It has been a big year this year, and like most of you, many of my aspirations fell a little short of what I wanted, while other abilities seemed to have improved 3 fold unexpectedly. As coaches, we try our best to manage training loads, timing and expectations (along with what feels like a vast array of other things) so that our athletes can compete or just climb at their best when they need to. The issue is life really, it gets in the way. More so for adults who suffer from work and social commitments, but these things can happen to anyone really.
So without getting too deep into things, how can we best spend our time at the gym? Get the biggest bang for our buck and hopefully achieve most of our climbing performance-related goals (particularly without a high-performance team working with us every day of every week….)
I have a few little golden rules you can follow, that might help you stay focused and keep progressing.
Try hard – Now this might sound pretty simple, but sadly, at no. 1 it is probably the hardest one to accomplish. The objective is to go into the gym and make sure that when you get on the wall, you really give it everything you’ve got. You’d be surprised where pushing one more hold, every time, for 3 weeks, will get you. Usually to the next level.
Don’t get injured – This one sounds a bit obvious, but that’s because it is. It doesn’t matter how stronger you are if you are too injured to climb. Warmup and cooldowns are a great place to start, plus avoiding overuse / overtraining, will help keep you healthy and on the wall. (If you need help with these things, ask your local coach, or ask us! We run private sessions you know. Contact us here).
Know your goals – This is usually the first question I ask anyone looking for coaching. What are your goals. ‘Climbing harder’ is not a good enough response. Do you want to climb a hard lead? Onsight hard boulders? Send a mono project on your mates woody? Whatever it is, that is what guides your focus and tells you how to spend your limited resources (time and energy).
KISS it – ‘Keep It Simple Stupid’, I can’t take credit for this one, it’s from my mum, but it is so good. I have seen some incredible training plans, detailed micro cycles with nutrition timing and adjustable load events based on perceived exertion. You probably aren’t in a place where you need this. You probably want to climb harder, so your first priority is wall time. Get on stuff you find hard and follow step 1. Then, if you have time and energy left, pick a couple of weaknesses and work on those, religiously, for a minimum of 6 weeks. If you have weak fingers (can’t hold on) do a hangboard workout (see more info on this great site ‘Concept Climbing‘), can’t pull? Chin ups, can’t keep your feet on? Core. (This is all very general and again, find a coach, get an assessment and go from there, or again contact us here).
If you can do these things, every time you head to the gym, you’ll be well on your way to achieving your goals. Remember that this is all very general information and if you have any doubts or are looking for guidance feel free to contact us directly, or talk to a climbing coach. You might be surprised what you can do with a little.
This post is actually not about drinking at all. So if you were clicking on this thinking this was going to be an exploration of how beer is such an effective partner to climbing through Germany, and how we should push to include this in our indoor facilities here at home….. it’s not……. so stop thinking about it.
This is actually another think piece about indoor route setting quality. I have touched on this subject repetitively over the past 6 months and as more and more facilities open in my hometown and up and down the coast of Australia, the subject is becoming more and more important.
It will be interesting to see how the flood of facilities begin to shape the styles and setting focus, as more and more of the ‘users’ are not hardcore climbers. Will their tastes change?
We have already seen a huge movement away from bad holds on steep walls. 360 has started producing some of the largest holds on the planet and holds like these have significantly altered the challenge that both setters and ‘climbers’ face in the gym. Indoor climbing is beginning to be less about what you can hold onto and more about how well you can move.
Don’t get me wrong, as difficulty progresses, the difficulty is increased (sometimes) by reducing handhold and foothold size, but sometimes the real challenge is how to use this gigantic hold in front of you. Where do you hold it? Where do you stand on it? What combination of foot movements, hand movements and hip movements allow you to progress? The complexity of what the climber faces is increasing dramatically. The focus shifts from spending years training physically to climb a boulder to spending hours contemplating how to climb a boulder.
Subsequently, the demands on the setting industry are changing immensely. The addition of system training walls into almost every modern facility is likely helping this along. With ‘hardcore’ athletes seeking physical gains moving into this steeper terrain, where they aren’t limited by their facilities setting demands and limitations. They can make any move as hard or as easy as they require without it impacting the other gym users.
This shift means that climbing is becoming more and more accessible to the everyday human. You no longer need to have suffered through ‘jug rash’ and pulley injuries to enjoy complex movements and the ‘boulder cave’.
