As part of the recent Australian route setters compensation survey, setters were asked to reflect on the state of the industry, and route setting as a career. Here's what they had to say.
Sport Climbing Australia accreditation level
Hours per week
inc. hold washing, route mapping, planning comps, etc.
Primary source of income
Roles occupied in gym
Likelihood of setting long-term (5+ years)
Knowing how to set a good route is just the beginning when it comes to being a head setter. In addition to having to needing a good grasp on the fundamentals of setting, you need to be an effective manager, enforce quality control, and be on top of logistics. It's a rewarding step up from setting, but it is challenging and fundamentally different from putting up a single route or problem in isolation. There are a few things that are essential for you to do in order to do this job justice.
1. Have a clear vision
The vision for your gym’s climbing is important for the same reason that the menu at a restaurant is important. It defines the experience of the venue. It sets expectations about your product, and lays out clear criteria by which all other setting can ultimately refer.
Forming this vision should not occur in a vacuum. It is relative to the overall market that your gym is seeking to serve. Is your gym catering heavily to kids parties? Is it bouldering only, and catering to outdoor climbers? Is it a big gym, or maybe a small training club? All of these markets are best served in different ways. For the kids parties, this might mean creating many sections of easy, fun, feature routes - even if it means sacrificig overall wall space. In a big gym, you might want to focus on reducing overall density, and creating visually stunning king lines to differentiate yourself from your competitors. Or perhaps you want to offer a high number of funky, beta intensive routes instead of the typical, flowy and straightforward style training route.
Whatever it is, be aware that there is no single right answer as to what route setting should look like. Different styles of movement, methods of grading, and densities will be appropriate in different environments. Instead, what is important, is simply that you understand and define your own vision. This central focus can then be used to inform decision making about the gym's route setting for everyday purposes.
2. Understand your customer base
Designing at a high level requires a user centred focus. Your decisions about what you create need to be informed by the abilities and goals of the climbers at your gym. Regularly take the time to observe people climbing in your gym, and encourage setters on your team to do the same. And not just the strong climbers - everybody. Take note of styles of movement that people struggle with, what they enjoy and what they don’t. Over time, you should be able to create a mental catalogue of climbers - understanding what climbers at each level are capable of and how they are likely to try to climb your routes. You can then draw on that knowledge when you’re evaluating your setters work and assessing the suitable of a movement for a particular grade range.
Direct feedback in the form of conversations or customer rating systems are important for getting a general feel of customer satisfaction, but they’re not nearly as valuable as observing from afar. The reason for this is that while a climber might be able to tell you if they enjoyed something or if they didn’t, they generally won’t be able to give you effective, specific suggestions to improve. Simply because very few climbers actually understand the process of route setting. Relying on suggestions from climbers to improve a route is like a chef taking suggestions on ingredient changes from patron who didn’t enjoy their main course. You are the expert, and it is up to you to identify why a route or problem isn’t meeting its purpose.
3. Take ownership
If you are the head setter at your facility, then the buck stops with you. Ultimately, any issues related to the quality or the safety of the route setting falls on your shoulders. As long as you are going to be held accountable for this, you need to claim ownership of any decisions and tasks that relate to the setting where you work. From hold washing to route setting advertising videos - own the process and influence decisions for the better. You will not always make the right call, and you’re going to have to wear it when there’s a stuff up, but if you don’t have a clear plan and communicate that plan effectively to your team and to your employer, then you are not doing your job.
I learned early in my working life, that if you are in a position of authority and you are not getting the respect you deserve, you need to find a way to earn it. Not because it massages your ego, but because without that respect you will be ineffective in your role. Don’t be afraid to make hard decisions. This often means stripping a route that is of low quality, or making a harsh critique of another setter’s work, but this is an essential step toward the overall aim of improving your gym’s climbing product. It never needs to be personal, but that doesn’t mean it’s not going to difficult. Keep in mind - failing to be honest in your assessment of someone else’s work does everybody a disservice. The other setter is failing to learn, and your employer’s business is suffering from a lower quality product, simply because you are unable to find a way to communicate effectively and truthfully.
4. Grade distributions
The biggest difference between being just a setter at your gym, and being the head setter, is the fact that you need to look at the gyms climbing product as a whole - not simply evaluating each route or problem - but being able to assess the overall climbing experience you’re offering. Perhaps the most important thing to keep track of is the distribution of grades in your facility. That just means how many of each difficulty of route is up at any one time.
Whether you use a spreadsheet, or simply periodically walk around the gym and make a visual assessment, ensure that you maintain a good balance of difficulties throughout the gym. This doesn’t mean that you have an equal number of every difficulty. Generally, it is best to have a higher frequency of routes of a certain difficulty scale with the amount of climbers who climb that difficulty. For example: If the majority of your customer base climb 5.9-5.10, and almost no-one climbs 5.13+ then you ought to provide many more 5.9s than 5.13s.
It’s not only the spread that you need to track, but also maintain sufficient overlap between difficulty bands. If you create a situation where there are a large number of easy routes, and a large number of harder routes (for example), but nothing in between, you will seriously compromise the experience of climbers in the gym. You are offering no means for customers to gradually improve and take on incremental challenges. For many climbers, the journey to improve is the foundational component to their hobby, and what keeps them coming back for more. Without this, inevitably, climbers will become disengaged and frustrated. We all know that grades are a spurious beast, but they create the parameters for the game we all play as climbers. It’s a reality that you need to understand and accept to be an effective head setter.
