Keep Them Sketched Out – CBJ Podcast with Claire Kawainui Miller

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Keep Them Sketched Out - Podcast with Claire Kawainui Miller
Keep Them Sketched Out - CBJ Podcast with Claire Kawainui Miller
Image by Climbing Business Journal

Joining Holly Chen on the Impact Driver pod this week is Claire Kawainui Miller, a crew leader at Touchstone Climbing, USAC Level 2 Routesetter, climbing movement enthusiast, and loving mother of two cats. Claire and Holly’s both fun and serious conversation meanders from gender inequities to ladder fiascos and covers Claire’s most controversial setting opinion, the pervasiveness of imposter syndrome, offering inspiration and energy to coworkers, keeping comp climbers “sketched out,” the value of wide representation and different perspectives in all things, and at least one setting exercise you won’t forget.


Thank you Vertical Solutions and TRUBLUE for your support!
And thank you Devin Dabney for your music!


Timestamps

00:00 – Intro
03:45 – Setting isn’t for everyone
05:53 – Kawainui Miller’s career path
09:04 – Routesetting highs and lows
19:30 – Barriers in routesetting
23:09 – Kawainui Miller’s leadership style
25:43 – Fun routesetting challenges
28:38 – Training a new routesetter
34:28 – Competition vs. commercial routesetting
39:05 – Falling off ladders
40:56 – The trajectory of leadership opportunities in routesetting
46:54 – Women in routesetting
52:51 – Kawainui Miller’s routesetting toolbox
53:33 – Closing

TACO Skin Sander from Chalk Cartel


Transcript

CHEN: So, I’m going to start with a fun question, and I’m wondering whether you can tell me your most controversial opinion about the setting industry?

KAWAINUI MILLER: Oh my gosh, I saw this question in your question list and I was like, “Oh my God.” My most controversial opinion is that everyone wants to be a routesetter, but not everyone should be a routesetter. I think that people are incredibly attracted to the idea of routesetting, because they maybe see routesetters having fun and it looks like a whole bunch of climbing and getting to hang out with your buddies, but there is so much more to it than that. And you know, because you are a routesetter, it’s a lot of hard work and it’s a lot of empathy. And I don’t think that it’s advertised as such. It’s more advertised as like, “Come join the fun of routesetting. You’re creating a product for the people. It’s not hard. It’s easy.” But it is hard, and it’s not easy. Yeah, everybody wants to be a routesetter, but nobody really wants to work that hard. And routesetting is hard work.

I’m actually quite glad you said that because I’ve quietly thought that for many years, actually. Since I became a routesetter, I was lured in by this false notion that it is just “climbing, fun, wee, jump around.” And then two weeks in, I was like, “Oh, I might have to reconsider this.”

Yeah, I had a very similar experience where I think my first week I started, and it was immediately full-time, I was like, “I don’t know if I want to do this anymore.” Because I would come home every day, take a nap, because I was just so exhausted. I wasn’t used to it. But it’s also the kind of work that’s incredibly rewarding. I think of it as Type 2 fun, where you’re suffering, learning the processes. And also when you’re setting in the steep roof, you’re like, “Oh my God, this is so hard.” But you come down and you’re like, “I did that. I did it. And I used my muscles, and I used my systems to my advantage.” It’s so relieving, and I feel so strong afterwards, but it’s not for everybody, I guess [laughs].

I agree. I had to do some reflection, but you’re right, it is extremely rewarding. And in the end, that reward kind of trumped all the kind of pain and discomfort that comes with this job. I really like that opinion. Alright, I’m wondering, Claire, whether you can run me through a brief, like, “five w’s of basics”—who, what, when, where, why of your career path leading up to your current position as a crew leader at Touchstone.

Yeah. So, I started setting, and when I started setting, I didn’t know anything. And at that time, there wasn’t really an apprentice program. There is one now, which is super exciting. But when I first started setting, I was kind of just handed a drill, and I followed someone around for a day, or it was kind of like follow a different person around every day. And then when I first started setting, I was at an isolated gym, so it was just me and one other guy. So, it was kind of a crash course in, like, I was getting to know this other guy and also learning how to routeset, and it was just the two of us.

So that was both stressful and kind of an interesting experience where I didn’t get a lot of feedback because I was only working with one other person, and it was a very interesting learning experience, in my opinion. So, wait, does that answer the question? Hold on. Let me think. Okay, so that’s when I started setting. That was in 2018. I took a break. I moved to San Diego. I set there for a while, and I came back to the Bay Area during COVID and was like, I tried to work a desk job for a second. I only lasted three months. I couldn’t handle it. I hated just sitting down all day. And I emailed my old boss and was like, “Can I routeset again?” And he said, “Okay.” And then so, I came back to Touchstone around early 2021.

I can’t tell you what exactly the process was to how I got to here. I just loved working, and I also always tried to make my crew leader’s life easier. So, before I was a crew leader, I would see all the work that, you know, the work that we had to do for the day, and also how hard my crew leaders worked. And it just made me want to make their life easier. So, I would do anything in my power to help them out. And I think that that was seen and recognized. And so, because I was doing so much, trying to take so much off their plate, it was like I was already becoming that position in a way. And then they needed to hire someone, and when it came around to it, I applied and I interviewed, and then I got it. So that’s how I came into this position. And I’ve been a crew leader here now for, I started in September of 2023, so it’s been a little more than a year. I feel like I’m still learning every day. I still feel very young and green in it. So, I am constantly badgering the crew leader who trained me and also my boss. I’m like, “Am I doing okay?” Or just being like, “Is this okay?” And I know that my biggest weakness is working on my own confidence and trusting my judgment. So, it’s a process.

