Routesetting is a rapidly growing, ever-evolving profession. It is, for lack of a better pun, a ‘dynamic’ space in the climbing industry. This means the realm in which the professional routesetter works is also evolving: career paths are changing, with pro setters in higher demand than ever; setting styles are changing, as setters experiment with new movement; but also, climbing holds are changing, with new high-quality dual-tex and giant-sized shapes for the modern age.
One of the best places to observe these trends is the Setter Showdown: an annual gathering of selected routesetters that, while technically a setting competition, is more of an exhibition match—one that has since evolved into a nexus of professional collaboration.
This year’s Showdown was a full display of what routesetting and holds are progressing towards, and the host location—inSPIRE Rock in Cypress, TX—is a prime example of where modern gyms are progressing towards, having opened its doors in 2018. After the walls were stripped and the chalk had settled, the setters and organizers sat down to share more about the event. Here are five major routesetting takeaways from this year’s Setter Showdown.
1. Setters are in demand, and so are professional development opportunities
Indoor climbing is expanding at a rapid rate. Despite the pandemic, according to CBJ’s Gyms & Trends report more than 50 climbing gyms opened in North America in 2020 alone. Climbing facilities continue to pop up all over the country, as do employment opportunities on the CBJ Job Board―setting jobs in particular. In just the past three months, over 35 jobs listings for routesetters were posted, and often by companies filling multiple openings.
Hand in hand with the demand for commercial setters at gyms is the demand for professional development opportunities for setters like the Setter Showdown. And in the event’s return after a two-year break due to the pandemic, the Showdown sold out all its spots this year, which shows how highly desired these kinds of opportunities are.
“[A] lot of trade development happens at these events,” says Louie Anderson, longtime routesetting legend and founder of the Showdown. “Setters from all around the country—and sometimes beyond—get to talk shop, compare ideas, and generally discuss how they do things in their own gyms.”
Additionally, one can see firsthand at the Showdown how the routesetting workforce is changing, and for the better: Almost half of this year’s 30 participants were women, as opposed to previous years where there were as few as one woman, and never more than three.
2. Holds create movement, and movement creates holds
As routesetters create new climbs, their ideas for movement often inspire their hold choices. The inverse is equally true: Seeing new holds often generates new ideas for movement. If we combine these two foils, it’s easy to see how the grips that hold companies manufacture represent a conversation between past shapes and past sequences—a lockstep dance in which both take the lead, striding towards the future of indoor climbing.
Events like the Showdown document this dance in real time. Participating setters are often exposed to holds they’ve never worked with before from top brands―like 360HOLDS and Simpl volumes, two of this year’s sponsors which are part of the 360 family of hold brands―leading to experiments with new movement during the competition and ideas for new shapes afterwards. New holds also make the events that much more interesting for the setters.
“Having holds in the event that are relevant and new helps to increase the psych of the participating setters,” Anderson said, “and I think motivates them to do more with what they put on the wall. It’s always fun to see the setters drool when they see the holds they’ll be setting with for the first time.”
“[Climbing holds] are the tools of our craft, and windows into our sport,” added Foxman McCarthy-James, a frequent participant in the Showdown who placed second this year and earned one of the highest marks for creativity. “High-quality holds inspire routesetters, who in turn inspire gym climbers.”
3. Giant-sized shapes are now normal-sized shapes—but not for the reason you might think
As routesetting changes, so do the designs of climbing holds, and how setters think about those designs. “Generally, holds are growing bigger, better, more versatile and more ergonomic,” confirmed routesetter Rana Accawi, who like McCarthy-James sets for Brooklyn Boulders. “They offer setters an opportunity to use them in a way that compels the climber to interact with said holds using every limb…they allow setters to make their routes/problems look flashier, cooler, more eye-catching.”
A few of the new giant-sized shapes in use at this year’s Showdown were 360’s arms-length Juggy Balls and Simpl’s extra-large Prisms, which had the routesetters trying new combinations for fresh dynamic movement and higher fun/flow scores. Some might see these new, grandiose shapes as specific to indoor climbing, but in reality they can be used to form wall terrain that is closer to the jutting rock faces found in outdoor climbing.
