When you first start rock climbing, the more advanced routes can seem completely impossible. However, if you work to develop your strength, stamina, and technique, you will likely be able to climb 5.11s soon enough.
In short, you can climb 5.11s by practicing, building your strength, honing your technique, and developing your stamina. If you climb in a gym, you can try 5.11s with pretty low risk. However, if you want to climb a 5.11 outdoors, you’ll need to either be able to lead the route or have someone lead it first so you can top rope it.
In this article, we’ll cover what it actually means to climb 5.11, and the differences between climbing a 5.11 on lead versus top rope and in the gym versus outdoors. We’ll also look at the different sub-grades of 5.11s, how to train to climb the grade, and how long it might take you to do so.
Is Climbing 5.11 Hard?
For most people, climbing a 5.11 is quite difficult or even impossible. But for professional climbers, a 5.11 would probably be a casual warmup route. So, it depends who you ask. A non-climber of average fitness could probably train hard and climb a 5.11 in the gym within about a year. Those who already have some climbing experience would likely take less time to progress.
Climbing a 5.11 is certainly an achievement to be proud of. But, there are many different qualifiers that can affect the magnitude of your achievement, including…
Lead vs. Top Rope and Indoor vs. Outdoor 5.11s
Climbing a 5.11 in a gym on top rope is impressive, but it is considerably easier than leading a 5.11 outdoors. Here’s how the different ways of climbing a 5.11 generally rank, from easiest to hardest: top roping in a gym, leading in a gym, top roping outdoors, leading outdoors.
Know that climbing a 5.11 in a gym is not the same as climbing a 5.11 outside, and use this information wisely. Do not immediately go attempt to lead a 5.11 outdoors after you bag your first 5.11 indoors. In the gym, you have brightly colored holds to tell you exactly where to go and how to make the move. Outdoors, you have to look and feel around for your holds, and there are many different options as far as which specific holds you use and how you use them. The additional time spent searching for holds requires greater stamina and makes an outdoor 5.11 feel significantly harder.
Additionally, route ratings in a gym are often much softer than outdoor ratings in general. Plus, the rating of an indoor climb usually depends solely on what the route setter thinks, while outdoor climb ratings can be amended if enough people think it’s warranted. There is no exact way to measure if a 5.11 gym route is actually as hard as a 5.11 route outdoors, and they often end up quite a bit easier. Finally, what constitutes a 5.11 varies significantly from gym to gym and between outdoor crags.
Related Reading: Is Rock Climbing Hard?
How Hard is a 5.11d Compared to a 5.11a?
To further complicate matters, all climbing grades 5.10 and above are subdivided with the letters a-d. The letter portions of the grade are often subjective, and can either be used to describe that the entire route has sustained difficulty, or that there is a single crux that is quite hard in an other mellow route. Gyms often use + and – instead of letters, so in theory a 5.11a or 5.11b would be a 5.11- and a 5.11c or 5.11d would be a 5.11+. Again, gym ratings and outdoor ratings are not really the same at all though.
That being said, if you are climbing at a crag that has a 5.11a and a 5.11d next to each other, you can expect the 5.11d to be significantly harder. If you feel confident climbing the whole range of 5.10s outdoors but have not yet forayed into the 5.11s, be sure to start with a 5.11a/b/- to ease into the grade.
How to Train for Climbing 5.11?
When training to climb 5.11s, you’ll need to focus on stamina, strength, and technique. This can be done in a few different ways, but of course the most effective method is climb regularly and push yourself during climbing sessions. It’s often easiest to train in a gym and then apply your skills outdoors. In the gym, you don’t have to hike to the crag, spend time determining which route you are looking at, set up all of your gear, and so forth. It’s also lower risk, which makes it safer to try hard routes that you probably wouldn’t attempt outdoors.
In the gym, you can do laps on easier climbs to help build your endurance, whether you are in a bouldering gym or a sport climbing gym. To do laps, select an easy or moderate problem or route, climb to the top, downclimb to the bottom, and repeat that a few times without letting your feet touch the ground or stopping to rest. However, try to avoid doing this when the gym is busy. You don’t want to be that guy hogging the easy routes or the auto belay while less experienced climbers sit around and wait.
You can also train on a hangboard, although this is only recommended if you’ve already been climbing for quite some time and have developed the grip strength necessary to safely use the tool. Training too hard too soon can result in injuries, which can set back your entire training schedule by months.
How Long Will It Take to Climb 5.11?
It really depends on how hard you already climb, how much time and effort you are willing to put into your training, and whether you are shooting for 5.11 in the gym or 5.11 outdoors. Someone of average fitness who has never climbed before could potentially climb a 5.11 in the gym within a year, with regular training and climbing sessions. But, if you are shooting for an outdoor 5.11 and you have less time to dedicate to training and/or you aren’t able to get outside to climb frequently, it could take much longer.