Rockwerx

Honestly, I think that maybe you weren’t intending to give advice in your spiel just now, but there is a lot of solid advice over there. It’s just people who are currently maybe not in a leadership position, and they want to be. I think what you did was very helpful, just showing people in the current leadership position that, “Hey, this is something that I want to do. I’m here and ready to help. I’m not sitting on my phone on the side when there is free time. I’m trying to find work to be done or making sure that the day is flowing smoothly.” So, I like that approach, and I try to embody that every day to the best of my ability. And I’d recommend everyone who wants to step into a leadership position do the same.

Yeah.

I’m also wondering if you can tell us a little bit about the high points and the low points and how you got through them?

A recent high point was getting to work at Battle of the Bay. I was part of the finals squad, which was chiefed by Sean Nanos, who’s the SoCal headsetter for Touchstone. And what was so exciting about it was that the final squad was all the crew leaders and our headsetter. I don’t get to work with them very often because we’re all managing separate crews. Now that I am a crew leader, I don’t get to work with them anymore, and I feel like I don’t get to learn from them as much as I used to. So, getting to work with them for a whole week was so fun and so exciting, and I feel like I learned so much, and it was also so collaborative, and I’m like, “Oh my gosh. This is what makes routesetting fun,” is that you get to collaborate, you help each other. When I’m going down a spiral, I’m like, turn to my coworker/friend, Chaz, I’m like, “Help me.” Or turn to my other coworker, Jono. And I’m like, “Help me, please.” And then I get to help them back. So, it was one of those moments where it does make me feel, or it made me feel, useful. And also, I do deserve to be there because it was so collaborative and just fun. We just had so much fun. So that’s a high point.

I feel like low points are more often than high points because part of the job is being a manager and managing my own emotions and my own self-doubt while trying to make the day go by smoothly and make sure I’m putting on a happy energy. I can’t control how other people react or how their day is going to go, but I can control the vibe that I put out. So sometimes I find it incredibly difficult to be, like, a happy source of energy. And I think that on the surface, people do see me as very bubbly and open. But really, I mean, I am that because we are who we pretend to be. But that is what is low points for me sometimes, is when I’m struggling with maintaining that happy demeanor. But I think that just sometimes comes with management jobs in general is that you have to manage how you talk to people. You have to talk to everybody a little bit differently. And that’s something I sometimes struggle with, is managing my own emotions when it comes to that.

Two parts to my response here. The first one I want to go back to when we were talking about a controversial opinion. Well, routesetting is still fun.

[laughs] Yeah.

To anyone who might be a new setter and who’s doubting it, or if you’re wondering, like, “Oh my God, am I cut out for this job?” There’s still a huge component of fun in this career. My boss recently said to me, “Routesetting is the best shitty job there is.” [laughs] I’m quite in agreement with that statement. There is so much good things about this career that’s keeping us in it, despite the fact that it can be hard.

The second part of my response is that that’s the mark of a good manager, is to be able to put your own emotions aside for a second. That’s not to say that you should always pretend that everything is perfect and fine. If you’re having a bad day, you can let people know, right? But at the same time, the job of a leader is to manage, and you can’t let your own emotions come into it that much. So, I applaud you for that. I feel like not every leader grasps that concept.

I was talking to someone, like another routesetter, who I also consider sort of a mentor about that. For context, we were talking about why some people don’t work hard. But he said, “It’s not my job to make people work hard. It’s my job to inspire and provide the energy.” And I thought that was interesting because I was like, “Yeah, I don’t have to,” like, you’re not being like, “Get to work!” You’re instead being like, “We’re going to have fun, but we also, like, we have to get things done.” So, I liked that perspective and that approach because I think I was stressing out about either time management or that we were running behind. And I was like, “How do I get these people to work faster?” And he was like, “You can’t do that. All you can do is offer inspiration and energy.” And I was like, “Thank you. I appreciate that.”

Claire
Rather than try “to make people work hard,” as a crew leader Claire appreciates the advice of one of her coworkers and tries to instead “offer inspiration and energy.” (Photo by Ryan Moon @oldmanmoon)

I agree with everything that your coworker said. Good advice right there. So, I want to kind of look back at your career up to this point, and I’m wondering whether you can talk about some of the barriers that you had to overcome to get started and to thrive in this industry. Because I think what we experience in early parts of our career is something that other people might be experiencing today. So that might offer insight on how to overcome them or let people know that they’re not alone in that.

Yeah. I think a huge barrier that I struggle with still is confidence in my abilities and also my perspective. Historically, setting teams have been incredibly masculine and very strong, like lots of really strong climbers. And not to say that I’m not a strong climber, I don’t climb V10, but I do have my strengths that are valuable, and I have to remind myself of that. So, I think self-confidence is a huge barrier, especially when you don’t see very many women in the industry or many female routesetters when you’re first beginning. Or the female setters that I have had train under me, to remind them that just because they can’t climb V10 doesn’t mean they’re not valuable.

