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!
Gosh, it has been a long time between posts and I can’t decide whether it’s due to being immersed in work, or being partially lazy. I feel like there are grounds for a new word to be developed that covers this feeling….. something like labzy, or busly….. maybe even procrastibusy, but I digress, as always in these blogs.
I have been lucky enough to have travelled a great deal this year already, around the nation for some events, social and official, as well as other route setting forays at new and existing facilities. It has been so exciting watching climbing explode in Sydney and it seems set to do the same thing in Melbourne. I have been sitting on videos of both National youth and the Japan world cup that I will endeavour to finish editing and release as soon as I can. And I really have no excuse as I have just begun a 7 week trip in Europe with the Australian climbing team, both youth and Opens.
This travel has recently provided me with a very interesting view of route setting both at home and abroad, which, as you may have guessed, is an interest of mine. One of the recent moments of revelation came visiting B-Pump in Tokyo (Ogikubo). I realised a few simple and important things about route setting. Now granted, this is an opinion piece, I have not done any research here, but through observation and experience, I have developed some ideas…… Which may or may not sit well with you.
Creativity and Complexity reign supreme. Now, this may seem simple enough, but the ramifications are, well, complex. This idea comes from one major observation, where people climbing recreationally get the most excited and obsessed about climbs they are ‘close’ to. Which really translates to: “physically possible for me, but I just need everything to go right”. Which means there is something that they cognitively or physically need to ‘figure out’.
Some Ogikubo class displayed by Yossi and Sam at this year’s Open team training after the Japan World Cup
So, if it takes you longer to put the holds on the wall than it does to come up with the idea of what to do…… you’re not trying hard enough. In Ogikubo, they spent 3 days re-setting their central pillar, some 20-30 boulders. Each one was a technical marvel. Complex, creative, enjoyable, varied at each grade, really an immense achievement. Now sure, you may not be in a position to input this kind of man-hours into your product, but then, if you never do, you probably never will. Which means you will probably always be the Kmart of climbing gyms. Quantity over quality. Not necessarily a terrible thing, I mean, people love Kmart, but even when they love Kmart they would probably prefer to buy Gucci, it’s just out of their price range. Not that I think Gucci is particularly good really, it’s just a metaphor ok.
So in practical terms, if you’re a gym and you want to add some real creativity and complexity to your product, the kind of stuff that people really get addicted to, tell their friends about, but you can really only afford Kmart. Pick 3 boulders in your set and spend the time to make them Gucci. Then, after them, fill in the grade blanks with Kmart, maybe with the extra time spent you have 1 or 2 fewer blocks…… but it is worth it. Even if you don’t hit the mark the first time, or second time, or third time, your setters will practise and learn and fail and learn some more and the quality of the product will improve. The complexity and creativity will rise because you are supporting them with time and value in their work. You are taking away the excuse of, “I could have if I had more time” and you are replacing it with, “show me what you got”.
The other thing I discovered while climbing at B-pump, a little more practical and tangible, is this: Good route setting, really good route setting, is all about feet. If your feet aren’t right you fail. This is key. Now, this doesn’t mean that that campus proj in the roof should be stripped, it’s cool, you can leave it, but it’s training, it’s not ‘good’ setting, it’s not really even route setting, just like you don’t call putting up the campus rungs, or the moon board ‘route setting’ right? Put on a hold, then do something with your feet and body so you can reach or use the next hold. This is climbing, this is movement, this is route setting. Creativity and Complexity are masters in climbing, everything else is just exercise.
Stay tuned for the next one. I have some time so hopefully, I will run out of excuses and actually get some of them written! Oh and if you are ever in Tokyo, do yourself a favour and check out B-pump Ogikubo.
“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.
So Nationals is done, maybe not quite dusted but definitely done.
It took 5 route setters a total of a little over 250 hours to plan, set, test and tweak a handful of routes for the Australian lead Nationals. National head route setter Carlie LeBreton, Aspiring National Head route setter Will (Me), National setter Scotty Pritchard, State head route setter Tommy Kraus and State route setter Kurt Doherty. In my opinion, the setting talent was high along with the quality of the routes.
The format of nationals was relatively simple, with 2 flash format qualifiers, followed by an onsight final. The national speed championship preceded the lead event, with the first pairing of speed routes with official holds ever in Australia.
