Urban Climb: Dan Gordon

Dan Gordon is a leading route-setter in the Australian indoor climbing industry - and I mean that quite literally. Dan and his team at Urban Climb are doing things that haven't been done before in Australia. After beginning his setting career under  the tutelage of a pioneer of routesetting in Australia, Rob Parer, Dan now oversees route-setting across 3 venues, and manages one of the biggest setting crews in the country.

In this interview, I wanted to hear about Urban Climb's recent expansion, and try to get into the headspace of a setter who is responsible for implementing a specific vision for setting across multiple facilities.

Something that interests me as the climbing industry grows, is how routesetters are able to effectively scale up their operations - particularly in multiple venues. With Urban Climb expanding to 3 venues in 2015/16, you've just been through this process. What challenges did you find emerged from having to run a bigger operation? Anything unexpected?

Just about everything was challenging at first, from rostering all the way through to quality control. We had tripled our setting, but in a lot of ways at first it felt like we had increased our work load significantly more than that. There’s a break in period of not understanding your walls, new volumes, holds, what climbers find challenging and what is safe and not safe in a new venue. You lose a lot of efficiency setting in unknown territory.

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There was also a bit of matching the right setters to the right venues at first to keep things rotating nicely, and then circulating everyone through all the venues to work on their weaknesses as setters. We were really lucky, in that our core 3 or 4 setters
(Myself, Pat, Blair and Sam) were in the position to start expanding more into full time setters to fill the gaps.

I’d say for me the hardest thing still is driving high quality, which is really hard when you’re not physically apart of that days setting. That being said Pat and Blair lead a mean crew these days which is great.

It was a really hard period for us for sure but feels great now to have it tamed and under control. Those first steps in expansion are always going to be the hardest for any business.

A lot of route setters tend to be the strongest climbers in their gyms or, at the very least, have a strong competition climbing background. How important is it that a setter climbs hard? Is it relative to the clientele that they set for? When you're looking for new setters, do you have minimum standards (V-whatever) that applicants must climb – or are the ingredients for the right candidate more complicated than that?

Well besides Sam I would say that the whole team isn’t winning any titles, haha. We’re all definitely better setters than climbers so I guess it’s a really interesting point.

I don’t believe that you have to climb hard to be a good setter in a commercial environment at all. You can have strong or weak setters that get it wrong. It’s better to have a good amount of empathy, analytics, and be a fast learner. Those three things combined will go a long way in understanding what to set for your clients. In addition to this when I look for new setters I really look for people who are caring, intelligent, creative, competitive and very hard working.

I think it would be a lot of hard work to train a non-climber to be a routesetter but I’m not sure we haven’t gone down that path yet. I think it’s possibly more important to be a good technical climber and really understand your moves than actually be good at executing hard moves.

A lot of good coaches I’ve found to be good setters.

As routesetting becomes a true profession (in so far as individuals are able to make a liveable, full-time income from it), how do you see our role evolving? Is it inevitable that setters will have to have more than one string to their bow (say, marketing or coaching expertise) given the physical demands that setting 5 days a week would entail?

Yeah I think you’re correct. I don’t think anyone should be setting 40 hours in a week if they want to be in the game long term. I think it’s too much stress for your body and your mind, especially if you’re someone who’s slightly on the perfectionist end of the spectrum. I also personally find that if you set too much you really start setting mediocre quality and quite often repeat your routes/problems.

I don’t think anyone should be setting 40 hours in a week if they want to be in the game long term.

As the headsetter you need to remember that your senior setters are incredibly talented and valuable to the success of the gym; you have to protect them from injury and burning out creatively.

I think there’s always lots of route setting related work to be done in a gym that doesn’t actually involve picking up the drill. There’s media, hold washing, volume and wall maintenance, hold ordering, mapping, coaching clinics, competition co-ordination, system development, PR etc…

The 'other stuff' routesetters need to be on top of.

Anyone who's been to either of Urban Climb's new facilities is immediately struck by the beauty of the boulder problems. They're distinct lines, have lovely contrast, and utilise modular volumes very effectively. I know that you put a lot of thought into the process of hold selection and route mapping - can you talk us through what your setting vision for the new gyms was, and how it's panned out? 

Thank you for the compliments. When I was a rookie setter I was lucky enough to be taught by Rob Parer the importance of product usability for customers. We’d go over the importance of visual appeal, segregated colours, the number of users on the wall at the same time, grade progression over the entire gym, space, and value plus lots more. Basically, he was the first setter I’d ever met that could see much beyond the individual route, and could really see the entire space as a masterpiece itself. It was all about giving customers the ultimate and most user friendly experience on the walls.