5. Lead by example
Setting is highly physically demanding, and even among the most dedicated employees, the long days and tiring nature of the job can tempt us to cut corners. If you’re the head setter, you can’t allow yourself to do this. If you don’t wear your PPE, if you aren’t willing to made that last minute tweak to a route, or you refuse to go the extra mile and lug the equipment up stairs, then you simply can’t expect members of your team to do so. Always be aware that the standard you set through your effort and your work is what will ultimately drive the quality in your gym higher.
No, I’m not talking about the next innovation in climbing hold design, or the previously unimagined 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 dyno. When I’m talking about the future of route setting, I’m thinking about work health and safety, sustainability, and processes.
The reality is that the way route setting is currently practised in most places is not sustainable. With respect to retaining talented people, and ensuring they stay injury free, healthy, creative, and incentivised, we’re exploring relatively uncharted terrain, and we can certainly do better.
Looking to other industries for direction
The clearest way to illuminate the current state of route setting is to look to more developed professional industries. But what industries should we look at? Route setting is an amalgamation of a number of roles - part designer, part rope access, part manual labour. Would any of our widely accepted practises be accepted as par for the course in these respective fields? Let’s start with design.
Design agencies do everything in the power to ensure their staff are able to efficiently and effectively implement their creativity. They have structured peer feedback systems and optimised processes. They create comfortable work spaces, with effective and purpose built tools. There is extensive training literature and formalised education.
Rope access technicians are renowned for their strict safety protocols, accreditation systems, and technical know how. Have a rope access foreman look over how your gym’s route setters work at height and with only a few exceptions, the report would be damning.
The labour industry, and the way it has developed over the centuries, is perhaps the most illustrative for the purposes of looking forward to what route setting will look like in the years to come. Let’s start with the sheer physical task that a full-time route setter faces in a week. Setting 5 days a week, given current practises, you may reasonably end up doing the following:
An 'average' week?
Hauling 10-15kg loads 100+m
Carrying 10-15kg loads more than a kilometre, up and down stairs
Sitting in a harness for 5 -10 hours
Climbing 250m+, including at difficulties close to athletic peak performance
Wearing a constant weight up to 5kg
Note, this is before we consider the actual objective of route setting - to design climbing movement and attach holds to a wall. Nor does it reference wall maintenance, or hold washing - both of which generally fall within a route setters mandate.
One could reasonably object that very few route setters regularly go through this kind of exertion - but that proves the general point. The expectations of this job, given current practises, are completely unrealistic and unsustainable. Little wonder setting is seen as a ‘young man’s game’ and sees a high turnover rate. If setting is to become something that can be done full-time, we’ve got to get smarter.
The sort of safety practises and manual labour requirements that route setters regularly exert themselves to wouldn’t be tolerated in advanced sectors of the labour industry - and it’s not because the people there are ‘soft’. It’s because it is not in the interest of employees, or employers, for workers to be physically exhausted and constantly burned out. It is not productive and, especially in a skilled role, it takes away the workers resources from their primary role (designing) into menial tasks (hauling, jumaring, lifting).
Technology not brawn
For a start, the prevalence of automation in the labour industry must surely make its way into route setting. The technology to create automated hauls, powered rope ascenders, quiet drills, and specialised access techniques exist - it’s just a matter of time before they become adapted and appropriated by the indoor climbing industry. It will also take the vision of bigger gyms to recognise that in order to create a sustainable route setting program, they will need to address the inefficiency of the processes that goes into creating the product they sell - climbing.
Relatively speaking, despite advances in technologies and bigger gyms, we’re still in the stone ages. It’s beyond the scope of this discussion to suggest any sort of catch all solution to these difficulties. The goal is simply to illustrate how far we have to go, and how much better we could be doing. Few industries would tolerate the level of wasted energy - energy that is exerted for purposes other than the primary task for which the employee is hired - that we see in the route setting profession.
Now, there is no guarantee that setting will ever reach a level of industry development that the aforementioned professions have. After all, it is perfectly feasible that gym operators will, by and large, simply incur the cost of high setter turnover and settle for a standard of expertise that is far below what the ultimate potential for what a full-time setter could be. Subway don’t lose sleep about the fact that they are unable to retain their sandwich artists for long-term careers. It’s simply part of the business model to re-train and turn over. Setting may go in a similar direction. But, if you’re trying to make setting a career, or if you are a gym operator looking for innovative ways to retain your talented setters, innovations in sustainable processes and increased efficiency are where the future lies.
While we work on these innovations, we need to realise that, on an individual level, it is not praiseworthy or desirable to set in a dangerous environment, to lift absurdly heavy loads, or to work until you are injured. Work smarter, not harder, and encourage others to do likewise.
Everybody working as a setter in the indoor climbing industry faces resource constraints. Whether it's your roster, a meagre hold budget, or limitations around not setting during opening hours. It's tough. Particularly for a small gym with a limited setting budget, it can seem impossible to make progress and expand your routesetting resources. Here is a simple concept, and a few practical tips and cheap ways to boost your setting program without breaking the bank.
The central concept to remember when it comes time to justifying an increase in your overall setting budget, is to focus on providing value.
Not to yourself, but to the customers and, by extension, to the gym operator. It often seems like a bit of a artistic faux pas to talk about monetary value in the context of route setting, but understanding the way in which you provide value to the facility you work for is key to expanding your setting program.
