Behind the Wrench…is an ongoing series that interviews the “rock stars” of the climbing industry: the routesetters at the gyms. Today we’re talking to Kegan Minock, Head Setter at the iconic 90’s gym Rock’n & Jam’n in Denver, Colorado. Climbing since 2003 and routesetting since 2008, Minock is also a renowned hold shaper, with shapes used by Sugarhouse Holds, Kingdom, Capital Climbing Holds, and Endure. Minock also runs an educational YouTube channel, DoughJoSetting, where he shares routesetting tips―for gym setters and homewallers alike―that he’s learned through the years. Today we chat with Minock on a wide range of topics, from the current state of the hold shaping industry to why routesetting builds community.
Name: Kegan Minock
Title: Head Setter, Rock’n & Jam’n
Location: Denver, Colorado
CHEN: Can you tell us about how you became a setter? Who are some notable influences on your setting career?
Minock: I started setting in 2008 at Lifetime Fitness. Two people early on in my career had a notable influence on me. Lifetime Fitness was a good first routesetter position because there weren’t a whole lot of rock climbers there. That environment allowed for a lot of experimentation. You could set a bad climb, and you didn’t get in trouble.
I met a good friend there, Keith North, now Head Setter at G1 Climbing and Fitness in Broomfield, Colorado. We challenged each other because we were climbers from opposite sides of the style spectrum. I’m relatively tall, he’s relatively short. I’m powerful, he’s technical and smart. We piggybacked off each other to develop our styles, and I learned how to create diversity in a set with Keith.
The second person is Kevin Branford. If I could give every setter a piece of advice, it’s to get to a place where you can do what Kevin did for me for another setter. He supported and mentored me in everything, from setting to hold shaping.
Now you have shapes with multiple major hold companies. Can you tell us how you got here?
It all started from the love for rock climbing. It’s where everyone in this industry starts, right? I thought, I’m going to be known as a rock climber. That didn’t quite work out. So I thought, I’m going to be known as a routesetter. I set for a few national competitions, which was a cool experience, but I couldn’t stop thinking of the next thing. Even back in the early 2010s, there were a lot of hold options available on the market, but it felt like a natural progression as a routesetter to shape holds. I want to design the medium that is the basis of routesetting.
I bought some foam and shaped a couple of hundred holds that ended up in the garbage. Nowadays, the hold market is filled with simple shapes, dual-texs, no-texs, beautiful macros…and those are great, but my inspiration has always come from the outdoors. Sandstone, granite, limestone…all of it. I love baseball to football-sized holds. I love climbing on rocks, so most of my holds have an outdoor theme to them. We know most outdoor climbs can be abrasive, sharp and uncomfortable, so I wanted to fuse it in a way that brought the outdoors aesthetics inside without the discomfort.
Routesetter to hold shaper, why do you think it’s a natural progression?
I think it could be true for every routesetter. There is an artistic aspect of hold shaping that isn’t in routesetting, just like there is a functionality aspect in routesetting that isn’t in hold shaping. Both these paths take different personality traits, so you got to have both to do both.
There isn’t a single hold shaper who didn’t start as a routesetter. When a routesetter builds up a reputation in the industry, it’s not uncommon for hold companies to reach out to collaborate. We recently have E-Grips (now Trango Holds) and Roy Quanstrom from Ascent Studios.
The pandemic also kickstarted the homewall craze, and many routesetters out of a job began shaping and experimenting with silicone molds. It shows routesetters have an interest in hold shaping, even if they’re not doing it yet.
Speaking of which, how has the pandemic impacted the hold industry? CBJ reported, “2021 saw the most net gym openings in the history of the American climbing gym industry,” despite the economic downturn brought by the pandemic. How do you think this growth is going to affect hold shapers and hold production?
Of course, everyone was worried for a hot minute. Luckily, the hold market isn’t slowing down either. Pandemic or not, there is a bottleneck in this industry. There are dozens of hold companies trying to meet the demand, but only three major hold manufacturers produce quality products. There isn’t a contender to those three manufacturers right now. Some might argue that statement, and yes, some companies pour themselves, but as the industry grows, we are going to need more big manufacturers producing more brands and an increase in productivity overall. This is not to say we need more hold companies, which is a different question to hold manufacturers.
Why don’t we need more hold companies? Can you elaborate on that?
To that, I’m gonna say two conflicting things. I think there are too many hold companies right now, but at the same time not enough. Here’s how I hope to justify that contradiction:
There is a darker side to hold companies born out of the pandemic. Some folks either didn’t want to go through the freelance channel or tried to go through the freelance channel and couldn’t make anything happen. Naturally, they decided to do it themselves. I believe their heart is in the right place, but cheaper plastic makes the holds cost less and decreases the quality. The downside is that when you offer cheap holds, it devalues quality holds by top manufacturers. It’s $3 or $4 a hold compared to the $12 to $14 a hold.
You can say a similar thing happened in the routesetting industry a while ago, and it’s still happening now in many places. When people are willing to set for gym memberships in lieu of a salary or pay, it devalues the work routesetters do.
However, I admire those people who are trying to make it work. They’re saying, “F*** all the naysayers, I’m going to try my best to make my dream work,” and there is merit to that. Who knows what will happen next? There could be a new wave of talent coming.
