Days of the “Big Boss Brain” – CBJ Podcast with Kasia Pietras

0
412
CBJ Impact Driver Podcast Episode 8 with Kasia Pietras
Graphic done by Climbing Business Journal; all photos courtesy of Kasia Pietras

On this episode of The Impact Driver Podcast, Holly Chen—routesetter, journalist, and contributing writer at CBJ—hosts Kasia Pietras, a legendary, OG routesetter. Kasia has been climbing since 1996 and setting since 2003. She has set for almost 100 competitions—91 to be exact—at the time of recording. Kasia is a USAC Level 4 routesetter, SPI and CWI certified, teaches USAC Setting Clinics on occasion, and is currently working at Kilter Grips in Frederick, Colorado. She’s also among the first cohorts of setters who saw a routesetting transition from unpaid volunteer work to a fully-fledged profession. Holly and Kasia’s conversation begins with a walk down memory lane, then covers conflicts that can arise between routesetting teams and gym management, insider knowledge, setter burnout, and more.

Thank you Trango and Rock Gym Pro for your support!
And thank you Devin Dabney for your music!


Timestamps

00:00 – Intro
03:52 – Pietras’ background
05:34 – Changes in routesetting
11:09 – Setting as a career in the past
13:45 – Making setting a sustainable career
16:10 – From volunteering to a career
18:53 – Comp setting in 2010
22:13 – Balancing setting and personal climbing
24:00 – Red flags around a setting career
30:28 – Possible solutions to those red flags
32:00 – Comp setting vs. commercial setting
36:01 – Watching members climb
38:48 – Industry growth and bottlenecks
44:04 – Advice for new routesetters
47:47 – Closing

Rockwerx

Transcript

PIETRAS: So I originally started setting at a small gym called Hidden Peak in Chicago, and I started setting when I was like 16 years old. So that was like 2005-ish. Setting has changed a lot. I was using just hand wrenches when I started, using tape on everything. The gym that I was setting at, we also just had a bunch of just little jibs on the wall that you could just use as feet. So, on the starting tape, we would write J and T. So, jibs and tracking, or just tracking, depending on the boulders. Now, when you walk into a gym, it’s very colorful, and the boulders are a lot easier to be identified because of the colors. I think that, personally, I think it kind of takes away from the experience of climbing because you just have to follow the color. Before, when you had to find the tape and find the holds, I personally felt like there was more, I guess—

CHEN: Route reading aspect to it?

Yeah, like route reading, and then also just finding the holds and knowing where they are. Like, when you’re on the climb, finding the footholds that you need, and just having to remember those things. While now when you’re on the wall, you don’t have to really think about it because you just look down and you just make sure you’re putting your foot on the same color.

What are some of the other equipment that you used back then that are kind of either out of common practice now or have gone out of style?

I mean, really, it was just the hand wrench. I feel like just in the last, like ten years, five to ten years of setting. But, yeah, I mean, back then there was no, I mean, you would use a drill to screw on the jibs, but you would just use a regular drill and just regular screws. But there wasn’t really the concept of—set screwing wasn’t really a thing because the holds just weren’t big enough to need a set screw. Now there’s just holes that if you don’t set screw, it’s gonna spin no matter what. Holds were also a lot heavier and sometimes more fragile if they were to fall and hit, like, the concrete or something, they would easily break just because the material that holds were made with is not the same as it is now.

What were some of the biggest holds that you had when you first started? Like, football size, backpack size? Because now we have holds that are, yeah, basically volumes.

I mean, I want to say that the biggest holds that I remember was some of the Pusher, old school holds. So, like, the big Boss brain hold. And then Etch also had a, like, weird worm type of hold. I don’t really know how to explain it that well, but it was just a big jug. But it was probably like, I don’t know—

That looks like a 40-liter backpack kind of size, maybe.

Probably, but, yeah, I don’t remember them, a lot of holds being a lot bigger. I know that before set screwing, some gyms would use other holds to block the hold from spinning. So once holds did get a little bit bigger, they would put other holds in a t-nut that was somewhere close, so that way if it just couldn’t spin because it was being blocked by the other hold. I also remember there was a couple holds that would have one regular bolt hole, like we have on holds now, and then there’d be another, like maybe three- or four-inch long, kind of longer, I guess, hole that you could then find another t-nut to bolt in to kind of set screw it, per se. But it was, I don’t know if I explain that well or not.