This shift also means that our industry begins to face other challenges. Expensive holds and volumes becoming the norm. Route setting hours increasing. Larger holds mean lower density of climbs as they take up more space. This all impacts route setting frequency. Do your customers climb the same boulders more than once, once they figure it out? How long should a boulder stay up once it’s solved? Are customers hungry for the next challenge? Do you have the variety of movements across all of your grade ranges?
Soon your head routesetter will need a masters in excel to manage all the variables and distributions appropriately.
Before I begin, it is important to remember that as a coach, route setter, event organiser and community member, I am always looking for ways to improve the sport. In order to improve, we need to first understand and accept the areas that are letting us down, and how we can turn them from weaknesses into strengths.
I say this, because I am sure that some you reading will at first feel attacked, maybe even offended at my observations and take a stance of defence. So remember, if you want to get better, if you want to improve, you have to stop making excuses, stop defending your position and open up to the idea that things could be better.
Watching the World championships was both over and underwhelming. The organisation and management of the event was superb. It seems that the Austrian crew learned greatly from the Youth World Championships last year and put on one of the best organised events of this scale have ever been to. But, overwhelmingly, there was an issue with the setting.
The setting was not quite right the entire event. Holds put on in the wrong place, rounds of boulders too hard, routes too easy. Don’t get me wrong, I have seen these mistakes before. I have made these mistakes before. I understand the pressure and the chaos of setting for multi-day events. But in events with up to 16 categories, and climbing abilities across a spectrum exponentially bigger than a World cup, in facilities where we had to share holds between boulder rounds. I’m not trying to flex on the setters at world champs, I am just highlighting the fact that everything was available to them, or at least, the most a team has likely ever had, and still we see setting that misses the mark.
To me, this is a very clear signal that the processes in place are not appropriate. As I have never set on a World team, I couldn’t tell you exactly what those processes are, but I have set on teams with world cup setters and the organisational processes they use seem to be pretty standard. How routes are organised, tested, tweaked. Maybe the tweaking process needs work? Maybe the freedom of having almost any material you want is too much? Who knows.
I love process and I think it can always be better. Check out my blog after Open Nationals for a deeper look into my ideas around testing and tweaking routes.
Process aside, the next glaring issue, the issue I have battled with since head setting my first national boulders. The women’s routes and boulders. The entire event, the setting team got it wrong. Boulder round qualifications that were too hard, finals that were too hard, final routes that were too easy. I remember lamenting on a similar scenario after Ballarat semis (read more here). Asking female setters to show me how to do it.
I’ll be honest, I have resisted. I have resisted putting more females on setting teams because of their lack of experience, and because I knew that it could create more work for me. I continued to provide a platform for men and resisted giving that same platform to women because I wanted them to get more experience first.
What a mistake. A mistake of epic proportions. I have hindered when I should have supported.
We rejoiced when one female was added to the setting team for worlds. But it’s not enough. Look at the IFSC officials list here
, and tell me how many female setters you see. Not enough. How many head setters were female this season? How many females on the setting teams?
It’s time to progress. It’s time to push forward and ask for better. World championships was not a good competition, particularly for the females and one female setter is not enough.
I think 50% of the setting team next year should be females.
I think 50% of the head setters should be females.
I think the IFSC need to be more transparent with the entire setting teams at events and publish the whole team.
Because it’s not enough to just shrug and say that’s competition.
It’s not enough to accept the status quo. Especially if you want the sport to get better. Thinking you are the best is not strength, it’s weakness because it stops you from ever getting better. And I want it to be better.
Support your female setters because one is not enough. Our community deserves more, our climbers deserve more and our competitions deserve more.
PS. Huge thank you to Team AUS biggest supporter Yvette Harrison for her amazing photography of the athletes during the entire event. You are a superstar!
I thought I would push through an update on my ‘European Dream getaway’ as it approaches its 5th week. I am currently in the process of completing some back-round research on a post around one of my favourite topics ‘sexism and inequality’ so stay tuned for that fire ball. Plus a general review of the world youth championships in Russia, which was a fantastic event, despite the dark cloud that hangs around Russian politics (more on that too in the next post).
Where to start…. well, you know how I love numbers, so –
So far, I have spent 29 days away from home, 6 days travelling and have seen 10 different climbing gyms across 2 countries and 4 cities. We have had 19 Australian athletes represent us in 2 major events (not 19 at both, but across the 2), 4 coaches and 1 team physio. The team is growing, along with our sport and the complexity of these trips is astounding. Not to mention the professionalism of the events themselves.
