Friday, February 1, 2013

Route Setting for Dummies: A Desired Climbed Outcome

It's surprising to me that for as much as I enjoy setting routes at the gym, I haven't really talked about it much on S.O. Climbing. 

Believe it or not, I enjoy route setting just as much as I enjoy rock climbing. Easy routes, hard routes, scrubbing moss outside, and putting in bolts; I love it all! In fact, I might go so far as to say that I think route setting is more rewarding, more artistic, and equally as challenging as climbing itself. Not only does setting require a high amount of motivation and psych, but it undoubtedly needs a certain understanding of "climbing physics" to set a great route, and that doesn't come easy. Sure, sometimes people can get "lucky" and set a good route on "accident;" however, a great route usually requires a high level of body awareness, visualization, a ton of muscle memory, and lots of climbing experience. In other words, it takes time, patience, practice, and available space to put all of that to work (i.e. a climbing gym). Luckily I have had the opportunity to spend some time at the Rogue Rock Gym, where I've been able to express my route setting creativity quite liberally, every week, for over 6 years.

In the process of all of these route setting sessions, climbers will often ask me how I go about putting up a route, and I usually give them a fairly short answer that doesn't really give much insight toward what is actually going on in my head. I'm not a savant. I don't have calculus equations flowing across my vision and geometric patterns taking over my thoughts. I just do what I know and set routes for others to enjoy. For a long time route setting seemed fairly natural to me. For years, I had typically done it without really giving much thought to the process. Although, after some careful thought and observation, I have broken it down into somewhat of a formula, and I want to explain a little about how I come up with my routes. I put a lot of effort into my routes and I'd like to share some of that with you all.

There are literally hundreds of "methods" for setting a route, but within those methods there are several very important guidelines to follow. First, before I touch a hold or wrench, I consider what I call my "Desired Climbed Outcome" or DCO. In other words: Who will be climbing it? What do I want them to get out of it? What is my desired outcome? These questions are often answered before I consciously ask them. But they still need to be answered! That is very important. If there is no conscious thought about these things, you will end up with a route that will make short people mad, tall people scrunch, kids cry, and tendons tear. Either way, most of the routes I set are not specifically "for me." They are for the members, team kids, birthday parties, competitions, and/or anyone else you can think of. Although I do enjoy throwing up a route for myself every once in a while, that's not my main objective.

So, for the sake of science! (or whatever....) we are going to set a route right here, right now. We are going to talk about it and dissect it. And it will be available for everyone to climb on the back of the boulder after today. "Route-setting" will be in orange writing:

Welcome to the Virtual-Cyber-Gym! (AKA the VCG) Our very first digitally boulder problem we will all set together is going to be a moderate route (V1ish) on the back side of the top out boulder, just through the arch on the arete to the right. Our DCO is for any member (short or tall) and will mainly focus on finger friendly, bigger, power moves. It will be for kids and adults, and will be designed to improve dynamic/powerful moves.

    (Boom! Our terrain)

Now, after considering who the route is for and what kind of outcome I want, I generally consider the style of route I want. I've already decided I want to make a powerful route - bigger moves requiring some dynamic movement. I need to know what style and what terrain I'm setting on to pick out what type of holds to use. This is probably the most important part of setting a route! If the wrong holds are chosen it can make a route WAY harder than intended (or easier), more tweaky, and less consistent. Along with style I also consider the aesthetics of the route. They way the holds look together, with the other holds on the wall, with the space available for the route, and with the tape color I choose is all a part of the aesthetics. I not only like my routes to climb well, I like them to look good! In addition, while considering what holds to use, I always choose holds that are "comfortable." Although, comfortable is relative, we can at least try to choose holds that won't wreck someones finger.

So, here were are, back to our route. Is it possible to set a V1 on this type of terrain? Well yeah! What type of holds do we need? Probably fairly positive holds that are easy to swing around on and fairly comfortable to catch while moving dynamically. What color looks good and will stand out and look good? Let's use red (it's bright colored) with grey (neutral colored). I use a neutral color (black, white, or grey) when combining colors because they "match" any color... because they aren't actually colors, only shades. In this case I will bring out 3 good jugs, 5-6 positive pinches, a range of 5-10 types of slopers, and a handful of feet. You guys think red tape looks good with red holds? Cool, me too! Are the holds all ergonomically friendly for the fingers? Yup, none of the holds are too "sharp" and they are all very rounded and comfortable. Awesome!

