First up in the setter interviews is Niklas Wiechmann. Niklas, and his fellow setters, have become well known for flashy and momentum based boulder problems that they're creating at Stuntwerk in Koln, Germany, and have become hugely popular online - through a series of highly viewed YouTube clips. I attended a clinic with Niklas last year, and recently got in touch again for the interview. The interview focuses on his unique setting philosophy, and his thoughts on the climbing industry generally.
Q. A lot of what we do as setters comes down to how we create challenge through our routes - how we make things difficult. There's obviously lots of ways to do this (ie. making things powerful, pumpy, or dynamic), but it seems that a hallmark of your (and Stuntwerks) setting is to create challenge through the complexity of the sequences. Is that accurate? What is it about the challenge of complexity that you like?
A: That sounds right. Whenever I want to challenge someone with a boulder or a crux, I want to challenge him not only physically, but also mentally. Climbing for me is much more fun if you are engaged in a process of finding a solution to a hard move, which you maybe don´t understand at first, but through trying, talking to other people, watching other people efforts, and then maybe solving the move, you learn much more about climbing, yourself and hopefully the social aspects of climbing, then just to fail and have a solution like: do more power training!
Whenever I am asked to talk about my philosophy of movement, it sounds as though I don´t like raw power or athletic moves, but that's not right! In my opinion, it is just more satisfying to leave a gym because your mind is exhausted and you were not able to find the trick, or the right position to your enemy-like-move, instead of going home believing that you are just too weak. Complex moves are so much more rewarding because once you know how to do it, you can do it again and again - it is just like skateboarding. once you know how to do an ollie (simple jump with a board) you want to ollie onto benches, over something, you want to learn how to turn yourself while jumping. So one trick is only the beginning to a whole new world of moves, and that's quite similar to climbing. Sometimes I try to name some moves like the 'Tobinator push-jump', because once you name something, it is easier to communicate what exactly it is. and once you know a trick or a move, you can apply it in different circumstances in your climbing.
All in all I try to create an atmosphere of learning, and a willingness to try new stuff. Lastly, setting complex moves are more accessible than powerful moves for new customers and people which climb with good technique, but who don´t have that body-type to climb powerfully, or just don´t want to do exhausting stuff because they're lazy.
On a personal level, a complex move is much more meaningful to me. If I do a good complex move, I get a rewarding feeling… It's like when you do a kickflip or a boardslide as a skater, or catch a wave while surfing. EVERYTHING about these things just FEELS better than finishing a project or a hard boulder. It is a sudden kick of luck, a feeling warmth. Maybe it's really different for everybody, but whenever I do a board-slide, I just feel like the worlds greatest athlete. You just want to do it again because it feels soooo good and smooth, and it is something you own, something you've learned and can do. It's these experiences that I try to create in climbing. The moves which make you feel like this after you are able to do it. It sounds cheesy, but it should feel romantic to do some moves you love, because if you fall in love with the moves, it just feels better, and I just never fell in love with exhausting powerful stuff. I like it but don´t love it, so that's just my opinion with setting, and there is no wrong or right, but maybe there is an easier and much more rewarding approach to climbing.
Q: In my experience, creating challenge through complexity in a commercial environment can often lead to climbers becoming frustrated and walking away from a route or boulder. Yet you guys have obviously been very successful with the style of your setting. How do you get around the problem of confusion and frustration? Is it just a process of educating your customers and managing their expectations?
A: I think frustration is part of the game. Climbing is 95% failure and 5% success. Or maybe even more failure ;) Frustration is only a part of climbing if you expect too much of yourself. If it's true that more boulders at other gyms tend to be powerful and less complex, then they are still frustrating for climbers who are not strong enough, right? So all in all, the people love to solve riddles, find positions where they are stable, and to solve moves through a process. Obviously there are a lot of people who are there to do one boulder after another, and you can do that as well if you want.
With my setting style, a lot of it is about educating people and encouraging them to try, and to ask other people for help, and to watch and learn. In my opinion, it is just more rewarding to climb a problem which you need to understand, or to understand one move, instead of going straight back to the campusboard for 3 weeks to get the power to do it. Customers are not full-time climbers, so they want to consume and maybe have a little session with problems which need to be solved in a funny way - and they will get used to it. Most of our customers are really, really good with walking around on volumes and climbing on different angles using just the friction - that just comes along with climbing on stuff like this.