The route setting was reasonable and seemed to do it’s job, even with what looks like a short lead wall in comparison to the Austrian giant Kletterzentrum in Innsbruck, where World championships will be held soon. The hold selection was a little limiting, resulting in some pretty old school physical climbing, but sometimes that is just the way it is. Jackie, in his usual way, told us how much he enjoyed the challenge.
Huge shoutout to team Captains Oceania Mackenzie and Yossi Sundakov-Krummins for their outstanding efforts making semis, as well as team first-timer Angie Scarth Johnson. Just epic!
You can read all the details about WYCH 2018 here – (once the post is done)
After Russia, I headed back to Munich for the World Cup where we had 3 athletes compete. Ben, Yossi and Leah. All up it was a pretty epic day with 14 hours at the venue, most of which was spent in isolation. Unfortunately, the day ended in tragedy with Ben suffering a season-ending injury.
After Munich, I managed to sneak myself a couple of weeks off in Germany and in my usual fashion spent this ‘time off’ route setting in Berlin. It was a pretty awesome opportunity and I am really grateful to the gyms that let me guest set. The most amazing part for me though was to find out that really, it’s pretty similar to what is happening at home. I mean, compared to most of our Aussie gyms there is a better hold selection sure, and the facilities themselves are bigger, but there were no European revelations.
I suppose with the higher density of climbing facilities came some more care on the ‘product’ that was being delivered, but otherwise, the same key factors and processes were used. We set for 6 hours, about 5 boulders each, then spent 3 hours testing and tweaking.
Anyway, finishing up this blog I am here in Austria and looking back at my time here I guess the main revelation is that there really isn’t something that we are ‘missing’. We know what we are doing, the real challenge is getting the resources and materials we need to create it.
On to the World Championships in Austria, hopefully, there will be some great stories and lessons learned after this!
“Well that was hard” – Maybe the most said statement at the recent Australian National Lead Titles. I’d say that as the head setter, my focus wasn’t on making the competition hard…….. but then again, maybe that would be lying.
For the last 3 months leading up to the Australian National lead titles I have been training with relatively good consistency and determination. I have been trying to improve my climbing performance and finger strength with a focus on bouldering. Partly because I love bouldering, but also because (in my opinion) bouldering fitness is the most relevant for a route setter. In defence of this position, I believe it is because testing the movements in overlapping sections requires good bouldering fitness, not necessarily lead fitness. I mean, if I could flash all the routes I set I’d compete right!?
Anyway, I’d been training, because I knew that the best competition climbers were about to descend upon us and I, along with 4 team members, were tasked with the job of splitting them. It’s a tricky thing too, creating a competition that is both enjoyable for the majority of the field and splits our top athletes. Especially when you find yourself in two minds about the standards at a national championship. What are they? What should they be? What terrain is best suited for who? Add in some para climbing requirements to the mix, as well as some pretty interesting time requirements, and you find yourself with a pretty good challenge.
Before I go on, I have to say a huge congratulations to my setting team. Carlie LeBreton, Tommy Krauss, Kurt Doherty and Sam Junker. You guys did a stellar job and I had a blast!
Long story short, the comp was pretty hard. 5 of the 18 or so routes we set saw a top. No finals were topped and there was some congestion throughout the event at some unexpected places. We still got a split and some pretty incredible victories from two very impressive athletes. James Kassay by 14 holds and Oceania Mackenzie by 11.
Still, as I’ve said before, the quest to make a perfect competition is still something that drives me, and it was frustrating to see competitors falling in sections that we hadn’t anticipated. Especially when we had done work on routes after identifying that they weren’t quite right. As if we were asking all the right questions, but getting the wrong answers.
To give you all a bit of background, typically we have a grade range in mind for a competition. Taking open A male into consideration, for nationals we set what we considered to be a 26+ Q1, a 29+ Q2, a 30+ semi-final and a 30+ final. Apart from hold selection and terrain, that is about as much information about the climb as we have. After setting it, some of the setting team will climb it, try to make sure that it is consistent, there are no cruxes and it hits it’s grade range and is appropriate for the category, sounds simple right?
So after all this work, when the route doesn’t do what you want it to do, it’s frustrating (to say the least).
