Ask a Setter: Why USAC Certifications Matter


It has been a much discussed topic in the routesetting trade stateside, the extent to which the USAC Level Certifications really matter for commercial setting environments. Leaving aside the question of ease of access for this article, there’s good sense in climbing gym setters trying to obtain Level 1-2 and even Level 3 and above certifications. Louie Anderson lays out some of the main benefits below.

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USAC L2 Clinic at Sender One LAX
USA Climbing’s routesetting certification program, which is primarily geared toward competition setting, has value for participating setters that extends well beyond the comp scene. (Pictured: a USAC L2 Routesetting Clinic held at Sender One’s LAX gym this summer; photo by Jason Chang @theshortbeta)

QUESTION: How much do USAC certifications matter for commercial routesetters?

ANDERSON: I’ve been asked variations of this question many times over the years. It seems as though everyone has an opinion, sometimes a strong one, either in support of the USA Climbing (USAC) Level Certifications or against them. To really understand the significance and value of these certifications, we need to first understand them better.

First off, they were never really intended to be the training vehicle for commercial routesetters. As with any professional sports program, it’s important that the professionals governing, organizing and executing affiliated sporting events comply with a set of rules, standards and expectations. Since routesetters shape much of the playing field at climbing events, they are no different. They need to understand the many facets of these events, and they need to be able to perform their roles in a consistent, efficient and expected manner from event to event. The Levels program provides an avenue for setters to learn the basics, progress through different phases of exposure to the criteria required by these events, and then move on to the next phase only when they’ve shown adequate proficiency at a given level.

If this is the nature of the program, how can the USAC Level Certifications have value to setters working in an everyday, non-competition gym environment? I would argue that they have a huge amount of value—to a point.


Fundamental Skills

The first two Levels (L1 and L2) are obtained through successful completion of clinics led by USAC National routesetters and by showing a good understanding of the skills expected of that level during the clinic. Although in general these clinics are geared toward teaching setters the skills needed for Local and QE-level competition events, there is a wealth of basic setting and rope management skills discussed and taught at the clinics. These skills translate directly and well to commercial setting environments.

Aside from shoring up the basics, you will also work as part of a group of up to 20 other setters from around the country at Level One clinics. Witnessing the habits of so many other similarly skilled setters can also go a long way toward fortifying a wide range of setting skills. Level Two clinics provide a 1:6 instructor to setter ratio, giving an even greater personal training experience.

If you are interested in attending one of the Level One or Two clinics, there is an application process. More information on these clinics can be found on the USAC website here.

USAC Routesetting Clinic in 2019 at Shaker Rocks
USAC Level One and Level Two clinics teach “basic setting and rope management skills” that “translate directly and well to commercial setting environments,” says Anderson. (Pictured: a 2019 USAC Routesetting Clinic at Shaker Rocks; photo courtesy of Shaker Rocks)

There are no clinics for Level Three (L3) and above. These certifications are achieved by working at the required number of events as an Intern, Apprentice or Assistant. Level Three and above are further divided into either a Bouldering (B), Lead (L) or both (B/L) certification. These levels of certification do not translate well to commercial environments and really only make sense to pursue if your desired career path includes setting for championship level competitions.

So, why should a commercial setter pursue USAC Level certifications? I would argue that, aside from the above benefits, there are a handful of other benefits as well.

Employment Requirements

Some gyms prefer or require setting position candidates to hold Level certs. Even if the gym you’re hoping to work for does not require them, holding certs can help you to stand out from other applicants. The certs show adherence to and possession of an accepted standard of experience in the setting arena. They are also indicative of a person who is invested in advancing their skills and has a desire to become better overall at their craft—something that every employer likes to see in the members of their team.

Capitan software

In-House Event Chiefing

If your gym is going to act as a host facility for a USAC-sanctioned climbing event, there will be a requirement to have a Chief Routesetter of a certain Level to oversee the setting for that event. Having a setter of that Level on staff will help avoid the cost of paying for the travel and lodging of an outside setter. It might also make your facility more attractive as a potential host facility when the competition schedule is planned by USAC.

Setting for a mock comp at the L2 clinic
The development of event planning skills that comes with higher Level certifications “directly transfers into planning a gym’s routesetting efforts and events,” Anderson says. (Pictured: a setting group at the L2 Clinic at Sender One LAX prepare for a mock youth regionals competition; photo by Jason Chang @theshortbeta)

Management and Organizational Skills

With the Level Two and above certs, a fair amount of emphasis is put on competition and event planning, organization and execution. Development of these skills can benefit routesetters greatly and directly transfers into planning a gym’s routesetting efforts and events. These skills are especially relevant if the setter in question acts as a Head Setter and is interacting directly with facility owners and other management staff.

Financial Benefits

Often, holding certs of a different Level will allow a setter to command a higher pay scale. Another benefit would be if you work for a facility that pays for trade development of its staff. Having your gym pay for you to attend a Level clinic, or to be a part of a setting team at an event in the pursuit of your next Level, is a great way to expand your experience, skills and professional status without having to pay the associated costs out of your own pocket.

Legacy Ascension Holds

Networking and Travel Setting

Whether you are looking to possibly change gyms down the road or not, going through the Level clinics gives you the opportunity to meet new setters from different parts of the country. This networking can lead to personal references attesting to your skill level as well as opportunities for guest or competition setting at your colleagues’ worksites. It also provides those other setters with similar benefits through their association with you.

2023 Setter Showdown event at HiClimb
Besides USAC’s program, there exists a plethora of other routsetting clinics and trade development opportunities around the industry. (Pictured: a 2023 Setter Showdown event at HiClimb; photo courtesy of Setter Showdown)

Other Educational Opportunities

While the USAC program does have benefits for commercial routesetters, there is definitely still the need for a similar program in the U.S. that can focus more specifically on the job duties and demands of commercial routesetting. There have been many groups and individuals over the years who have talked about and tried getting something along these lines going, but there’s not a comparable program in place yet. I would imagine that we will see something put in place in the coming years, given all the advancements being made to further professionalize the trade—the CWA Routesetting Committee, for instance, has been developing various new resources for commercial setters, such as the Intro to Routesetting clinic that debuted around the 2023 CWA Summit and the new Routesetting Guide—but until then I would encourage all interested setters to proactively seek out opportunities to push your personal setting forward.

There are lots of private setting clinics, courses, workshops and other offerings being organized each year by gyms, individuals and groups of setters—such as Louie Anderson Climbing, the Routesetting Institute, Syndicate Routesetting, Thread Climbing, The B.I.G. Initiative and Siege Climbing—as well as other trade development opportunities like the Setter Showdown and the Setter Summit. Not only do these events provide hands-on training, but they also allow you to work with setters from other areas and to regain motivation and passion to do the best that you can in your own setting environment.