And impostor syndrome is something that I feel like many female routesetters talk about, and that is still something that is, like, haunting. And I think that goes into it, is like confidence and imposter syndrome. Where there’s kind of a balance is you don’t want to fight impostor syndrome with overconfidence or the “fake it ‘til you make it.” Because sometimes faking it in this context with routesetting is not going to work. Because if you can’t set a good boulder, if you can’t set a good route, you also can’t take criticism, I think that is maybe what faking it is like, “Oh yeah, I can set a good boulder,” but then you don’t. Then you’re going to get called out on that kind of immediately and it’s like sink or swim. If you don’t take constructive criticism well, you’re sinking. But if you do and you work with your team to make it a banger, even though it was not a good climb at first, then you’re swimming.

What I do to fight that is I ask a lot of questions and in my head I’m like, “I hope I’m not being annoying,” but I would rather be annoying than make a mistake. Or I’d rather be annoying than set a bad climb. I tried to ask as many questions as possible and get feedback when it’s possible. But I know that’s hard. And when you are lacking confidence in your abilities, you might be incredibly hesitant towards that. But I think that’s another exciting thing about routesetting, is that it’s so collaborative that you really can’t be an island in it. You have to make connections and you have to work with your team in that way. Yeah.

Abso-freakin-lutely. I used to set at a gym that eventually got rid of setter tags on the routes that we put up because the whole point is members might ask you, like, “Oh, that climb was really good. Who set that?” And the reality is, yes, one of the people on the team put up the skeleton, but the final product that the members are seeing, whether that be in a commercial setting or a comp setting, is a collaborative process. It is everyone climbing the boulder or the route and then making sure that it’s appropriate for the grade, the movements are fun, there’s no awkward sticky points. So, yeah, and going back to people thinking that routesetting is all fun and games and no work. This is another misconception, right, of routesetting is that each route is an individual product. But no, it is such a collaboration.

And that’s what makes this job so fun, is that you not only get to interact with the movement, but you get to discuss it with your coworkers and then watch members interact with it and see maybe someone broke your beta and you’re not mad at all because you’re like, “Wow, that was really creative. That was cool.”

Yeah, I think that’s the funniest part, is when you are being collaborative, you’re like, “Help me make this work” with one of your coworkers. And you’re like, “We did it. We figured it out.” And then you watch a member climb it and they don’t do it the way that you intended, but you and your coworker were so sucked in. You’re like, “This is it. We got it forced.” And then it’s not at all. And you’re like, “Wow, that is alright. Just another day where we failed.” But no, it’s not a failure. You’re just like, it’s just funny when that happens.

Capitan software

No, I agree. I think people think that when a movement is broken, it’s a failed boulder. And maybe in some contexts that can be true, but in the majority contexts, it is not. Like it is a learning experience for you and it’s a learning experience for the member, because maybe they see the intention, maybe they know exactly what you want, and they saw the easier way around it. And that’s the core of climbing, right? It is problem solving. It is figuring out what is the best way to do a problem that plays to your strength. If you can put your heel above your head, you can put your heel above your head. That’s my opinion with it.

The next question that I was going to ask you, you actually kind of answered for me, is I was wondering if you thought those barriers that you encountered when you first started in the industry is still there. And I definitely know that impostor syndrome is a very, very big factor of women, nonbinary and other underrepresented demographics in the setting industry. And this is, yes, it may be more heavily felt in these underrepresented demographics, but I also know that they are being felt by cis white men as well. It is almost a human thing to feel. But I am wondering what were some techniques or maybe self-talk or some ways that you have found to be helpful in terms of not ignoring the impostor syndrome or the fear, but to embrace it and to learn from it?

That’s a really good question, and I’m not sure if I have an answer, like a direct answer. I don’t know if I have a solution to that problem specifically that I deal with. One thing that I think helps me is being open about how I’m feeling to my coworkers and peers. Because I think when I’m open, it inspires others to be open, and then we can share our discomforts or our insecurities. And it helps to hear that other people are struggling or have similar thoughts. Especially, like you said, when cis white men also feel this way. I have a coworker who I revere and I think is a wizard in the routesetting world, untouchable, just an amazing human. When they say they also feel that way, I’m like, “What? You?!” So, it puts into perspective that you can idolize someone, or you can think that someone is, like, the best thing to walk the earth, and they struggle too. And maybe isolating yourself and self-reflecting is important, but maybe it’s not the answer. I enjoy talking about my feelings with people I trust and care for and who I hope trust and care for me, as well, because it feels good to talk about those things, and there’s comfort in bonding that way. It’s like, “Oh, I didn’t know that you felt this way. I feel this way, too. And if I think that you are amazing and you feel this way, do you think I’m amazing also?” So it’s like, it’s a two way street. It’s like, “How can you, this amazing person, feel this way?” So that’s my advice, is to be open and talking about it.