As some of you know, I have been fanboying over Tonde and the wisdom he imparted on me last year and so when I tell you my mind went back to the ideas he covered in the workshop, it should be no surprise. I thought about how I could use R. I. C to my advantage (Risk, Intensity and Complexity), but in the context of a route comp.
Typically in a boulder event, various boulders have set R.I.C values, setters use this information to think about how the round fits together and can then use the results of that round to modify the next round if necessary. So if a high-risk boulder was not having the desired effect, certain elements of the next round can be adjusted to be more suitable, i.e if there is another high-risk boulder in the next round, you can change the intensity and complexity values (or the risk value if necessary) so that the field react in the way you want…… hopefully. But at the very least, you are making educated decisions on exactly what you want and what you think is going on.
The problem with using this concept for lead comps is that it doesn’t seem right to have fixed R.I.C values for an entire route. Plus, with 2 routes in qualifications, then only 1 in semi-finals, if you get those values wrong there is no recovery, no buffer. Worse still is that high-risk values in a lead comp. are, well, pretty risky, so as a setter you tend to move more along the complexity and intensity scales for these types of events.
Then another thing popped into my head that Tonde (yes I know, I said it again) mentioned when we briefly discussed routes. He suggested that a good way to challenge athletes was to try and control their pacing. Like in steeper sections when athletes wanted to move quickly, you made them move slowly, or when they were just getting into a flow, you stopped them with something where they had to pause and collect.
Then BANG, it hit me. What if I took my route and broke it down into sections, say 20% of the total moves in each section, and had fixed R.I.C values for each section. For instance, the start of the climb might have a low risk and complexity value but a high intensity value. Then the 2nd section will ramp up the complexity, but drop the intensity, then the 3rd section keeps the complexity value but ramps up the intensity again…… so on and so forth. This sort of breakdown would provide us as setters as a really clear idea of what was going on in each part of the climb. Also a very clear understanding of how the field was responding to particular challenge elements, informing any tweaks and (most importantly) informing the appropriate sections of the climb to tweak! The overall difficulty could then be said to be the sum of all three values. So as the R.I.C values increase, so too does the difficulty. Add in a little fatigue element, and hey presto you have a tool. (Note that for fatigued, I used a very simple formula that utilised intensity as a factor, the more intense the movement, the greater the fatigue factor).
An example of a 3 round lead comp might look something like this –
Q1 – High intensity, low complexity, low risk (full route)
Q2 – High complexity, low intensity, low risk (full route)
Let’s say that athletes responded well to the high intensity, but struggled with increasing complexity
Semi-finals – beginning starts with increasing intensity, as complexity increases intensity dips to ensure that the overall difficulty (sum of R.I.C) doesn’t jump too quickly, and allows for competitors response to complexity(seen to be poor after Q2). Basically, setters complexity values for the field are not accurate and so to mitigate this, instead of reassessing what the ‘real’ value would be, you compensate.
It’s probably not appropriate to say that the setters value of complexity is ‘wrong’, just that what your team felt was not a high complexity value for the field was not necessarily how the field responded.
Anyway, whether this idea has any real merit is still to be tested. I’m not 100% sure about how the fatigue factor will play a role, and what an appropriate function for it might look like, or even if you really need a function. Potentially, just like the R.I.C values, it would be better to have it as a constant, maybe increasing every 10 moves, who knows. The real potential for this concept is to use it as a tool to assess a competition climb, and where there might be issues. Hopefully, by improving our tools, we can improve our product.
As promised, I have put together a short write up from last years National training camp with Tonde in Queensland, when the majority of the Australian youth team, a few Open athletes and a handful of keen setters, descended upon Urban Climbs facility in Milton for a bouldering fiesta.
Granted this is very late, but the lessons learned are still important.
The first thing we tried to get athletes to understand is that this is a game. And the more you think about it, the more you understand how important this is. This idea began with Royal Robbins, outlining the rules of ascension in Yosemite and still holds true for today’s modern competition warfare, save one thing (or 5 in some cases), the “routesetter”.
The trick is this, in competition, and some cases commercial setting too, route setters are not only building physical challenges for your body, but also emotional challenges for your mind. The game has stepped up a notch, with what used to be a simple show of athleticism, is now a complex dance of minimising frustration, allowing space for creativity, performing coordinated stunts and minimising fatigue. Routesetters create a round in boulder competitions to not only provide you with complex climbing problems but a series of emotional traps. Designed to shake you down, frustrate and upset you and break you emotionally. So that by the time you finish, you’ve been sucked into trying the hardest problem 7 times in 5 minutes, you had no energy for the final ‘easy’ boulder and you’re not sure you will ever grow the skin back on your fingers, all because that first boulder had the most frustrating slippery right foot you’ve ever seen and you just can’t help looking back at it everytime you step up to the next boulder.