I think I know what you’re saying. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen either crack climbing volumes, they were not quite made of wood, but that had that feature. The gym that I started working at had a hold with multiple points where you could put the bolt in, and they would just put two bolts at either end.

I was recently actually scanning a bunch of old photos, and there’s some pictures of me climbing, and the walls just look so bare. Like, there’s like nothing on them. And the holds back then were meant more to mimic and look like real rocks, so they were gray and brown and swirly colors and not like the bright, like, yellow, orange, you know, pink holds that we have now. So, like, looking at climbs, you could barely even see the holds that you’re, that were on the wall. So, it’s definitely changed a lot. Like, aesthetically, for sure. Yeah, I mean, I think it’s partly for the better, but also definitely kind of miss certain aspects of what climbing used to be.

A younger Kasia climbing in the gym
Setting for over 20 years and climbing even longer, Kasia has seen first-hand changes in hold sizes, setting styles and other industry norms over the years. “[I] kind of miss certain aspects of what climbing used to be,” she reflects.

I can empathize with that. When I started climbing, I started in an old-school gym with concrete walls, and that old-school feel made me feel like I was really doing something niche and unique. But yeah, I get it. The new amenities and shiny gyms now is a welcoming environment for sure for a lot of people.

I’m also wondering if I can ask you about some of the difference in safety regulations back then. I know nowadays, especially with big gym chains, folks are really trying to standardize or find a standard for safety for routesetters. I don’t know a single routesetter now that doesn’t wear safety goggles or ear protection, and things like that. What was it like when you first started? I imagine with ear protection that wasn’t quite a thing because T wrenches didn’t make that much noise. I guess squeaky noises.

Safety precautions at the time that I was aware of—the, yeah, like you said, no ear protection, no glasses, none of that. Once I think drills started to be a thing, that’s when people at least started thinking about wearing safety glasses. And I don’t really feel like ear protection really started being a thing, but also kind of recently becoming, I guess, relevant and prevalent in the routesetting industry. Because I worked at a small gym, and the setters were the manager/head coach, and he’s the one that mostly set everything. Actually, I think you guys just did a podcast with him too. It was Dave Hudson.

Oh, yeah. That was a great episode. So you worked with Dave before?

Yeah, so he was my coach and kind of like my mentor, and he’s the one that taught me how to originally, I guess, set and whatnot.

Oh, that’s cool. So, what was the setting career, job kind of structure back then? I know that most setters now either have other side hustles like myself where I kind of combine journalism and routesetting, or they combine some other gym duties to make a full-time job. Like, you know, management or desk or coaching. Coaching and setting generally mix pretty well, yeah. So, was there a kind of a standard back then, or is it kind of just across-the-board different for everyone?

I mean, I definitely want to say it was different for everybody, but I want to say that also routesetting was a volunteer job/position at a lot of gyms.

A trade for membership kind of situation?

Trade for membership, come in and just help out, put some holds on the wall. I don’t want to say or assume anything, but, I mean, I don’t know if we could ever find out who the first, like, paid routesetter was. But I do know having traveled to a lot of different gyms and just talking to a lot of different routesetters and climbers, like, most gyms were based, had, like, routesetting teams. But kind of like we just mentioned, they were volunteers and exchanged for membership and things like that. It was more of a, I was on the climbing team, and I enjoyed that aspect of it, so I helped out when I could. I do know that setting wasn’t very prevalent before I showed up.

I remember I was there for, I think for like, the Triple Crown or something, and it got rained out, so a bunch of us went to the climbing gym to climb. And then I was there again, like, four months later, and it was still the same routes up on the walls. So, yeah, I don’t think routesetting was really seen or thought of as a career for a while, and I think even now. But, like you said, there’s also a lot of routesetters that have to have some sort of side hustle either at the same gym that they’re setting at or just something completely different. That’s kind of why the concept of, kind of longevity and kind of sustainability of a routesetter for a lifelong career is an interesting concept, and I think something that a lot of people want to make feasible. But I think there’s lots of barriers that we have to conquer and go through before we, before that’s a reality.