Q: I remember reading a comment below a Stuntwerk's video that said that there was “More to climbing” than the momentum based problems and flashy dynos that the video featured. It's a silly remark, because I know you obviously understand the variety in climbing, but it made me wonder what approach you take in general with regards to offering a diversity of styles in your gyms. Is it just a question of balance – more showy stuff but still a bit of everything? Do you still set standard 'easy to read, flowy, and powerful boulders' that are more commonly found in indoor gyms?
I try to have a mix of everything at Stuntwerk, and at the other gyms where I set, and for comps, but whenever I make a new video, I want to present stuff which is good to look at, and not another left-right-left-right-left-right-right again boulder which is straight forward - although I recognize that this is personal preference. So I set a lot of easy to read boulders, as well and some powerful boulders to workout. I think every gym differs from town to town, and that's good for a customer because you want, and need, the difference in climbing, otherwise it will get monotonous and boring like soccer or regular gym exercises. Even when I set flowy boulders and easy to read boulders, I try to force sequences which teach you something - where your body needs to be in a specific position, but you get forced into it without knowing it.
Generally speaking, I am not really good with tables, sheets or stuff like that - I just don´t feel it, so I don´t have any statistics of how many of which kind of styles I have at which area. I just have a look at the different areas at our gym, and try to set them slightly different to the last set and mix everything up again.
Q: It seems to me that the role of route setters is largely in transition in the context of the climbing industry at this point. It's a job that is going from casual, even unpaid, work, to a legitimate profession. As the indoor climbing gyms develop and the need for more setters and a higher quality of work grows, what do route setters need to do to be taken seriously? Do you think that general professionalism is lacking in the setting industry?
A: To be taken seriously, you need a serious approach! I can understand when gyms are too small to pay people for setting, but even still, setting for a gym is the core of their business. Customer's don´t pay for cosy couches and a nice smile - these things are what makes a gym more special and create an experience - but the main core of each business should be the quality of the routes and boulders, and that should be paid work. If you don´t pay people to do professional work, then don´t expect it to be done professionally, and it is even harder to make someone responsible for creating a product if they don´t get paid. You trade money for a good product - that's how our world works - so if you want to be a pro: get paid for your work. I think there is a huge difference between countries at this point, and even in the same country, when it comes to how much somebody earns, for an hour, for a route / boulder, if they get paid a daily fee, etc. So it is really difficult to answer in a global context.
A professional setter for me is someone who can make a living from it. To get there, you need a lot of luck and a unique vision/style that you want to offer/sell. Set whatever you want, but in the end it is like wild west style: if you are good, OR you sell yourself good, you can earn more money then people which are good, but are shy, or people who are loud and annoying but don´t set quality boulders! What constitutes a good set differs from gym to gym, from country to country. Just because some people like my boulders here doesn't mean that people will like it somewhere else, so inform yourself about the style and the stuff they want and need.
The point is, you should behave and work seriously. Don´t come to late to work, don´t destroy material or walls, and try to set good stuff: offer a good product for the customers. It is easier if you have a home-base where you can try stuff and see people climb it on a daily basis. Watch customers, and try to learn what they do 'wrong' and also what you did 'wrong' - there is no use in telling people how to climb stuff if they find other ways to climb it which they appreciate more. ;)
In general, professionalism is lacking in the climbing industry. but that's really really hard to achieve. For example, if you are a carpenter and have to drive over 400km to get to the next job, you would write a bill for the travel expenses. Professionals also write quotes for how much something will cost, and often demand 50% prepayment. I've done this only a few times… when I was younger, I had to go travel very far from gym to gym, but I never added this time to my bill. I don´t think somebody would pay it. Maybe in the future we will see this stuff progress?
To be honest, if I could climb 9b, and boulder that hard, I would go from TV show to TV show and try to end up at Hollywood parties just to make our sport famous, but nowadays there are so many opinions about the industry and where the sport is going, and what climbing should not be. What's real - what's not? Is indoor climbing training for outdoors? It's not - in my opinion - but in other areas, maybe it is still a training for outdoors, and dangerous pulling on monos is appreciated - if so, then do it. ;)
Check out more from Stuntwerk on YouTube, or at stuntwerk.de.