Here at Impact, we understand that route setting can seem like a little bit of a 'dark art', so we're spending some time talking to route setters to find out a little bit more about their personal journey into route setting.
Up first is Imi Bagnall-Smith. Currently studying in London, Imi recently joined the in-house setting team at the LCC chain of walls. We spoke about how she got into route setting, how she's found it as a female in a male-dominated industry and any words of advice she has for all those women out there that are keen to get started with route setting.
Hi Imi, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Can you tell us a little about yourself and your climbing?
I’ve been climbing for about 14 years now, and I started competing within the first year (at age 7) as part of the Westway squad. I’ve loved it since then!
I started coaching about 3 years ago now, and then started setting in the past year, so i spend most of my week thinking about climbing!
Loads of climbing experience then, you started so young. How about your route setting experience? Is it correct that you’re now one of the in-house setters at the LCC chain of walls in London?
Yes, I’ve always been interested in route setting, because being creative and coming up with moves and sequences always seemed so much fun. I started talking to the setting manager of LCC about a potential role in the year before covid kicked off and was then finally able to start training as a route setting team member once climbing gyms reopened.
It's really great to see walls putting effort into training new setters and giving these opportunities to staff. How did you find starting out in route setting? Were you nervous or apprehensive at all or did it all go quite smoothly?
I was definitely pretty nervous - I had no experience using a drill so a lot of my attention for the first couple of training days went towards trying to learn how it worked! I think a lot of things like using ladders and putting big holds or volumes up hadn’t crossed my mind, but every time I came across a new challenge everyone was very kind and helped me to learn how to do all these new things!
There's definitely a ton of things that go into route setting that aren't so obvious initially. We had the exact same experience when we started and some good guidance goes a really long way.
What sort of teams have you been working in so far? Have you got to set with many other women so far?
I mean there’s definitely more male than female setters. For my first few sets I was on with only guys, but then I got to set with one of the female LCC setters (who has unfortunately just left!), and then I was on a set with Emma Twyford, who is obviously super strong and a very experienced setter - so that was great!
LCC also ran an all-female set at Harrow for the first time right before this lockdown, so that set will still be up in April for people to come and get on!
That's really great to have an all-female set up for people to try. I'm sure that's going to be really inspiring for a lot of women across London.
Over the past few years we’ve seen participation in climbing moving closer to an equal split between male and females. Why do you think that route setting isn’t quite keeping up with this trend?
I think this is a complicated question - there’s likely a lot of factors going into it. Firstly perhaps the number of women has increased a lot in recent years, so many aren’t at the experience level where they are ready to start routesetting yet, because a good knowledge of moves and movement is key for starting out setting.
I think also there can be a bit of a stigma that it’s more of a Male job, as many of the setters that people see around centres are men, so it may not look accessible for women (but it completely is and should be!).
There’s also a worry that you need to be really strong to routeset, and while climbing and understanding moves up to the midrange is definitely important, good movement skills and being psyched to learn is the most important thing in my opinion.
I couldn't agree more. Interestingly, with the route setting courses we run, we often find that the women have a better understanding of movement compared to men that are climbing a similar difficulty and this translates really well into route setting. The women have definitely set some of the best blocs we get!
What do you think we can do, both as climbers and route setters, to encourage more women to give route setting a go and take it up as a career?
Yeah, I think often women have to compensate for not always having as much pure strength as men, so end up learning really good footwork and movement to get up blocs!
Definitely, representation is key, seeing female setters shows women that it is a completely viable job if it’s something they’re passionate about pursuing. I think centres need to actively try to diversify their setting teams - which LCC has started doing in the past year which is awesome to see and be involved with.
I know that Hackney Wick advertised a scheme before lockdown where they’d allow women to help on sets or come for free training days, which is a great first step to allow female climbers to see what the job entails.
Overall as well, encouraging a positive atmosphere towards all genders in climbing centres is really important! Making sure that men aren’t looking down on women or assuming that they need help or beta when they haven’t asked for it.... But I think this is slowly improving!
Absolutely. There's definitely more attention being paid to all of these subjects at the moment so hopefully, that means we're moving in the right direction.
Do you have any personal goals for your route setting? Anything you would like to be involved in or to achieve?
Well, I’m definitely really psyched to get back to it after a break over lockdown (apart from setting on my board). Once I finish my final year of uni in June I’m hoping to start setting more days per week at LCC, and gain some more experience.
I also would love to be able to start setting freelance too one day, and experience setting at other amazing centres across London - that’s definitely an exciting prospect!
Setting for a competition would also be a great experience - I love competing so that would be awesome!
It would be great to have some more women freelance route setting, I definitely think the demand is there with so many people looking to diversify their route setting teams.
Yeah, I’m hoping that can be a goal in the following year for me!
Thanks so much for your time Imi. Just to finish, are there any words of advice you would give to women out there that would love to start setting?
If you love climbing, enjoy the creativity of lots of different routes and movement then routesetting could be something you love! Contact setting teams at your local wall if you’re certain that it’s something you’d enjoy - and be prepared for some hard work (but work that’s totally worth it!)
If you’re not sure yet but want to give it a go then check out the scheme that Hackney wick advertised (after lockdown) and maybe think of going on an impact course to give it a go too!
Most importantly remember that women can be AMAZING routesetters, and it’s definitely not just a job for the guys.
Couldn't agree more. Thanks for the time Imi and hope to get the chance to set together sometime soon.
Thanks Ben! Yeah if you ever need an extra for a set at Yonder, I’d be super keen 👊🏻
To get involved with the Hackney Wick female route setting scheme, get in touch with them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To find out more about the route setting courses that we offer at Impact or to book a course, follow the link HERE.