Elevate Climbing Walls

Oh, absolutely. For me and what I see around me, I think one of the biggest concerns with sustainability and longevity of routesetting as a career is the dangers of mixing passion and career, right. We set because we love to climb, but setting is a job that takes a huge toll on our bodies. And like, for example, my boyfriend recently left the routesetting industry, and in his words, he says he has taken climbing back for himself. And I know a lot of people who have great ways of trying to balance setting in a heavy workload with their personal training and their climbing. So, and, you know, with your years and years of experience in the setting industry, what are your thoughts on that? And what are some of the techniques that you’ve employed over the years to balance setting and climbing?

I mean, I think I was very lucky because my routesetting I kind of, like I said, when I was younger, I would just set, and it was only really, like, maybe once a week, if that, because it was also, I would only be able to set once I got off of school. So I would only be able to, like, help my coach a little bit here and there. And then I kind of started exploring the whole competition setting,—which that was, wasn’t really that much of a workload because even though it was like a week of setting and forerunning consistently, all I was doing before that was just setting once a week. So, it wasn’t really that big of a strain on my body. But that being said, my other job was managing the climbing gym. So for me, I don’t feel like routesetting really affected my training/climbing goals because it was just once a week. But I would love to hear from any setters not injured right now.

I think it might be difficult to find one [laughs].

Right. I think all of my friends that are still, like, improving in their personal climbing are covering up an injury that they probably have. Either some finger injuries or a strain in their shoulder or their leg or whatever. And they’re just dealing with it because they love climbing and they want to keep climbing, and that’s what it is.

I can’t imagine setting five days a week and then going to go climb on the weekends. I think that would wreck any sane human being.

So, when you said that you set one day a week and managed a gym, do you remember when you transitioned from essentially doing setting as a volunteer gig to kind of starting to build a career in setting? And what was that like in the beginning?

Aside from being a setter, I competed a lot. So I started competing when I was a kid, and I always remember seeing the setters that set nationals just being exhausted and tired, just like sleeping on the ground at nationals because they have just worked their asses off. But I then slowly started to kind of transition into this concept of routesetting, and that’s when I started to pursue my USAC certifications. So, then I went and did my setting clinic—which, ironically, my instructor for my setting clinic was Molly, who was one of the setters that used to set nationals for me as a kid. So, it was a nice, like, kind of reunion in a way of, like, being taught by the people that used to set comps for me.

My boyfriend at the time decided to actually move out to Colorado for, like, six months or so, and that’s when I kind of dove into setting a lot more—because I was setting at The Spot and at ABC, and started setting more competitions, and I then pursued my Level 2 and then continued to getting my Level 3 by setting Nationals. So I really, like, I want to say over the course of, like, 2013 until, like, 2018, I set maybe, like, 30, 40 comps. And so that was kind of my passion, was more just the comp climbing, not necessarily the commercial side of things. And I want to say I wasn’t really that involved in commercial setting until I moved to Boston in 2018 and started working at MetroRock. And then I was hired on as the Director of Routesetting. And then I just learned so many things over the course of the five years that I was there, regarding commercial routesetting. And it was a nice kind of change of pace, and also just seeing how things have changed, and it made me want to be more involved.

Kasia setting earlier in her career
About the sustainability of a lifelong career in routesetting, although advancements have been made in the setting trade over the years, Kasia says there’s still “lots of barriers that we have to conquer and go through before that’s a reality.”

Quick question about the comps that you set back then. First off, 30 and 40 comps in that short time frame is really impressive. With comps back in the early 2010s, were setters paid or also volunteer work?

Personally want to say that it was a mix of both. Some were definitely paid. A lot of the, at least comps that I tried to set, I tried to get paid because it was really my only source of income for a while. But there was definitely times where I went out and just set the event, but whoever I was setting it for paid for, like, my flight, maybe, or my housing there, or like, I had free housing because I stayed with them, or whatnot. But it was definitely hard at times to get the money that you feel like you deserved for the work that you did.