Simply put, you need to find ways to increase the quality of your product, and to see this quality be reflected in increased engagement with the customers in your gym. Engagement in this context simply means getting customers talking about climbs in the gym, and better understanding the route setting process.
Communicate to the climbers
I've said this before, and I'll keep saying it: communicate to the people who are consuming your product. I don't necessarily mean literal, face to face chatting about route setting (although this is important), but communicating in the sense of ensuring the people who use your product understand it. By analogy, think about food. The more you understand about the process of cooking, and of how much effort the chef went to with preparing a meal, the more likely you are to appreciate it on a deeper level. Route setting is no different.
It's so easy for route setters and enthusiastic, long-time climbers to forget what it is like to be a newer climber, or a first time visitor at a gym. Here's a tip: the vast majority of new climbers have no idea that the routes in a climbing gym are even changed, let alone any idea of the process and hard work that is involved in designing climbs, and they're not going to understand it, and then engage with it, unless you are able communicate it effectively to them.
It might be as simple as having your route setters work on the floor and chat to climbers, it might be through setting videos, or social media – the principle is the same: communication builds engagement, and engagement drives value up.
Anyone who's been to a climbing competition will attest to the infectious atmosphere they create. Unfortunately, running a big competition is a time consuming, logistical nightmare, that rarely sees great financial returns. Fortunately, not all comps need to be this way.
Try running mini-competitions utilising your existing route setting schedule. Let's say you regularly set 15 boulder problems every second Friday at your gym. Do some promotion in the preceding week, and instead of simply opening the set to the public as normal, take an extra half hour to devise some sort of basic scoring system and competition format, then have a setter or two stay behind for an hour to co-ordinate a mini comp with the climbers who are eager to get on the new set. A few tokenistic prizes (lollies, free drinks) is all you need. Not only does it increase customer engagement with your product for next to no extra cost, it allows your setters to gain important real-time feedback by talking to climbers and watching them try the new problems.
Ensure you are meeting the needs of your customers
What if you're doing everything I've mentioned, and yet there still doesn't seem to be a buzz about the routes or problems in your gym? You can have world class marketing consultants advertising your route setting program, but if your product sucks, it's not going to matter. Not only do you need to ensure that the quality of your route setting is high, but you need to ensure that you are meeting the needs of your customer base. What's the difference?
When we're talking about quality, we're talking on the level of individual routes and problems. We're referring to things like the flow, the hold use, the aesthetics, and the movement. If we're talking about meeting the needs of a customer base, then we're talking on a bigger, macro scale. About things like grade distribution, wall density, usability of your grading systems, safety, comfort, etc.
To demonstrate the difference, let's imagine we are the head setter in a gym that has a single 25 metre lead wall. On it, we set 4 men's final ISFC World Cup lead routes. The hold use is sublime, the difficulty is consistent, the movement is varied, they look awesome, and they feature the latest shapes from the world's best hold manufacturers. The quality of these routes would be exceptionally high, and yet, to set your gym up in this way would be a commercial disaster. You would completely fail to meet the needs of your customers - very few climbers could get off the ground, and you can forget about your casual market.
It's unlikely that you've made such a drastic error as this at your facility, but you may well have made mistakes of the same kind. If you're confident in the quality of your routes, zoom out, look at the big picture, and ensure that you are providing a product that meets your customers needs.
Feature image by Set in Stone Photography
''C'est morpho.'' These two little words are the bane of my routesetting existence.
As an Englishman living and working in France, there are several differences between the British climbing scene and it's Gallic counterpart.
Anything concerning trad climbing is seen with a kind of horrified fascination, and yet the ''Bleausards'' of Fontainbleau think nothing of cruising up a 7a with just a doormat to wipe their feet on, with not even a snooty glance of disdain towards the sweating Englishmen wrestling with 5 square metres of crash pad next to them.
If a hold on an English climbing wall is a bit far, we'll say with a rueful smile, "Well it is a bit reachy...'' That's the spirit! Just reach a bit further and you'll have it. It's just a bit reachy mate, no problem!
If we cross the channel our croissant loving friends have a much less apologetic way of seeing the world. Is that hold too far away?
C'est morpho basically means that the morphology of the climber is a deciding factor of whether the move is possible or not. It's a blunt statement. For a routesetter it's hard to hear without taking offence. But as much as I hate to say it, on this the French are right.
Putting the ego aside, what can we learn from this phlegmatic utterance? Clocking in at 183 cm (nearly 6'2'') with a big arm span, I constantly wrack my brains to make routes which will be technical, challenging and fun, and will be all of these things for everyone despite their height. Commercially speaking, we really can't afford to set routes which will automatically eliminate people from being able to do them just because the next hold is too far away, and we shouldn't make light of the problem by using disarming words like ''reachy.''
So what can we do? Sure, we can set to the elbow but that often makes for slightly strange moves as trying to reach a hold with your elbow is completely different from grabbing it with your hand. Besides, it nearly goes without saying that you should never set to your own maximum reach for static moves.
Feet and Direction
One typical response is, ''well he can just move his feet up.'' Obvious right? But what if there aren't any feet higher up? Or they're not in the right place so the cool move you wanted turns into something completely different? The simple addition of footholds a bit above where you have your own feet can turn a morpho move into a great move for everyone, still keeping all the same handholds. On this pink route, tall people don't strictly need this foothold to do the rockover but it would require some serious gymnastics for shorter people. This way the move is possible for everyone! (Just make sure that it's not good enough to be used as a handhold!)