Do you have any advice for someone in that position right now? Or a routesetter who wants to begin shaping?
I shaped hundreds of holds that ended up in the garbage before I sold my first one.
I remember going into the Kilter shop when I was first starting out, and I saw this huge hueco, with a beautiful sandstone texture. It was amazing. It was the foam hold―it wasn’t the finished product and had a huge gouge. I was like, “What happened there?” Ian Powell said, “I just didn’t like it.” Same thing happened with my shaping mentor, Kevin Branford. Once, Kevin chopped a hold in half because he didn’t like it. I couldn’t believe it, it was a beautiful hold.
Ultimately, no shaper puts out holds that they don’t like. If your gut is saying that this hold isn’t up to par, listen to your gut.
It will take time. The people who have been doing this for a while will see things you might not. Focus on comfort. When somebody says that this is not a good climbing hold, nine times out of ten is because it’s uncomfortable. It’s not necessarily a texture thing, it’s a radius thing. It’s where the hold puts pressure on certain parts of your hand. A sharp hold on a slab could be a comfortable hold on an overhang. There are holds that are comfortable on every angle, just as those that are uncomfortable on every angle.
Get in touch with existing hold shapers. Most will share their expertise, and everyone has a different process. Someone shared their expertise with me, and we should all strive to be that for someone else.
I think this is a good place to switch gears and talk about your routesetting. You’ve mentioned that routesetting is the basis for building community. Let’s hear more on that topic.
This is a topic I’m really passionate about, so I’m glad you bring it up. I think it gives climbers a common enemy, the boulder problem or route, and by extension the routesetter who created it. Climbers can gang up and tackle the problem together.
That’s just the surface. I think routesetting can directly influence the kind of climbing community a gym builds. If your gym is more inclined to set climbs you might see outdoors, you’re going to get more outdoor climbers through the door. That’s the style we gear towards at my facility, Rock’n & Jam’n. If your gym focuses on competition-style climbs, you’re going to get a community of young competitors training in your facility. I’ve seen members who don’t live in the area walk through the door. They say they love this gym because it helps them train for projects outside. I know kids who stopped climbing at Rock’n & Jam’n and moved on to other facilities because they are a competition climber.
Routesetting can influence the type of climber your gym builds or attracts.
If gyms subscribe to a certain style, how does accessibility, inclusivity, or diversity of sets fit into this?
Of course, an ideal situation is a facility that caters to every climbing style, but that’s not always possible depending on the facility’s size and budget.
You can still create a diverse set regardless of what style your facility focuses on. It’s all about balance. If I set everything for me―I’m 6’2 with a +2 wingspan―a smaller person might not enjoy it, but someone my height might. If the entire gym is set like that, then we’re excluding a huge population of the member base.
A routesetter’s job is to set for your audience. I try to repeat that a lot. It’s never about a single boulder problem or route. Let’s say we gotta put up a V3. What do we want for this V3? Well, what do we already have? We have two open-handed pitches V3, one about stemming, but we don’t have a V3 crimp line―the answer is easy here. One climb’s inaccessibility to a group of people can easily be overlooked when there are 80 other climbs for you to try.
Sometimes you notice accessibility becomes less and less of a concern as the grades start to climb. Some might say, “How many nine-year-olds are climbing 5.13s in your gym?” And I will reply, “None if they can’t reach anything.” Nine-year-olds are certainly capable of climbing 5.13s if you build a space that allows them to push themselves.
Do you see this as a responsibility of a Head Setter? To make sure there is something for everyone?
It’s the gym’s responsibility to create a product that their climbers want, but there is a fine line between setting something climbers don’t like and something that’s going to teach climbers. It sucks to fail, but it’s often a path to learning.
This applies to setters too.
Can you elaborate?
Years ago, I would have said I subscribe more to the idea of aesthetics over function. When a climb or boulder stands out, it draws the climber in to want to climb on it. Now, I think it needs to go both ways. You can lure people in with aesthetics and keep them coming back with function.
Social media is filled with beautiful volume stacks and dramatic jumps. A newcomer can easily subscribe to the idea of aesthetics over function. I think it goes back to the old analogy here that you gotta walk before you can run. Nobody goes from cooking macaroni and cheese to cooking an amazing steak dinner. There are baby steps. At the beginning of the day, you need to know basic climbing movement; you need to be able to set a V2 that flows, then a V5 that flows, and so on. You need to know why this drop knee works here and why it doesn’t. Don’t skip the fundamentals of movement and go straight to aesthetics.
One of the detriments of social media is it gives people this idea that setting is only about run-and-jumps, bat-hangs―you know, all the crazy, flashy, showy moves.
When a newcomer sets something that looks beautiful but fails to climb smoothly or climb at all, you need to ask the question: What fundamentals am I missing? It sucks to fail, but it is a path to learning.
Well put, thanks Kegan. To close, I have a joke question for you. What came first? The hold shaper or the routesetter?
Routesetter. I think that says a lot.
Holly grew up in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Now she lives in Denver where she reports, writes and routesets. Beyond the Climbing Business Journal, her writing has been published by Alpinist Magazine, Climbing Magazine, Gym Climber and Sharp End Publishing. Holly’s motto has always been: “keep it interesting.”