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Inside the Pressure Cooker: World Cup Routesetting

"We are not magicians and we do not make the results."

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This article was published in the summer edition of Gym Climber, available free at your local gym.

 What keeps you stoked about routesetting?

IFSC Chief Routesetter Chris Danielson: The unknown and constant newness of it. Just like the audience and the climbers, you never really know how climbers are going to react and perform and how a competition will feel and flow. That’s the addiction. Ironically, it’s also one of the biggest challenges for comp climbing.

What keeps a World Cup routesetter up at night?

CD: In general, there’s just an underlying buzz of nervous energy, especially the night before a comp, and this is probably similar to what it is for the athletes. All the possibilities that swirl around mentally, whether a hold turned a quarter inch to the left or right would be better. I rarely remember dreams, but I’ll wake up early sometimes on the competition morning and vaguely remember flickers of setting boulders (that don’t actually exist) or watching the competition (which hasn’t happened yet).

What makes an elite setter?

CD: It’s all subjective so I hesitate a bit here. Coupled with being professional, hard-working, and being able to see the big picture, the best setters can be problem solvers, strong climbers, organized, funny, empathetic, reflective, motivatingthere’s no model because no one routesetter makes a competition. 

In a final round of boulders, what are setters trying to achieve?

CD: The short answer is excitement. On the practical side, there’s an aim for relative fairness. Different climbers with individual characteristics have to execute a wide range of skills. While it’s more nuanced, we’re consistently testing things like strength, power, balance, flexibility, balance, and coordination. We also hope they will all be ranked differently and that’s not easy to “create,” but fairness, diversity and dividing the field are basic fundamentals.

Excitement is then a key target, however ambiguous and elusive it may be. Our main goal is not simply to entertain, as if it’s just a demonstration for spectators of wild climbing. People can watch all that on social media if they want to. There’s a lot in our minds but I suppose the main thing is we’re trying to create the opportunity for a sporting encounter. For the athletes, through their intensity and their skills, to create the excitement for all of us.

How much of a factor is setting in the final result?

CD: This is an impossible question in some ways, and I admit it’s one I don’t love. There are so many layers.

The creation of the field of play through routesetting is what the athletes engage in and so in one sense it directly relates, of course. If setters just screwed on horizontal campus rungs then we might say the setting would factor into the result pretty significantly. The best campus-climber would win, right? Afterwards there would be a great deal of talk about the setters choosing to set a campus rung comp. But if everyone knew well before that it was going to be a campus affair, got motivated and trained for it, what would everyone talk about? We wouldn’t talk about the routesetting at all (even though it was still integral), we would talk about who did the best campusing and that would be that.

Is the height of a hoop a factor in the final result of a basketball game? Does the position of holes on a golf course determine performances? Is the design of a skateboarding street course a factor in who wins the contest? All these elements are factors, but they are factors in the context of a sport’s overall format. The speed route was originally “set,” and the orientation of holds (the choices the setter made) does factor into the results in a way, right? But as it is known in advance and practiced, we are focused not on the nature of the route, but on what the athletes do, who wins, and how exciting watching that is. 

On the one hand, yes, setting is a factor, but the ranking resultwho wins and how the battle shakes outthat is up to the athletes, period. 

What is different about routesetting or climbing then, that makes it so interesting and or makes the sport unique?

CD: Though there are plenty of other sports where the field of play changes, in climbing the radical uniqueness is the degree to which it changes. If that isn’t enough, each new challenge is unrehearsed, only unveiled when the competition begins.

It’s all about degrees, and I think the format climbing works within and that the U.S. has adapted to is leagues different in variability and unpredictability when compared to other sports. In climbing, like the athletes themselves, we don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re all in the same boat, and it’s shaky. 

In any sport, scoring is the essential guide by which we follow the action, and the international scoring is now widely viewed, even internally, as not doing a very good job of that. In many sports, we may not know what’s going to happen in terms of who is going to win, but we do know what to expect in the playing field before the event begins, and even if we’re not a practitioner able to keep up with details or strategy of a game, we can at least follow the competitive encounter easily with a basic numerical scoring system.

Things become very fresh, even visceral, once the curtain opens for all to see and the athletes try the unknown. That’s different and this is the world routesetters live in. We just pour out the Legos, stack the blocks new each time and see what happens. What we do exists in the context of a bigger picture and remembering that keeps us all aware of how unusual it is and what the challenges are. Personally, I think the format and scoring of competitions will evolve in the future and all steps in that direction, versus adapting to or staying with the status quo, are good steps. 

What do you think people don’t know or understand about routesetting? 

CD: We are not magicians and we do not make the results. Climbers will be appreciative or critical, naturally, but even unconsciously I think there can be this underlying misperception that we intended or could predict something we did not or cannot. Someone says such and such competition was “too easy,” let’s say. If the problems had been harder, if they had just been challenged “more” or differently, then they would have performed better, ranked higher. The routesetters might get a look or a comment that says, “Why did you do that?” as if the setter really knew and predicted it would play out that way and clearly should have done something different.

The thing is, whatever everyone else feels, most likely the routesetters already feel it too, but we didn’t know what was going to happen either! We can only ask ourselves what if. Just like a competitor will say, “If I had only… I might have won.” Our what-ifs are “If I had only tried that method,” or “If we had just added that jib,” or even as simple as, “If we had reordered the problems.” 

On the flip side, people may congratulate setters on how the energy of a competition was really intense: “It was amazing how so and so figured out some crazy beta,” or “so cool that she won on the last problem.” But these things are not intended or predicted either. When it goes well, it’s typically a balance of luck and how the climbers perform, the choices they make. It’s about how they engaged on the platform and if that sparked a special feeling and reaction with the spectators. 

Any final words?

CD: I think of routesetters as stewards of the sport in a lot of ways. I admire many of my setting mentors and peers because it’s not just a selfish endeavor for them. Rather they know that what’s interesting about it is that it involves everyone else, and they have a genuine, shared appreciation for climbing in and of itself. The abstract idea of the routesetter is the technical person grinding away in the shadows, independent spirits obsessing about our creativity and just climbing over and over and over. And that’s true, that’s us. But setters are also often passionate climbers with a strong appreciation of the outdoors, the culture and roots, people who value and help develop communities, structure, and ideas. At least I’m happy to say that’s how I approach it. Whether crafting a new design on a wall or in some other realm, setters are often working behind the scenes to protect, develop and move the sport forward.