Alternatively, put all the footholds a bit higher than you would like. Big people will be forced to move their feet up, something which is often lacking from their skill set, and small people will feel like it's made just for them! Just be careful to not end up with footholds around your ears, which will be impossible for everyone.
Another trick I've found is to impose mini traverses. This not only adds a physical difficulty by simply making the route longer, but it also makes it easier to impose movements like hand swaps, cross-throughs, side-pulls, gastons, undercuts and compression moves. Use these techniques and hold angles to make it so that the only way to advance is to either do a move much harder than the grade (possibly morpho), or do several smaller, technical moves. It's possible to go from this blue mono to the sloper on the left, but it's really far. By matching hands on the intermediate double pocket before going for the sloper you add a move on a fairly nasty hold instead of doing one long reach. Both options are there but it's fair for everyone.
I have literally seen someone sandbag one of my routes, skip half the holds, and therefore loads of easy moves, then come down and tell me it was really hard for the grade. This will happen, but do you want your clients to climb well or just be strong?
Let go of forced moves
Another approach, particularly useful on overhangs, is to add lots of intermediate holds, each one of them equally bad. It doesn't matter if the climber skips a hold, because they're not getting anything better than what a shorter climber is using. It's a brutal democracy. In this passage in the 6c orange you have loads of options for your hands, but trust me, they all suck!
This can also be used in easier routes with good holds. For example this line of red holds allows a simple left-right-left sequence for short people. A taller person may skip a hold or two in this sequence but it's not necessarily any easier. They may even end up wrong-handed. This technique can be difficult to accept for setters who like forcing moves, but let's be honest, there's always going to be someone who skips your moves, so just go with it!
Stop, look and listen
When you're setting, constantly ask yourself how someone else would climb this. Make adjustments accordingly. If the move's too easy then don't move the hold further, make it worse. Or turn it a bit to force a different movement.
The French have a little known and barely ever implemented system for setting static movements. If you pull down on a hold the next one should be no more than 50 cm higher and 75 cm to the side. If the hold is a horizontal side pull the next hold is still 50 cm higher but a maximum of 1 m to the side. If it's a gaston then it can be 50 cm higher but only 50 cm laterally from the first hold. A hold after an undercut can be 75 cm higher than said undercut. I do stress that this is barely ever used but it can give you a guideline just in case.
It is very important to listen to feedback, as long as it's well constructed. Most people will just say that they enjoyed your route to be polite, so treasure those who do call you out on a morpho route, even if it's hard to hear. They're not saying you're a bad person, or even a bad setter. This is your job and you are creating a product to sell to clients. If the route is fairly new you could add a foothold or two, or if it's brand new you still have the time to change it before putting a grade on it. If it's an old route consider the criticisms for your next one.
A final word
Bear in mind that there are people who have decided in advance that everything is morpho. I once came down from setting one of my first routes in a new gym, only to have a complete stranger come up to me and say, ''You will think about shorter people when you set, right?'' He'd already got that mindset without even having tried the route. It's interesting to watch these people climb your routes and see if they think the route is morpho because they haven't understood the moves or if the holds really are too far for them.
These people represent a tiny proportion of your client base. I'm not saying to completely ignore them, because they have the right to enjoy themselves too, and sometimes they will have valid feedback, but take these comments with a pinch of salt - for the sake of your own motivation!
Author: John Giles Woodhouse - Setter @ What's Up Climbing Gym, Lille, France.
For most of us, setting is done in a familiar environment. We get paid by a gym to set a commercial product. We create routes and problems with holds we've used many times before, on walls that we know like the back of our hand. We may even fall into patterns, where we find ourselves resetting a similar line than we did the year before, because we know it was a hit, and we know it works. And hey, our customers won't complain - they loved it the first time so they'll love it again. Unfortunately, in routesetting as in life, the comfort of the familiar limits our growth.
We only learn when we fail, and we only fail when we're challenged. By limiting yourself to routesetting in a familiar environment, or with holds you know, or creating movements you understand, you will limit your improvement as a setter. Does this mean that you have to try to re-invent the wheel every time you pick up an impact driver? No - this is too much of a creative burden to put on yourself. There are, however, some simple ways to keep your setting perspective fresh, and to ensure you continue to grow in your craft. Here are some tips.
1. On every setting day, set a movement or style that you're genuinely unfamiliar with.
For practical reasons, it isn't feasible to try to make every route a foray into the unknown. Sometimes we need to stick to our tried and tested methods, but force yourself to experiment with at least one movement or style every time you set. Maybe you generally like to set with lots of foot holds, so force yourself to limit your use of footholds on a particular route. Perhaps you always set a heel hook when pulling a lip - see if you can create a sequence that doesn't. In all cases, utilise forerunning to refine what you've created. Sometimes you'll have to scrap it and try again, but you will always learn.
2. Seek out opportunities to guest set.
Quite simply, go elsewhere and set in a different facility. Whether it's for a competition, or tagging along as part of a different gyms setting team, try to engage other setters and work with them. Not only will you be faced with unfamiliar terrain and unfamiliar holds, your perspective of setting will be enhanced by working with others.