Sounds rough hey? Well, it is. But there is a certain power when you realise that that’s the game. Make it through without the frustration and you’re already winning (against the setters that is), AND you are putting yourself in the best position to perform your best.
Once we uncovered the tools of the trade to our athletes we provided them with a simple tool to help manage and regulate their time (and emotions) through each boulder of the round. The idea is that you break up the 5 minutes into 5 partitions (one per minute). 1st minute – inspecting the boulder, 2nd minute – 1st attempt, 3rd minute – 2nd attempt, 4th minute – 3rd attempt, 5th minute – attempt only if you are SURE you can top it. Simple enough, but hard to follow, especially when there are a handful of caveats. Dynos and slabs tend to break these rules. Then during your 5-minute rest, the idea is to forget whatever happened in the last 5 minutes and move on.
The two days were really great, with a frustrating single shot round to wake everyone up, followed by a hard semi-final round for athletes to test themselves, learn the rules, try the time management strategy and hopefully do a little better.
Huge shoutout once again to Urban Climb, as well as the grand master Tonde.
So there you have it. Everything you need to become an international competitive bouldering star. Well, at least you know the new rules anyway. Next up will be some insights into the recent lead nationals and some of my new thoughts for lead, based on the R.I.C values Tonde shared with me earlier last year.
The end of 2017 was littered with more events than you could poke a stick at, with National boulder titles, the National coaching workshop, the Australian team training in Queensland and setting workshop, and ending with the Chris Sharma Topped Out boulder event at Nomad.
I’m tired just thinking about it.
This is not really how I intended to start this post, hence the heading, but I suppose I’m setting myself up for an excuse as to why it’s taken me so long to post another blog after the WYCH one. Regardless, I’m sorry, I’ve been busylazy (my new word for procrastination linked with an overwhelming amount of work) but I’m back now and I’ve got T-shirts for everyone (special bonus points if you get the Reel Big Fish reference).
So, without digressing any further, the subject matter for this post is
Tonde made a trip down south, supported by our national body, Sport Climbing Australia, to impart his route setting wisdom to Industry professionals through a small handful of setting workshops, Boulder Nationals and a National team training camp. I was lucky enough to be a part of the setting workshop prior to the Australian team training event in Queensland, along with the coaches workshop at Boulder Nationals (a topic for another blog).
There has been a little bit of hype around Tonde over the past 24 months, at least in my circles, talking about how excellent the setting workshops run by Tonde are, and let me tell you that the hype is real. He just has a way of explaining things that dissipates the fog and brings some of the most complex, sometimes esoteric ideas, into simple, crystal clear resolution.
I’d listened to a podcast that interviewed Tonde, where he introduced his ideas around RIC grading and the fact that routesetting is design and not art, so many of the ideas were not completely groundbreaking and new, but the process, the thoughtful and persistent analysis of each piece of design we put forward was inspiring. Does it fulfil the brief? Is it suitable for the intended audience? How does it fit in with the whole? Does it have the appropriate elements of each of the R.I.C scalars? So much analysis of the movement, the emotion created from the interaction, it was like we created a whole new space in which to create and play.
I don’t know if I would say that my setting got better, but it definitely became more thoughtful. Tonde’s words “That’s a thing” kept playing in my head every time I stared at a wall with a drill in my hand. I wanted each boulder to express some idea or feel something when you pulled on. I can also say unequivocally that I took it too far too, with an overwhelming desire for the feeling of “confusion” or “befuddlement” stacking blockers on blockers and layering holds together like a puzzle. Those that climb at Bayside, or on some of my recent boulders can attest to this. I guess when you find something new that you want to explore, you have to take it to some logical conclusion. I’ve subsequently tried to reign in my enthusiasm and focused on what is necessary, rejoicing in the simple as well as the complex.
I suppose the most important thing that I took away from it all though, was that route setting is like any craft. Just as a woodworker is judged not only on the functionality of his piece, he is also measured by the aesthetics, the quality of the joinery, the skill in which he has picked and utilised the grain of the timber and of course the safety of his workspace (because it is really hard to make tables with no fingers……. I would imagine). So much can go into a great product and this focus is exactly what is being pushed for internationally. Quality over quantity.
