbing, since your belayer will constantly be taking in slack as you climb. Because of that, you won’t fall very far if you happen to slip or run out of energy, making it unlikely that you would ever suffer a severe injury. All you need to know beforehand is how to tie the rope to your harness (I recommend the double figure 8 knot), and proper belay technique.
Also known as lead climbing, this is typically what you’ll see athletes doing in climbing competitions. Unlike top rope where the rope is already attached to the anchor, sport climbing requires the climber to bring the rope up with them as they go.
Sport routes are bolted, meaning they have metal rings drilled into the rock face at regular intervals, usually between 5-10 feet. A climber will carry quickdraws on their harness (a quickdraw is 2 carabiners connected with a sling), so that they can clip one end into the bolt, and clip their rope into the other end. In the gym, quickdraws are already attached to the wall, so you don’t have to worry about that step.
In many ways, rock climbing is more of a mental challenge than a physical one. This becomes more apparent during trad climbing, when you have to place all of your own protection.
Because trad gear, like cams and nuts, need to be placed in a crack for them to work, you can’t just climb any rock face that you see. Thankfully cracks are pretty common, so there are plenty of options available if this is something you’d be interesting in trying.
Since you have to carry all of your gear up with you, it can be difficult to climb with the added weight. Most trad climbers only attempt routes 2 grades lower than what they normally climb because of the weight and the extra time it takes to place their gear. Though it can be difficult, this type of climbing can be the most freeing and exciting form out there.
Big Wall Climbing
If you watched Free Solo, you know that Alex Honnold scaled all 3,000 feet of El Capitan in about 4 hours. This stat never ceases to amaze me, considering it takes most people several days to climb this rock face and others like it.
People who take part in big wall climbing are probably some of the most serious about the sport. To climb something so massive, a lot of gear is needed and can get expensive really fast. Spending the night in a portaledge on the side of the rock face, hauling your food and gear up, getting comfortable going to the bathroom where there is no toilet (not to mention bushes, trees, or solid ground) can turn a lot of people away from attempting a challenge like this. However, if you can get past all of the uncomfortable aspects, there are few things more rewarding than getting to the top and looking back down, knowing that you made it so high using nothing but your own power.
Perhaps outside the realm of “rock” climbing, ice climbing still deserves a shoutout for those of you curious about alternative forms of the sport. As you probably guessed, ice climbing involves scaling large walls of ice, usually a frozen waterfall or glacier.
It’s possible to top rope and sport climb these types of routes, except instead of bolts, you’ll be using ice screws to protect yourself. Crampons and ice picks will help you scale the wall, instead of climbing shoes and rock edges.
Yosemite Decimal System
So now you have a basic understanding of the different types of climbing, but now what? Obviously, you don’t want to get on a route that’s well above your ability level, but how can you tell how difficult a route is going to be if you’ve never climbed it before?
This is where the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) comes in.
While there are a number of different rating systems used throughout the world, the YDS is the most commonly found in the United States. Developed by a group called the “Sierra Club” in the 1930s, the YDS was originally a way to categorize the difficulty levels of various hikes in the Sierra Nevadas. Using a number scale between 1-5, it became possible to rate everything from trail walking, to hiking, to climbing. Here’s a brief breakdown of what each number represents:
Class 1: On the easier end of the spectrum, this includes trail walking that you might do around your house or in a park. Steeper hikes are also included in this category, as long as the trail remains well defined. You should never need to use your hands for balance or grabbing features to pull yourself up.
Class 2: We’re starting to get into uneven terrain now. This type of hiking requires good balance, and you may need to use your hands for brief periods of time in order to make it to your destination.
Class 3: Also known as scrambling. The route is not fully vertical, and can be climbed easily enough, though you will have to use your hands continually. Holds are plentiful and easy to grip, and using a rope is not necessary to make it to the top.
Class 4: This class is similar to the last, but now it’s somewhere in the range of difficult scrambling to easy climbing. Holds are still plentiful, and though the route is steeper, it still isn’t quite vertical. Some may want to use a rope for protection, but overall, it isn’t needed to safely ascend.
Class 5: This is the realm of true rock climbing. You’ll need knowledge of rope and knot use, as well as other safety measures before you climb. While free soloing (climbing without a rope or other protection) is a method that some enjoy using, it is extremely dangerous and not recommended.