3. When you visit new crags or gyms, climb 'actively'.
It's no co-incidence that good setters tend to be very technical climbers. To recreate something, we need to understand how it works. A lot of setters will encourage you to climb a variety of styles and in different places to gain inspiration. It's good advice, but only really benefits your setting when coupled with an active mindset.
You need to consciously engage with the product you're sampling. Why did that route stay with you? Perhaps the setter had a theme of terrible feet throughout the entire climb, leading to a feeling of insecurity. Why did that problem feel like an adventure? The setter might have utilised wall space effectively by forcing sideways movement as well as several distinct cruxes. Try to understand why a move works. Is the right hand better than the left, and that's why it felt naturally to cross? If you simply climb and not reflect on how the movements set, you will always be able to explain whether you enjoyed something, but not necessarily be able to recreate it.
4. Limit your resources.
This may seem somewhat paradoxical. After all, new holds and volumes can be an important and refreshing source of inspiration for our setting, but it's not always the correct path to improvement.
If you're not feeling challenged by your setting assignments, make things harder for yourself by limiting your hold selection, by forbidding yourself the use of footholds, or by volunteering to set on difficult terrain. Take away what makes you feel comfortable, and see if you can succeed in spite of that. You are guaranteed to learn more about setting than if you stick to the familiar.
Some people will tell you that the way a climb looks is irrelevant.
'It's all about the movement'
That's just not true. A more sensible approach is to try to set routes that look great, and climb even better. Things that look good draw the eye. They create interest, and attraction. These are all reactions we want to illicit in climbers who see what we've created.
Aesthetics isn't just a question of beautiful colours or eye-catching contrast; it's also a question of useability. By putting some thought into the look and layout of your routes, you can create a far more user friendly product that will enhance the climbers overall experience in the gym.
Here are a few ways to improve the aesthetics of your routes, and the experience of the climbers you're setting for.
Use Of Space
When you're standing beneath a freshly stripped wall, take some time to plan out the where each problem or route will run. The 'line' it will take. Be creative, and try to utilise as much of the assigned space you have to work with. Wherever possible, create space between the lines, and avoid running them along the same path for more than a few moves. A clear line of holds will attract the eye, and is easier to read and follow once the climber is on the wall.
Obviously, the less routes/problems that you set in any given space, the more visually distinct they will be. As a general rule:
Set as few routes as possible, without compromising the overall experience of customers in your gym.
In a commercial setting, we will always have to compromise between pure aesthetics and route density. Inevitably, you will often have to set routes that take similar lines in order to ensure your customers have enough routes to climb. In this case, set the routes that are close to one another with holds that contrast strongly against each other.
Similar shades will blend into one another, and look like hold soup. Even worse, once the routes have seen substantial traffic, the chalk and rubber build up will make the routes almost indistinguishable. This will seriously compromise the experience of the climber. Everyone is familiar with the experience of clinging on for dear life, peering down at your feet trying to work out whether that black footer is yours, or whether it's a rubber-stained gray. It sucks. Avoid it.
If you're the head setter at your gym: plan ahead. If you have a series of ropes next to one another, pre-plan the colour distributions so that not only do the individual routes contrast with one another, but the routes on adjacent ropes also contrast with each other wherever possible.
If you're a big advocate of high route density (which is totally fine) you can still create distinct lines on your walls by utilising the concept of 'Big Small'. On a dense wall, create contrast by using big, feature holds on a single line, and smaller holds on all the others. From afar, the bigger holds will still create a clear impression of a distinct and visually appealing route, and allow the wall to look good, without compromising route density. Having multiple routes that occupy similar space using big feature holds of different colours rarely looks good. It's simply too busy and, as a setter, it blocks many body positions and movements that you might want to create.
Of their many benefits, one of the great things about modular volumes is that they allow you to create complex movement without spraying the wall with a huge amount of holds. Here's 2 different approaches to use volumes effectively as it relates to aesthetics:
First, and more simply: Use volumes to create interesting and varied terrain, with minimal thought on movement, but with a focus on designing an interesting space, then set through the space you've created. This process generally doesn't utilise volumes to their fullest extent, but it's far quicker, and still looks great.
Or, secondly, create your first and most difficult boulder using the volumes as essential holds in the problem or route, adding only minimal holds to set with. Once finished, you will be able to add subsequent problems with a minimum of holds. Creating easier variations of the initial problem, or running it across a different line. It's important that your first set is the most difficult. If it's not, all subsequent attempts to force a harder sequence will be compromised by the fact that the climber can just revert to using the initial, volume sequence you intended. The result will be a clean, minimalist looking wall, but will still provide a variety of problems and relatively high density that still looks great.
Don't Overdo It
Aesthetics are certainly not everything when it comes to setting. There are even times when it makes sense to give away good-looks to pure route density all together. It's all about context, and about the purpose of the set. For example, there's no particular reason to try to make a 45' system board look like a work of art. It's purely functional. A tool for climbers who understand what they need, and who place very little value on the aesthetics of the product.
Understand who you're designing for, and what you're trying to achieve, so that you can utilise aesthethics effectively in your setting.
Teaching new setters is hard. Even experienced routesetters who are great at what they do speak about the difficulties in breaking down setting, and turning psyched climbers into efficient, effective routesetters. Here are a few tips that might help out.
1. Explain What Setting Isn't
This is the first thing you need to do. Day 1. The majority of people who are interested in starting setting are strong, psyched climbers, who want to create fun problems and routes for themselves.
