Beginner Series: Climbing Route Grades – What do these numbers mean?

You’ve bought the gear, your figure-of-8 knots are perfect, and you’re ready for a day at the climbing gym. How do you know where to go once you’re there? And what do those numbers beside the route names mean?

There are two different types of climbing grades for your average climbing excursion in the United States. Bouldering grades usually use the Heuco Scale or the V Scale. John Sherman developed this scale in the 1990s. It starts at a V0 and runs all the way through a V17 and is continually expanding as climbers find new and more challenging rock to climb. Roped climbs for both sport and traditional climbing routes use the Yosemite Decimal System and can begin as low as 5.4 and progress in difficulty through 5.15c. The route you decide to climb should depend on your experience, your strength, your flexibility, and your comfort with challenging yourself.

If it is your first time at the gym, start small. If you’re interested in the bouldering room, look for a route labeled V0 or V1 and start by taking a look at the route. Routes at the gym are usually marked by colored tape on the wall or sometimes by the color of the holds. Your goal is only to use the holds indicated on your route. Try to visualize where you will be placing your feet (as your legs do most of the work) and visually follow the path of the holds up the wall. When you climb at the gym, you don’t have to use every hold, but you try to only use the holds for that particular route. Mentally processing where those holds are before you are off of the ground will help your successs rate. Some tips for the first time in the boulder room:

  • Find a route you are comfortable with attempting
  • Visualize the route you will take up the wall
  • Adjust your route when necessary
  • Don’t give up if you get stuck
  • Listen to your body


As you learn more about the different kinds of holds and build your strength, move to more challenging climbs. If you see a “+” or “-” next to a route label, it indicates it is more or less challenging than a route without a “+” or “-” next to it. A V6+ is more challenging than a V6.

If you head into the rope room, you will need a competent belay partner or familiarity with the auto-belay system at the gym. Make sure you are properly strapped into a well-fitting harness, and your belay device is in good working order. Have your climbing partner double-check your harness, belay device, and knots before you climb.

The Sierra Club developed the Yosemite Decimal System in the 1930s to help climbers find new routes with the same relative difficulty. In the YDS, roped climbs usually begin at class 5. In a climbing gym, you will usually find the easiest routes labeled 5.5 or 5.6. This indicates that you will be able to climb fairly easily, usually with three points of contact throughout the climb (two feet and one hand, or two hands and one foot). The grade usually indicates the most difficult “move” on the climb. 5.6 – 5.8 are considered “beginner climbs,” though they can be fun for the climber of all levels. 5.9 – 5.10 are challenging for intermediate climbers. 5.11 and up are typically more advanced. As you get into the more advanced climbs, you might see and “a,” “b,” or “c” next to the grade. This is also an indication of difficulty. A 5.11c is harder than a 5.11a.

Some tips for the rope room:

  • Check your harness, belay device, and knot
  • Have your partner double-check your harness, belay device, and knot as well
  • Look for a climb that matches your ability level or challenges you
  • Stay on the route marked for you by color
  • Look out below! Before you lower yourself on an auto-belay device or lower someone off the wall, make sure no one has unintentionally entered the space
  • Try, try again! You will get better with practice and shaking muscles mean you’re growing!

Now that you’re familiar with the basics of the Hueco Scale and Yosemite Decimal System get out there, find a great route, and climb!