Saturday, October 9, 2010

Just Another Climber, Just Another Route

I've been following around my "other" job lately, and I haven't had a ton of time to set routes. While this can be frustrating, the upshot is that I've had plenty of time to actually go climbing. Here in the PNW, the weather in October can be less than forgiving, so most of that time has been spent indoors.

Actually, in my climbing career this is the first time I've regularly trained at a gym away from my "home gym," so to speak. And being there just as a climber has been interesting. I don't really remember a time at my local gym where I felt disconnected from the routesetting the way I do at this new venue. In other words, I've gained a bit of perspective.

The routesetting community as a whole seems to have a focus on competition setting, and rightly so. If we're going to move indoor climbing forward - as a sport, as an activity, as entertainment - then competitions are probably our best bet for getting attention. Getting climbing in the Olympics will certainly not be a question of having enough gym rats turn up to testify for the Olympic Committee.

Here's some things I think are common misconceptions about what good setting is for a community. I'll state the myths in bold.

A bigger community means harder climbers. In the last two months I've climbed at major gyms in four states. This includes Boulder, Colorado, which is pretty infamous as one of America's hard climber epicenters. And yes, I did see some absolute crushers in all of these gyms - but the main commonality across the board was people falling off of routes that the routesetter probably rushed through to go set their next rad line in the roof.

The biggest shift for me has been going from a valley of about 80,000 people to a metropolitan area of 2.2 million. There are definitely more people in the gym total - to an absurd degree - but still most of them fall in that sweet spot between V2 - V4 / 5.10 - 5.11-.

Harder routes should take longer to set. Any setter who has an ounce of experience should be able to bang out a V1 in ten minutes, right? Well, maybe. But hard routes can be set just as fast with basic movement. And sometimes, they should. To elucidate my point, I just mean don't put too much energy into any one area. And if you do, concentrate it on the bell curve in your gym. I think a lot of routesetters can easily fall into the trap of spending their time setting for the red curve, when their gym actually climbs at the blue curve. I'm not saying slap together the hard routes - mutants are in your constituency, too - but remember to spread the love.

I know I've made this mistake, repeatedly. It's a hard habit to break, because the joy of climbing and the job of routesetting are, in a lot of ways, difficult to separate. Being able to make that distinction is one of the main traits of a skilled, mature setter.

Not every route has to be interesting or special. The truth is, when we were all new setters (and less experienced climbers, probably) every route we set was, in some way, an experiment in forced movement. Now that we have those basic movements down, it's pretty easy to recall them and slap something on the wall. But if we set with that drive to be fresh and exciting, we can consistently surprise and impress our gym community. When you're starting out, watching the mutants crush the latest project is fun - but people don't go to the gym to watch.

There have been some frustrating experiences at my current gym where I've not flashed or even struggled on a route that feels like it's in my "easy" range. As a setter this is hugely frustrating, and feels like a failure on the gym's part. I've never been a fan of gimmick routes. But when I watch climbers work on these problems that are at their limit, I remember how it felt as a gumby to unlock a specific or even gimmicky sequence. If someone's coming in to the gym as part of a group, or just trying climbing by themselves on a lark, learning strange movement is still part of the "hook" for them. And if we're setting for our community, we should be doing our best to get inside their brains. However, I do think there's a point where the emphasis should be on applicable climbing technique. V0-V1, new here. V2-V4, probably just hanging out in the gym. V5+ there's a pretty good chance they're there to get strong.

Setters shouldn't have comfort zones. There seems to be a pervasive belief that setters should be able to conjure any style of movement on a whim. That would be nice, right? But it doesn't work that way. The style and personal touch you bring to the craft is what makes your routes yours. Even if you're a powerful climber setting on a slab, the climber is going to sense a bit of that when they climb the route. At my home gym, I could almost always tell who set a route when I climbed it. Be able to branch out and try new techniques and styles. But if you're setting in a team to satisfy an entire community, don't be afraid of your sweet spot. It's where you set your best routes, and there's no reason to deny or suppress that. Of course, it helps to have a varied team. A gym where every setter was a 6' powerhouse climbing V10 might leave something to be desired.

The most puzzling thing about moving to a big gym has been the loss of that tight knit feel. It feels strange not to know the gym employees all by name, and to actually have to sign in when I get there. But it's been a therapeutic experience, remembering what it feels like to be one of the great unwashed masses of the gym community. At one point, I spun a hold and chuckled to myself when the guy on staff wanted me to show him where the spinner was instead of just handing me the wrench.

It's Fall, and memberships are about to start spiking. It's the most important time of year to have not just an inviting gym climate, but an inviting mixture of problems. So, the best advice I can give you is go to a different gym. Go to as many as you can. Remember what it felt like when you were just a climber, and your only responsibility was to yourself and the wall. Then remember that now, you as the routesetter are responsible for creating that feeling, and for creating the community that binds it together. Besides, they can use the money from your day pass. After all, their setters need fresh holds too.

Happy setting!

P.S. Being Fall, it's also the time of year to have a thousand diseases floating around on your plastic. Wash your hands before and after you set/climb. I re-learn this lesson every year..


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  2. Great post, I particularly like the point that the majority of climbers at a gym are not climbing greater tan v5 and v6. I am a new setter at my current gym and have only set the easiest grades. The beauty I find in these grades is forcing moves as a learning tool for new climbers. Im definitely sharing this with the gym I climb at!e