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Climbing Types and Grades Explained

February 17, 2017

Climbing Types and Grades Explained

Rock climbing is reaching new heights of popularity, pun very much intended. Along with thousands of natural features around the country for everyone from beginners to advanced climbers, many communities are investing in indoor climbing walls, which allow people to build their scaling skills in safe, controlled conditions.

Climbing Types

For those considering pursuing this exciting hobby, here are some of the climbing types explained:

Bouldering This style of solo climbing takes place close to the ground with no ropes. It is a good method for newcomers to build skills comfortably and for more experienced climbers to practice new techniques or work on problems with minimal risk.  

Top Rope Climbing This style of group climbing involves a climber attaching themselves to a rope which is attached to an anchor and then sent down to another climber, called the belayer, who holds the rope slack and supports the first climber as he or she ascends.

Lead climbing  A climber goes up the route first while attached to a rope. Every so often they clip it, which provides protection if their grip slips. Unlike top rope climbing, there’s no anchor point above them. It’s a position generally reserved for more experienced climbers since there’s the possibility of falling farther. It also requires keeping the route clean and attaching ropes to anchors along the way.

Sport climbing This theory focuses more on athletic performance, not just exploring, which is the motivation of traditional climbers. People with a sports focus may stick to established routes with permanent bolts drilled into the rock faces.  

Traditional climbing  While sport climbers are focused on summiting quickly and safely, traditional climbers are more about the enjoyment of the climb itself. Climbers may look for interesting routes, solve challenges, bring their own protection devices and try to enjoy the adventure.  

Free solo climbing  This is similar to bouldering in that the climber doesn’t use any kind of rope or safety features but they do climb higher than a typical boulder (3-5 meters). The term is also used to describe a specific type of route that goes above a bouldering height.

Climbing Grades

In addition to the basic types of climbing, it’s important to learn the different grades of climbing so you’ll know what to expect when trying to choose which types of climbs to attempt.

Yosemite Decimal System This national park in California has many challenges for all climbing and hiking levels, from generally flat terrain to expert climbs. Its popularity led to the creation of an index of skill and safety levels in the U.S,  starting with Class 1, a basic 1-2 hour walk in hiking boots with a low chance of injury, then Class 2, a half-day or less scramble possibly using hands and minimal danger. Class 3 is more advanced, requires a half-day and handholds, possibly a rope, and a mistake could cause death. Class 4 refers to simple full-day climbs, which require more rope, and may include natural protection. Class 5 climbs are more technically difficult require more use of rope, such as belaying, can take two days, and a higher risk of injury and death. Within this area is Class 5.0 to 5.15 which require increasingly challenging free moves, the numbers go higher based on the level of the most difficult move and climbs above 5.9 have a letter attached to them. Class 6 climbs are designated for rescue climbing, with less focus on adventure and more on safety and providing aid for at least a week.

V Scale  Also known as the Hueco Scale, this is a way of referring to technical difficulty of a particular climb, starting with VB (Very Beginner), then V0, all the way up to V17. There are also plus and minuses for climbs that are slightly harder or easier but not enough to move the climb to the next level. It is one of the more popular systems in the U.S.  

Along with measuring the skill required for a climb, other systems try to evaluate the route itself to the summit. For instance, the Fontainbleau system, used in Europe, uses colors to show the difficulty of individual boulders or routes on other climbs, including white, which children can accomplish, then orange, blue, red, black and white for experts.

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