Claire and Jackie at the Woman Up Climbing Festival 2024
One thing that I think helps me is being open about how I’m feeling to my coworkers and peers. Because I think when I’m open, it inspires others to be open, and then we can share our discomforts or our insecurities. And it helps to hear that other people are struggling or have similar thoughts,” says Claire (pictured beside Jackie Hueftle at the Woman Up Climbing Festival this year). (Photo by Ryan Moon @oldmanmoon)

You bring up a really good point about people who you won’t ever imagine feeling impostor syndrome feeling impostor syndrome. I had a similar encounter recently, too. I was just venting to my boss, I was like, “Oh my God, I really wished I climbed harder. I was having an off day and everything just felt hard.” And then he was like, “I feel that, too.” And I’m like, “But you climb double digits comfortably.” He was like, “Yeah, I still want to be stronger.” I’m like, “Okay, that’s fair. I should have just thought of that.” Everyone wants to be stronger in this field. The whole point of climbing is to challenge yourself. And once you hit a grade, the next grade is your goal, and then the next, and the next—it’s never going to end, right? So, yeah, you bring up a good point. People who you don’t think can feel imposter syndrome might feel it, too.

So now that you are a crew leader at Touchstone, I was wondering whether you could describe and tell the audience about what kind of leader that you are, what kind of leader you aspire to be, and give us a little bit of the stories that kind of color your setting days?

Yeah.  I think something that I always try to be is fun, and I know that seems silly when I was just talking about how routesetting isn’t always fun, but I just remember days where they were so hard, and I was like, “Yeah, I guess climbing is fun, but I want the process to be fun as well.” And when I was in my formative years of routesetting, like trying to be a good routesetter, I would beg people for challenges. I’d be like, “Give me a setting challenge, please.” Either the people I was working with or my crew leaders would be like, “Please. I don’t want to just set another V4. I want a challenge.” I was like, “Make this hard.” Not that setting is easy, but I was like, “I want different.” I try to do that. I love giving challenges, if the crew is into it or if they’re down for it—they’re not always down. But if I feel like I have a crew where I can do that with, and I’m like, “Hey, do you guys want to do something fun today?” And then they’re like, “Well, it depends, what is it?”  But I love to either be like, “Okay, you’re going to pick out holds, we’re all going to pick out holds. And then we’re going to swap,” because I just think that it’s challenging. When you’re picking out holds, you’re like, “This is what I want with this hold.” And I’m like, “Okay, well, now you have to give that creative hold to that person, and then you take theirs, and now you have to set a route with their holds.” I try to shake things up from the monotony of every day. Because I work five days a week. Some of our other crew members do. And it does get monotonous doing the same things over and over. So if not by doing challenges, then just like trying to just keep things, like, light and not so serious. I mean, we can be serious when we need to be serious, but it’s not always, it doesn’t have to be like that all the time.

The hold swap challenge is actually one of my favorites. Because it really takes setting to a different level because it’s almost like resource management, or you have to be a little bit more creative. It’s almost like you don’t get what you want, now set a five-star boulder.

Yeah, exactly.

Trango Holds Pardners

I’m wondering if you can spew out some other examples of these challenges that you’ve given other setters on your crew. Because if a listener is wondering what kind of challenge they can do and their headsetter or crew leader is not giving them a challenge, they can take it from here and then try it tomorrow on a setting day.

Yeah. A funny one that comes to mind is one of my coworkers, Chaz and I, we came up with route names and then set a climb inspired by the route name, so they were just, we had our crew of the day just put just funny route names. Like, one was, oh my God, oh, “the Jeff Goldblum experience.” So I had to set a climb inspired by the name, “the Jeff Goldblum experience.” But there were other funny ones that our other members put in. But I like that one, trying to set a climb inspired by a name even though you’re like, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.” That’s one.

The setting two routes at once is fun but very challenging, and you have to manage bucket space, and it’s easier if it’s on a vert wall. I don’t necessarily recommend that as someone’s first attempt at doing a setting challenge. Gosh, there’s so many.

I like the route name one because it’s abstract, right? You can play with it as much or as little as you want. I’m going to throw out one mainly because I have a mug in front of me that’s filled with Kurt Vonnegut quotes. So, if you’re listening and you want to try “the Jeff Goldblum experience,” or the other option you can try is “time is liquid.” Try to set a climb that embodies “time is liquid.”

I like that. Yeah. Another one I like is setting for someone else on the crew. So, I like to partner people up with people that are, just, either look different or their styles are different. So it’s like, “Oh, you have to set a climb for this person, and then you have to set a climb for this person, and you have to make them like it.” And instead of being, like, asking that person, “What do you like?” you’re not allowed to talk. You have to just be like, “Okay, I know what this person likes to set, so I’m going to try to.” You’re, like, setting for them but not trying to set in their style, if that makes sense. I like that one too.

It does. We have a similar one where on a setter’s birthday, we each have to set a climb in that setter’s style.

I like that.

I love it too. I know a setter, who has fingers of steel and every single one of the crimps that she puts up are untouchable by anyone else.

[laughs]

So that set was maybe a little bit too crimp heavy on her birthday, and the members are like, “What happened?” Like, “I’m sorry, it’s her birthday.”

[laughs]

I do love setting challenges, so I encourage everyone to take one up and try it. Try “the Jeff Goldblum experience.” That’s a good name, too. That’s a good name.

