Climbing: Finding your degree of difficulty

The first I would like to make clear that this article does not pretend to reduce climbing to numbers, nor to using maximum difficulty in climbing as a main reference. To the contrary, the aim of this article is guiding and helping people that are initiating in climbing to find a difficulty context where they find that magical combination between giving it all and enjoying. But before we get into details, it is important to insist in the fact that although difficulty is part of climbing, to understand and fully enjoy climbing we have to go beyond the difficulty. We encourage you to become impregnated by the lifestyle of the climbing community, where the priority is enjoying and feeling good, the knowledge and respect for the areas and environments where the climbing areas are located, the beauty of the routes, the aesthetics of each step, contemplation of nature… Climbing is also a self-knowledge process, where we must learn how to live with fear, managing activity and rest, being patient, marinating motivation, finding “our place” in climbing, that place where we enjoy a lot and we suffer the right amount.

And obviously in this process “blessed difficulty” has its weight, much weight, in my opinion much more than what it should, but each one is free to centre on what is most wanted. And one thing is difficulty as a scale, and another is difficulty as maximum degree. In this article we will centre on difficulty as a reference scale.

Conversion table of climbing and boulder degrees YDS (USA grade) and French/sport (European sports grade). Vermin (American boulder grade) and Font (European boulder grade, Font de Fontainebleau).

There are different scales that change according to the geographic where we are to define levels of difficulty in climbing. In Europe, the most widespread is the French grades, (nevertheless Germany, Great Britain and Scandinavia have their own grades), although on a worldwide level, the most extended are the French and the American grades. Later, in these grades we have to differentiate between boulder degrees and those of routes. The French grade uses a code of numbers, letters, and signs. We will start with I or II degrees (simple steep climbs), the III and IV degree (here, they are still simple climbs, but we start to use our hands to progress) and after the V degree we enter into the most respectable difficulties where the grading changes to number / letter (a, b, or c) / sign (+), currently 6 is the simplest and 9 is the most difficult while a is the easiest and c the most difficult, and if there is no end sign this would be a normal level while the “+” sign means a difficult level in that number. A practical example would be a 7a+ would be more difficult than a 7a (without +sign) and easier than a 7b. Currently the routes considered as the most difficult in the world are 9c grade. These are Silence and Bibliographie.

Adam-Ondra-en-Silence-y-Alex-Megos-en-Bibliographie - muskers
On the left Adam Ondra on Silence and on the right Alex Megos on Bibliographie both are possible 9c.

Initiation grades, undoubtedly are those between a III and a V. But take care with the terrain, type of climb, rock, etc…, this can totally change our perception about the difficulty. For example, a V on a well-equipped sports climbing route can be an easy route, while a length in this same grade of an “old school” route, at 300 meters from the ground and with floating safety points (removable safety points typical of traditional climbing) separated from each other can be a nightmare for even the most experienced climbers. Likewise, someone can have a 7a grade in their normal climbing area, and cannot resolve a fissure 6a…, because this is a very peculiar type of climbing that requires much experience in the same.

In commercial gymnasiums normally there is the figure of the route setter (route designer), who configures the different steps that later the users can try. Normally in these gymnasiums the difficulty grades are by colours, each gymnasium uses the colours and climb it decides and indicate them by means of sheets or signs, so the users know how to climb them.

In these centres there is no greater problem to try these “steps” than wanting to do it, because at the worst if we do fall, we fall on a mat, and very rarely these steps involve any type of hazard, beyond an injury (which in itself is bad…). Nevertheless, ideally we must have the habit of trying steps that require an “effort” but that we see as “possible” and that later we can finish by chaining them together, this is the ideal way of evolving, because if we are always trying something above our possibilities, besides being frustrating, we will not improve much because we will not be capable of making many chained movements, therefore we will not be able to “train” in conditions…, otherwise if we always do easy steps, we will evolve but very slowly.

This is very different on rocks… the fear factor changes everything. But it is not the only factor. Also, the climbing method drastically changes, physical strength has much less weight and nevertheless technique becomes much more important. Someone who is very quick in drops of a climbing wall , can have serious problems when moving the body in small spaces and feet in adherence… But the best in a rock climb is starting to try a very low grade and gradually try greater grades until discovering where can define or see our limit. The best is to start a IV or a V, then a V+, a 6a, a 6a+, etc… until we reach our ceiling. In rocks there is also a great difference in climbing first or climbing second. If we climb first, we are exposed to the much feared “flights”, meaning, if we fall, we fall the distance of the rope we have until the last safe point plus the “sag” that can exist due to the belayer plus what a dynamic rope can stretch. Normally these flights do not involve any hazard, but they cause fear… if you are climbing second and you fall, usually you remain in the same place. But in climbing, “chaining” a route means climbing a route without falling. Climbing second you can fall without falling, but this can never be considered as “chaining”. But I recommend starting to climb always second and once we feel the necessary confidence, we can try to climb first on routes where the safety points are not too distanced, or routes that are much below our capabilities, and little by little try greater challenges. It is important to choose routes that give us the sensation that we are going to get what we want, meaning, if we want routes with an atmosphere, with distance between safety points… go for it, but to the contrary we know that that type of routes can cause us to block because of fear, we must choose routes where we see the safety points are not too distanced allowing us to concentrate 100% on climbing. Little by little we will improve and try more difficult routes with greater commitment.

Let us fly!

In time, we may get stringer on the climbing wall and we want to change that to rocks, this is not so easy, here there are no tricks, rock is rock, and resin is resin. If you want to be good at rock climbing, resin will help you but according to the type of routes it can even cause harm. If we feel strong, we will have too much confidence with that strength, and on very technical routes, strength is not very necessary, therefore being focussed on climbing because of strength, will play against use on routes where we must “dance” instead of “rowing”…

Caroline Ciavaldini on the first female ascent of Th Quarryman technique in the slate quarries of Llanberis (Wales – United Kingdom)

Another problem usually is reaching a very high grade in a short time, this usually occurs, when we climb with very strong persons or we use YouTube and we pay too much attention to the rock star system, we feel the need to continuously try the routes that strong people are trying and we think that if we try many difficult routes, we will end up doing some…the problem is that if we pass our sessions hanging like sausages trying loose steps on routes in which we can practically not breathe due to the effort, we will not evolve, because we will not acquire the fluidity so necessary on rocks. I personally recommend trying now and again a route at our limit, where normally in our sessions we climb an half a grade below the maximum possible level of the routes, accumulating metres, if “at sight” even better. Climbing “at sight” means entering a route for the first time and without any other information about the route we can see if from the foot of the route. This type of climbing forces us to improvise along the way, sometimes the route allows us to trace a strategy and others it forces us to improvise, this is where you learn more and better how to climb.