And if you find yourself, you know, listeners out there, if you find yourself in a volunteer opportunity, you should definitely be asking, “Hey, this is a job. Why am I not getting paid?”

Yeah, exactly.

Yeah. So, I kind of, I think I kind of cut you off back there. You mentioned after, you know, traveling for comps and setting for comps, you transitioned into a commercial facility in Boston?

Yeah, I took a job as the Director of Routesetting for MetroRock. They’re based out of Boston and they have five locations. So, you know, I think, I want to say a lot of things have changed really quickly, just even in the last couple years. Using, you know, rigs instead of GRIGRIs when ascending ropes and setting off of ropes. Wearing helmets. Kind of like we said before already, like eye protection and ear protection and just actually caring about our safety.

Yeah, I’m really glad that the setting industry is definitely transitioning into that path. I think I caught maybe the tail end of the non-monochrome era in my setting career. The first gym that I started, we still used tape. And I remember after we stopped using tape, there was an angry riot from the members [laughs]. But eventually they did get used to it. And the argument was that, “Hey, this is a waste of tape. You gotta throw away a bunch of tape every day.”

Yeah, exactly. And I think, you know, I think that argument is a fair argument, but I think there’s still, I mean, climbing holds cost a lot of money, so creating a budget to be able to actually do that can be hard. And it definitely took gyms a good while to get there. So, I think it took a lot of money to get to where we are now, when it comes to monochromatic setting. And not everybody, not every gym has that luxury. So, there’s still definitely gyms out there that use tape because they have to.

Yeah. I just want to shout out, you know, the old school, mom and pop gyms out there that are still using tape. We still love you. We still want to climb at those gyms, so just keep doing what you’re doing.

Yeah, exactly.

Absolutely. Yeah. So, I want to go back earlier when we were talking about balancing routesetting and personal climbing. So, after you transitioned into a commercial facility, did that kind of balance change at all for you? Did you start setting more days a week at that point?

When I was still in Chattanooga, I actually eventually ended up buying that gym and becoming an owner of it. I spent a lot of time at the gym, and that in itself, I think, is what kind of started my burning out. Because I was just in the gym so much, and the last thing I wanted to do when I was done working was stay even longer at the gym and climb or work out. And I personally think that maybe a suggestion for at least, like, newer setters that haven’t really gotten to the point where they can burn out yet—because you’re just so psyched and you just want to be there all the time and you just want to be climbing all the time—I would give yourself some breaks and try to, like, start building those breaks in when you start, and not just go 110% and just be at the gym 24/7 because you’re so psyched to be there. And just give yourself that time to enjoy the other things that life has. Because there is more to life than just climbing.

Trango Holds Pardners

That is some stellar advice. What is that saying, how does it go? “If you don’t take a break, at some point, your body will decide when to take a break for you.”

So I think just, you know, taking it easy and giving yourself the time to rest and recover is essential.

Gotcha. So, you talked about burnout, and I do want to address that because that’s probably, you know, the heart of the topic that we’re talking about here, right. Sustainability and longevity of this career. And the industry is still young, so there’s still a lot to change. I chatted with two other experienced setters, Foxman McCarthy-James and Justin Wright, and the three of us talked about our concerns over the exodus of experienced routesetters, like yourself, leaving the industry for other professions. And my goal was talking about these topics and raising awareness on burnout. Especially, like you said, when you’re young and new and excited, you’re not thinking about it. So, I’m wondering whether you can kind of shed light over what eventually made you decide to stay step away from the routesetting industry. Was it a gradual thing, or did it come on all at once with a particular breaking point? Were there red flags, so to say, along your journey that looking back now, you realize that those were points that you could have changed something about, or things like that?

Because I started climbing when I was eight years old, and I have spent probably, like, two thirds of my life in a climbing gym. A, when I was a kid, I was at the gym at least three times a week, if not more. And then on the weekends I had climbing competitions. And then once I went to college, I was in the gym every day because I worked there. And then, you know, and I think that a lot of that led to, for me personally, burning out a little bit.