Because I’d always rather climb a great boulder lots than climb a lot of boring boulders……..
So recently I posted a blog about the recent world youth championships that had a bunch of numbers about the event (you can check it out here) It was a pretty huge competition and I left it feeling pretty inspired, but also a little lost.
With some of the most knowledgeable coaches on the planet, most talented youth climbers in the history of climbing all congregating in one place, it is easy to feel start struck. With 4 disciplines running (including combined) everywhere you looked there was something going on. Even in isolation, with so many competitors, the warmup challenges and antics and activities were varied enough you could probably write a book on them (even though everyone has a thoroughband now).
The question that rolls around in my head pretty regularly about almost all of my projects is ‘am I on the right track?’ and inevitably then ‘how do I get there?’
I made connections with coaches from other countries, spending most of the time quizzing them on how their seasons run, selection intricacies and how the US boulder scoring works (apparently it’s magic). I spent most of the days walking to or from the wall, pacing warmup areas or coaches spaces in front of walls watching. We slipped in some climbing at the gigantic Austrian facility, but mostly just chatted with fellow coach Kim Kamo about some coaching or setting topic, hashing out an imaginary program or workshop, conceptualised, critiqued and adjusted.
For some reason, the way my mind works is to frantically take notes, image snippets, parts of conversations, numbers and a host of other bits and pieces of experiences, roll it around the inside of my skull for about a month, as I come to false conclusion after false conclusion…… until eventually I can output some condensed piece of philosophy that is hopefully useful in my current framework of perception. Or more simply, a direction.
It’s exhausting, to be honest. my poor girlfriend would ask me on my recent week-long holiday (thank you to everyone that made that happen!) what are you thinking? To which I would reply ‘what kind of person I want to be’. The things I do and involve myself in have roots that plunge deep into the heart of who I am. A more appropriate response probably would have been what direction do I want to take my coaching and setting in, but truly that comes back to how I see myself fitting into the world around me.
Anyway, I digress, as is always the case, these big comps seem to leave a big impression. You can easily become bewildered by all the new walls, holds, shoes and ropes that seem to evolve and come out of every crevice and corner. The new talent and training ideas appearing as if from nothing. My god, what are the Japanese teams doing? and how can I get my kids to do that!?
I came back excited but also lost.
Where do you start when you have open athletes that basically have to save up through their full-time jobs to finance any world cup prospects, national youth team members without coaches, mountains of international holds that are anywhere between 150 and 300 euro’s each and a comp scene that is maybe 10 years behind what we are seeing in Europe. The task seems monstrous.
Luckily, Sport Climbing Australia, in partnership with a host of other hardworking volunteers have been putting time into compartmentalisation of these tasks. Creating committees that deal specifically with each element. Ideas are getting developed and conversations are getting turned into manageable ideas. Obviously, none of which you will likely ever see until finished products are ready to be deployed.
Progress is slow, as with anything, real change takes time and dedication, and of course, I have my own plans as well…….. Think global, act local…….
I suppose after everything, the one thing I figured out that helped me settle is that we are all a little lost. No-one seems to have the one right answer, we just get better and faster at seeing when we are wrong so that we can adjust, side step and keep moving.
It has been a fascinating journey for me as one of the Australian coaches over the past 3 years. Plenty of ups and downs. Going to World events has been eye-opening, meeting coaches that share the same ideas and visions that I do, that have jumped the same hurdles that I face and those that have really forged the way for all of us. Inspiring.
Whether the future still holds national plans for me is yet to be seen, but I am certainly feeling less lost as the excitement for what is to come grows.
I hope your next climb is not your best because I want you to look back in 5 years and think how far you have come.
Gyms today are becoming more and more refined, with sleek white walls, LED light-up panels and fine timber finishes. We are really seeing indoor climbing venues pushing the limits and boundaries of what we first perceived as indoor rock climbing. So much so that this world of indoor climbing is beginning to step away from its roots in rocks and cliffs, with concrete walls designed to resemble the local crag, to displays of architectural wizardry and candy coloured polyurethane sculptures. We are trading a beautiful setting of wilderness, for beautiful route setting (and good coffee).
