Setting Routes Indoors

This article is going to take things in a bit of a different direction: setting. First of all, I’m not going to be covering any of the mechanics of setting; they’re better off done at the wall, where we can demonstrate the systems and issues involved. This will be purely about improving the quality of your setting. Secondly, I really must stress that everything I say here will be my own personal opinions and theories, occasionally backed up by anecdotal evidence, conversations with other setters and general consensus.

Understanding what makes a good route

This is the best place to begin when setting, and it should always be the aim of the setter; even if you need to crank out three routes in a day and you’re wrecked, there’s no point putting something on the wall that isn’t enjoyable to some degree.

So, where do we begin? First off, it’s important to note that the enjoyment of climbing a route is entirely based off the movement. While you might get a buzz having finally lead your project or the adrenaline rush of doing a hard move above a bolt, you wouldn’t have worked to route so hard, or be psyched to do that if the moves weren’t pleasant. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of being so focused on the holds you’re using or the sequence you’re trying to force that you forget that if it’s not fun, no one’s going to climb it. If you can’t quite find the right hold, or the bolt-hole isn’t in the right place, don’t be afraid to change the route to fit the situation; in fact, doing so often results in a much more pleasant and flowing route. It’s similar to how you learn to ‘listen’ to how the holds tell you to climb a sequence, rather than just trying to force your way through; listening to the terrain and the rest of the route will give you a much better idea of what ‘should’ go there.

Another aspect in what makes a good route appears at first to be very superficial and subjective: what grade people think it is. Note that this is not the grade that you give it, but actually involves listening to the opinions of others (?!). Often, the mark of a ‘classic’ route (yes, you can have routes that feel classic indoors…) is that everyone agrees on the grade (up to differences in personal style). For instance, say you put up a route, and give it 6a+. Fine so far, but then someone who climbs 7a comes along and gives it 5+/6a at a push. It’s possible that you overgraded it, as it’s quite common to want to set more of a challenge route, but then someone who’s limit is about 6b, climbs it and curses you out for sandbagging the route. Now, they both might have opposing styles, and so the route felt easier than it should for one, and harder than it should for the other (this is likely part of it), but it’s more likely that some of the moves felt ‘off’, and not nice. Ideally, all routes should be given the same grade by everyone, but we’re more likely to discover a glacier at the core of the sun than that to happen, so we must expect slab routes to be harder for people more accustomed to roof climbing, and vice versa. Accepting that, a really good route should ‘feel’ it’s grade, within an order of magnitude. This comes down to the quality of the movement, not the difficulty, believe it or not.

 

What am I setting, and why am I setting it?

Another easy trap to fall into is just putting up routes of the difficulty you’re comfortable setting. That’s not your job. You need to set for the grade curve of the wall, not yourself, or the mutants that flash 7a, or even the freshers swamping the place.

I know that everyone thinks that setting an easy route is just throwing jugs at the wall. In fact, I find that setting low grades and high grades to be about equally difficult, if for different reasons. High grades are hard to set as it’s at my limit to climb, never mind recognising nice moves, and not making it dangerous. Low grades are difficult as it means adopting a different mindset; feet aren’t going to be used correctly, high steps won’t work, dynamic moves are unfeasible, etc… On top of the lack of technique when climbing, it will likely be climbed in bad style, such as thrutching, and grabbing holds before you’re ready to weight them, and doing so inaccurately. All of this combines to make the route potentially very dangerous to new climbers. So, you need to think about all of this while setting, as well as hauling more holds and bolts up the wall, and hanging there for longer screwing in the long bolts. As if this wasn’t enough, remember that the people climbing this will form their opinion of the wall based off this route; they might not get the chance to climb another route, cos there’s 200 people waiting in line, and even if you have a beautiful 6a/6b/6c set on the same panel, they won’t be able to climb it to see how good climbing can feel. This is it, as far as they’re concerned. Easy routes have a lot of pressure on them being set well.

Similar things apply to every route you set, but the routes that get the most traffic are the ones that need more attention; it’s important to set hard routes, and set them well, but if six people will try them in three months, that’s a much smaller pool of complaints if they’re not good, and they’re easier to change.

One thing I’d highly advise against is trying to set a project for yourself. You set best about a grade below what you climb, as you’re most in tune with how that should feel; you can flow through the moves, and you can easily see what’s good and what’s bad about a move intuitively. When you try and put up a project, you won’t have enough experience at the grade to know whether some is nice, just that it’s ‘hard’. You will also end up tailoring it (unconsciously most often) to yourself, be that a weakness you want to train, or a strength you want to push. As above, because it has so much of ‘you’ in it, there’s practically no chance that it’ll feel classic, as it’s now a very subjective route, never mind grade.

 

Planning a route

The best and proper way to set a route, is to plan it from the ground, including which hold goes where, putting bolts in all the holds, and putting the holds in the bag in reverse order (finishing holds on the bottom). It will save you time on the wall, and will make everything easier, as well as mean less time in the harness, and more time for forerunning (climbing before the route is finished and ‘released’) and tweaking. However, even I very rarely do this. I might plan a sequence or two, but usually, I have a vague ideal as the to style I want to set, and forerun each move as I go, trying to get a flow consistent with how I want the route to come out. On the other hand, this requires experience and an understanding of what makes a nice movement that only comes with practice, and I wouldn’t recommend it for someone new to setting. You need to be able to feel how the route is progressing, and not just say ‘I’m setting a rock-over route, so it’ll just be rock-overs’.

I’ve also seen people take it too far in the other direction, and spend an hour working one move, adjusting one hold by 2º, and change another out 5 or 6 times. That is not efficient, you won’t finish the route, and most of the route will probably feel chucked together in an unthinking effort to reach that one sequence, before finishing up nothing in particular.

It’s all about balance (excuse the climbing pun…); you need to plan and put effort into every move and sequence, but you can’t overdo it, otherwise it’ll never feel like a well-planned route.

 

I think that’s enough rambling for one day. Key points to take away:

  • Listen to feedback. If you want to progress as a setter, take on board comments about your routes, especially from other, more experienced, setters. However, you need to not feel down if a route is unpopular, and recognise unhelpful advice, and then ignore it. (I can’t help you with that, though.)
  • Be flexible. It’s fantastic when you have a plan and it works out perfectly, but don’t be afraid to drop an idea and experiment.
  • Don’t get stuck on a plateau of just setting a single grade or style. Everyone will put a kind of ‘style signature’ on their routes, but keep trying new things, whether that’s setting something easy, or a different kind of route (such as a corner rather than a face). Also, try setting something that you don’t want to. You’ll find you think about it more, and it might start appealing to you more.
  • Our job as setters is to encourage good movement on the rock, and re-enforce good habits. Bear this in mind when putting up routes.

As always, I welcome suggestions for future topics (mainly as I’m starting to run out of ideas…).

Oh, and check out http://routecrafting.blogspot.co.uk/ . It’s been a big help to me, and always gets me psyched.