Wednesday, February 9, 2011

What Makes a Good Hold?

"Which holds should I buy?" - in a flooded market, this is a common question.

There are plenty of sites and magazines reviewing climbing holds. From the perspective of a climber buying the holds, that's great. People can pick up a copy of Climbing mag or browse the web and figure out which holds are the most ergonomic. Or which holds have the best texture. Some sites cover how the holds were shipped. Can we agree that for a product which has an industry standard of being guaranteed not to break, it's kind of silly to rate how well the holds set and climb based on what ply of wax paper they were lovingly wrapped in?

It's hard to assert that texture and comfort aren't important to the big question above, but I have a hard time seeing those type of reviews as more than one-dimensional. The routesetter is going to look at an ergonomic hold with no directionality and be completely uninspired. If you can't create good movement, the hold might as well have the texture of broken glass.

That being said, my goal in reviewing holds covers the following topics:

Directionality - How does the hold perform in an angular, spatial sense? The biggest factors here are: 1) can you easily and quickly tweak the route by altering the angle of the hold, without compromising the grip style your movement depends on? 2) Can the hold be used to force body positions based on limited grip styles or foot placements? Directionality is possibly the most important concept in forcing good movement.

Aesthetics - An often overlooked aspect of setting. Holds are the building block for good aesthetics. Maybe without even knowing it, routesetters implement fundamental design principles - proximity, alignment, figure/ground, repetition, and contrast. Holds should facilitate pleasant route design elements.

Versatility - On the polar end from directionality we have versatility. How many different functions can the hold employ? Hold size, angle, number of grip styles, potential for foot placements are all factors; general moves like matching, hand/foot matching, toe-ins, etc all require different styles of hold.

Utility - Handles factors related to how much effort it takes to utilize the hold. For instance: Are the washers set evenly and perfectly perpendicular to the wall? How durable is the hold? (hardly a factor for most modern holds, but still relevant.) Is the hold well-constructed and equitable in texture and shape? Does the weight of the hold impact its usability? Does the size of the hold vs its usable space negatively affect available wall real estate? Does the hold sit flush to the wall? Is the bolt hole central enough to the hold to discourage spinning? Basically, a catchall for potential routesetting frustrations.

Climbing - Finally, how does the hold climb? Texture, ergonomics, fun factor. These are relevant elements to the topic but they are discussed at length elsewhere, so for my reviews the hold's "climbability" won't be the headliner.

In summary, I will be aiming to review holds as a routesetter, not a climber.

One more thing, while we're talking about buying holds. The blunt force pision of climbing holds into categories like "pinch," "crimp," etc. is a well-intentioned mistake. A pinch and a crimp/edge are the same thing at the proper angle. I'd say about 80% of holds marketed as "slopers" are really "pinches" - anything smaller than about six inches square and it's very unlikely you're going to prevent people from getting their thumb wrapped around the back of it.

There is clearly no industry uniform for this taxonomy, and it's frustrating to see just how little usability research has been done. The prospect of sorting through all the holds available and picking some based on what little criteria is available is pretty daunting. Telling people the actual (measured) size and weight of the hold is a good start, along with providing a comparison image including a hand actually using the hold. Don't be presumptuous about how the hold will be used. In fact, vague hold "difficulty" is more useful than a blanket category, in my opinion. While it might be up for discussion whether a hold is an "edge" or a "crimp," I think it will hold true across the board that it's tough to hold on to it on a steep wall.

Happy setting for now!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Very Basics: 10 Tips for Efficient Setting

One of the fundamentals of being a good routesetter is being efficient. Efficiency can be a fluid term depending on your setting environment, so for the purposes of this post, let's define being an efficient routesetter as striking a balance between the physical rigors and time constraints of setting, while meeting your specific setting goals.

If your gym has a steep lead wall, you've probably uttered that groan of defeat associated with having to set on it. It can be fun, aiding around and sweating and working moves, but at the end of the day it's exhausting. So what if you have to set another route after the lead wall? What if you have to set five more? What if you only have six hours to get it all done?

Venti quad espresso enema aside, the best solution is to set efficiently. Every small task in routesetting can be optimized and re-optimized until you have the smallest subtleties down to a science. Locking off on a nearby hold to screw in a foot one-handed seems fine on the first route of the day, but if you screw in fifteen footholds per route and have to set five routes, that winds up costing you a lot of time and energy. The goal of this post is to take a high-level look at some basic concepts in routesetting that allow you to be more efficient with these two resources.

1. Jumar. Get one. Use it. Love it. Unless you're masochistic or you need a ton of extra lockoff training, rope soloing is just vastly inefficient by comparison. Nuff said.

2. Use directionals. This can mean either quickdraws on your wall, or rigging up your own. Take a quickdraw, put a hanger through one of the biners. Put a bolt and washer (or t-nut) through the hanger. Now just screw that bolt into the wall wherever you need the directional, and you can clip into the free end of the draw, or clip your bucket to it. Do NOT use this as a reliable means of protection, and always stay backed up. Make sure the bolt is in as far as it goes - I have had them strip out violently before, when I was too lazy to put them in more than a few threads - it's not pretty.

