What Goes Into Route Setting?

One of the most important things for indoor climbing centres is keeping the routes interesting, challenging and varied. Many indoor climbers wonder where route setters get their inspiration for designing so many varied routes on a regular basis and what goes into the job. This week we interviewed Vertical Limit staff member and one of our route setters, Kieron, to dish all the details about route setting.

Kieron has been route setting at Vertical Limit for over three years and recently undertook a route setting course. He says the most important thing for him is making sure that routes for all levels of climbing “flow” and are fun to climb.

A lot of experienced climbers have an interest in route setting, but you don’t necessarily have to be able to climb super-hard to be a good route setter. Kieron says that “being a good climber doesn’t necessarily make you a good route setter”. He explains: “If you can climb hard, you don’t necessarily have the mindset for setting easier grades”. He says there’s not a fast-track way to get good at route setting - it’s a job that requires building up experience and putting the hours into climbing routes of all levels and getting a good feel for what different grades should feel like to climb.

What do you learn on a route-setting course?

Kieron says, “a lot of it is rescues and how to do everything safely”. The first couple of days were focused on how to rescue a fellow route setter if they got stuck and safety around working at heights: “Different knots, different pulley systems and how to rig”.

Route setters use ladders or self-belay to reach the top of the walls.

Kieron in Font

Kieron in Font

Where do you get your inspiration?

“I get a lot of inspiration from outdoor climbing,” he says. His most recent inspiration has come from a climbing holiday to Fontainebleau in France. “I’ve tried to replicate a few boulders from Font,” he says, “If I like a certain move, I’ll try and base my route off of that move”.

How do you work out how to grade your routes?

Kieron says that it can be difficult to grade routes as every climber has a different style - what feels more difficult for one person could be easy for another, but he says that being able to grade routes is largely down to “experience climbing different grades”.

“I climb the routes myself, then get my colleagues and the public to climb it and ask for feedback on what they think the grade should be,” he says.

How do you design beginner routes?

Kieron says the most important things to keep in mind when setting beginner routes is that “you want to make it easy to read” and to think “from their perspective”. He adds that it’s important to avoid weird angles as “it can throw people off” and that concentrating on footwork is important. There should always be reachable holds for feet and he makes sure to put a hold in places that people would likely want to naturally put their feet.

How do you set more advanced grades?

“As soon as you get past V6 it gets a lot more technical,” Kieron explains. The more advanced routes make use of smaller holds and are designed to include technical moves such as heel-hooks and toe-hooks. “Routes are designed so that you can’t just run up the route. You have to have technical knowledge,” he says. Advanced routes are typically designed to focus on a specific technical move in particular, but some will include multiple technical moves.

“I concentrate on making the route flow,” he explains, “and don’t set things to be hard just for the sake of being hard - the route has to be fun, or people will complete it once for the challenge of it but won’t want to climb it again”. He says it’s important to keep customers in mind and to focus on what they would enjoy climbing.

What’s the highest graded route you have ever set?

Kieron says that the highest graded route he has set personally is a 7b on the ropes. “I don’t usually set much higher than that as only a few customers can climb it”. The variety of grades and variety of routes at a certain grade are influenced by customer demand.

Kieron has observed that the majority of customers climb 5+ - 6b on ropes and V3/V4 on the bouldering wall. The top grades on the bouldering wall are V8 and V9, which is an advanced level for bouldering.

As a tall guy, how do you set routes for shorter climbers?

“I do take smaller climbers into account,” he says. “If I can reach a hold with my elbows tucked in, that’s usually how I’ll go. If it’s a massive move for me, then not many people could do it… The people I work with are smaller, so I get them to test the route or test it with the Kids Club on a Saturday - that’s normally quite a good gauge to draw”.

If you could set any kind of routes, what would you like to set?

Kieron says he would like to set routes with “powerful moves”.  “I’ve got the arm span and strength for it. I like jumping between big holds - it looks cool and it’s what I’m good at doing”.

He also says he likes “compression moves (squeezing between slopers)” as it’s a fairly unique skill and not many climbers can do the move.

The route setting process

Cleaning

Chalk builds up on holds over time or can get packed into small pockets. When changing the routes, the walls have to be stripped and all the holds are washed. Holds are left to dry properly before they are put back up again.

Checking the holds are safe

Route setters check that the holds are safe by looking for any cracks or breaks. When the holds are secured to the wall, they are checked to make sure they won’t rotate.

Designing routes

Power move: Kieron jumping for the top of Rainbow Rocket (f8a) in Font

Power move: Kieron jumping for the top of Rainbow Rocket (f8a) in Font

Kieron says that staff usually work in a team to design new routes and implement them. Some of the routes are designed individually and some are a combination of ideas from multiple members of the team. He says that they usually set the easier routes first so there’s a base to work off of, or if a member of staff has an idea of a route they want to replicate from climbing outside, those will be some of the first routes to be set.

Colours of holds

The colours of holds and the routes that they appear in are not completely random! Kieron explains that any colour and shape of hold can be ordered and Vertical Limit already has some colour systems in place. Climbers with a keen eye might notice that beginner routes for ropes are mainly light blue, green and grey holds and the more advanced routes on ropes are usually purple or black holds.

What’s your favourite route that you’ve ever set?

Kieron says that his favourite route on the bouldering wall was a challenging “coordination dyno … climbers had to jump and had to hit two holds to stick it… if they managed only one, they would fall off” and a long set that involved “traversing the entire bit of the overhang… it was big holds and powerful moves all the way through”.

The textures of indoor wall holds relate to real rock

A lot of climbers don’t know that the textures of indoor holds can imitate real rock - you can get holds with sandstone, limestone and granite and gritstone textures. The limestone-based holds at Vertical Limit are the polished black holds which are quite challenging to hold on to! (Limestone is a slippery rock). The more textured black holds and the blues imitate granite or gritstone.

This means it is possible to train specifically for climbing outdoors on a certain type of rock in an indoor wall.

Kieron explains that “originally, the purpose of climbing indoors was to train for climbing outside in the summer”. However, indoor climbing has become more popular and some climbers prefer climbing in an indoor gym to climbing outside, and some climb exclusively in an indoor gym. Climbing indoors is a great way to experience the sport and to gain fitness without having to buy expensive equipment such as ropes. For indoor climbing, all that’s needed is a good pair of climbing shoes, a harness and a belay device. Indoor gyms make it possible to climb all year round, whatever the weather.

Setting for competitions

Vertical Limit occasionally runs climbing competitions, with one planned for this summer.

Kieron says he would set a mix of routes including the most popular routes at Vertical Limit, indicated by customers, and traditional competition boulders - these are slopy, pinchy hard-core esque routes. He would also set a few ‘old school’ routes, which involve a lot of small crimps and endurance climbing.

Customer feedback

Kieron says that customer feedback is extremely important to all of the route setters at Vertical Limit. They want to know what you liked, how you feel about the way the routes have been graded and what kind of routes you would like to see in future.

If you have any ideas for the kind of routes you would like to see - this could involve wanting to see a replica of a cool route you have climbed outdoors or something focusing on a specific technical move - take your inspiration to the route setters!


Images (c) Kieron Albutt. Used with permission.