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Route Setting: Ethos, Aesthetics and Mechanics by Sean Milligan
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By Carlo Nyte
Nov 8, 2012

This is an article my friend sent me and I thought I would share with the rest of you, since I have been doing more asking then giving. I made bullets of what I thought were key points in this article. Enjoy and welcome any feedback.


Route Setting: Ethos, Aesthetics and Mechanics
by Sean Milligan

As I’ve been making the rounds over the past few months – touring through a few different climbing facilities - many people have been asking me about route setting. Wherein the questions have tended to focus on “Am ‘I” doing any route setting?” – and have frequently been followed by much appreciated compliments – they haven’t really resulted in any burning desire to instantly go and hang myself on the end of a rope for a few hours. They have, however, generated a number of thoughts related to the ethos and aesthetic of route setting and just how subjective the ethos and aesthetic can be. Route setting in a climbing gym is just one of those things it’s a prestige position – a certain amount of honor and respect are assigned to those who have been given the privilege of placing the holds on the wall – and everyone has an opinion has to how it should be done.

Part 1: ETHOS
Now before I get started here, I should concede two things: the first concession being that everything I’m about to say pertains only to “every day” route setting activities in a gym not “competition setting” – I believe (quite firmly) that the two are entirely different things (and that’s a discussion for a different day); the second concession being that, including the first concession, all I’m really doing is throwing my opinions in to the mix (and wherein they are opinions formed through the experience of setting, quite literally, thousands of climbs and boulder problems over the past 15 years, they are in the end just opinions (and hence it is a given that many out there will disagree with one or more of the things I have to say)). Those concessions aside, I’m hoping I won’t generate too much controversy by suggesting that any discussion concerning the quality of a setter (or their routes) should start by discussing the overall responsibilities of the route setter (beyond just putting holds on the wall).

Of course route setters (and even more, the “Head Route Setter”) have the responsibility to ensure the gym is free of mechanical hazards (spinning holds, bad clipping stances and fall scenarios). In a broader sense, route setters also have, in terms of the type of climbs they build (and distribution across the grade range), responsibility not just to the strongest climbers that frequent their facility but to all patrons of the facility – the responsibility to create an environment that is enjoyable and conducive to both continuous learning and sustainable physical development. The setters then have the obligation to create climbs and problems that don’t exclude climbers for sake of proportions (or are otherwise plain old frustrating) and that encourage climbers to develop and employ sound technique (instead of just power). In other words, the setters have the responsibility to create an environment where all patrons have the opportunity to improve as climbers without being led into potentially injurious situations.

The potential for questionable setting arises in that in most climbing gyms, those who are perceived to be the “best” climbers and boulderers perform the route setting activities. Wherein this may seem like a sound practice, “best” is too often equated with “strongest” – those who have climbed (or are working on) the hardest routes/problems – and the route setting ranks become populated by those trying to make a name for themselves within the climbing community (or otherwise strut their stuff). In such scenarios (and there are many), there lays the possibility for route setting to move away from responsibility and customer satisfaction and trend towards some sort of pissing contest - the setters spend an inordinate amount of time trying to set tricky sequences, moves that must be done in a specific way/require a huge amount of power or otherwise trying to make people fall (an ends which is often supplemented through a little recreational sandbagging).

From the perspective of the route setter, the difficulties with this approach are limited - ultimately an exchange of time and money for a few laughs - but the difficulties from the perspective of the members and the facility are many. Climbs and problems established by this ideology will always frustrate those at the extreme ends of the height/reach spectrum (or who are otherwise unable to determine the “exact” right moves to progress) and encourage exertion under fatigue as people attempt to perform/repeat powerful moves. The net result is an environment that is often less than satisfying, at best suited to power training and at worst conducive to injury.