I took a lot of his ideas and then started expanding on some of them when I got the chance to be the head setter at Urban Climb. Going to Germany and seeing how gyms like Stuntweks and Boulderklub Kreuzberg made you want to spend all your time in their spaces, was very enlightening.

Our vision for the new gyms were to be really fun places where climbers could engage with a huge variety of moves. I was very stern about breaking away from the boulder gym convention of steep and powerful. We wanted to set it all, from the super classic power problems all the way through to Stuntwerks dynamic style. We really wanted customers to feel welcome, warm and that we wanted them to have a great time. I really wanted our older members and people from interstate to feel like we were trying to bring something different to Australia.

Following on from that, another feature of Urban Climb's setting seems to be a focus on quality over quantity. Particularly in the new gyms, it's clear that the walls could have many more problems set on them, and yet often you opt to for a lower density of problems. Can you talk us through this, and what goes into a head setter’s decision regarding the density of routes/problems on their walls?

There’s quite a few things so bear with me.

Firstly I’d like to say that I see our job as providing the correct amount of product for our customers whilst gaining maximum interaction. Pat Banda and I always liken setting to social media. Will it get a like from people? Is what I’ve made good enough to even get people talking about it in the local community? How many people have are going to climb this? How many would do it every time they go into that facility? You’re trying to get maximum value from whatever you put on the wall. Ask yourself at the end of the day “does that route/problem add value to the gym or does it lower our standard”

It’s very difficult to have more feature holds and volumes on the wall and keep the value/quality of each route/problem high. You hit a point with quantity where each problem starts to become worst than the last as you run out of space on the wall. Space gives you freedom to create better problems with unique movements that will keep your customers psyched.

Having more problems on your walls doesn’t mean that you’re providing better product for your customers. I always go into gyms that have a massive splattering of problems and get disappointed by how many of the lines feel rushed, untested and just the same as the last (no king lines). In fact I’ve walked out of million dollar facilities with hundreds of problems in less than an hour feeling unsatisfied.

It’s really easy to set a huge amount of problems at a 5/10 rating and feel like you’ve done a service for your customers. But perhaps you’ve missed that opportunity to create something that people would line up out the door to try. Niklas Wiechmann told me about a problem they set at Stuntwerks that people travelled from towns over to try. It was so popular and had so much value that they had requests to for it to be re-set later in the year.

Measuring the value of your walls is immediate flawed if you calculate via ‘how much you’re providing’ over the all-important ‘how much will people use it?

Lastly, it’s really important to remember that you can set less problems in a station/sector but at a higher turnover to keep your customers constantly engaged. Work out what is a good rotation period/ projecting time for your customers and aim to rotate a lot. Whilst we set less problems at a time on each sector, we make up for this by setting often perhaps 3 times more regularly than walls which are packed but only see a 6 month turnover.

I think if you asked a lot of setters in large gyms about time management at work, they would tell you they feel ‘rushed while setting’. As the headsetter don’t pressure them to ‘finish that one quickly’ help them express their idea to the customers by giving them healthy amounts of time and a bit of wisdom on ‘how to’. Help them make something epic!

As the headsetter don’t pressure them to ‘finish that one quickly’ help them express their idea to the customers by giving them healthy amounts of time and a bit of wisdom on ‘how to’.

A lot of time pressure can come from limited setting budgets you get granted the ‘powers above’. For e.g. if you get given 50 hours in a week for routesetting you can decide to set a huge amount of bland, rushed problems or slightly fewer at a higher quality. Setting ‘higher quality’ sectors takes planning in problem placement, volume use, aesthetics, style variation, grade accuracy, solid forerunning and tweaking, safety assessment etc..

We also just ask ourselves, “in this set today did we set something really different that is totally going to blow the customers away?” it’s all about giving all of your customers the ultimate experience.

There’s this archaic mentality to set lots of things for your customers. I think this may have been the case when climbing gyms were more places of training for elite outdoor climbers who just wanted massive amounts of DIY potential but really, you’re hiding behind taking a risk to create something beautiful and inspiring; putting yourself out there on the wall. Sometimes we get scared that people won’t like what we create so we always reach back in the bag for the same old tricks we know how to set. Put yourself out there and set above the pack. You may get it wrong at first but you’ll learn a lot anyway.

Like Niklas Wiechmann says to me “Just give it a go, and we’ll see what happens”.

On a side note: I hate climbing vertical and slab walls that are overcrowded with holds; you’re making the climbing more awkward and slightly more dangerous.

You run the risk that if your wall is made up of 50% boredom/not so great problems, you’re going to be stuck with that for a while. Walls with lots of holds and zero interaction are bad for business. Sure the elite level climbers can make their own problems but remember that they only make up a very small percentage of your business. 

Thanks Dan!