Tape & Sequences: The Art of Route Setting

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What trickery awaits you?

To the novice holds may appear randomly placed to be used in more or less the same manner: hands pull straight down and feet stand on the big toe. More advanced climbers know that route setters are devious creatures bent on forcing certain movements and tricking the climber into dead ends. Unraveling these puzzles can be either one of the most satisfying of climbing activities or one of the most frustrating.

So, how do skilled route setters go about setting a route? Step 1 is usually to determine a grade target and, less commonly, a specific movement goal provided by the gym owner or manager. The setter’s job is to establish a new route of that grade that may also include a certain movement sequence on a specific section of climbing wall utilizing holds on hand.

Step 2 is developing a general idea of the route’s character. For example, the setter may decide on a continuous route with no real crux (the section of the route that is obviously most difficult) or a route with all slopers or sequences designed to force heel hooks. He may opt for a crux section high on the route or low, or he might attempt to mimic an outdoor climb with which he’s familiar.

Step 3 is hold selection in which your setter picks hand and foot holds that will help him set a route according to all the criteria determined above. This takes some practice and experience to predict whether the holds selected will produce said route; in other words will the holds be appropriate for the angle of wall, type of movement, and grade.  There are no hard and fast rules here, the setter’s experience and skill determines whether a good set of holds is selected.

Step 4 is the actual setting. Contrary to what some may believe, setters don’t plan every move on paper or even in their minds before beginning to place holds on the wall. With the movement and grade in mind, a setter may begin by placing a number of  hand holds in a sequence followed by the foot holds. Some setters even set an entire route of hand holds only and then go back over the route placing foot holds, although this is a less efficient method than placing them at more or less the same time.

Step 5 is forerunning. For most commercial, non-competition routes setters “forerun”, or climb the route  for the purpose of making refinements, while they’re placing the holds. For competition routes several experienced setters may climb each route, make comments, assess grade, and help refine the movement.

Route setters have a suitcase full of trickery to challenge your mental and physical abilities.  Some of those setting tricks include:

  1. Forced cross: For a pair of hand holds it might at first appear that your right hand, for instance, should be placed on the far right of two holds leading right when in fact the setter intends for you to use the near hold with your right hand and then cross your left the next hold. If you are suckered into placing your right hand on the far hold you  may not be able to progress beyond this point.
  2. Hand foot match: To maintain a stable balance, the setter may force you to place a foot on a hold before you remove a hand from it.
  3. Involve your heels: Hooking your heel like a third hand is a favorite route setter ploy. The heel might be necessary to keep you from swinging off the wall or help maintain balance or prevent a dynamic balance barn door.
  4. Gastons: A gaston is a sidepull used across the body instead of pulling to the side. Gastons may sometimes appear to be a sidepull for, say, your right hand when in fact the setter intended a gaston for the left.
  5. Underclings: A large hold turned good side down is almost always a dead giveaway for an undercling. The setter will usually provide high foot holds to allow you to use the undercling to make a long reach.
  6. Use of wall features: Many climbing walls have features either in the design of the wall itself or embedded in the texture. For example, an arete can be used as a long sidepull for hands or heels.  Or many walls have small protrusions and indentations in the texture that can be used as additional holds.
  7. Stems: Using hands and/or feet in opposition in an inside corner is a very powerful movement skill. Attempting to ascend holds set for stemming in a straight on manner can make a climb much more difficult than it would otherwise be.
  8. Dynos: Having difficulty making a really long reach? Chances are the setter included a dyno into the climb.

Skilled route setters are constantly coming up with new and varied movement they hope will entertain and challenge you of which the above eight are just a small sampling.  We hope you’ll challenge your setters to improve their art and keep you motivated to improve.

2 Responses to “Tape & Sequences: The Art of Route Setting”

  1. derrickNo Gravatar says:

    Thanks for the detailed description. I am setting for my first comp this next weekend and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing anything.


  2. Rodrigo WeisholzNo Gravatar says:

    I’d been very pleased to find this website.I need to to thank you for this brilliant read!! I definitely enjoying every part of it and I maybe you have bookmarked to see new items you post.

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