I think there just needs to be more discussion between routesetters and ownership, and expectations that both sides see from one another, and making those expectations realistic for both sides, and vice versa. Because I think a lot of the time there’s management or owners that don’t really understand everything that goes into routesetting and what’s needed out of it. And with the change in how things are done and how fast/slow it takes to teach new routesetters how to routeset and how much time that actually takes.

The concept of forerunning in commercial setting is definitely something that, you know, when you were a volunteer, that’s not something that you necessarily did a lot of the time. You really just came in and just put holds on the wall and called it good. So even though, back in the day you were able to set a route in X amount of time, doesn’t mean it’s going to take the same amount of time now. Because there’s a lot more thought and just execution and just passion put into these rock climbs and these boulders and routes that are being put up by setters.

That is a really fair point. I don’t think I’ve ever really considered that. I mean, in this day and age, forerunning is essential to any commercial gym. And the reason being, if we can make a boulder or a route as accessible to as many of the customers as possible who are climbing that grade range, it just means that the customers keep coming back. And in the long run, if the customers keep coming back, it’s good for the gym’s bottom line, which is good for the owners. So, yeah, that’s a really interesting point, and I think it really deserves a lot of thought.

Say, in an ideal world, all we had to do was put up boulders and routes and then some really strong kid will come in and forerun everything for us. And I’m sure that’s the case in certain comp environments, but in that situation, it really does save a lot of physical energy from the setters. But that is not the case, and forerunning is a huge part of our jobs, and a lot of us really do like that aspect of our jobs, of playing with movement and then experimenting with it. So, yeah, there’s some really interesting food for thought. I think, just looking at the value of forerunning and how much more value it can add to the gym itself, just by taking that extra time and energy to make sure that a route or boulder is accessible and appropriate for the grade and just challenging enough, but just far enough out of reach for members to keep wanting to come back, right.

Exactly. And I think that that’s kind of the conversation to also have when it comes to the longevity and making routesetting a lifelong career. As owners and management, I think it’s hard to sometimes justify certain setting expenses because you can’t necessarily pinpoint the money that a routesetter brings into the gym. For example, like with a coach, you know, you have a coach, you pay them X amount, and they have ten kids that pay X amount for the program, and you can see, like, “Okay, well, this coach has brought in, you know, this much money because there’s this many kids on the team.” But with routesetting, it’s like, yes, the routesetters are the ones putting up the holds on the walls. So, without the routesetters, there would be no product.

At the same time, from a business standpoint, it’s like, well, the climbing holds are an expense, paying the setters is an expense. So, getting all the tools is an expense. So, at what point are the routesetters bringing in money? So, at that point, why not just go back to volunteer setters? Because then you don’t have to at least pay them, you know. But then the product suffers and it’s not as good because the volunteers don’t really care as much as a routesetter would care. But also, how sustainable is routesetting for someone, you know? Can you set four days a week for 10 years, 15 years, 20 years, you know? I feel like eventually, you know, if you start routesetting, the ultimate goal would probably be a director of routesetting somewhere. But there’s only so many gyms that need that. So, and then most people that are in those positions aren’t necessarily planning on leaving anytime soon because it is a nice job. So, like, at what point, where is that balance? And how much can we expect the setters to set and stick around for a long time?

Kasia routesetting on ropes
Kasia encourages newer setters to “give yourself some breaks…and start building those breaks in when you start,” not when an injury forces a pause from work. “Enjoy the other things that life has,” she says, “because there is more to life than just climbing.”

Those are all really important questions, and I think it is the major question that our industry is grappling with. You’re right, there’s limited directors of setting positions, there’s limited program director positions out there, and there is more and more excited kids coming into the industry every day. And I do like that the industry feels young and everyone feels psyched, but there is a part of me that’s thinking exactly what you’re thinking here. It’s just, what is the solution to this? What are some of the steps that we can take now to kind of build routesetting as a lifelong career? Like, for example, when you started setting, did you imagine this career as something you do for your whole life?