3. Solve the bucket problem. This seems to be the most common thing I see setters (even veterans) struggle with.
  • Best solution: jumar rig to closest rope. It's always nearby, it's not hanging against the wall blocking your ability to run moves, and it requires practically no work to keep it with you.
  • Mid solution: clipping to portable directionals or nearby quickdraws. Not a bad solution if you don't have a rope and extra gear available, but it takes a ton of extra work to keep moving it. Don't forget to back it up with a PAS or daisy when you switch it between draws.
  • Bad solution: clipping it to harness. I get lazy and do this sometimes, but it's really the worst. Except perhaps at the very end of the route when there's nothing in the bucket but feet and bolts, it's just a huge waste of energy and time. It's also horrible for your back to have all that weight dangling on your harness awkwardly.

4. Use the right tool for the job. I won't get into the infamous ratchet vs wrench debate here, because there's a better time and place for that discussion. Just know and use whichever one helps you set more efficiently. And, of course, if your walls can handle it, an impact is your best friend..

5. Be mindful of your body's needs. This one's easy to shrug at, but your body is part of the equation too, and routesetting is tiring. Water and food would be a good idea. I usually chuck my water bottle in one of the apron pockets on my setting bucket. Once again, anything you can do to keep from having to go all the way down and back up is a good idea. Bonus pro tip: Especially on a steep/long wall, visit the bathroom before you tie in.. especially if you took the quad espresso advice to heart.

6. Take more than you need. Bucket aprons are a wonderful invention. It's sometimes a necessary evil, but eventually every gym employee gets tired of tossing stuff to the setter who never plans ahead. Don't leave home without:
  • Extra bolts (a handful of each type)
  • Ten extra feet, easily accessible, appropriate for the grade
  • Extra bits for your drill, if applicable
  • Stopper screws and/or screw-in holds
  • If you're a gym employee and not just a setter, a cordless phone can save you a trip down when someone else wanders away from the desk and the phone rings.
  • Water bottle, as above.
In addition to these things in your apron, you should have all the standards on your harness: draws / portable anchors / daisies, prebuilt portable directionals, wrenches/ratchet, your jumar.

7. Plan ahead. Figure out the sequence, or at least roughly which moves you want to force on which holds. Plan it out on the ground, put a bolt (the *right* bolt, and check the threads) in each hold, and put them in the bucket backwards. Finishing hold on the very bottom. In the sides of the apron, or a separate bucket, put about 20% extra holds of varying goodness, to be used as intermediates and emergency holds, so you don't have to make an extra trip. A good rough guideline is about one piece of tape per foot of wall. If you have less holds than that, grab extras and extra feet. Better to have and not need them, and if you're being efficient with your bucket and protection, the extra weight won't matter much.

8. Back up everything. When stripping routes, clip your drill into a PAS or daisy. Clip the PAS to your harness. Dropping your drill is not only incredibly dangerous and potentially expensive, but it means you have to come off the route to retrieve it. Whether you use wrenches or a ratchet, invest in an elastic wristband. Attach the wristband to the tool. Voila, never another dropped tool. Most important of all, back up yourself. Setting might be less formal than a sketchy trad lead, but the need for safety is the same. Yes, it takes an extra second to tie a stopper in your knot and back up your gri-gri slack with overhands. Consider the counterpoint: it's not very efficient from the gym's point of view if they have to hire a new routesetter because you break your back.

9. Devise and learn tactics. You can use the same portable direction trick to haul a feature hold up the wall. Put the bolt through it, close it off on the other side with a hanger and nut. Tie it in to an overhand. You can use two bucket systems to get rid of holds you wind up not using so you don't have to haul them. Keep your tape on your wrist if it doesn't bug you. Wear proper shoes to forerun the grade (or toss your shoes in the bucket.) These are all relative no-brainers, but employing all of them adds up time and energy saved. Watch other setters and incorporate their techniques into your own arsenal.

10. Embrace the learning curve. Yes, you will be a bit less inefficient for a while as you figure out how a jumar works, or how to rig your bucket properly. And it does take a few minutes to plan your route ahead of time. These little tricks, once properly developed, are vastly preferable to the stressful chaos of chucking shit in a bucket and burling your way through what should be a smooth, clean process.

In summary: Don't work harder than you have to. If you're straining to screw in a hold, sweating your ass off hauling a bucket around, locking off on poor holds to pull up slack on a gri-gri.. simply ask yourself, is this really the best way to accomplish this problem? At the end of the day, just taking a moment to assess the situation is all it takes to find better solutions to problems. Much like in climbing itself, the immediate brute-force option is rarely the most apt solution.

That's all for now. Later this week I'll return with a review of some fresh plastic! In the meantime, happy setting.