C'est Morpho: A discussion about the 'reachy'

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?

cest morpho image.png

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

Photo by www.summitgyms.com

Photo by www.summitgyms.com

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.

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.