Make sure that the new setter understands that their role is to design a climbing experience for customers - and not for themselves.
2. Let Them Make Mistakes
When somebody is new at something, they're not very good. That's how skill acquisition works, and routesetting is no different. The routes and problems that new setters put up and generally not going to be very good. It's hard as an experienced setter (especially a head setter) to see a sub-quality product go up on the wall of your gym, but it's an important part of the learning process.
If you pull them down, or totally take over the tweaking process, you'll crush the confidence of the new setter, and they won't learn. Help them tweak the route, and explain why every step of the way.
3. Establish Gym Setting Principles
Before bringing on new setters, establish the routesetting principles of your gym. What are you trying to do when you set routes or problems? Provide a varied experience? Teach people how to climb? Get it down on paper.
By having these things formalised, you can reference specific principles and guidelines when explaining tweaks that need to be made, or the sort of route you'd like the new setter to put up.
4. Easy Routes First
Make the new setter set easy routes or boulders first. Easy climbing has simple sequences, and it will allow the setter to focus on rope-work, learning how to use the drill, and all the other things they need to learn before they worry about how to create complex movement.
If they're a strong climber, it will also help re-enforce rule number 1 - you're not setting for yourself.
5. Pay Them
I almost can't believe this point needs to be made, but given the state of the industry, it does. If you want someone to do something professionally, and to be able to hold them to account, you need to pay them. Your routes and boulders are the product you're selling at a gym - why on earth would you want have the people responsible for creating that product be volunteers?
Yes, good setters take time to train. It's an investment. Like any staff, treat them well, compensate them accordingly, and before long you'll have a team you can rely on.
In the first week of May this year, I rocked up for day one of setting for the State Lead Titles in Queensland, Australia. Fast forward 7 days, and I'd clocked up more than 60 hours in the lead up to the comp, had slept on the floor of the gym for 2 nights, and probably jumared the height of El Cap. It was wild. Eye-opening, intense, fun, laborious, and mentally draining - all at once. I don't really know if my experience is representative of how things are done across the globe (I'm keen to find out), but I do know that there's a few things I wish I knew when I rocked up that first day.
DO WHATEVER THE HEAD SETTER NEEDS
A big comp, especially a state or national title, is all about logistics. There's just so much going on. Hundreds of competitors, complex scoring systems, judging, sponsors, isolation set up, and more. And that's before we even start to think about route mapping, assigning grades for qualifiers for each category, hold colour clashes, aesthetics, keeping an eye on the competitor list, forerunning videos, safety... and then, there's the actual setting of the routes. Thinking about movement and bolting holds to the wall.
The only way an operation like this can be successful, is if there's something keeping an eye on the whole. That's the head setter. They're juggling all that at once. As a setter, you are the most value to the team if you simply do whatever it is that they need. Swallow the ego, don't stand around waiting to be micro-managed, just find out what needs doing – and get it done.
IT'S ALL ABOUT THE SPLIT
When offered the chance to set on a new wall, with exciting new holds, and away from your commercial gym, it's easy to become overwhelmed with the possibilities of what you can create. Don't make that mistake. Instead, remember that it's all about the split. Before anything else, the route or problem you're creating needs to serve the overall purpose of creating a spread of climbers. Without that, there's no competition.
Again, the head setter will have an eye on what the overall spread of problems/routes needs to look like. Just make sure your route will serve the purpose for which it is intended. Make sure that the route will be fair for all competitors, has no stopper moves, and allows plenty of opportunities for scoring holds – especially in the upper section.
UNDERSTANDING THE CATEGORY IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN HITTING A GRADE
While you will generally be asked to set to a grade, remember that the specific number is not really what's important. A thorough understanding of the competitors within that category – their physical stature, along with their strengths and weaknesses, is at least as important as knowing what grade they climb. Certain age groups and genders will excel at a certain style of route, so it's not sufficient to simply set to a grade – you need to understand what they will find difficult, and what they will struggle on. Knowing this information will make the process of creating a spread of climbers far easier, and it will also allow you to create climbs that test the field in a varied and fair way. Keep an eye on the competitor list.
GO THE EXTRA MILE, IT'S WORTH IT
At some point throughout the blur of take-out food, lack of sleep, impact drivers and scissor lifts, we were contemplating whether or not to continue to tweak a finals route. It was late, we were knackered, and pretty over it, when someone uttered a thought that clarified things,
“Well, imagine when there's hundreds of people watching, the bright lights are on, the finals going down, and it doesn't work out.”
Needless to say, we made the tweak. It's often the case that at the end of a setting day, you're faced with putting those final touches on something when you really can't be stuffed. 'The drills upstairs, I have to go get the ladder...' and so on. Even in a commercial setting, it's almost always worth the extra effort. Especially so when it comes to comps. It's sheer agony to watch shorter climbers repeatedly struggle on a move that the rest of their category walks through, or to see a nobody come close to topping a finals route. Make that extra tweak, spend a bit more time. It'll be worth it when it's comp time.
Flow is often what we want in routes. In a commercial context, flowy routes are one of the most popular products we offer. When we're talking about roped setting in a gym, it's what most people want, most of the time. If route setters were Italian chefs, then being able to set a flowy route is like being able to make pasta. It's the staple of our range. It doesn't mean it's the best on offer, or the thing you must create every time you sling grips, but it is an essential part of the repertoire.