[laughs]

Claire having fun on the wall
“Something that I always try to be is fun,” Claire says, “…if not by doing challenges, then just trying to keep things light and not so serious. We can be serious when we need to be serious, but it doesn’t have to be like that all the time.” (Photo by Chris Llewellyn)

I want to keep talking about your leadership position, because I do think that there’s a lot to learn from this. So let’s get a little bit nuanced on this. How would you go about training a brand-new setter? Let’s get as detailed as you can on this.

Yeah, so I’ve done this quite a few times. And I like, so we, Touchstone, has an apprentice program now. So, if you’re interested in setting with Touchstone, you can apply for the apprentice program. And you work very closely with a mentor, either one or two, you either trade-off or you’re with a mentor for the entirety of your time. I think it’s three months. And then if you graduate from three months, you can go to full-time immediately, or you’re hired immediately, or they put you on for another three months for just extra little bit more handholding. So, we have a list that’s written up, or like a procedure that sounds incredibly technical, but a write-up that we follow that was written by our Director of Routesetting, Justin Alarcon. And it’s like week-by-week of what we should be introducing to the apprentice.

What I appreciate about Justin’s procedure is that it’s slow. Like, we’re trying to emphasize learning and not rushing, learning safety, learning the systems. And not really so much that you need to be able to be setting like this many climbs a day, more so that you have a really good grasp on the systems. We set more ropes than we do boulders, and with rope setting comes more things that can go wrong because it’s so technical and there are so many systems in place, so big emphasis on rope access, rope safety. Like from the beginning, I don’t think they’re not on a rope immediately, it’s like boulders. It’s like getting used to the tools. I remember the first time I held a Makita drill. I had never done that before. I’m not a power tool person. So, the first time I held one, I was like, “Well, how to do it?” And there are so many things that now we think are obvious, that are not obvious then, like, “What set size set screw should I use?” or “Do I have to put the set screw hole in a hole that’s already there? What do you mean I can just put it into the wall? This wall needs a masonry bit, what is that?”

There are so many little things about routesetting that I don’t remember getting taught. And so, I just try to over explain everything. And I’m like, “I’m sure you’re not going to remember all this. But maybe one day you will, because I’m over sharing now just to fill your brain with information. And later, as you get used to this, like ‘you’ being the apprentice, later, as you are getting in the flow, you’re going to start to remember the things.” Be like, “Oh, this is why she said this.” Or like, “Oh, this is what she meant by this.” So, I like the very slow approach. And baby steps into getting—baby steps before we baby run, and then we can actually run.

I like the emphasis on tools. I think the first thing I was taught was the sound of a T-nut cross threading.

Nice [laughs].

They were like, “Do you hear this?”

Yeah.

And how to feather a drill. So, putting the bolt in really slow, I need some wood to knock on because if I don’t, I’m going to get a hold stuck immediately tomorrow. But I credit this initial teaching of tools to not getting hold stuck as often as other people. Okay, I need to find some wood. Alright, cool. Knowing this all tomorrow when I’m stripping the wall, the first hold I’d come across is probably going to be a stuck hold [laughs].

[laughs]

Trango Holds Pardners

But, yeah, that’s awesome. And most people are not super familiar with power tools, so it’s great that you guys start that way. What about big pictures? After the setter learns all of the systems and how to use tools or how to get a stuck hold off the wall, how do you go about teaching the art of routesetting?

I like this question. I think I try to emphasize watching other people climb. Because when you set your boulder, you have such a strong intention of what you want, but not everybody’s going to see that. Like we were talking about earlier, it’s problem solving, and people are going to find the easiest way through the problem. I like to say, “They’re being like water. They’re finding the path of least resistance.” And your intention doesn’t matter because they’re going to find their own way through it. If you do a good job of forcing the sequence, if that’s the path of least resistance, they’re going to go through it. So, I think watching is such a good way of teaching routesetters how to set with more intention, because watching and discussing is where it comes from.

So, after we’re done setting and it’s forerunning time, I think it’s so important for new setters, or just setters in general, to watch people climb their boulders and making sure people watch you on their boulders. Especially if you’re short, you should be like, “Hey, watch me climb your boulder. Watch me see if it’s reachy or not.” I think everybody can learn just by watching people climb their climbs. And in that way, you can also be having an open discussion about why this person did it this way, why they didn’t want to use the hold that you put there and so on and so on. Because when you’re setting, when you are doing big picture thought, you haven’t tested any moves yet, you’d be like, “I’m going to put this here. I don’t know why, but I’m going to put this here.” And it’s like, “Well, you didn’t know why. And it had served no purpose.” So, for new setters where they just get so sucked in on trying to make such an intricate sequence and they don’t necessarily know how to set it yet, stepping outside and watching other people climb is such an amazing tool to have.

Claire climbing in the gym
“I try to emphasize watching other people climb…Watching is such a good way of teaching routesetters how to set with more intention, because watching and discussing is where it comes from,” Claire says about teaching the art of routesetting. (Photo by Ryan Moon @oldmanmoon)

Great advice for setters of all levels. Alright, let’s take it one more step further. So, we talked about the tools, we talked about the art of setting, and especially in how you described it, this sounds like the average commercial set. Comp setting, easier or harder? I’ve heard people say both ways. Like, some people say comp setting is easier, and others say it’s harder. It’s just really personal preference. But in comp setting, people tend to start playing with aesthetics more, right? Or they put five volumes on a climb, whereas in a commercial set you’re trying to space those volumes out in the entire gym. So, how do you go about teaching someone who’s never comp set before but is an extremely competent commercial setter? How do you explain the higher concepts of aesthetics and flashiness and getting the audience really engaged with the spectator-type movement?