I definitely didn’t see routesetting as a lifelong career. Like I said, I kind of started a lot more with competition setting, which was a lot of fun. But ultimately, towards the end of working at MetroRock, I wasn’t only the director of routesetting, but I was also the director of operations and the director of coaching and also managed one of the gyms. So, I did a lot more than just routeset. And I definitely enjoy kind of putting together competitions and events, and I like organizing. But I definitely would say that I prefer setting competitions versus commercial routesetting.

There’s something just so interesting about the atmosphere that competitions create, right. You got all of your best holds out, you got all of your best volumes out, and the walls are bare. It’s kind of undeniable. I can relate to that. I think I love commercial sets. I love setting crimp ladders and straightforward trainers for members to train on and get outside. But at the same time, I think my most creative side comes out in a comp setting environment where I’m less scared to try something wacky or less nervous about putting together a move that I’m not entirely sure if it’ll go. And that’s some of the best parts of the industry is in those environments.

I definitely think that competition setting, in a way, is kind of easier than commercial setting, mostly because for competition setting you know who you’re setting for. So, based on the experience and knowledge that you have from either watching competitions or going to competitions and seeing how these athletes climb and what they can and cannot do while setting for commercial sets, you don’t know who’s gonna walk through the door. You could have, like, Chris Sharma walk through the door, or you could have someone that has never climbed before walk through the door. So, like, just because, you know, when you set like a V2 or V3 and, you know, you’ve thought about, “Okay, can someone that’s like five foot do this? And can someone that’s six foot do this?”

But you have just so many other variables and things that you have to, that you try to force into this, like 15 boulders that you set that day for the general public. And I think that part can get sometimes very tedious. And sometimes I think some setters just overthink it a little bit too much. Because your audience is just such a broad spectrum that just, like, you and your team of, like, anywhere from, you know, three to five setters, that’s a very small demographic of what you’re setting for, you know? So even if you have, like, a super tall setter and a short setter and a female and a male, that’s not necessarily, you’re setting for a lot more.

Elevate Climbing Walls

Yeah, like, it’s hard to have a setting team represent the climbing community. I think it’s maybe the experience of the setters that can inform what they need to set rather than maybe a team actually representing every type of climber in the community.

Yeah, for sure. And I think that’s a big thing when it comes to routesetters is, I think, definitely staying after your setting day and watching your customer base climb the boulders or the routes that you just set and learning from that experience. Because maybe during the setting day, you and your coworker were discussing, like, “Oh, I think this move’s too reachy,” or like, “This is too hard for V4.” Whatever discussion you’re having about a boulder that’s up. Because at the end of the day, maybe for your gym, that climb actually is a lot easier than you thought it was because you suck at pinches and it was a pinch climb, you know? And maybe everybody in the gym is just really good on pinches. So, knowing those things about your community can really help, you know. And then it too, so if a setter stays and watches, should they be paid for that time? Is that part of their job? Is that not part of their job? You know, and it’s a hard, it’s an interesting kind of conversation to then have with management and owners of like, yeah, you should pay the setters, you know, for the two hours that they just sit around and watch the climbers, and then figuring out how to justify that and make that make sense.

That’s actually a question that I’ve grappled with because I’ve been at gyms that have both ways. I’ve been at gyms that expect you to stay behind on your own time, and I’ve been at gyms that don’t care and gyms that will pay you to stay an hour a week or something to watch people climb. And I tried to take it out of the routesetting context and put it into another context I understand, to try to process this question. And one of the easiest ways to get better at writing is actually to read. To read a variety of styles, a variety of literature, to kind of gain a sense of what good writing is and what bad writing is. But that time is never expected to be paid in any job; whether you’re a college student or a content writer or a journalist, you read in your own time. So, when I put it into that context, I don’t think it should be paid. But at the same time, when the setter stays to watch the community climb, they learn. And when they learn, they get better. And when they get better, they better the gym as a whole. So why not pay them? Especially if it’s the novice setters who are still learning the rules of the trade and how to read movement and understand difficulty. Like, if you climb V8, every V0 is going to feel the same for you. But for a V0 climber, there’s going to be a harder V0 and an easier V0.

Like you said, there’s a lot of jobs out there that expect you to do things on your own time, but then there’s other jobs that will pay you for that same stuff. So it’s, you know, for us as routesetters, we should probably try to push for, you know, getting paid for.