What is flow? Simply put, a route that flows, is a route that has movement that feels intuitive. You set up on the starting holds, and it feels good. You're not bunched up and straining to get off the deck, not confused, it seems to be 'just right'. Higher up, you execute a cross over sequence, rolling the hips to weight the new hold, look down - bang - there's a foot right where you want it. This is flow.
So how do you set a route that flows? There's a few key principles to keep in mind:
1. Let the holds dictate the movement
2. Don't overthink the sequences
3. Avoid cruxes
1. 'Let the holds dictate the movement'
A sure fire way to break the flow of a route, is to try to force a hold to be used in a way that it's not suited for. A hold almost always has an ideal way in which it can be used. Often this simply boils down to comfort. Try gripping the hold in different ways, spinning it around, left hand, right hand, generally the optimum position - the position the shaper intended - will become quite obvious.
If you select the wrong holds to haul up the wall with you, you're going to be struggling from the beginning. On the flip side, with good hold choice, and proper attention to the way a holds supposed to be used, you'll find that routes almost set themselves. In practical terms, having the right holds for the right terrain is a matter of experience. An experienced setter can look at the wall they're setting on, look at the holds available, and know which will be suitable for the difficulty and style of route they need to set.
Tip for new setters: Before selecting holds for your route, look around the gym and find a route of similar grade and style to the one you're supposed to be setting, take note of the holds. How positive they are, how big the feet are, etc. - let this guide your selection.
2. Don't Overthink The Sequence
A movement that is intuitive, is a move that you execute without thought. It's the first thing your reactions tell you to do. You find your body positioned in such a way that it simply leads on to the next sequence organically.
With this in mind: if a route is the product of overthinking, then it's going to climb like that. It will feel complex, stop and start, and thought-provoking. This isn't always a bad thing - but it isn't flow. Keep your sequences simple. Save the 360 spin, lead with your feet, toe hook moves for your next comp boulder.
When you're setting, visualise yourself in the body position that the climber would be in at that point in the route. What feels natural to do next? If you're having a hard time visualising, pull onto the wall and see where the route naturally leads. The first movement you make is likely to be the most intuitive. Obviously, setting like this requires good climbing instincts. This is when becoming a better climber will definitely help you to set better routes.
Tip for new setters: When you're visualising the next movement, or pulling onto the wall to see where the route naturally leads, don't only think about hand movements. Often, and especially if the climber is in a long, stretched out position, the next natural movement is to walk up their feet, before moving off the current hand holds. Add a couple feet, pull into that position, and then think about the hand movement.
3. No Cruxes
Cruxes break a climber's rhythm. They force a change in pace, and often a change in effort. Putting a hard boulder problem in the middle of an otherwise consistent, flowing route, is like jogging along the seaside, and being suddenly forced into sprinting a 40 yard dash, or hurdling over a falling tree. It breaks your flow.
A route that flows will be consistently difficult. As alluded to earlier, consistent difficulty is often a matter of hold choice. If you're setting on a vertical wall with a mix of crimps and jugs, and you find yourself half way up the route and you've only got the crimps left, well, you're going to have a hard time maintaining the difficulty of the route you've started. Make your life easier by selecting the appropriate holds before you start jumaring (or scissor lifting if you're lucky).
To be clear, when we're talking about cruxes, where talking about movements that are significantly harder than the rest of the route. Like, a 5.10c move on an otherwise 5.10a, It's not as though every need movement need be exactly the same difficulty - that's not possible.
Tip for new setters: Forerunning is the best time to identify unwanted cruxes. If an individual movement or sequence is clearly identified as being too hard, don't be precious with the move - even if it's nice. Make the necessary changes, preferably just by rotating or moving pieces. This is more time efficient and less likely to ruin other movements than adding holds.
I recently ran an informal poll asking route setters how many routes or problems they set in a day. Around 200 people responded. The data is highly informal and somewhat problematic - given that it didn't differentiate between setters who strip, wash, and set in the same day, and those who simply set. Neither did it necessarily take into account forerunning. Nevertheless, I think there is some interesting data that's worth presenting. All data is per setter, per day.
Setting Speed Poll Results
When it comes to boulder setting, 114 of 141 setters said they set 5 or more boulders a day. Although the poll didn't specify an upper limit, people who set much more than 5 boulders posted in the comments section. It would be nice to know with more specificity, how many boulders they set (5 to 15 is a broad data range), but it seems safe to assume, based off the comments, that the average setting day for boulders is around 10 problems. There were outliers on both ends of the spectrum, with a number of setters only setting 1-4 boulders in a day, and a similar number setting 20 or more. The lower end numbers can probably be attributed to newer setters, or those who set casually - maybe only when their gym is quiet. The higher end numbers are more interesting.
Several setters elaborated saying that they set more than 25-30 boulders - on average. This struck me, and several others, as being almost unbelievable. Just to put that in perspective, assuming a 10 hour setting day, with no breaks and no wall stripping, hold washing, wall maintenance, or forerunning, that means that the setters are putting up a problem every 20 minutes.
Route setting speed is obviously complicated by the time sink that rope work entails (unless of course, you're lucky enough to set from a lifter). Even then, inevitably, routes take longer than boulders to set. The majority of setter's responded that they set 1 to 2 lead routes in a day, with slightly higher numbers for top rope routes - around 3 a day (readily explainable by thinking about what's involved with rigging a rope on a lead wall).
