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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 on tight budgets, and with route setting being one of the major continual expenses, wall owners are keen to get their moneys worth. For many owners this translates to a high turn-over rate. Tell any wall owner that you could half their route setting costs by setting more boulders per day and watch their eyes light up. Compare this to proposing that route setting costs double, but the quality of the route setting will improve by an arbitrary, unmeasurable amount. This in turn could turn into an improved customer base… I am not trying to say that this is a bad idea, and in fact it is something I have put to wall owners myself, but it can be seen that it isn’t an easy sell.

A more typical scene from a modern day climbing wall. The development of huge macro holds and volumes has not only changed the aesthetic of climbing walls, but also the practices of route setters themselves. Photography credit Andy Donohoe ©

Whether or not it transpires that route setting practice in the UK will fall more in line with others, there are some definite benefits that should not be overlooked. Many of the best setters in the UK are incredibly efficient, able to set an amazing amount of high quality problems or routes in a day. This isn’t due to the fact they work harder than anyone else, but more due to the environment in which they have learnt and perfected their craft. If all of your setting career you have been asked for 5 amazing boulders you will find a point where you can produce, time after time, exactly what was asked. But what if now you are asked to set 10? Learning in an environment of time pressure enforces the importance of decisiveness and allows route setters to build up a ‘bank’ of movements upon which they can rely. This skill does not only translate to the UK standards of 10-15 boulder per day, but also globally to high pressure situations that are often encountered as a setter, especially when involved in the organisation of competitions or events. The ability to create a high quality boulder, quickly and efficiently, from a bank of moves in which you are confident is a skill that should be mastered by route setters across the globe and learning in the UK system is one of the best ways of developing this skill.

Another factor that should be considered is the notion of ‘too much time to think’. With my experience training apprentices or those less experienced, I have often found that time pressure can be used to create a drastic improvement in the quality of the boulders created. This time pressure forces people to be decisive, to think fast without second guessing themselves, and can help setters past this major stumbling block. A foothold that has been moved around 5 times due to indecisiveness would often have been moved once, or maybe not at all, in the testing process. Getting new setter’s used to the idea of not being right the first time around can be hard, but using time pressure has proven again and again to be a great way of forcing people to make decisions and stick with them. This is a vital skill in the arsenal of any quality route setter and something that should not be undervalued.

There are of course some downfalls to the UK system of route setting and I believe that analysis of global practice is key in the continual growth and development of the UK route setting industry. I am sure that the issue of ‘how sustainable is being a full-time route setter’ is not exclusive to the UK, but still it should be considered. A full week of work can include an enormous amount of setting, testing and manual labour. Working 5 days a week can be brutally tough and sometimes unsustainable. To balance this out a freelance setters wage must be enough to ensure they can take time off and regularly work less than 5 days a week. Many setters find other, less physical jobs that they can fill their down time with. Wall building, coaching or taking on the administrative roles of the route setting manager are all common, but for the industry to grow and the job of ‘route setter’ to be treated as the professional position it is, we should be working towards a point where, at the very least, the most well respected setters in the country can earn a good wage from setting alone. It is easy to make the comparison in earnings against the top setters in Germany or America, but the pay of the other climbing wall staff should also be considered. It is not uncommon in the UK for the climbing centre staff to be paid minimum wage, the instructors and coaches marginally more. For the pay of the route setters to reach a point where it can be regularly considered a stand-alone profession, the pay of all climbing walls staff must also increase, and this will not happen until the indoor climbing industry in the UK can compete with the economics of the industry in the US or mainland Europe.

Another issue that the UK faces is concealed within the workings of the industry itself. Breaking into the UK setting industry has long been based on ‘who you know’ rather than ‘what you know’. With no defined pathway for new setters to get into the industry, people must rely on favours from friends to get their break. With the industry experiencing rapid growth it’s crucial that we break down this system of new route setters coming only from within cliques of friends. There are a number of fantastic examples of route setting apprenticeships across the UK, it’s these schemes, combined with external coaching and workshops, that will educate many of the next generation of world-class route setters in the UK.

Now that we’ve looked a little closer at the inner workings of UK route setting practices, the next blog will tackle the deep and complicated subject of ‘what makes a good route setter?’ Trying to sift through opinions to look at the rock solid definitions of why we route set, who is it for and how can good route setting can add value to a climbing wall?


Ben Norman is a professional route setter based in London, UK. He is the head route setter at Yonder, a state of the art bouldering facility in London, and has experience setting for national competitions in the UK. Ben is also a co-founder and instructor of Impact, teaching route setting workshops for amateurs and those working in the route setting industry.

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