It’s a complicated question.

Yeah. Especially with how young our industry is, too, right? Like we, the first gyms opened in like the late eighties, and then I want to say that, like, you know, paid routesetters probably didn’t start appearing until like the mid-nineties. Our industry has grown so fast, and expectations have grown significantly, but a lot of things just haven’t caught up yet. That’s kind of where the issue lands, is that no one’s really figured it out yet. And, you know, I think it’s an interesting battle. And because I have been a gym owner and I’ve, you know, I’ve seen how much money gyms can make. And sometimes, you know, we always hate hearing like, “Well, we got to see if it’s in the budget,” you know. And ultimately, like, yeah, we have to see if it’s in the budget.

Do you feel like the speed of the growth of this industry is going too fast for other sub-parts of the industry to keep up with?

I believe that there is a lack of mentorship in the climbing industry now versus back when I started. And I think it’s just because of how quickly it’s grown. You know, just the amount of climbing gyms that there are now versus back 20 years ago, how many people are doing it. I feel like a lot of us that have been in the climbing industry for a long time, you know, at least 15, 20 years or so, we can probably pinpoint one or two people that taught us about the ethics of going outside and the ethics of just even being in the gym and how to act around different people and how to give or not give beta. Who’s responsible for that? Is it the climbing gyms that are popping up all over the place? Is it people like myself and other people that have been around for a while? Should we be making an effort to reach out and talk to people? Is it, you know, organizations within climbing, like the Access Fund and USA Climbing and CWA and, you know, businesses like that, should they be focusing more on things like that? And there’s a lot of things that aren’t being addressed because of how fast it’s growing.

Those are all excellent points and excellent questions. A lot of the questions that you just brought up, I don’t think we have answers for them right now. And I’m hoping that in the coming years maybe someone who’s listening to this podcast has an answer or a partial answer, and they might feel inspired or take the initiative to go out there and try to implement these answers to the big industry existential questions that we have right now. So, I’m really glad you brought it up.

Ultimately, like if gyms keep opening, I guess the biggest problem that we have now is there’s just a shortage of routesetters. There’s plenty of people that are eager to learn and become routesetters, but there’s really no path to becoming a routesetter outside of kind of…

Getting a job at a gym.

Getting a job at a gym. And I think, personally, I feel like that’s kind of where it needs to start. There has to be some way to be able to get into the industry without having to sacrifice your own time, without being paid to get better. Because right now, because of all the gyms that are opening, a lot of gyms are looking for qualified routesetters, not people that want to learn how to routeset, but there aren’t any qualified routesetters that don’t already have jobs.

Yep, that’s the bottleneck that we’re dealing with, right?

So, teaching new routesetters—which, you know, at the end of the day, that also costs money. So like, you know, if you have a setting crew of four qualified setters, you know, and one of them is your head setter, and then you hire a person that has never set before, so then you’re ultimately taking the head setter out of that equation. So now you’re left with three qualified setters that are now setting five to six boulders. So, it drops by five or six. And then the headsetter, or whoever you have training your setters, maybe together they end up setting two boulders, but then you end up spending a lot of time on those two boulders, and the productivity of your setting crew decreases—which then your management/ownership sees, that there’s less boulders going up or less routes going up. It’s going to take time because there is no, you know, routesetting, like, I don’t know, trade school like there is for, you know, electricians or plumbers or whatever. Like, that doesn’t exist. And will it ever exist? I don’t know, maybe. But will it make sense? ‘Cause at the same time, kind of like how we were saying, if you’re gonna be setting four days a week, how long can you actually set for, you know? Like, there’s electricians that go to a trade school and they know that they’re gonna probably be an electrician until they, like, retire.

Kasia setting a boulder
To progress as a gym setter, Kasia notes the importance of “watching your customer base climb the boulders or the routes that you just set and learning from that experience,” as well as “going to different gyms and…seeing what different gyms are offering and how they’re doing things.”