Gym and Outdoor Ratings
If you go to a climbing gym, typically you’ll see a tag or marker indicating the difficulty of the route. Usually, it’ll look something like “5.7” or “5.10b.” The number “5” indicates the Class 5 designation in the YDS, which tells you that the route is meant for true rock climbing. The number after the decimal point tells you how difficult that route is. Obviously ratings are subjective, and a 5.7 on one side of the gym might feel easier or harder than a 5.7 on the other side of the gym. However, the difference in difficulty will be minimal.
The scale starts at 5.0 and works its way up to 5.15. Here’s a rough breakdown to help you figure out the best rating for your skill and activity level:
5.0-5.4: Very easy climbing. Sometimes the walls or rock face aren’t quite vertical, and there are plenty of great places to hold onto and place your feet. Most people should have little to no problem on routes like these.
5.5-5.6: Easy to moderate climbing. A little more difficult than the previous category, but still perfect for beginners. There are plenty of holds to choose from, nice solid edges, and though the rock face is vertical, it feels more like climbing a ladder.
5.7-5.9: Moderate climbing. The place that most climbers hang out, these routes are fun to climb regardless of skill level. Beginners might find 5.9s a little challenging, but many people find them easy enough to climb with some effort while staying difficult enough to keep it interesting. Good holds are still plentiful, but may require a little more technique to comfortably scale the wall.
5.10-5.12: Advanced climbing. Now we’re entering the realm of the truly dedicated, as climbing at this level of difficulty requires a lot of strength and technique. Good holds are few and far between, meaning you’ll have to get comfortable with crimps, side pulls, and slopers.
Once you get into 5.10 ratings and above, you’ll likely see a letter (a, b, c, or d) following the number. This is to further subdivide the difficulty, since a 5.10a route is noticeably easier than a 5.10d. There’s a lot of debate over these letter grades, and some gyms prefer to use the + and – symbols instead, meaning a 5.10+ is harder than a 5.10-. Regardless of your opinion, they are frequently used, so it’s good to familiarize yourself with them.
5.13-5.14: Elite climbing. This is a category that the vast majority of climbers will never reach, and a difficulty that I (sadly) have been unable to climb at this point. These routes tend to be mostly or completely overhung, requiring expert body positioning and monstrous strength to keep from peeling off the wall.
5.15: At the time of this writing, the most difficult single pitch route in the world is Silence, a 5.15d first ascended by Adam Ondra in Flatanger, Norway. Only a handful of professional climbers have ever successfully scaled a route of this difficulty.
A bouldering route is drastically different than what you might attempt on a roped climb. As such, it has a completely different rating system.
The V-Scale (short for “vermin”) is the most widely used rating system in the United States. The scale goes from V0-V17, and roughly breaks down as follows:
V0-V2: Easy climbing. Most holds will be positive jugs, and tend to follow the pattern of hand, hand, foot, foot. Good for beginners or those who need something easy to warm up on.
V3-V6: Intermediate climbing. The area where you’ll find most climbers, this range of difficulty sports smaller holds and more dynamic movement.
V7-V10: Advanced climbing. It takes training to get to this point, and many climbers will never be able to break into this level of difficulty. Likely overhung with tiny holds and big moves.
V11-V13: Elite climbing. Hard training and a bit of latent talent is required to climb these problems.
V14-V17: Professional climbing. Only a fraction of pro climbers ever reach this stage. A lot of fun to watch, but nearly impossible to do.
I’ve met a lot of folks who think that rock climbing is one of the coolest things they’ve ever seen. Out of all the sports out there, I believe this is one of the most raw and natural, especially when you’re outside. But sadly, many people that I’ve encountered feel like it’s “not for them,” or they’re too old, too overweight, or too afraid to try it.
If rock climbing is something you want to do, I’m here to tell you that you can. After a decade of climbing, I’ve met people in their 80s, people missing a limb, people who weigh twice as much as I do, and people scared of heights tie into their gear and climb to the top of a route.
Find your local climbing gym, or someone experienced enough to take you outside. Take a step out of your comfort zone, and feel what it’s like to hover dozens of feet off the ground.
Trust me…you won’t regret it.
Want to learn more about rock climbing? Check out this guide to the most common climbing jargon and their definitions!