Designing a Route to the Top

A 2012 New York Times article likened a climbing gym to “an enchanted world” where “adults and children hang from the ceilings like bats and stretch like spiders across the walls.”

Lacking the gravity-defying characteristics of arachnids, humans must learn to climb. But first, there must be a route to climb.

At Central Rock Gym (CRG), a rock climbing gym in Hadley, Mass., route-setters plan and build climbing routes for commercial and professionally sponsored climbers.

A route, also called a problem, is a specific set of holds attached to a climbing wall. Rather than grabbing whatever hold is nearest, providing the easiest leverage, the climber follows a designated path designed by a setter. Routes increase in difficulty from 5.6, easy-to-grab holds in a ladder-like procession, to5.13, paths of six or seven quarter-sized holds scattered up a 50-foot wall.

“It’s more challenging that way,” said CRG route setter Josh Surette, 35, of Amherst, Mass.

Climbing gyms employ a team of route setters led by a head setter who determines the number of routes and the grade distribution, said former professional climber Pete Ward, 38, of Northampton, Mass.

Setters try to make the most of the climber’s experience. Route setting is composed of purpose and style. “I always have a reason behind why I’m setting,” Surette said. The intended climbing audience, commercial, people who climb socially and for exercise, vs. professionally sponsored climbers, people who make a career out of climbing, is the purpose. Style is the focus of the route. Is it going to be a technical, balancing climb on a straight wall or a gymnastic, powerful climb on a steep wall?

Long-time route setter and representative for harness maker Petzl America, Tim Keenan, 31, of Rosendale, N.Y., said the best piece of advice he ever received about setting was to treat it like freeform jazz.

“[Setters] will try to force moves and try to actually plan how a route is supposed to be climbed, or how a move is supposed to go,” said Keenan. “Forcing that kind of move will stunt the entire route.”

As with any artist, the amount of forethought varies. The best route setters, said Ward, “are the most organized, a fact that the disorganized mass of common level route setters are not even aware of.”

By contrast, Surette said gym setters typically give themselves a day to plan. “If you’re doing a big competition, you might put a little more thought into it. You at least want to know where it’s going and what kind of showy signature move it’s going to have,” he said.

Once a plan is conceived, the setter gathers the necessary hardware. At CRG holds are sorted by color. There are crimps, pinches, slopers, jugs, and edges, all of which mimic actual rock features found in nature. It’s like standing in front of bin upon bin of Mr. Potato head parts: any combination is possible.

Nature has always inspired artists and route setters strive to mimic outdoor climbs. Surette is setting a 5.9 crimping route, a medium level climb, with holds that force the climber to bend their knuckles into a slope. Always pick holds in a series, Surette said. Start with the handholds then choose the footholds.

“When I build, I want character, you want [the route] to be inviting,” he said, dumping four holds into a bucket.

Surette lined his chosen holds up on the floor in the route sequence. “It shouldn’t be really awkward or super hard. You want a nice flow route” to make the climber feel confident, he said.

Don’t start by thinking about the holds said Ward. “Imagine the line you want the route to take up the wall.”

“You can have a hand sequence that works really well, but if the feet aren’t there it’ll feel really awkward,” Surette said.

Placement of the footholds determines the reach between holds and the smoothness of the climb. For every handhold there must be a corresponding foothold. If the climber is reaching with their left arm he will need a left foothold.

Just like a writer rereads his work, having secured the holds, Surette climbed the route. Back on the ground he rotated a hold to allow for a better foothold, set the grade, and dusted the chalk off his hands.

“We can’t keep chalk in stock, it’s incredible,” Hadley EMS assistant manager Charles Fischer, 28, of Northampton, Mass. said. Chalk allows for a better grip by drying climbers’ hands.

As of last spring, the Hadley store was the second largest seller of climbing gear of all EMS stores. Fischer credits the popularity of climbing in the Pioneer Valley to the numerous venues that have climbing gyms including Smith and Hampshire colleges, Northampton Athletic Club, and CRG, not to mention outdoor sites like Chapel Ledge in Ashfield, Mass. and the rock formations in Farley, Mass.

“In certain styles of climbing, the Pioneer Valley is a highlight for climbers in the Northeast,” said Keenan. “It hosts some of the best rock quality in terms of style of climbing and the actual quality of rock.”

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