    (And here you have it folks!)

After I have decided on the DCO, hold type, color, safety, and aesthetics of the route, I finally begin putting the holds on the wall. This is where all the fun begins! This is also where the setting method varies widely from person to person. Generally people begin from the bottom and work their way up. However, I often will start in the middle and work my way down and then finish the top later. Sometimes I have a specific move in mind and put that up first. Sometimes I put the biggest hold on first and work around that. It doesn't really matter as long as the route remains relatively consistent and/or within the chosen DCO. That means, to give a few examples, that the route must either 1) Stay the same difficulty, 2) Have several cruxes that are relatively equal in difficulty but spaced apart by "easier" moves, 3) Increase in difficulty at a constant rate, or 4) Ignore the previous 3 rules and put up whatever you want! (not recommended for beginning route setters). Remember, no one likes a V1 that has one V4 move and then goes back to a V1. It's too boring for most V4 climbers and impossible for a V1 climber!

In general there are four variables that make up a route: Steepness of terrain, hold type, hold angle, and distance between holds. We've already decided on the climbing terrain and hold type. Our job is to put the holds on at a consistent angle and a consistent distance apart. That doesn't mean ALL the holds need to face straight up and be exactly 1.34 feet apart from each other. It means, we need to make sure that harder moves between holds aren't any harder than any given hold or specific isolated body position. In other words, a big move between to really good holds should be about the same difficulty as hanging (statically) from the worst hold on the route. Shall we set our route?

Let's begin with our two start holds: Big pinches, far apart, with good feet. Our first move will be a relatively large right handed move to one of our three jugs. The climber will then make a large move to the left where they will have a choice between two identical holds placed right next to each other, at the same angle:

(Ignore the blue holds (Thanks James!!) and the highest black hold)

Because we are moving onto some more vertical terrain, I will begin to use worse holds to keep the consistency. Following the "power theme" of the route, the next move will be slightly larger and will involve somewhat of a "throw" move (depending on who you are).

(As you can see, the holds are worse and at a more difficult angle, but on easier terrain) 
Finally, we will add our last few holds. The next hold following the side-pull jug is a grey slopey hold for the left hand (remember the holds need to get worse as the terrain get's better if we want to keep the V1 consistency). The climber will then bump their left hand up again to another slopey hold over the top. After moving the feet higher, the climber can finally reach the last good red hold to use for the top-out.

(Final red hold is not shown here... oopsies!)

Now let's watch our first climber:

There we go! Our first cyber route at the VCG! But wait... there's one more thing to do before we're complete: rating and tweaking! Because we're all such amazing route setters, I think we hit the nail on the head our first go! So no tweaking (I secretly did all that work while you weren't looking)! As far as rating, well.... That's a subject that is very, umm... talked about. When it comes to my routes in the gym, I have boiled it down to this: Whatever number we put on a route, someone will think it's too hard and someone will think it's too easy. We are never right. We do our best, have a few people try the route, put a number on it, and watch people suffer the consequences as their egos praise or punish them for their efforts based on what number is scribbled onto a piece of duct tape stuck to an artificial climbing wall.

The success or failure of a route should be judged by the safety (hold type and placement), enjoyment and creativity of the moves, consistency, and the aesthetics. Last on the list should be what it is graded or even if it is graded accurately. Although it is nice to have an accurate estimate of what the difficulty of a route will be before it is climbed. However, if the route was fun and it gave you with a sense of accomplishment, challenged you in some way, or provided a new skill that you hadn't tried before, then  does the rating really matter? Who does it matter for?

I'm not gonna lie; it's nice to know what I'm climbing and to be able to compare myself to my previous self or to other people, or one climbing area to another. It's a good reminder to check on your improvement and enjoy the "success" of your first V- whatever. But, I also think it is really important to remind yourself often of why you climb, what makes you the happiest, and if chasing numbers is really a sustainable endeavor in this sport. You can chase 'em, but at some point in your life you will have climbed the hardest you will ever climb. From there.... it's just for fun.

I hope you all enjoy the 13 new boulder problems this week! Don't forget to enjoy the process. See you all out there somewhere.