From my point of view as the head setter, the setting went relatively well. We had 9 routes to set and with limitations around working space and wall access, setting felt slow. At such a major competition with such experienced setters I found myself at a crossroads when it came to testing and tweaking. It’s probably within my capability to climb every route at the event and then to provide suggestions if the route should be changed or altered to fit the purpose for which it was designated. But then if my hands are on everything do you miss out on the variety that the other setters bring to the table? I definitely have a certain style as well as a particular taste when it comes to the aesthetics of what I find pleasing. Do I impose this on my team if I am the head setter? Is that part of my role and duty? Or should I keep to the organisation and management of the setting team itself, and let the setters set, test and tweak, adding their own flair and design.
The head setter has the final say when it comes to revealing the finals during isolation, you are faced with a choice to either leave or alter the finals based on the performance of the athletes during the qualifying climbs. This time, for the most part, the finals remained the same, with no adjustment……. except for the Open A male final. Which under my instruction was altered to make the roof section easier. Ironically, it was the transition into the roof that seemed to be the stopping move for competitors and we had half the final field fall in the space of 2 holds when trying to establish into the roof.
Luckily for us, there was a very good split between the top 7 athletes from the 2nd qualifier, which meant that climbers were split based on countback and not on time. I messaged my partner, complaining about how I’d done a lousy job of the male finals to which she replied – “you can’t predict how people will climb on the day”……. I quipped back….. “isn’t that what we ARE trying to do?” I mean, you set all the climbs before the climbers even get to the =facility. Sometimes, if you’re unlucky, before the climbers even register. This was, I’m sure, a topic of discussion when the setting team set for the 2016 world championships in Paris, on a wall that was subsequently disassembled, moved and then resurrected, climbs and all on site, 3 months later.
I wonder if these errors are just the nature of the game? I remember keenly the setting at world youth championships in China last year, with the stopper move in the middle of the juniors 2nd qualifier, as well as the cluster of tops in finals and semi-finals in the Youth B males which resulted in some rankings being based on time.
Still, for me, I aim high. I want that perfect comp with beautiful splits all the way through the field and only a single top on the final route from the final competitor, who knows he has to top from the sound of the crowd watching the penultimate athlete desperately slap the last hold. Good competition route setting is like writing an award-winning drama or thriller. It’s full of commitment, desperation and suspense. We control the crowd, by predicting the performance of the athletes, with our performance ultimately tied to the performance of others, or at the very least our ability to predict the performance of others.
So when people ask me if I’m happy, or if Nationals went well the answer is yes, I am happy, it did go well. It was hard work and we did a good job. But still, we can do so much better. I WANT to do so much better. Just like the climbers pursue the podium, I pursue a perfect climb, the perfect comp, the perfect split, the perfect story.
Let me start by saying that I am bias, very bias. I mean I am a ‘professional’ route setter, in that I get paid (most of the time) to put plastic climbing holds on indoor climbing walls for people to climb on.
For the most part it is a dream job, and I would like to think that I take my craft pretty seriously. I am always striving to get better, learn from feedback and focus on improving safety and processes. I find inspiration from social media, watching world cups and listening to interviews from top international setters. Adidas Rockstars, Hardmoves, Psychobloc, all of it pushing our sport further and further.
I have done my fair share of volunteering, for pretty major competitions too, state titles, nationals even. I am pretty passionate about climbing in Australia, so for the most part I understand that the money just isn’t there yet to pay the setting team, and so many of us miss out. However, sometimes, the lack of funding for our setters is endemic of a mentality that doesn’t value the craft of setting, and this infuriates me. When it comes to competitions and commercial setting, the main product that is being provided and marketed is the setting. Without it, being appropriate, interesting and safe, the quality of the event or gym suffers. If a gym was a person, the setting would be the food it ate. Regular re-sets, would be like eating regularly, and good quality setting would be like a healthy balanced diet. Without good setting and regular re-sets, the gym becomes unhealthy or just fades away and dies.
The other thing about supporting your setters, is that by doing so you support your whole climbing community. It is very rare to find setters that aren’t at or close to the epicentre of any climbing community. Keeping good setters psyched and motivated filters through the local climbing community and motivates everyone to frequent the gym, especially with high rotation of routes or boulders, clients are motivated to finish projects before they get stripped.
Finally, people notice quality. No matter the patron, climber, birthday goer or parent. People can see when a gym or climbing facility is well maintained. Holds are clean, gear is put away, movements are enjoyable, holds ergonomic and there is something for everyone. Good quality setting, especially in the easy to moderate grades also promotes good quality movement and a natural learning pathway for patrons.
So show your setters some love. Encourage them to be better, more creative and safer with what they do. And don’t forget that as is the nature of this world, you get what you pay for!