Some of the negative effects of the pissing contests and show boating can easily be avoided if those doing the setting keep in mind some of the larger objectives/responsibilities outlined above while setting but the greatest positive change – in terms of both the quality of routes and the environment created – is achieved if (and when) those doing the setting adopt a different ideology towards the actual act of setting. Recognizing that this will be amongst the most contentious of the opinions I’m going to express. I would suggest that the point in setting in climbing gym (aside from competition setting) is to simulate, as best as possible, what might be encountered while climbing on rock. Understanding (and knowing) that climbing (and climbing gyms) has (and have) become more social/recreational in nature over the past decade and that many using climbing gyms these days never have (and perhaps never will) touch rock. I would also put forth that most climbing gyms were established as training facilities for those who were already climbing outdoors and the people who were setting the climbs and problems were doing so based on their outdoor climbing experience.

Now whether or not you agree with the simulation of rock as the point of setting – what I propose is that climbs set with the intent of simulating a natural surface are not as likely to exclude/frustrate those of extreme proportions, more conducive to training technique and efficiency (instead of just power) and as a result less likely to injure climbers. Plastic and concrete will, of course, never be a substitute for rock and using the two in an attempt to simulate a natural surface may seem daunting but more often than not, the important aspects of a “natural” climb can be mimicked with a change in objective and two “concessions” on the part of the route setter.

In short, the setter’s objective should not be to “force” moves; there are very few climbs on rock where everybody has to do a move in exactly the same way, some but not many. Instead, the objective should be an “ideal” hand hold sequence, perhaps with specific moves in mind but with some allowance for variation in how climbers move between the holds. This variation can easily be conceded and introduced if setters add “extra” holds in two situations: an intermediate handhold to initiate/assist long reaches and an intermediate foothold so that climbers can utilize more of the lower body musculature in the case of mantles and high steps.

Yes, the potential for variation means that some climbers will be able to do moves/sequences in ways that are frustrating (instead of letting it bother you, just remember one of the few truth’s of climbing: any fool can make a climb harder than it’s supposed to be, the real trick is to make a climb as easy as it can be). More importantly, the potential for variation means that instead of being forced to repeat the same move over and over again, climbers can engage in efficiency based training methods - refining their approach to climbs and problems over time. As a result, climbers can simultaneously develop strength and technique – a process that is both more stimulating and sustainable than one which just develops power, which could be just as easily achieved by lifting weights. All told, what I’m suggesting is that if climbs and problems are set with the objective of simulating rock – with the appropriate concessions on the part of the setter – the climbs and boulder problems produced will be more conducive to effective (injury free) training programs and enjoyed by a larger proportion of the climbing community.

For my part, I must admit that there was a time while setting I was very interested in making people do specific moves. Over time I came to understand that the best routes were the routes that a number of different people, all of different size, could make their way to the top of, all in subtly different ways, and all agree on the grade.

• Setters
o Have the responsibility to ensure the gym is free of mechanical hazards (spinning holds, bad clipping stances and fall scenarios)
o Have the responsibility to create an environment that is enjoyable and conducive to both continuous learning and sustainable physical development
o Have the obligation to create climbs and problems that don’t exclude climbers for sake of proportions and that encourage climbers to develop and employ sound technique instead of just power
o Have the responsibility to create an environment where all patrons have the opportunity to improve as climbers without being led into potentially injurious situations
o To simulate, as best as possible, what might be encountered while climbing on rock
o Are setting climbs and problems based on their outdoor climbing experience
o Set climbs/ problems with the intent of simulating a natural surface
o Objective should not be to “force” moves
o Objective should be an “ideal” hand hold sequence, with some allowance for variation in how climbers move between the holds
o Add “extra” holds in two situations: an intermediate handhold to initiate/assist long reaches and an intermediate foothold so that climbers can utilize more of the lower body musculature in the case of mantles and high steps
o Create climb/ problems that climbers can engage in efficiency based training methods, so climbers can simultaneously develop strength and technique

• Any fool can make a climb harder than it’s supposed to be, the real trick is to make a climb as easy as it can be

• The best routes were the routes that a number of different people, all of different size, could make their way to the top of


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By Josh Kornish
Nov 8, 2012
The Roach

Thanks for the post!


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