The Rock: Kurt Doherty

I recently hit up Queensland setter Kurt Doherty to get the skinny on his setting philosophy. Kurt's a well known setter in the Brisbane scene, and is the head setter at The Rock Indoor Climbing Gym - a facility that's become well known among climbers as having fantastic quality route setting. I asked Kurt about the challenges of being a lone setter, and how he's feeling in the lead up to the 2016 Queensland State Titles.

Kurt Doherty, finding some inspiration on a day off.

Kurt Doherty, finding some inspiration on a day off.

As the (predominantly) lone setter at your gym, I’m interested to know how you’ve found this affects your setting. I know from my own experience that being a solo setter in a small facility has both big benefits and corresponding limitations. We have a lot of freedom and creative control, but don’t have the benefits of team feedback and different style setters to help create diversity. Is this your experience? How do you find it, generally speaking, and what would you change if you could – specifically relating to being the only setter?

That’s largely my experience, yes, but I’d suggest that some of the “limitations” lone setters face can be a matter of perspective. I’ve largely enjoyed the challenge of being the lone setter for The Rock Indoor Climbing Gym; I think it’s definitely forced me to become a more well-rounded setter as I can’t afford to set the same style routes all the time, and it’s required me to push through periods where I have *felt* creatively dry, allowing me to discover something I’m sure many others have discovered: I don’t necessarily need to *feel* creative to set well.

[I’ve pushed through] periods where I have *felt* creatively dry, allowing me to discover something I’m sure many others have discovered: I don’t necessarily need to *feel* creative to set well.

That said, whether the gym expands or not, I hope to build a team of setters—even if it is a team of two. It can get pretty lonely on the our walls, and I’ve always enjoyed those rare times when a guest setter has come and worked beside me. The opportunity to work with and learn from someone else’s approach or vision is always encouraging, immensely fun and should never be undervalued in any setting team.

Following on from above, it's obviously important to expose a gym's clients to a wide variety of climbing styles - what sorts of techniques or thought processes go into your setting to make sure you're constantly varying the style of routes you put up? After 3 years in the job, with the same walls, and many of the same holds, is it hard to stay psyched?

It’s definitely a challenge some weeks but I’ve discovered that even when I’m not psyched, I can still set routes that our customers will love. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve certainly set some terrible routes, but generally speaking, I’ve learnt that quality routes aren’t a product of “psych”.

I’ve learnt that quality routes aren’t a product of “psych”.

Yes, a gym obviously needs variety in it’s routes, but I don’t think every style needs to be equally represented—and certainly, there will be some styles that a gym simply doesn’t set, whether deliberately or because the facility prevents it in some way.

Generally speaking, I like to set routes with complete hold sets rather than a random selection, so that immediately helps me create different styles between routes given hold sets come with a consistent theme and thereby a style they inherently suit. Of course, you still have to decide what sequence and orientation you’ll use the holds in, and so on, to fully determine the overall style of a given route, but I consider the hold selection to be the foundation of any route, so that’s where I start every time.

The Rock is unique in the Queensland climbing gym scene in that, while it utilises monochromatic setting, the hold colour doesn’t necessarily correspond to a difficulty (climbs are tagged from Easy through to Expert). What advantages and/or disadvantages does this style have over the monochromatic circuit system other gyms are trending towards? Was it consciously designed to operate this way, or more a matter of what you inherited when you started setting at the gym? Would you change it if you could?

I wasn’t involved with The Rock when our current facility was built, so I can’t really say whether it was a conscious choice or not. I believe The Rock received a starter kit of holds and as such, didn’t have the opportunity to preference particular colours for each band of difficulty.

The definite advantage for us is our ability to favour certain difficulty bands in specific areas of the gym. The best example of this is our full arch where we’ll have a larger number of hard climbs than easy ones, a trend that is natural given the terrain of that section in the gym. If we used colour to indicate difficulty, we’d have significantly less routes in the arch. 

The only challenge this approach has presented to us is in the ordering of new holds: choosing what colour to purchase those new holds in is a uniquely stressful decision. Do I get them in yellow or blue or red or green or…

At the end of the day though, moving to colour banding wouldn’t suit our facility’s walls and therefore I wouldn’t change it.

'The Arch'

'The Arch'

Recently, I've been particularly interested in the role of complexity in commercial setting (excluding competitions for the moment) - particularly in routes, but also in boulder problems. On the one hand, people will tell you that 'problem solving' is half the pleasure in climbing, but I've seen a lot of people become frustrated and walk away from a route or problem that is 'too sequency'. I've found it very difficult to find a balance with this at Rocksports. Do you have any thoughts on this? How often will you put up a route at The Rock in which the major difficulty is complex beta?

To me, a complex or beta-heavy route is just another style of route—it falls within the same spectrum as any other route. So, as with any style, I’d only decide *not* to set that style if there was enough justification to make such a decision and such a decision would have to consider every aspect of the facility.

I think a more important question for a gym/route setting team to answer is what they believe their role to be as setters. For me personally, I believe my role as a setter is not just to challenge people but to change them—to have them leave the gym different to when they entered. I want them to encounter failure, earn success, challenge their self-imposed limitations, find discipline, grow, and ultimately become a better “them” by climbing on and experiencing our routes and culture. Obviously, the issue with this approach is we’re talking about changing people; as in, actual, living, fear- and hope-filled people.

I think a more important question for a gym/route setting team to answer is what they believe their role to be as setters.

Now, not everyone likes change and fewer still like failure, so it can definitely lead to challenging conversations at the gym as people throw feedback in your or another’s direction, but at the end of the day, I don’t really care if people walk away frustrated because they didn’t get a climb. I certainly hope they come back, but ultimately that’s their decision and despite what they may think, that decision has little to do with a particular route being too beta-heavy (or too pumpy, or too crimpy…) and much more to do with their character and the convictions they hold around the type of person they want to be. 

The Rock will be hosting the 2016 Queensland State Lead Titles this year. I have very limited competition setting experience, but I know just how much work and potential pit falls there are when it comes to splitting a field of competitors. Is there anything in particular you're thinking about or planning for as the date comes closer? How important is it to know the climbers, and their strengths when setting for a competition?

Previous competitions held at The Rock.

Previous competitions held at The Rock.

Aw yeah, there’s heaps I’m thinking about and trying to plan for—although this comp is not the first for which I’ve set, I’m far more involved in the prep and planning of the competition routes than I ever have been. It’s really exciting.

For the most part, I’m looking for ways to make routes look spectacular and aesthetic, while still meeting the requisite progression of difficulty for each one. As the only setter on the competition team that knows the gym really well, I’ve helped choose where each one will go and generally mapped each route to the holds/colours I feel will will be most appropriate. To achieve the latter, I’d suggest it is important have some idea of the climbers competing in each category—we have to split them after all—but I’m not sure if you strictly need to know their strengths and weaknesses. Don’t take my word for it though, as I’m still learning the finer points of competition route setting ;)

Cheers Kurt!

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