I think if this was going to be like a master class, step one is to watch some comps. Because if this person has only ever set commercial climbs and their only experience of climbing is climbing indoors and then maybe climbing outside as well, they maybe don’t have any concept of what comp setting is. And I think what comp setting is is testing the climber’s ability to do certain things. But that’s why in a finals round, maybe you have four boulders that are completely different, is because we’re testing the climber’s ability to do different things, like sketchy slab, like powerful overhang, like something dynamic. You want to keep them on their toes, you want to keep them surprised, and you want to keep them guessing. You don’t want them to ever feel confident or ever feel like, “Oh, I got this.”  You want them to be sketched out. That’s why we use a lot of volumes, is because you’re not always sure how you’re going to stand on this. It’s not an obvious place of where you have to stand. That’s why we use, like, big holds is because big hold, even though it’s like one gigantic thing and you’re like “minimalism,” it’s actually a combination of minimalism and maximalism. Because you’re interacting with that hold in so many different ways. And you can force either, if you do a good job, you can force them to use it in a certain way, but you also force them to try to get tired trying to figure out what it is, like how they’re supposed to hold that giant hold.

Where people do focus on aesthetics a lot, like you had mentioned, but sometimes I think some comp boulders are like the ugliest boulders I’ve ever seen.

[laughs]

Because they’re all gray and it’s a random scatter of holds. And sometimes that’s pretty, but I think it’s, like, a toss-up. Sometimes you get ,like, “Wow, that’s beautiful.” Or you get, like, “Oh, okay, that’s a rock climb.” Or you’re like, “That’s plastic pulling.” But I don’t think that anytime I’ve tried to set comps or I’ve tried to teach setting comps, it’s not aesthetic, it’s just the balance of minimalism, maximalism, and making something funky and weird, like not obvious is the big thing. And I think the big difference between commercial setting and comp setting is that commercial setting is obvious and intuitive and flow is huge. And comp setting is like, “You don’t want it to be obvious, you want it to be a mystery, everything should be challenging,” and so on. So, take everything you learned, throw it out the door. Now we’re doing something weird.

I want to piggyback off of one thing you said earlier. It’s that creating the self-doubt part. Because one thing that I’ve noticed is that you’re maybe relatively strong and you’re like, “Yeah, I did this problem in two seconds. This is way too easy for the competitor.” But what some setters are not considering is that they might be performing under a lot of pressure. They might be in front of an audience and they have stage fight. They might only have one attempt on it. Actually, they would only have one attempt on it if it’s a rope climb. So sometimes what might be considered a basic movement would get somebody in a comp. And it’s just about knowing the field, right? And that’s maybe one of the harder aspects of comp setting is gauging how difficult you should make a round, because based on the people that signed up, you’re like, “Well, if Brooke Raboutou signed up for my comp, then, dang, this is going to be some hard stuff.” But on the other end, “We don’t have particularly strong climbers,” or “This is a comp that’s geared towards recreational and citizen comps.” And that’s a whole different realm. And it is hard. You’re right, it is hard to teach comp setting, and it is hard to set for comps in that respect. For sure. It’s just a lot more nuanced than commercial sets.

Trango Holds Pardners

Okay, I do have a heavier question for you next, so I’m going to skip ahead and I’m going to ask you something fun for a second. Okay, we’re going to give both you, me and the audience a break before we dive into a heavier question. Have you ever fallen off a ladder?

No [laughs].

You have not?!

No [laughs]. I’ve never fallen off a ladder. I have had a ladder tried to be pulled from under me twice, though. So, I’ve been on the top of the ladder, and someone didn’t see me and tried to move it twice on two separate occasions, two different people.

Wait, so did you just feel it move and cling on tight or go or something?

Yeah. Well, because I remember being like, “What the heck?” And I was like, “What the-” And then they were like, “Oh my God, I’m so sorry!” But it’s shocking is when you’re like, “I’m fine.” And you’re already, like, at the top of the ladder, and you’re like, “This is sketchy”. And then someone’s shaking it and you’re like, “What the?!” But I didn’t fall off. I was just like, “Hello?!” Yeah, they immediately felt so bad afterwards. But, yeah, I’ve never fallen off a ladder [laughs].

Well, I’m about to embarrass myself then, because I have fallen off a ladder [laughs]. It didn’t hurt physically, but it hurt my ego so much. Just so much.

[laughs]

And it also happened, like, on my first day of work somewhere, I missed the bottom rung and I stumbled onto the ground. and I looked around ,and my new boss is looking at me, and I was like, “Hello! This is not normal, I swear!”

Funny [laughs]

Oh, man. All right. I mean, people are going to go through both spectrums, either fall off a ladder and it hurts physically or you don’t, you’re like Claire, you manage, balance, graceful like a crane.

[laughs]

This is great. All right, serious now. Super serious question.

Okay.

