The Future of Route Setting: The evolution of processes and technology

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?

  • Jumaring 250m+

  • Hauling 10-15kg loads 100+m

  • Abseiling 250m+

  • 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.

Work smarter, not harder.

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