A day in the life of a route setter

A day in the life of a route setter

Posted by Jasmin Pillai on 15th Jul 2020

“Oh good grief! This is the most dangerous part…,” thoughts flying through my head while sitting in the rafters of the Arch setting up to climb over onto my line. “Cool my knot is secure and it is clipped properly into the anchors. My cow tail is securely attached to me and a second anchor point if anything goes wrong. All carabiners are locked. Double, wait, triple checking, just in case. Okay! Here goes nothing…”

Generally the first thing I do when I get in at work is make sure I go and grab a coffee. Not just because I am a caffeine crazed person but funnily enough it slows me down before I get stuck into the nitty gritty. I have often gone past all my colleagues like a train because I have tunnel vision when it comes to getting on with the job at hand. The mandatory coffee in the morning is a good way of ensuring I check in with everyone before I get started.

We often already know the area and grade we are setting the day before we actually set the route. This is really important for my process because it helps me prepare for the type of route I will be setting, for example setting something over hanging requires a very different mindset to setting something on slab. Taking into account the grade, I also need to be aware of what grips are available to me and how they work with the feature since it would be difficult, if not impossible, to set a 19 in the powerhouse with a bunch of slopers. Alternatively, it helps being prepared for the amount of physical pressure certain terrains in the gym will put me under. A day on a vertical wall is like a walk in the park whereas if it’s an Arch setting day I know I’m in for a rough ride! Whichever way you look at it route setting demands everything of a route setter mentally and physically.

After sussing out the features of the wall I’m setting on, I go to choose grips from our grip room. I usually try to find grips with similar shapes or sizes as this helps with the continuity of the climb. Deciding on an aim for your route is also key to getting a good flow, will it be technical moves on small holds, or powerful moves to bigger sloping holds? This is where my creative process diverges away from everyone else in my team. I stay behind in the grip room loading (putting the correct size bolt in each grip), and then grouping my grips into bags to decide which part of the wall I want them on, while everyone else does this on the floor in front of their wall. I think the main reason I do this is because it eliminates me carrying a crate of bolts out because bolts are freaking heavy! A secondary reason is because I’m usually overwhelmed with ideas and it’s easier and more efficient for me to pack my grips in the order I want them when I have no distractions.

“Grips all packed and ready to go! Hang on, gear would be helpful at this point”. I remember the first time hanging up on a rope, so much gear, so much to remember, plus the elderly couple gazing up at me nervously while I worked weren’t helping! We normally have an impact driver(drill), a grigri, a jumar and sling, an optional cowtail and 2-3 bags of grips on us (until I later realised you could haul one up at a time). I also use a special big wall harness, the Black Diamond “Big Gun”, for maximum comfort and efficiency and of course a personal joke to compliment my big guns. At first the amount of gear is overwhelming but after setting on ropes for two years almost every day, it has become second nature to me now.

When I finally have all my grips and gear, my feet can finally leave the ground. The start hold, not surprisingly, is usually the first grip I put on the wall, but you can start setting any part of the route; you don’t have to start from bottom to top. Sometimes I have a cool sequence for the middle so I start there and work my way up. Sometimes I start from the top, then set the bottom and finish in the middle. This is a very good way of forcing myself to set differently because sometimes setting the links between what I’ve already set is where the real challenge comes in.

I always have an idea of how I want to arrange the grips on the wall but I come at it with an open mind because sometimes what I intended just won’t work and then I need to make alternate plans which sometimes turn out even better. Then it’s a series of me arranging feet to see if they work into the next move. Every time I put a series of grips on, I’ll get onto the wall in position and put a foot grip where my gaze naturally falls, this is pretty much because I think we naturally look to where we can place our foot to regain balance. With more experience you stop needing to do this with every move because you build up a repertoire of moves in your head that you know work on the wall so this saves you getting on and off all the time. Executing climbing moves with 5kgs of grips swinging on you is no easy feat!

From early on I had to learn not to be scared of taking risks when setting. The only way to not get stuck in a creative rut is to climb as many different routes as possible, outdoor and indoor and watch climbing videos (IFSC comps, friend’s climbing and bouldering videos). I’ve climbed enough to know that certain movements invoke different feelings in people, for example dynos are scary and committing but you feel great when you stick them, working through a series of technical moves with sketchy feet you’re probably holding your breath, that moment of relief when you grab a jug after a hard move. So I would say I aim to set a series of movements that invoke a series of feelings that compliment each other, that is how in my mind I know I’ve achieved consistency. Believe it or not if you’re feeling scared on an indoor route the route setter probably set it that way.

It takes me about 3-4 hours to set a route – again based on the terrain I’m setting on this could be shorter or longer (usually the arch is a whole day job). After setting the team breaks for lunch and we engage in some banter with each other or customers around the coffee machine and I have another coffee. Once any setter is done with a route they usually step back and stare at it for a bit (if you’re ever in the gym on a week day you may have witnessed this once or twice). Although it looks like we’re simply admiring our work, we are also visualising the movements we’ve set, double checking that they all work out. I do this quite frequently but this is also because I am imagining how I’ll climb it since I do have to climb it when we forerun.

Forerunning is when the whole route setting team climbs each route. When we forerun we are mainly checking to see that the route flows, all the falls are safe and the grade is correct. The difficulty of a route is determined by the average grade after each of the route setters has written down their opinion. The more setters who forerun the route the better the grading is as we are all different shapes and sizes and all have different strengths and weaknesses. It is important to make sure that the route isn’t morpho (easier or harder to climb based on your build). We don’t guess the grades! Once you have climbed enough of one grade you get a sense of how it feels. Being good at grading a route is something that only improves with experience, climbing outdoors helps. At this point we will tweak any moves that don’t work, add extra feet if needed and lower or increase the intensity of certain sections if they are too hard or too easy for the grade that we were assigned. Once the grade is established and we are all happy with the tweaks made I write out each grade on the grade cards usually adding quirky names to the routes, just for fun.

Drawing to the end of the day I am utterly broken, but, it’s worth looking up at the arch and seeing a route that I put up with my own hands. When I receive positive feedback from the customers I actually feel like I’m glowing. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m in fact blushing from the compliment or just super happy that people appreciate my work but I do feel quite overwhelmed that my hard work means that customers are having fun and enjoying themselves.

“I don’t know why I put myself through this every day”, hanging up on the wall I glance down to the floor, I see Dave scampering past with a bag full of grips, Matt fixated on his wall. Customers gazing up to me in awe. Ray on a casual safety walk, he shouts up to me, “I’d give it a 21! Looks too easy!” I smile to myself because I know it’s way harder than that. I shuffle around in my grip bag looking for the grip I need as my feet dangle in the air. Placing the grip on the wall I brace myself for the deafening sound of my drill cracking through the silence. A gentle breeze brushes my cheek as I turn to peer out the open widows onto the view of Table Mountain. In moments of calm and arguably a very unique perspective, all that goes through my head is, “man, I have an awesome job!”

Photos by Willem DeWet