One of the reasons why I wanted to talk to you is because we are currently still at a crossroads in terms of gender equity in this industry. And I talk about this a lot on the podcast, and I don’t want the audience to feel like I’m just only talking about this. But the reason why I keep bringing it up is because I’m going to keep bringing it up until this gender equity and equality issue is solved. It has made a huge leap in the last decade or so. Even in the short time that I’ve been a setter, I have seen leaps in changes that are for the better. I want your opinion on what is the outlook of leadership opportunities for women, minorities, nonbinary, genderqueer folks in the setting industry; what is your opinion on where this trajectory is going?

I’m lucky that I am surrounded by people who are incredibly supportive, so I feel very lucky to be in the position that I’m in. But I do think that as the industry grows with the demographic of people, so should the routesetting demographic and the leadership demographic. As shift changes in who is being represented in this community, so should those in leadership. That’s the way that it should be, is that we should have representation in all things, different perspectives in all things, in both the routesetting world, just being a routesetter in a crew, but also in the leadership positions as well. And I think that there is so much room for growth and room for inclusion and additions of perspective because like I said, as the world of climbing also grows and expands and reaches new, the fingers of the climbing world are just getting into places that they’ve never been before. So many people are showing interest. And that’s amazing and access shouldn’t be as closed off as it has been, maybe because of financial disparities. I think, traditionally climbing gyms specifically are really expensive. So having the ability to, if someone can’t afford it, especially with kids, like kids wanting to do these things, there are systems in place at gyms where they give financial aid to teen kids or to people, like youth programs. But I think more things need—that needs to be extended into the realm of also routesetting and leadership as well.

You’re not only considering the inclusion and equitable access for women and gender minorities or genderqueer people, but you’re also taking into a consideration of other socioeconomic factors that are barring people from entering, whether the climbing industry as a professional or the climbing community as a recreational climber. So that is something that should be talked about more, and you’re right to bring it up. The barriers are not, maybe not as surface as we see it, and it’s so many little factors.

Yeah, I think going back overall, we are on the up and up. It still could be better, but I am happy to see changes in my own world where I’m like, I see people being uplifted in ways that I haven’t had before. Within our apprentice program, just bringing on more people in general, where when I first started setting, it was very closed off and it was more so who you knew, who you were, and now it’s so much more open. It’s easier to get into it, which is, like, opening up access, like we were just talking about. So, there is obviously still room for changes and growth. But I think that becoming more open and inclusive in my setting bubble—not sure what the outside world is looking like, because I am so closed off in my bubble. But that’s why I love events like Woman Up, which is coming up, is that you can share perspective with other setters that you don’t get to interact with. You and I can have more in-depth conversations, or we can talk to another setter who we don’t get to interact with very often. So, I think sharing perspectives is also such an amazing way to—you’re trading knowledge, you’re also trading growth ideas, if that makes sense.

Claire routesetting
“As the industry grows with the demographic of people, so should the routesetting demographic and the leadership demographic,” affirms Claire. “That’s the way that it should be, is that we should have representation in all things, different perspectives in all things, in both the routesetting world, just being a routesetter in a crew, but also in the leadership positions as well.” (Photo by Ryan Moon @oldmanmoon)

Absolutely. Perspective is the key word that you keep coming back to, and I like that because there is a misconception that we’re just trying to get women or genderqueer folks involved. That’s not the label that people want. It’s the perspective that we bring, or even someone who’s in a different socioeconomic situation or a background or any of that. It’s a perspective. It’s not necessarily the label. And when you only bring in that label, that’s tokenism: “We hired this person because she’s a woman, or because they’re short, or because they’re gay.” That’s a token, if you’re only hiring them for that very, very surface identity label. Because we are more than just female setters or a genderqueer setter or LGBTQIA+ setter. There’s so much more to it.

In my last episode, I was talking to a setter named Abby, and she keeps talking about perspective when it comes to setting equitable boulders. So, we’re not talking about an identity perspective here. This is a physiological difference. When you have a short person who’s shorter than average climb your boulder, or you have a tall person, someone who’s 6’2, 6’4, taller than average, climb your boulder, you’re going to get a different perspective. The same logic applies to anyone who’s currently underrepresented in the setting industry.

Although I do want to be realistic on this, and I want your opinion on it as well. The main thing is if we look at the trajectory of a setter, you start off as an apprentice, you become a setter. You might move into a leadership role in that gym, maybe assistant headsetter or headsetter.  And then after that, we have directors of setting and regional directors. Those positions are far and few in between. And most of the people holding the positions that I know of are widely represented. They are not likely to step down from those positions until they retire. So, if I look at it from that standpoint, I can feel like the industry is looking pretty bleak in terms of professional advancement for people who are currently underrepresented.

So, I want to play devil’s advocate for a second. I want you to tell me your opinion on this: Why should women stay in the industry if the odds are potentially against us? Why shouldn’t we quit and do something else?

That is something that I think about a lot. When someone asks me “Why is routesetting, like, a career option that people consider?” I’m like, “Damn, I don’t know.” All I can tell you is why I do it. So, I’m like, “How sustainable is this?” And then I look at my immediate boss and I’m like, “They set less than I do, which makes them sad because they love routesetting, but they are doing more, like ,managerial work, they’re doing more admin.” And then I look at the biggest boss and I’m like, “Yeah, they’re probably going to stay there until retirement.” Which is great because I don’t want them to leave, I love them, but that’s such a good point. It’s like, why should we stay?