“Climbing is fundamentally three-dimensional,” said McCarthy-James. “Rocks in the wild force us to navigate through and around them as we climb. It’s only natural that we experiment with that within the realm of indoor climbing as well.” That full-body experience was on full display at this year’s Showdown thanks to such a wide selection of wide grips which, besides being just plain fun to climb on, added even more tools to the setters’ toolboxes. Here we can see that indoor climbing is not diverging from the outdoors, but always ever tangoing with it.
4. ‘Risky’ routesetting can be a risk-free investment
Alongside changing hold technology, how routesetters create difficulty in their climbs has evolved as well. Most pro setters follow the “Risk Intensity Complexity” model created by Tonde Katiyo and Jacky Godoffe, which treats each of those three climbing components like dials to be raised or lowered in volume (oftentimes with volumes). Holds with slick dual-texture surfaces are one of many tools setters employ to simulate ‘risky’ feeling climbing situations, where the challenge is not necessarily found in the movements themselves but committing to said movements.
Accawi elaborated on this further during the Showdown, where setters were also given technical scores for their sets. “We were really lucky to get to sample—for the first time for some—really high-quality holds!” said Accawi. “I got to watch many setters use them in many different ways, some playing with the dual-texture aspect of some holds and adding a little spooky effect to their climbs…other setters REALLY made your whole body interact with macro holds. [That] was really cool to experience.”
In addition to massive fiberglass macros and wood volumes, dual-texture holds are now in almost every monthly CBJ Grip Report as well, and it’s easy to see why. As Accawi alluded to, dual-tex holds like the aforementioned 360HOLDS and Simpl shapes at the Showdown keep climbers on their toes by eliminating options and creating slippery climbing sequences. They also help setters create intentional experiences for climbers—experiences that minimize actual risk while maximizing climbing quality.
5. Every climber can (and should) have a high-quality experience
Climbing is no longer an exclusive sport for big wall climbers and elite athletes. While there is always a long way to go, there’s no doubt climbing is in many ways more accessible now, both in terms of the number of gyms―nearly 600 in the U.S. alone―and the existence of programs like sliding scale memberships, grants/scholarships and diversity initiatives which make accessing them more financially feasible and welcoming. The climbing community is becoming a wider range of climbers, varying in demographic, experience level, age, strength, and outdoor climbing exposure.
Tied to this change in access is a change in the modern climbing gym’s purpose and subsequent goals; now they are not only through-destinations for training, but successful businesses which serve as their own attractions. Operating in increasingly-competitive markets, gyms are now expected to house high-quality climbing experiences that stand with (or without) outdoor climbing, which also means they exist to serve every climber who walks in the door—especially less-experienced climbers―if they want to continue growing & retaining membership.
“Climbers want ‘an experience’ to take them away from work, from their day, etc…otherwise, they would just pick things up and put them down at their local fitness gym,” said Justin Wright, routesetter and host liaison for inSPIRE Rock at this year’s Showdown. “Routesetters curate ‘the experience’ and/or ‘elicit emotion’ through their work. This can be done in many ways, but all come back to the ingredients: high-quality holds and volumes…[A] gym that invests in high-quality ingredients and the staff that knows how to maximize them will set itself apart from those who do not.”
Industry professionals at the forefront of these trends—people like Wright, Anderson, Accawi and McCarthy-James—are seeking out climbing companies and brands who will help them realize the future image of success for a climbing gym. “I chose 360HOLDS as a sponsor for many reasons,” said Wright. “The main reason was because of how many amazing shapes they have. Many of [360’s] shapes are flashy to look at, drawing immediate attention to climbers when they walk into the facility. As soon as they went up on the wall, there was a buzz around the gym where everyone wanted to go try those boulders.”
That ‘buzz’ and the grips the routesetters used to fuel it were by design―all aiming to create the high-quality experience everyone expects when entering the climbing gyms of the 21st century.
360 production produces high-quality holds, macros and volumes that have appeared at the highest level of competition climbing and in climbing gyms around the globe. An IFSC Authorized Producer for all three categories, 360 is committed to delivering the very best grips to inspire climbers, routesetters and gym owners worldwide. 360 brands include: 360HOLDS, Simpl, Ready, Lynx, Neo and Train to Climb.