UK Route Setting: The Black Sheep

After some interesting conversations and valuable feedback, this piece aims to delve a little deeper into some of the points touched on by our previous previous blog, a brief discussion on how route setting in the UK is being affected by the indoor climbing boom. To be able to properly discuss and evaluate the broader question of ‘what makes a good route setter?’, we must first look to understand the current practices of the industry, more specifically, route setting in the UK.

UK Route Setting Practice

It is common knowledge within the global route setting community that the UK has some rather specific requirements and practices. It is not uncommon that a freelance route setter would be required to set 20 boulders, or to strip and set 9 routes. It is true that this does vary drastically from wall to wall, but even with this considered, a UK based freelancer is likely to be required to set 2 to 3 times as many routes or boulders as his counterpart in Germany or the States. Why is this? Is the UK route setting scene stuck in the stone age, unable to evolve, or is there more to it?

Initially it’s key to look at the evolution of the UK setting scene over the last 10 years. With the advances in modern bouldering facilities, as well as the introduction of ever larger macro holds and volumes, the UK scene has shifted away from the standard 20 problems in a day. This is largely due to the logistical effects of such changes. To create a single problem made of numerous screw-on macro holds and wooden volumes is much more time consuming than an equivalent boulder comprised of bolt on holds, especially before the use of pinning screws (or set screws) was commonplace. This viewpoint is shared by Alex Fry, one of the most experienced and highly sought after route setters in the country ‘I think that the reduction in the number of problems is also in large part due to the change in style of holds and pinning policies. Setting 25 blocs with small to medium bolt ons, many of which you don’t pin was quite often less physically tiring than setting 10 blocs with lots of wooden volumes, fibre-glass and every hold pinned. I certainly never used to put 1000 screws in the wall in a day! from counting empty boxes when setting with new screws I would say 200 to 600 is normal, but can sometimes be a lot more.’ Although this goes some way to explaining the difference, purely the logistical changes alone do not account for the entire shift in practice. As the climbing industry has grown, so has the competition between walls to increase their share of customers. Route setting is being seen more as a selling point, rather than a necessity, and wall owners are becoming increasingly willing to invest money and time into ensuring their route setting is of a high quality. With the outreach of walls being increasingly based around social media, route setting is now being seen as something to show off, to entice customers in with attractive boulders, beta videos and hashtag contests. Both these factors combined account for much of the shift from 20 boulders a day to 10 being asked of freelance and in-house setters alike.

Much has changed in recent years with the inclusion of modern holds and volumes. This example, from the British Bouldering Championships in 2008, shows the style of the time. Photography credit: Keith Sharples ©

Even with these changes, UK route setters are still expected to produce many more boulder problems or routes than their US or mainland Europe counterparts. Interestingly, this is not something that UK freelancers seem to have an issue with. I think it’s fair to say that a common held belief within the UK industry is that any setter needs to be able to set a minimum of 10 high quality boulders, something that I ask of each freelancer that comes to set at the wall I run. There’s a number of reasons that this yardstick has held firm until now. First of all it is a test of the setter, a line in the sand demarking a high-quality setter from another that doesn’t quite make the cut. There’s also the issue of where the perfect balance is with quantity vs quality? Obviously the less boulders that are asked of a setter, the longer that can be spent improving and perfecting, but where is the tipping point? Personally if I were asked to set 1 boulder, it would end up no better than if I were to set 3. There is also another factor that cannot be ignored. Money. Despite radical growth in the past 5 years, the indoor climbing industry in the UK is still far beyond many other economies around the world. It is simple to see the huge amount of money being poured into some of the latest facilities worldwide. The new Innsbruck wall alone cost over €10 million, a figure that even the most costly walls in the UK cannot fathom matching. The fact that the UK industry is still behind economically has a trickle down effect to how walls are run, including route setting. Many walls across the UK are run o