Regardless of how you feel about this indoor movement, and despite my lengthy introduction, I think we as climbers can all appreciate beautiful setting. But then, what IS beautiful setting. At this point I should warn you, I intentionally did not sift through hours and hours of blogs and podcasts to synthesise and compress the current industry opinion of what good setting looks like because, to be honest, I’m not sure I care what industry opinion is. After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder right? We all know a so and so from our local gym who just raves about that
We all know a so and so from our local gym who just raves about that grovilly corner climb that was set by the most inexperienced route setter in the team, I mean people dedicate themselves to off-width climbing right!? And then there are the world cups that display the most exclusive and illustrious hold brands that seem to be so out of reach to most of us (at least here in Australia), with novel and exciting movements from some of the world’s most famed setters, using features and volumes that are probably more expensive then the car most of us drive. This space begins to feel very elitist very quickly.
When boulders begin to look like wall art installations. The WA Catalyst comp earlier this year
Oceana on the giant morpho pinches in WA…. These things drew blood!
So then, what is good route setting?
As aforementioned, it’s a tricky one, because well, we are all different shapes and sizes, we have different strengths and weaknesses and we all have an image of ourselves that drives what kind of ‘climber’ or ‘boulderer’ or ‘dry tooler’ we think we want to be. But then, if we look closer, as a setter, or a facility manager, there is a common theme here and that’s variety. Variety of difficulty, of terrain and of styles. Everything from the majestic roof proj. to the horrendous corner slab weirdness.
As a setter, sorry, as a GOOD setter, you should be able to set that variety and willing to take on feedback from the 4ft nothing girl that just wants an extra foot. The routes and the boulders in a facility are driven by the clientele who utilise it. Which means that a good setter responds and adjusts to the climbers who climb their routes. On top of this, it’s likely that as your client base gets stronger, physically and metaphorically, your setters need to continuously adapt and change to the evolving demands on the facility. So not only do they need to set for who you’ve got but depending on the lifespan of your routes, maybe who you WILL have in the future.
We could go deeper here and even suggest that your setting team then influence the development of your climbing community. What they set and how they set changes the way your climbers approach climbs. If your setting is basic and not particularly mentally challenging, your climbers will be strong but not all that smart. The same goes for the other way round. If the emphasis is on technical climbing, your climbers may lack raw power.
Well set out facilities are enjoyable to climb at because they make sense and provide this variety at all levels. It’s a hard thing to achieve (this is where a good head setter comes in), and with the ever changing industry, there is also a push to provide new and exciting experiences to keep your patrons coming back. But this doesn’t change those fundamental components that your setting team should deliver.
This subsequently means that your setting team need to be able to set to a plan. If the aim of the boulder is to provide something technical and delicate, it’s not particularly useful if your setters give you a dyno. I guess this is where the testing and tweaking component comes in. However, I digress, back to good setting.
So, really good setting encompasses a very wide range of actual climbs, difficulties and styles. What it really needs to do is serve a purpose. Good setting delivers a specific thing so that every climber is accounted for. It delivers a concise and specific product. It fulfils it’s brief. Your powerful deadpoint is a powerful deadpoint for everyone, and not static for Tod and dynamic for Jerry. Your accessible climbs are technically and physically simple and your difficult climbs are both simple and technical. I mean, some people like jumping to crimps, and some people like moving their feet 42 times in 3 hand movements.
So good setting is like good design (yes I know this has been suggested before). Some of the best designs just ‘feel’ right, like the ergonomics of a drill, or the backrest of a seat. Going further, the BEAUTIFUL design does this in new and interesting ways. Which means that good setters, really good setters, are great designers. Designers of movement AND visual presence. The best setters set the climbs that you need in ways that are both enjoyable (or unenjoyable if that is what is needed) and visually appealing. It’s like designing a new mobile phone every time you set. It needs to be nice to look at, but also intuitive to interact with and ergonomic to hold.
So beautiful setting is like, well, a beautiful piece of product design. It looks good, it feels good, it works good and it does what it’s supposed to do.
Sometimes it’s funny the times when inspiration, optimism and courage hit, as if life is playing some dark joke on you by giving you gifts you have no energy to use….. I find myself sitting in Perth airport writing this, slowly coming down from the high of the last week of setting and competition. It’s nearly midnight and I will be landing back home in Melbourne at 6am, just in time to catch the morning and get ready for another day. I hope and pray that I won’t have a busy day and can maybe nap after lunch, however unlikely, the thought spurs me on.
The climbing scene here (in Perth) is different to the east coast, but different isn’t always worse. It is definitely a younger feeling scene, but there are definitely some serious things gong on.
