Northern Beaches Rockhouse: Phil Staples

Phil Staples has been route setting for more than 20 years - a proper vet. He sets multiple days a week down in Sydney, both for Nothern Beaches Rockhouse, and The Ledge Climbing Centre at Sydney University. 

Phil in Rocklands, South Africa.

Phil in Rocklands, South Africa.

1. As a gym that's been operating for nearly 20 years, you must have a strong and constantly evolving community of climbers that visit Rockhouse. As a setter, I've come to realise that understanding the community for whom your setting is paramount to meeting their needs. Would you agree with this? How does the shape and needs of your community inform your setting?

I think that most gyms in Australia are looking to appeal to as wide a client range as possible. Weekends are often the domain of birthday parties while weekday afternoons bring groups of high school aged kids and youth development squads. Evenings bring adult customers of varying experience but with a generally more sophisticated (or discerning) climbing appetite. The bottom line though is that everyone wants to climb, learn, get fitter (in one way or another) and have lots of fun. I think that good route setting can achieve all these goals for all these users simultaneously (so long as the facility meets the basics such as having enough suitable terrain for a group of 20 five year olds).

It’s interesting, isn’t it that since todays’ enthusiast climbers spend a lot of time in the gym (our best customers do, anyhow) to a significant extent the setting at their gym shapes the climbers they become, at least in terms of what comes most easily to them and what feels familiar and good. It’s a no-brainer then that the best setting is as diverse as possible. Diversity equals continued interest.

Over the years I’ve come to accept as a fact of life that no single route is going to be great for everyone – what feels good for a 5’2” ex-gymnast is never going to be the favourite route of a 6’4” wrestler even if they climb at about the same level on rock. Some people like crimps, others have the most fun on juggy overhangs. Very often though, people are most stoked when they finally send a route that is outside of their comfort zone, one that they’ve had to struggle with and learn a thing or two from.

Very often though, people are most stoked when they send a route that is outside their comfort zone, one that they’ve had to struggle with and learn a thing or two from.

For this reason I think it’s important to set “themes” into routes, whether it be just simply that this route is thin or that this one has more than it’s fair share of slopers. A route might feature a whole lot of balancy, barn-door inducing foot positions or alternatively the footholds might be offset somewhat to load up a climber’s shoulders. I think “a bit of everything” more often than not results in a less memorable route.

[After all this I’m not completely sure that I’ve actually answered the question…]

2. When setting, it's not easy to meet the needs of climbers. There's often a situation where a vocal minority of climbers might criticise elements of the setting, without that feedback being truly representative of the needs of a gym's customers. How do you, as a setter, try to negotiate this issue? Do you think setters have an obligation to seek and act upon the feedback of their climbers?

Routes need to be consistent in difficulty and fair in terms of reach. If that 5’2” ex-gymnast comes to me and asks, in the nicest possible way, for me to help her with a move on a route I want to be able to answer her… “So while your friend can reach that hold from that foothold down there, you will need to step up higher. See that hold you used as a left hand intermediate? That hold is especially for you. Highstep onto that and you’ll reach the edge easily….” If all I’ve got to offer is “Jump” or “grow some” then I’ve done a really, really poor job on that route.

Undoubtedly though, there is no perfect route – if it’s reachy for the smaller people then the tallies will get to stretch out and climb to their height while a route that suits our little ex-gymnast be virtually non-sequential (if its straight-forward in difficulty) or just plain awkward (if it’s hard) for a taller climber. I try to have some variety in the gym on this front, with a few routes that are quite hard but super-compact and a few others that are consistently taller – the routes’ description tag will note this very clearly.

I think that the vast majority of criticism I hear is just people finding new ways of saying, “Why can’t I do this?”

I think that the vast majority of criticism I hear is just people finding new ways of saying “Why can’t I do this?” A few minutes spent discussing technique or watching them on the route and offering a different sequence is time very well spent. Only occasionally will someone observe a grade gap or a concentration of routes that are such-n- such and in these instances I do my very best to listen and see things for their eyes – in one way or another they are often making a useful point.

3. Staying on the notion of criticism, I'm interested to hear your thoughts regarding inter-setter feedback and the role of forerunning. I like to think of forerunning as quality control, and any refinements that are made to routes are merely being tweaks to help the product (the route) better serve the gym's purpose. Even if this is true, it seems that the fact that setting is a creative process leads to setter's becoming attached to their work in a way that is sometimes unhelpful when it comes time for criticism. What advice would you have to newer setters when it comes to receiving criticism from other setters? Is forerunning an integral process in route setting?

What a can of worms! I think you are absolutely right about setters becoming invested in their routes and over-defending elements that in the greater scheme just don’t work. We all do it. Just as we all get tunnel-visioned into obsessing over a particular sequence and fail to notice that there is a much simpler way of doing it. Since I don’t usually work in a team I tend to leave new routes and boulders open to “fine-tuning” for about a week after they’ve been set which gives me time to observe other people on them and check that they (the routes/problems) are behaving themselves. After a week I’ll just accept that they have to be left alone.

In terms of offering critiques and amendments to other peoples’ work… I’m really bad at it. I get all lost in “Maybe it’s just me and my prejudices talking… who am I to judge anyway?” Some things are simple… If a setter has slipped up on reach then the route needs to be fixed. But what if a hold has been used in a contrived way? I’ll put forward my opinion and hope they see my reasoning – I hate it when they use what’s obviously an undercling as a jug on a novice route…

I guess we have to respect anothers’ aesthetic sensibilities even if we don’t share them ourselves. A note to young players though: If your boss asks “Why did you do put that there/choose that hold/turn that like that…?” tell them “I did that because…” not “I just like it like that.”

4. Finally, on setting in Australia, I feel like the role of route setters in gyms is in the process of transitioning from a casual 'strongest climber sets routes' position, to being an acknowledged and integral part of a gyms success. Do you share this view? How do you see route setting developing in the context of indoor climbing in Australia?

I think it’s absolutely true that route setters are an integral part of a gym’s success after all, it’s the route setters work that the climbing gym is primarily selling. I understand that in many communities with indoor climbing strongly established there are professional setting companies who travel from gym to gym offering a more or less complete route setting package. While this is undoubtedly attractive to gym owners I think that we are lucky here in Oz to still have “route-setting supervisors”. Personally, I like to watch people climbing my routes. I like the way many of them become friends and how the world of climbing slowly saturates their lives over a period of time.

Thanks Phil!