In the past, this would have never been a question. For the most part, outdoor climbing was all there really was and it encompassed all there was to climbing. These days, however, a plethora of climbing gyms are popping up all over the world making indoor climbing more accessible and common then ever. With kids growing up at the gym on climbing teams, going to birthday parties, etc, we are seeing more and more climbers who hardly seem to know outdoor climbing is even an option. Of course, there are always exceptions. Some kid climbers do grow up outdoor climbing, but it seems to commonly correlate with parents being climbers or at least interested in the outdoors as well. How else really would they get there?
None of this is necessarily good or bad, just different. Which is how I feel about the question of which is harder; they are both different. On the one hand, judging the difference by easy climbs such as V0s, will quickly lead you to believe outdoor climbing is degrees harder, for the most part. Indoor climbing may be something you love or hate, but nothing changes the fact that at the end of the day it is a business. For the business to thrive, it needs to get people hooked into the sport. If people come in to find that climbing is a challenge, but ultimately doable, they are hooked. If people come in to find that they can try and try and never get off the ground on anything, they will likely be discouraged and give up. Therefore, it makes sense that indoor easy climbs, should really be easy. Many gyms have very ladder like V0s, though to be fair, some really do complicate their V0s.
Nature on the other hand, does not need to sell climbing to you. You can take it or leave it. Therefore, some of the easier climbs have more intricacies, smaller holds, and somewhat challenging moves than you will find indoors. The easiest V0s outside often seem to be created to establish safe down climbs from challenging routes. Others are created because they are fun, but easy. There seems to be a wide range, where occasionally an outdoor 0 does seem really ladder like and completely easy. There are also times where they will make even harder level climbers stop to think for a moment.
Here are some things to consider when thinking about whether they are easy or hard. Indoor climbs can be completely manufactured and contrived to make the climber do certain things. It doesn’t have to merely be moves or positions that exist, only ones that can be made by man and the available holds. Therefore, the climbs you find come out of the imaginations of setters. Outdoor climbs are already in place by nature, but they need to be developed. Someone goes out to discover a line, scrub it clean, and grab a first ascent. You could do this yourself, but not everyone loves developing and not everyone knows how to find undiscovered rock. Therefore, while outdoor climbs are not necessarily man made, they are also still the imagination of a developer working with what nature has put in place.
That means that whether indoors or outdoors, you are likely to find climbs you love and hate depending on how compatible your climbing goals and visions are with the imaginations that established each route. There will also be ones that seem harder or easier because of the strengthens and weaknesses of those who established the routes. There will also be indoor and outdoor routes that are created with a high amount of passion and love for the sport. These are often the best climbs. There will also be times when indoor route setters are just doing a job, and outdoor developers have some other motive other than you loving it, such as creating a down climb. Finally, there will be times when either outdoor or indoor routes could be established by someone who really doesn’t know what they are doing yet because they are still learning.
Outdoor climbing may seem to you like it has been around since the dawn of time, but many aspects of it are relatively new. If you talk to older climbers, you will see in their life time a major switch in gear was created. Many older climbers did not have shoes like what we have now, nor did they have easy access to all the trainers and equipment that climbers have now. I’ve talked to older climbers and heard how incredibly different everything was and that is in lifetimes that are still happening! These climbers are alive, strong, and have years, maybe even decades, still to go. Why does this matter? There are climbs that were developed in the past that are dealing with being downgraded, and harder levels than imaginable are being achieved. It is possible that if you climbed something people haven’t paid a great deal of attention to, it could be significantly more easy than something that has been climbed millions of times and has an up to date grade or lots of beta.
Then there are also factors of polished rock and breaking off holds. The more people that climb an outdoor route, the more it subtly gets altered. When you climb an outdoor route, it could be vastly different from when that route was developed. However, any indoor climber could probably tell you that holds get old too. They get really polished, really greasy, and really chalk filled. If a gym keeps up to date on cleaning and ordering new holds, this won’t be a big deal. Smaller gyms may struggle to be able to afford this, and therefore, could have really horrific holds compared to gyms with higher profits.
Indoor climbing is not solely about being easy. With the huge jump in popularity of indoor competitions and the large amounts available, gyms need to keep their indoor routes substantially difficult so their teams and members can improve enough to compete against, potentially, world class athletes. They also try to offer opportunity for training. Competition is vamping up both the indoor and outdoor worlds of climbing. Both have a push for surpassing limits. Having said that, you probably never see V15 or 5.15 climbs in the gym. Most indoor gyms seem to stop at around V11 or 5.14a. However, not all outdoor climbing areas have routes developed at the harder levels either. We just know they exist somewhere.
Let’s not forget how your mental state factors into climbing either. Some people climb to relieve stress, others cannot climb at their best when stressed. Our mental processes and emotions play a large factor. Our social goals play in too. Some people are highly self motivated and self competitive. They will push themselves most when alone. Some people are more social and need other climbers to spark their psych. If you are a highly social person, you could thrive in either environment, but you are more likely to find huge crowds and consistent companionship in the gym. Those who really prefer to be in solitude with their climbing can also find it in either location, but may find more luck outside.
I know, personally, I feel much more comfortable, peaceful, and happy when in nature. Sometimes, especially peak after work times, the gym can feel overwhelming to me. Outdoor climbing offers my ideal emotional state and social needs. Often I feel best when outside. There are days when the gym can be really exciting and nice too, but there are also days I can’t stand being there. For the most part, I’m always happy outside. It is a highly personal preference in many regards.
So which is easier? It is a question lots of climbers ask and debate. However, I think it is really up to the individual. There are obvious pros and cons to both. There are numerous differences, but also similarities in many ways as well. If you are more used to one, the other will probably be a struggle at first. One or the other may be more likely to fit into your lifestyle, your schedule, your climbing style, or your range of abilities.