Friday, September 6, 2013

Pulling Plastic: 5 Suggestions for Route Setters

What makes a beer good?

I guess it depends what you are in the mood for. Something strong? Something cheap? Something hoppy? Something malty?

There are a lot of crappy, weak beers out there. There are also beers that are really strong, but that doesn't necessarily mean they are well crafted or even enjoyable.  I will still crack one open in a pinch. But I'm not going to recommend them to my friends.

I bet we could all agree that a good beer is one that really shows the craftsmanship of the brewer. One that gives us something unique that everyone can appreciate even if it isn't their favorite style.
A good route is a lot like a good beer. The climber should instantly be able to appreciate the craftsmanship.  We are lucky to have a dedicated community of setters at our local gyms. I know they are under a lot of pressure to create a high VOLUME of routes AND continue to deliver QUALITY. I offer this post as a suggestion to new route setters and a reminder to those who have kept us climbing for years. In no way do I mean this post to be an insult. I have set routes in the past so I understand how much time effort and creativity it takes to complete a route.

With that being said...

1. Be Considerate
Height and reach matter. Please avoid enormous reaches. Some might take the attitude that "reaches happen" and "it just makes you stronger." But if that reach is out of the realm of appropriate challenge, climbers give up and don't learn anything from it. Reasonable challenges are fine but think about these two ideas when setting...

90% Rule- If you can barely reach it, shorties definitely can't. Set holds not at the the full extent of your reach, at your fingertips(100%), but at your wrist(90%) or even forearm to give shorter people a chance.

Multiple Foot Options- Outside, the good holds may be far away but there are so many smaller options in between. An extra foot chip won't make it too easy. It just might make is more plausible and encouraging. Some of the most difficult routes have included multiple foot options that do not make it any easier, but they allow for many body types to enjoy the difficult sequence. 

Trust me. If a foot is set higher for a shorter person, I will not use it because it will throw me off balance. Likewise a shorter person will not use mine because it will stretch them out. One foot chip goes a long way. Like a Dachshund to a Great Dane, the smaller dog has to take many more steps than the bigger one. Allow for it.

2. Be Intentional
AKA: Dont spew holds!
Everyone climbs a route in a different way depending on their size, style and abilities. But routes should have an intended path. Avoid setting up a gauntlet of random holds that might be useful in different ways to different climbers. On one hand, it will still up a lot of conversation, on the other hand it just might be confusing and awkward. See #4

3. Be Consistent
AKA: Don't get carried away!
Route setters are creative people who often become inspired as they find new sequences. One move will inspire the next. That can be a thing of beauty, but it can also increase the difficulty of the route as it ascends. Even with the best intention, the 5.7 becomes harder along the way because the route setter thought, "Wouldn't it be cool if they had to..." Save the 5.10 moves for the 5.10s. Stay the course, even if it means being a bit more boring on this one. Remember the move and put it into a route where it fits. Or change the beginning of the route to fit with the style of your landmark move.

4. Be Excellent 
AKA: Improve your own climbing technique!
THE BEST ROUTES I have climbed in the gym have been set by the BEST CLIMBERS I have known. Climbers who have truly mastered the craft, understand a blend of strength and technique. This mastery can't help but seep into their routes. On a well crafted route, a climber can feel the intention, movement, and even personality of the route setter. You actually feel like them when you climb it. So, how do people feel when they climb your routes? Awkward? Frustrated? Confused? Look back on your own climbing for the reasons why.

5. Be Nice 
AKA: Don't F^%& us over!
There is fine line between creativity and cruelty. That final FU hold or turning a hold upside-down just to make it "more interesting" does not make the route more fun or even better. If you have to resort to cruelty to make your route more challenging or interesting, ask yourself why your route needs to be more interesting in the first place. But I guess that there are some people who like that kind of thing... Maybe just write a "safe word" on the route tag? How about "butterscotch" or "John Tesh"?

In Summary:
Give us consistent, intentional routes that show us your understanding of strength, movement, and balance, that also are considerate of the possibilities and limitations of our unique body types.

What makes a route good?

I guess it depends what you are in the mood for. Fluid movement? Dynamic throws? Powerful slopers? Delicate crimpers?

There are a lot of weak and overrated routes out there. There are also routes that are really difficult, but that doesn't necessarily mean they are well crafted or even enjoyable. I will still climb them in a pinch. But I'm not going to recommend them to my friends.

I bet we could all agree that a good route is one that really shows the craftsmanship of the setter. One that gives us something unique that everyone can appreciate even if it isn't their favorite style.

Climb Smart MN is a grassroots approach to climbing education based on community and charitable giving. For information on donation based climbing lessons visit ClimbSmartMN and follow us on Facebook. With over ten years of climbing instruction, coaching, and guiding experience,  Chris Hesselbein strives to better the climbing community through personalized technique and safety education.


  1. I also like variety of different types of climbing routes, especially as I have been starting to branch out with outdoor climbing. My personal faves are routes that are fluid, balancy and stemmy. That usually means smaller holds slightly closer together. It also happens to work for my body style as I am shorter and don't come by upper body strength naturally.
    The occasional route with huge holds you have to jump for, or routes that throw your body off center with no feet that you just have to muscle your way through may not be the ones I enjoy the most, but they offer me the opportunity to stretch myself. Unfortunately, it seems like almost all of the gym routes have been falling into one of the later categories lately.
    Although they can help improve my strength, so can pull-ups, push-ups and a variety of other exercises I can do on my own. What I can't do on my own is work on my technique. I need the gym for that (at least during the winter). Jumping and hauling my way through what are essentially stretched out ladders may look more impressive to the newbie observer than routes that require control and balance. However, it doesn't improve my technique. When you then invariably add the FU move at the end, requiring me to jump 4 ft up and to the right of the rest of the sequence... well lets just say its not making me want to battle rush hour traffic to get to MPLS.

    I don't have any great ideas for how to fix it aside from the gym ensuring that the route setters get extra technique training, or make sure to hire people whose styles are diverse enough that we can get a variety of quality routes.

    Regardless, please don't hate on us shorties.

  2. "A Doctor" makes some good points.
    Indoor climbing gives the route setter the opportunity to teach us technique. Let's not squander that. We look to route setters to show us nome great moves and combinations. Not just, "it will be really hard to get to this hold"
    Variety is the spice of climbing. Each route setter has a particular style and something to contribute to the gym. But what happens when all of the route setters trend towards the same "reach-y" style? It can get pretty old pretty fast. I have also noticed that simply the increased height of the Minneapolis facility leads to reach-ier routes. The taller the wall, the more holds you have to place to keep it reasonable. That is exhausting work to set on 60 ft walls, especially as you get near the top where all the heat hangs out. With those conditions I would be tempted to stretch out my holds so I can just be done more quickly. I would be interested to see a hold density ratio comparison of "number of holds on a route"/"height of route". I bet it is slightly less dense at Minneapolis not only because of the sheer height but also of the culture of route setting there.

    I would also like to take time to applaud several route setters on their excellent work on creating technical, feasible, fun and yet still challenging routes. BG, G Tambo, Aleasha, and Nick Smith have really impressed me lately as their routes follow my 5 suggestions listed above. Keep up the great work!