Setting Speed: Data and analysis

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

Analysis

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).

Variables

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.

Final Thoughts

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.