9 Degrees first bouldering gym burst onto the scene in 2015 - bringing Euro style indoor bouldering to Sydney in Australia. After becoming a run-away success, 9 Degrees is soon opening their second venue. We recently caught up with new 9 Degrees Parramatta manager and route setter Jack Masel to get the low down on his setting, and what to expect from the new venue.
Thanks for chatting with us!
I’d like to start by asking you a bit about your role at 9 Degrees. As someone who doesn’t know, could you explain a little bit about how you got started setting there, and what the route setting program looks like? How often you’re setting, how big the team is, who’s calling the shots on the head setting front - that sort of stuff.
I started with 9 degrees just over a year ago, an old school friend put me in touch with one of the employees there after I moved over from Western Australia last year. I was introduced to Martijn, the managing director of 9D Alexandria and he kindly agreed to give me a trial shift routesetting. Luckily for me he liked the boulders I'd set enough to ask me back. It wasn't too long before I became a regular part of the weekly setting routine.
In Alexandria we set by colour and set one whole colour circuit weekly, roughly 15 problems, give or take. Some weeks we'll do the entire set between two of us and other weeks we have 4 or sometimes even 5 setters if it's a harder circuit or we decide to also clean and reset a sector. As for who's in charge, Martijn calls the shots in Alexandria. The buck stops with him in regards to quality control and safety but I don't think I've ever heard him refer to himself as the head setter, perhaps that's just modesty. We've got 9 colours (hence the name - as in degrees of difficulty) and we set one colour each week except for our easiest two colours, yellow and green which slowly get rotated in and out when we have the time and space. So basically a full rotation of the gym every 7 weeks which seems to keep most people busy.
In Australia, a lot of people will remember 9 Degrees as the guys who brought in ‘that Stuntwerk guy’. Undoubtedly, Niklas Weichmann’s first visit to Aus had a big impact on the setting scene here. To follow on from that, can you talk a little bit about the setting philosophy of 9 Degrees? Are you guys trying to do something different? What guides you guys when you’re creating your boulders each week?
Until fairly recently bouldering in Australia has been tailored mainly towards training for climbing, often on steep walls, with small holds that require you to pull hard. Don't get me wrong I think those things are great and definitely have their place in the gym however the Stuntwerk-esque movement and coordination based style of climbing was something missing from the scene here. Martijn had spent a lot of time in Europe and observed that this fun, vibrant style of boulder gym accessible even to beginners had yet to make its way down under. I think the success of 9 Degrees is testimony to the fact that there are plenty of people who enjoy this 'new' stlye of bouldering.
There's something to be said for climbs that don't necessarily require an abundance of power but rather an understanding of balance, body position or certain tricky beta to complete. I agree however that if every boulder in the gym was like this it would be too much. I believe routesetting in a commercial gym is about creating variety and a balance of styles in your sets; everyone enjoys different things about climbing and one of the main ideas behind coloured circuits like the ones at 9 Degrees is that you have the opportunity to experience a variety of styles at more or less the 'same' level, ideally working your weaknesses and in the long run, making you a better, more well rounded climber. Our philosophy at 9D stems from our motto 'bouldering makes you happy', we're always trying to incorporate a fun or interesting set of movements in our boulders. If a climber completes a problem and the only joy they feel is from the relief of having topped it then I think we've missed the mark as setters.
Similarly, I often set out to teach a lesson or at least reward good technique, especially in the lower grades. If someone struggling asks for help and you're able to explain or demonstrate correct technique and help them progress on the boulder then I think that's a much better outcome than if your only advice has to be 'just hold on harder' or 'you need to get stronger'. Getting stronger will come over time as a result of simply climbing more. Hearing advice like that can be disheartening and I believe that the feeling of progression from having learnt something new is one of the core reasons that keeps people coming back for more.
After the successful launch of 9 Degrees first facility, you are now expanding to a second venue - 9 Degrees Parramatta. A new venue is obviously a big challenge for any business, but it also affords the opportunity to refine a company’s vision. I’m interested to know what will be different about the new facility - specifically as it relates to the climbing experience. What do you guys feel like you did really well with the first venue, and is there anything that you think you can do even better this time around?
When Martijn launched 9 Degrees Alexandria in 2015 he took inspiration directly from European gyms and brought that here. It was exactly what Sydney was missing at the time and it quickly filled a void in the market and helped to set new standards for bouldering gyms in Australia. Fast forward almost two years and we're getting ready to launch the new venue, only this time we're lucky enough to be have been immersed in the growing climbing scene here in NSW and on the recieving end of passionate feedback from a huge range of climbers, both new and old.
Things we did well in Alexandria like having lots of bright open space, providing cafe quality coffees, playing good ad-free music, creating a fun and relaxed atmosphere, having clearly defined and easy to follow boulder problems as well as easy to understand in-house 'rules' for the gym are things we'll look to replicate in Parramatta. As for things we're looking to improve on or refine; We've acknowledged there's a demand from Sydney climbers for bigger and better equipped training areas and bouldering that caters also for those wanting more of that straight forward steep style climbing. People also want better climate control for the warmer months and more space to do a warm up , stretch and do yoga. They're all things we've addressed at the new location.
