What are routes and why do you climb them?

When you climb, you aim for the top, but it’s how you get there that makes all the difference.

Routes ensure that every climb, every wall, every time is a new and challenging experience. The goal is the same, but the obstacles have changed. They’re like problems that climbers are eager to solve. Decisions have to be made, movements and combinations must be mastered, and your physical stamina and mental focus will be tested. From the easiest to the most demanding, routes inspire climbers to discover paths that push their limits and set new benchmarks.

At Island Rock, our expert group of full time USAC certified route setters understand that a great climb begins with a well-designed, purpose-targeted route. They are avid climbers themselves who draw from their own experiences to map out demanding sequences that are unique, exciting, and accessible to a wide audience with varying needs. Every route is carefully laid out to account for a nearly endless array of possibilities, including the climber’s skill level, the intention of the climb, and the movements that may be attempted. The process is as creative as it is technical. Before they can design the course, our route setters need to first visualize the climb and anticipate ways in which it can improve endurance, promote balance, encourage dexterity, work specific muscle groups, aid in competition, and supplement other training regimens.

Climbers of all skill levels can benefit from the more than 200 routes and boulder problems we have at Island Rock. If you are an athlete in training, we have routes to fit your needs and work your muscles. If you are a novice looking to try the same wall, at the same level of difficulty, in a different way, you’ll have plenty of options. If you are an intermediate or advanced climber in need of a challenge, our routes will push you beyond what you thought was possible.

What do the different color holds and numbers on the wall mean?

Island Rock uses a monochromatic style of routesetting - the color of the holds signifies a specific route up the wall. Each route that is set is a certain color so climbers know which hand and foot holds they can use to ascend that route. Every route at Island Rock is graded based upon its difficulty. To climb a route with a particular difficulty, the climber would only use the grips of the same color of the route they are trying. All rope routes are graded using the Yosemite Decimal System and all bouldering routes (or problems) are graded using the V scale. At Island Rock, there is a tag at the bottom telling the climber what the grade of each route on that wall is, when it was set, when it is being changed, and what color corresponds to that route.

Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) - Climbing grades range from 5.0 to 5.15 (5.1, 5.2, 5.3, etc.)

V Scale - Difficulty grades for bouldering range from V0-V16 (V1, V2, V3, etc.)

The first number for rope climbing grades in the YDS (5.7 for example) indicates the class of the climb, or as some think of it, the steepness.

  • Grade 1: Basically flat walking.
  • Grade 2: Steeper walking, but not requiring the use of hands or ropes to ascend.
  • Grade 3: Steeper walking combined with some hand use. Ropes generally not used.
  • Grade 4: Scrambling on steep terrain. Hands required; ropes sometimes required.
  • Grade 5: Technical climbing on vertical or near vertical terrain. Ropes/harness required.
  • Grade 6: Aid, or artificial climbing. Using rope ladders and other gear to ascend.

The second number for rope climbing grades in the YDS (5.7 for example) indicates the difficulty of the climb.

  • 5.0 - 5.6= Beginner climbs
  • 5.7 - 5.9= Intermediate climbs
  • 5.10 - 5.12= Advanced climbs
  • 5.13 - 5.15= Elite climbs

Climbs that are 5.10 and up sometimes are broken into sub-categories with the letters a,b,c, and d to further differentiate the difficulty (5.10a, 5.10b, 5.10c, 5.10d, 5.11a, etc.). For example, a 5.10a is easier than a 5.10b. Climbs can sometimes also have a plus (+) or minus (-) attached to them to signify a grade differentiation. For example, a 5.8- would be easier than a 5.8, and a 5.8 would be easier than a 5.8+.

Even though a 5.5 or 5.6 are considered beginner routes, they are still much more difficult than just climbing up any wall in the gym using all the rocks. Just remember nobody starts climbing because of how easy it is. Take the challenge and enter the wonderful world of route climbing.

How bouldering grades relate to the YDS:

Bouldering Yosemite Decimal System
V0 5.10c and below
V1 5.10d/5.11a
V2 5.11b/c
V3 5.11d
V4 5.12a
V5 5.12b/c
V6 5.12d
V7 5.13a
V8 5.13b
V9 5.13c
V10 5.13d
V11 5.14a
V12 5.14b
V13 5.14c
V14 5.14d
V15 5.15a
V16 5.15b

Although fundamental differences between the two styles of climbing make it difficult to create a direct conversion, this chart is a rough guideline and represents the general consensus.

A note on the subjective nature of route grading:

Every route is given a grade by another person. The person who gives a route a grade normally has a lot of climbing experience, but grades definitely vary. Some people have strengths that make some climbs seem easier or harder. Different gyms and outdoor climbing areas (where standards for grades are generally held) can also greatly vary in difficulty for the same grades. A 5.7 at one climbing area or gym can seem like a 5.5 in some areas and 5.9 in other areas. The grades are subjective just like most other things in life. Climb for the challenge and climb for the fun of it. The numbers are a loose guide of what you can climb in an area, but not something to fret over. It’s not any fun if you are just worrying and getting frustrated about grades. Don’t get too caught up in them!