Four years ago, the Setter Showdown was started by Louie Anderson, a well-known routesetter and hold shaper, to bring routesetters from around the country to share ideas and techniques to better our craft. The event also had a competition aspect to it, the first competition I’ve ever seen in which the routesetters were judged for the final product they create. The judges had the difficult task of ranking route setters on their technical abilities, creativity and the function of the boulders. I attended the latest Showdown at Elevation Bouldering in Eugene, Oregon in early December. Here’s the rundown:
In Round one, each setter was assigned a zone. Every zone had two setters working within a general space, and we were tasked to set volumes for that zone, along with our own boulders. It’s important to note the volumes that we set in our zone would have to be used by every setter after us. We needed to make sure the volumes that we placed enhanced the zone rather than force every setter to do the same movement through the volumes. Once volumes were set, each of us went to set our individual boulders, I was tasked with setting an orange boulder with a set of Legacy Ascension slopers. At Elevation the color of the hold dictates what circuit or grade range a climb is in; for example, the orange circuit ranges from V4-V6. When I began setting my problem, I wanted to create something that invoked curiosity, with the main difficulty of the problem coming from the risk of the climb. This ended up being a sort of step-across foot shuffle move to a technical finish.
In round two, each setter was given a zone and a series of holds. My assignment was to set in the purple circuit V1- V3 with Kingdom Flanges, which is a comfortable jug line on a slightly overhanging face. Going into this problem, I wanted to keep the movement technical while not overloading the climber. To achieve this, I set the climb very directionally, meaning the angles on the holds would be turned to drastic angles to be sure the climber could only use them in a specific way. My other goal was to use a very large hold that the climber would use in multiple ways; this was the first hold I put on the boulder as it would be the centerpiece of the climb. Once my feature hold went on the wall I set the intro to this hold focusing mostly on the hands. From there I set problems leading out of the feature hold. Now that I had the outline of the boulder problem, I took a step back and tried to visualize how a climber would move. This led me to make a few rotations and also gave me an idea as to where the footholds should go.
The final round of setting included one additional variable that we didn’t have in the first two rounds. As well as having the terrain and holds chosen ahead of time, we would co-set the final boulder. Some setters dread this, but it presents new challenges for everyone and teaches teamwork, letting go of ego, and communication. My biggest challenge with co-setting comes from trying to get both setter’s visions on the wall without the climb being disjointed. This can happen if each person sets different sections instead of working together on the entire boulder. When co-setting in this fashion communication breaks down, and the boulder loses the unique blend of setter visions. For my round, I was excited to find out my partner, a relatively new setter from Boston, and I had different styles of climbing and setting. This meant we were probably going to have differing ideas. But that was the whole point: normally a sole setter has creative control, but when working with another that vision is shared. The climb we ended up creating was probably my favorite of the day. It combined her enjoyment of slow, technical, and flexible climbing with my risky complex style.
The following day brought a different format – no new boulders were set that day. Day two would be a day of forerunning, which in my opinion is the most important part of the setting process. Forerunning is the process in which a team of routesetters will work each climb, think about whether or not that climb serves its purpose, and make any necessary changes. We ask three questions: Is the climb fun? Is it functional? And is it fair? Each should be checked off before calling a climb complete. Some answers are subjective, like whether or not someone thinks a climb is fun. But some aren’t: for example, “is this climb safe?” If a climb isn’t safe, it should be changed or taken down.
In the forerunning round we were grouped in fives and worked through each problem we set the previous day, making changes as we went. We disagreed on certain changes, but without competing opinions, there’s no way for the climbs to improve. This round tested us on our communication skills and ability to think of creative solutions for making a boulder better.
After the forerunning round, all we could do was sit back and watch – a rewarding and trying experience for a routesetter. We watched everyone attempt the climbs, perhaps unable to figure out a sequence, or even finding a new one the setter didn’t foresee. This showed us what could have been better or different for the next time we set a problem.
At the end of the day, winners were declared in different categories. This was a difficult process for me. Growing up playing multiple sports and being overly competitive about most things, routesetting was an escape for a lot of that. So here I was, back in competition; though this time the experience felt a little different, and wishing I could have come away a victor was on my mind initially. Still, I went through my climbs, talked with judges, other setters and some of the community and still feel extremely proud of the climbs I created.
The Setter Showdown was a great reminder that we can always improve and should never stop learning. When all was said and done, 60 new boulders were ready to climb, providing a new challenge for the climbing community. It’s why we routeset in the first place.
Take a look at the video documentation of the entire event:
Ryan Smith is a full time setter at First Ascent.