There are some obvious variables that this data doesn't take into account - that would hugely affect the speed at which a gym's setters are able to set. Just to list a few:
- Wall angle - Steeper walls, especially when setting from a rope, are more awkward to set on, and are more physically draining.
- Use of volumes / hold size - Positioning large volumes, and large holds, is time consuming. If a regular setting day involves moving around volumes before beginning setting, less problems/routes will be set.
- Forerunning - Although I don't have enough information to say, definitively, what the average ratio of setting to testing is across indoor gyms, it's not unusual for the ratio to approach 50/50. If this is true, then thorough forerunning will substantially reduce the amount of routes set in a day.
- Difficulty of routes/problems - Harder movement tends to be more complicated to set, and thus will take longer. It is also much more arduous and complicated to forerun.
- Ergonomics of gym - The layout of a gym can substantially slow setting time. If holds are stored upstairs, or it is not possible to move holds and equipment by trolley, setting speed will slow down. Lastly, bad ergnomics is not just inefficient with respect to time, but it wastes setter's energy. Given the physical demands of the job, any energy spent lugging holds upstairs will translate in reduced quality in the final product.
- Taping vs Monochromatic - I suspect that, given proper procedures, there is no reason to think that one of these methods is necessarily faster than the other, but given that procedures are rarely ideal, differences in these styles (especially transitioning between the two) will affect setting speed.
- Set screws - If your gym requires a set screw in every hold, clearly things are going to take longer.
- Stripping - Stripping holds in the same day that you set is a big time and energy sink. It's worth noting though that it also enhances the experience of the customer. They do not have blank areas of wall - although the degree of this effect is debatable.
- Washing - Same day washing is, again, time consuming. On the plus side, it means that you require less holds overall in your facility.
Given the variables listed and the imperfect method of data gathering used, it's pretty difficult to say anything about average setting speed with any great deal of accuracy. The best guess is that, all things considered, the average number of boulders set in a day, per setter is ~10, lead routes is ~2, and top rope routes is ~3.
More importantly, thinking about setting speed raises a number of issues worth considering. To touch on each in turn:
Quality vs. Quantity
Comments regarding the poll seemed to centre around the theme of quality versus quantity. One thought was that a setter should be able to deliver both. While this is obviously true, I don't think it's particularly helpful. If we're trying to work out what an appropriate setting speed is, and how we can set more efficiently, it's simply idealistic and unhelpful to imply that setting a higher number of routes/boulders will have no affect on their quality. Time and energy are finite resources, and the more we invest in quality or quantity, the less we have to spend on the other.
There is no right number of routes to set in a day, but there's probably a balance that's appropriate for the environment you're working in. Given the responses, most setters would suggest that setting more than 10-15 problems in a day will sacrifice too much by way of quality. You're simply less likely to create a quality product. Ultimately, though, it comes down to how you perceive the needs of your climbers. If they value turnover more than quality, then the right move is to set more quickly.
Efficiency Through Procedures
What is immediately obvious to anybody who starts setting, is just how easy it is to waste time and energy by working inefficiently - leaving drill bits on the ground, not having the right holds, crappy jumaring, etc. The list goes on. For any setter, probably the best bit of advice when it comes to setting at a decent speed, is to dial in efficient procedures that minimise the amount of time you waste throughout the day. Find out what works for you, and stick to it.
Head setters bear particular responsibility in this regard. Having coordinated forerunning times, appropriate holds available, technical advice on rope work, and appropriate breaks will all assist in running a more efficient time. This is desirable for everybody - and ultimately means the work will be of higher quality, and consequently of more value.
The best designer doesn't just create a great product, they sell that product to their customers. For most of us, our customers are the people that climb at our gyms. Commercial route setting is all about creating a memorable climbing experience that keeps people coming back to the gym.
One way to ensure that your routes are appreciated, is to sell them effectively. You might be setting the best routes in the world, but if you're doing so in a small gym among big competition, no-one's going to know about it. These are obvious business principles that are underutilised in the setting world, but people are starting to cotton on. There are a multitude of ways you can implement changes to sell your product - routes and the climbing experience - to your climbers.
Communicate Directly With The Climbers
Perhaps the most fundamental thing you need to be able to do as a setter, is to communicate with your climbers - and I don't just mean chatting to them on the floor in the gym (although this might be part of your strategy). Just ask yourself, if you're climbing in a gym, what sorts of things would you want to know about the routesetting? At a bare minimum, probably the following:
1. Where the new routes are.
2. How often the routes are changed.
3. What the next section of wall to be stripped will be.
4. If any big changes are coming in the setting (changing to circuits/adjusting difficulty bands etc.)
This list isn't exhaustive, and every gym will have differences when it comes to what it is appropriate to communicate to your customers, but it's true everywhere that the more you communicate with the customers, the better understanding and appreciation they will have of what you're trying to achieve in your route setting.
Route Setting Videos
Something that's taking off in a big way at the moment, is route setting videos. That come in many different shapes and sizes, and some seem to be more successful than others. While they are definitely a great idea in general terms, ensure that you do a bit of thinking about the purpose of the videos before you point a camera at the wall and start shooting. Are you trying to communicate something to the customers (ie. where the new routes are), explain particularly obscure beta (a move that might otherwise go unappreciated and thus ignored), or just build hype around some new holds?