More thing to think about for the industry, I think those are the biggest questions, again, that we’re dealing with. Okay, let’s put this hypothetical together. Let’s say you had a magic wand that, you know, you could change anything about this industry to make it a lifelong profession for every person that walks in the door. What changes would you make, and would that help you stay in the industry? I know you’re still very involved in climbing, having working for Kilter and teaching clinics and things like that, but would a magic wand that can solve any industry problem.

I mean, more money.

Yeah, it’s like a catch-22 situation. To get more money, we need to open gyms and get more members through the door, but if we get more members through the door, we need more routesetters. And as of right now, it’s a little bit of a vicious cycle, where the demand for experienced routesetters is not being met with the supply that’s out there right now.

I mean, that’s why I’m talking to people like you on this podcast, is just try to get your insight and your experience out there, so that people can think about these big questions, and hopefully someone who is smart and capable can come around and solve them for us so that we can keep setting and climbing.

But honestly, for me, my beacon of hope is that this industry is young, is that we haven’t tried all the solutions, we haven’t done all of the innovations possible. So, if you had a way to talk to all of the new, young, excited routesetters out there, what is the biggest piece of advice that you would give them moving forward?

Um, let’s see. I would say kind of how we talked about, in a little bit, or we touched on it, just staying behind and watching people climb. Even if you’re not a routesetter yet, but you’re interested in routesetting, just watching people climb and starting to understand movement and understand why—like, let’s say you watch someone climb something and they fall. Seeing that they fell, and then maybe you go to the climb and try to climb it and then try to compare, like, why did they fall and why did you not fall? Like, what movement was it that they weren’t able to do that you were able to do, or vice versa? Like, you see someone climb something and then you try it, like, what did you not do that they did. And starting to understand just movement and that, you know, locking off longer can make something easier, and a certain push foot or body position makes a certain move harder or easier.

And, I mean, a lot of that also just comes down to climbing and climbing for a while and understanding climbing. So, I think pursuing routesetting, something that will benefit a newer routesetter is just more climbing. And not only going to the one gym that’s in your area but going to different gyms and experiencing climbing competitions and seeing just what different gyms are offering and how they’re doing things. And, yeah, I think it all just comes down to climbing more, seeing more, and just analyzing what you’re doing and what other people are doing on the same climbs that you’re trying.

Elevate Climbing Walls

That’s really well said. That goes back to “we set because we love to climb.” So, we keep climbing and we’ll keep getting better, right?

Yep. And I think also, you know, at the end of the day, nobody knows, no one has the right answer. So, when it comes to starting to routeset, you don’t know everything. Your head routesetter doesn’t know everything, but they have more experience, that’s why they’re in the position they’re in. So not letting your ego get the best of you when you start setting, and trying to have an open mind and take the feedback and understand the feedback and learn from it for future days.

For routesetters and for life in general [laughs]. Anyways, thank you so much for joining me tonight, Kasia. I really enjoyed this conversation. I think our audience will too.

I hope so [laughs]. I definitely went on a couple tangents.

That’s okay [laughs].

Alright, before we close, I want to share a quick memory. When I was a wee rookie routesetter, I didn’t know many female setters, let alone female headsetters. So, I went to a friend of mine and I asked him, like, “Who should I know. Who’s who?” And Kasia was the first name he told me to look up. I’ve been following Kasia’s work ever since. So, if you are listening to this and you are a wee rookie routesetter and don’t know about Kasia, I’m being that friend for you. Know Kasia, follow her work.

And that’s it, folks. A big thank you to Kasia Pietras for taking the time to share her thoughts and insights. If you’d like to nominate someone as the next guest or have a topic you want to see us tackle, got questions, we’d love for you to reach out. Our hosts and producers can be reached by emailing info@climingbusinessjournal.com.

The Impact Driver podcast is a production of the Climbing Business Journal. I’m your host, Hollie Chen. Today’s episode is sponsored by Trango and Rock Gym Pro. It was edited and produced by myself, Scott Rennak, and a team at CBJ. Our theme music is by Devin Dabney. The transcript and web content are edited by Naomi Stevens. Thank you again for listening to today’s episode with Kasia. If you enjoy what you heard, give us a shout on social media and subscribe to CBJ at climbingbusinessjournal.com.

Approach