With regard to the actual wall design, the new Blocz walls are significantly steeper than the ones we have in Alexandria where often the short steep sections of wall we do have, are preceded or followed by either vertical or slabby terrain which can at times allow some taller climbers to avoid having both their feet and hands on the overhanging panel at the same time - often eliminating a difficult section of climbing. I'm hoping that the more consistent angle of the new walls will help make the boulders less 'morpho' which for us is a very important consideration when setting.
I mentioned earlier that in Alexandria we set by colour rather than by 'sector'. There are pro's and con's to each option but I've made the call to switch things up and opt in favour of setting by sector in Parramatta. Setting by sector will allow easier repositioning and cleaning of volumes, new climbs at all levels every week and the ability to leave the rest of the gym open and available to the public even during times we're resetting.
We've got a few other little bonuses lined up for the new gym too but we can't give everything away just yet!
You recently had the chance to set down at Canberra's latest bouldering only facility - BlocHaus. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience down there? Who did you have the chance to work with as part of the opening set? Do you find that it is important to set away from your home gym from time to time?
I feel super lucky to have had the opportunity to be involved in the opening set at Blochaus. It's a pretty rare thing to have a completely blank canvas to work with especially in a cutting edge facility like theirs. I was extra excited to see what it was like because the company Blocz, responsible for the design and construction of their walls are the same company that have since come to build ours in Parramatta. From when I first walked in the door, I was struck by how clean the lines of the walls were, the design was almost minimalist which in turn made the features even more outstanding. The walls, with the exception of the t-nuts were completely clear of screws even at the joins. I was impressed.
Duncan Brown – the man tasked with overseeing the opening set, and once up and running, the training side of the business, gave me a brief run down of what to expect over the following days. We talked a bit about his vision, some basic rules, expectations of the setters and the grade ranges for the circuits etc. Duncan has a very relaxed approach to being in charge which made the whole work environment a pleasant one and I think it made all the setters feel very welcome and comfortable despite being in an unknown environment.
The setting team was a very diverse group actually, 9 degrees had sent down 4 setters including Martijn and myself to help out and Blochaus had already enlisted the help of 4 others on the days we were there. It was a big mix of ages and backgrounds but we were divided into two quite balanced and complimentary groups and tasked with setting two sectors each day filled with at least one of each colour grade. We had all been booked in for first two days setting and then there was another team of 4 or 5 for the couple of days after that. Having so many setters meant we never felt pressed for time and could really enjoy the process of setting on new walls with a bunch of holds we'd never seen before including a large selection of Blocz's own competition range. I think the biggest challenge associated with setting in such a large team is getting everyone on the same page in terms of the gyms vision and grade ranges but Duncan managed the team well and I'm certain went round and tweaked a bunch of the boulders before their official opening.
BLOCHAUS GOOGLE TOUR
As for your question about setting at other gyms, yes, I think it's important to set away from your home gym if you want to grow as a setter. Although the increased popularity of volumes does make setting on the same walls every week a little more diverse I still find that often the walls dictate movement and it's nice to break the routine and step outside your comfort zone, experimenting with your setting under new parameters and pushing some boundaries.
My last question is a bit of a curve ball. A lot of people who work in this industry particularly setters, were lovers of climbing in the outdoors before they became industry professionals. I know from my own experience that it’s sometimes tricky to take a passion and turn it into work. On the whole, what’s been your experience as you’ve become more involved as a climbing industry professional? Has it enhanced your general love of climbing, or taken away from it? Do you like the direction the increasingly commercial direction the industry is taking - catering away from outdoor climbing and toward accessible indoor climbing?
I feel really lucky to be able to share my passion and enthusiasm for climbing with as many people through my work as possible. Before taking on the role at 9 Degrees Parramatta I was living in the Blue Mountains working as a climbing and canyoning guide with the Australian School of Mountaineering and I felt the same way about it then as I do in my new role at the gym now. The great thing about gyms like 9 Degrees is that the people who walk through your door genuinely want to be there and are often as psyched on climbing or bouldering as you are. In that sense I'd say it's only helped to enhance my love for climbing if anything.
To answer your question, I wouldn't necessarily agree with the statement that the commercialisation of climbing is somehow catering away from the outdoors, I mean sure the Olympics will expose a massive new audience to indoor competition climbing but on a whole I think the commercialism of climbing is everywhere, not just in the gym. My concerns regarding the increasing popularity of climbing are the same as most peoples; the impact it will have on the environment, people's safety when transitioning outdoors and their etiquette at the crag and they're all things that we as industry professionals can help to manage.
I think it's really important for gym owners and managers to acknowledge and embrace our role as educators. In the past mentor-ship was how people were introduced to the outdoors and through these forged relationships with older or more experienced climbers lessons were learnt and ethics taught. The trend we're seeing emerge in the US now is that gym's are starting to take up this responsibility by formalising these 'mentor-ships', partnering with local guiding companies and offering 'gym to crag' courses with a focus on safety, conservation and ethics – I'm hoping Australia will follow suit as I think for now this is one of the best options we have for conserving our environment and making sure we've got access to our favourite climbing areas for years to come.
Thank you Jack!