Look up “routesetting” in your favorite search engine and you’re likely to get a variety of articles and blogs about tips and techniques in setting routes, climbing movement, and updates about what’s new in the local climbing gym but little about the actual job of routesetting which remains a nuanced position and rarely understood by the everyday climber and even more cryptic to the outsider first entering a climbing gym. Going a step further, and I’ve written about this before in Adventures in Routesetting, setting in a grain silo offers even greater challenges to the average wrench-turner. First and foremost, the silos are quite a bit taller (I’m sure you noticed). That equates to using a lot more holds. Thirty feet of climbing in a standard climbing gym may mean using 30-50 holds. Ninety feet of climbing at Rocktown – that’s anywhere from 80-150 holds on a single route! Load up the haul bag and get ready to pull.
So what makes a good route? Everyone is going to have their own perception but on average it’s putting together a series of movements (or sequences) that “works,” that stays true to the nature of the climb (the target grade for the target audience) and culminates in being enjoyable and/or rewarding. Not everyone climbs for the same reason, in the same way, or seeks the same types of routes. So in a climbing gym routes variety is very important. There needs to be different difficulty levels of climbs (very easy to very difficult), emphasis on various techniques (jug-hauls, laybacks, stemming, footwork), variety in types of holds (slopers, crimpers, edges, pockets…) and just different route personalities. Variety. When done correctly there should be a well-rounded selection of climbs that caters to most. That doesn’t mean some climbs won’t be reachy or that all the climbs are going to be suitable or enjoyed by everyone. There will be choices for the climber to make in terms of selecting what routes are appropriate for them and their skill level.
But back to the task of putting the holds on the wall: the routsetter’s job involves hanging on a rope, selecting the “right” hold in the “right” position for the movement and difficulty trying to be achieved for a given climber. Sometimes a lot goes into this decision. Sometimes the routesetter’s job is very creative, sometimes it is more practical. You might place three or four different holds in a given spot before finding the one you’re looking for. Setting a 90 foot route can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days. Generally, the more practice you’ve had setting routes the more efficient you are and the faster you can set a quality route.
We have thousands of handholds and an unlimited number of ways to position them on the wall. Give 100 different routesetters the same 50 holds and section of wall and you are going to get 100 very different routes. But therein lies the joy of creating routes and of climbing them.
At Rocktown, our wall space is overwhelmingly vertical, versus other gyms that might have more overhangs and features. But we have the advantage of height and of being able to build sequence upon sequence rather than having to be limited by getting particular moves in a short amount of space. This allows us to build-in the endurance factor, to have multiple cruxes, and to create complex sequences and climbs that move around.
Rocktown is unique in that many times people hate when we change a route. At other gyms people complain when routes don’t get changed within two weeks! But routes at Rocktown take on more personality – more like an outdoor climb – and when one disappears it seems like you’ve lost your favorite climb at your local climbing area. What I always tell people is that we created that climb and you liked it, right? Well, maybe the next one you will like even more!
So the next time you hop on a route in the gym consider the added complexities of visualizing it, selecting the holds for it, and placing each individual hold in the position its in to create the sequence that either caused you to fall, or allowed you to challenge yourself and reach the top.