I had the pleasure of setting an entire world cup style competition with a guy called Alan Pryce. Just as a little bit of staging, Alan is no stranger to competition setting and is quite the competitor, with a podium at the most recent Australian National boulder championships, so he knows what he’s doing….. like really knows.
Al and I before our live feed
Having a rest amongst the holds during the open qualifications
In two days Alan and I set, tested, tweaked, marked, stacked and then re-set almost 80 boulders. Running 5 boulder qualifications, 4 boulder semifinals and 4 boulder finals for 6 categories, with each category enjoying completely clean lines. for each and every boulder.
I remember on the Wednesday before we started setting, Alan welcomed me at the airport and we shared the usual formalities of hello’s and how are you’s. Having no real idea of what to expect, except that I was going to help set a comp, I began to ask a few questions about what the schedule would be and how it would work. When he told me, I’m pretty sure I must have choked or gone silent, peering over at Alan to see his rye smile, thinking to myself ‘that’s nuts’.
For the uninitiated, I’ve now set for a handful of national events, and at last year’s national titles, we had 6 setters and we set around 80 boulders in about 5 days. So to say that this was going to be some work was probably an understatement. In addition to just the setting time pressure, due to the nature of the competition, the boulders had to be pretty specific to the field, with each one serving a very decisive purpose.
To my great surprise and infinite pride, we managed to finish the set almost ahead of schedule, with an enormous amount of help from the Hub crew when it came to stripping and tagging, along with some absolute ripper problems from Alan’s Partner Christina. Surprisingly, however, I don’t really want to talk about the schedule of setting, but the style of setting and the standard that’s hidden away (or so it feels) in the west, that is being driven by Alan and his crew.
Not wanting to blow my own horn, because to be honest, I think it really came down to Alan and the Hub….. The setting was really good. I mean, from an objective point of view, we had great splits, plenty of tops in the qualifications by the entire field, boulders that were climbed the way they were set (except for a couple, but I mean, that guy was enormous!) and some serious psyched fields that were really just raving about the comp! Like really serious psych! So much psych that not only did the competitors not stop climbing even after their fingers started to bleed, but with bloody tips, they couldn’t stop smiling and raving and being….. well…… psyched! There was some serious carnage too. For anyone that missed the live feeds, we spent a good 15 minutes cleaning blood off of the men’s 3rd final boulder.
And this is where the scene is really something. It’s so amazing to see so many people so psyched about competitions. This world that the Hub is is truly something. I mean, you find psyched climbers everywhere you go. Some are loud and some are quiet, but for the most part, they are all psyched about different aspects of climbing. I know that back home in Victoria there are definitely those that love to climb outside and those that love to crush plastic, but even in that, when it comes to competing, even some plastic climbers stay away. Maybe it’s the people, or maybe it’s the persistent focus of high quality that is pursued here that drives it. I mean, I have NEVER seen this type of comp for 6 categories, run like this ever in Australia. No boulder jam qualifications, no clutter, just clean, exciting lines….. And maybe that’s what it is too. How often do you get to climb on clean, inspiring, uncluttered lines in Australia?
I guess this is where the inspiration and optimism comes in. I feel pretty shattered after the week, following it up with a gym re-set and then a climbing clinic was tough but I just feel psyched. I feel invigorated and I feel optimism for my craft. I’ve found this courage to really want to push the boundaries of what I thought was achievable and the standards and ideas I thought were plausible. Mostly because I have seen the results of it.
There is this huge new movement in Australia and possibly around the world, where ‘normal’ people, people who don’t really align with ‘climbers’ are heading indoors and bouldering. The appearance and sets of movements are inspired, but not limited by rock and so we are seeing some incredible things happen. We are beginning to see setters and boulder gyms become coveted climbing spots and problems, just like world-class outdoor spots were/are. You’d be hard pressed to find an avid indoor boulderer that hadn’t heard of Stunwerk for instance and dreamed of climbing within its walls. This new movement makes the idea that Alan is pushing, and the standards he is setting all the more exciting and important for Australian climbing.
Still, I’m happy to be going home after plenty of travel already this year, but I also can’t wait to come back. Alan and the guys at the Hub know what’s up and Catalyst next year I know will be even better than this year, whatever that will look like…. So my suggestion is to book it in your calendar, because if it does for you what it’s done for me, you’ll probably be wrecked, but man you will be motivated!