I think that all I can speak for is being, like, a female routesetter and noticing the ever-changing demographic as we were just talking about, that there are more and more female, non-binary climbers in the industry, other people my size, other people my strength level. And I think, to me, that is like a huge motivation, is because my services or my setting ability is seen, or like I am reaching a demographic. When I’m setting for myself, I’m setting for—I’m spoiled in that way—is that when I set for myself, I get to set for a huge demographic. And I love that combination of being like, “I get to be selfish, kind of.”

But by being selfish, I’m, like, providing a service where, when I talk to other female climbers or people with my size or strength levels, they’re like, “Oh, I like your stuff because I feel like it fits my box,” or “This one is too powerful.” And when I get frustrated with really powerful climbs or something, I’m like, “Oh, I always have what I set to fall back on because I set it for myself.” But that other person is also venting. Like, “I can’t do that when I can’t hold that hold. I can’t grab that hold because my hand is too small,” or “That pinch is just way too fat for my tiny hands.” And so when I use pinches, I make sure that I can fit it, or it’s like I can pinch it comfortably.

And when I choose something that fits my hand, I’m also choosing something that’s going to fit my friend’s hand. Or like that girl who was talking to me yesterday about something that she climbed, that she liked of mine. I find it so uplifting when people tell me that they like my stuff because I’m like, “You are who I’m setting for.” And maybe that’s not a good enough reason to stay, but in the meantime it does help. It helps to get feedback from who I’m setting for because it just shows that your work and your art is being appreciated.

Trango Holds Pardners

You’re hitting a really key point here. No, you are. I think it’s cheesy to say that climbing can change lives. We’re not doing cancer research; we’re not solving climate change. But the reality is that when movement is joyful, it can change lives, even if it’s in the smallest minute way. So, when you are, quote-unquote, “setting selfishly,” you are helping other people who may fall into your height range or your strength level find that little pocket of joy where they feel powerful, where they feel like this climb is set specifically for them. It’s as if they hired you to set a custom climb. And we do need more of that because with the widely represented demographic being taller—and you said, like, 5’4 is not short; I say the same thing. I said, “I’m not short. I’m 5’2. So, I wonder where that line stops. I know someone who’s 5’5 can say, “I’m not short. I’m 5’5,” or “I’m 5’.” And in Asia, I’m pretty average height. It’s all relative, but yeah, so, it’s a rare instance where setting selfishly is not actually fitting the definition of selfish. You’re setting for a huge demographic and you’re setting so that demographic can stay in the industry, feel strong, and find joy. That’s an amazing reason and argument to say that women should stay in this industry. I personally generally hate saying the words “let’s play devil’s advocate” because they are sometimes followed by extremely racist or sexist things.

Oh, no. Yeah.

But I do feel like your answer here justifies me saying the words I do not like [laughs].

[laughs]

Since we just tackled a pretty heavy topic, I want to go back to something that’s a little lighter just for the sake of both of our mental health. What do you usually keep in your setting toolbox, and why?

Well, tampons and pads [laughs], for sure. Most of the time, the bathrooms at the gyms have them, but it just came up recently where I was like, “Surprise, you’re on your period.” And I’m like, “Oh, no.” But I’m like, “Ha ha!” The bottom of my—I have a setting like a box, so it’s on wheels—and I’m like, “They’re down there with all the random bolts that I put in.” But that, and then I also have teeny, tiny little vise grips that come in handy so much, they fit right in my mag pouch. So, I’m up on a rope, I’m like, broken screw. Just super easy. Love it.

Yeah. I was wondering why you need a teeny tiny one, but I didn’t think, yeah, every time I need a vise grip, I’m calling someone from the ground. Yeah. And I have to haul them up from the ground. I’m like, tie it to the rope or something. That’s a smart idea. Where do you get a teeny tiny vise grip?

I don’t know. My boss gave it to me. I was like, “That’s so cute.” And he was like, “Oh, you can have it.” [laughs]

[laughs] I’m going to go to Home Depot and try to find some teeny tiny vise grips. Yeah, I’m sure I could find something. Yeah.

We’re kind of approaching the end of our recorded session here, and I say this a lot, but I genuinely mean it when I say it: I could talk to you all night. This has been an amazing conversation, and I’m looking forward to editing this and putting it together.

Well, I wanted to say thank you, Holly, because I feel like when you’d ask a question and then I was maybe ,like, I got so into my story and I was like, “Is this answering the question?” But you would always bring it back to what it was supposed to be. And you always made me feel like what I said mattered and had a point. So, I want to say thank you for that. But you know how you’re, like talking, you’re like, “What am I talking about?”

Oh, I do that all the time. It’s pretty natural.

Yes.

A huge round of applause to Claire Kawainui Miller for taking the time to sit down with me and share her thoughts. The Impact Driver podcast is a production of the Climbing Business Journal. I’m your host, Holly Chen. Today’s episode is sponsored by Vertical Solutions and TruBlue. It was edited and produced by myself, Scott Rennak and the team at CBJ. Our theme music is by Devin Dabney. The transcript and web content is edited by Naomi Stevens. That’s it, folks. Thank you for listening to today’s episode with Claire. Check us out next time. If you enjoy what you heard, give us a shout on social media and subscribe to the CBJ at climbingbusinessjournal.com.

Thrill Seeker Holds