In this episode we sit down with routesetter and wildlife biologist Sierra McMurry. They experience obstacles every routesetter experiences, such as navigating fair pay and equitable workloads, but they also navigate obstacles that others might not, like how they take up space as a queer setter and communicate about sensitive topics with colleagues.
We discussed the sustainability of routesetting careers, what the industry is doing right, as well as where we might go in the future. We also talked about how notable mentors can teach us lessons that we carry with us as the industry evolves. That idea begs the question: What wisdom will you hold onto and keep applying to your setting leadership style as times change, and what will you let go of to make way for something new?
McMurry’s message to you is to dive deep into your passion for exploring climbing through creation.
Follow Sierra McMurry: @sierramcmurry
00:00 – Intro
01:32 – Background
02:04 – Influences in routesetting
03:10 – Setting philosophy/communication
04:49 – Current professional standards
07:05 – Keeping some of the old school ethic
08:07 – Sustainability of a setting career
10:40 – Advice for those looking to make the jump into full-time
12:31 – Sacrifices
14:52 – Training the body to handle a setter’s workload
19:35 – Benefit of further professionalization of setting
21:20 – Best mentors and what they’ve taught us
24:07 – Empowering incoming setters
26:42 – “You only got the job because you’re a minority”
33:39 – Creating equity in climbing gyms
37:54 – Tokenism
40:22 – Looking forward
CHEN: Do you have any notable influences—people who played a huge role in how you developed as a setter early on?
MCMURRY: Aaron Nicholson, Carson Wild and Scott Goodwin up in Missoula. They have always been so supportive, really believed in me, but then also challenged me a lot too. I am a shorter climber and I have specific strengths and very specific weaknesses, and they always challenged me to look beyond that with my setting.
At this point in your career, can you offer some insights or thoughts on the current professional standard of the setting industry right now?
I do see that we’re collectively moving in a very specific direction. I think some gyms are getting there faster than others, but everyone seems to be aware that there’s a certain level of professionalism that now has to start showing up in setting crews, and that professionalism a lot of times looks like a certain level of respect, [a] certain level of communication.
I think the professionalism is kind of changing interpersonally more than anything. There’s this collective understanding [that] a lot of new faces are showing up at gyms and a lot of new people are showing up in the climbing communities, and we need to adapt and learn how to welcome those people and welcome those new setters. And to do that we have to learn how to communicate effectively and appropriately and how to handle relational repairs and conflict.
What is one of your number one tips for a new setter on how to train your body to handle that workload and get to a point where you feel comfortable with both your setting and your climbing?
I think a lot of people who are interested in [setting] but haven’t done it yet don’t realize how much actual manual labor it is…What I started teaching the newer setters that we brought on were the certain things that [setters] would do while setting that would lead to injury or just strain or just exhaustion.
So if you’re setting on the ladder and the ladder’s not totally in the right position, but you could make it work…I think it’s so much more worth it to take the time to come back down, readjust your ladder, go back up…It is more worth it [to take] the time to lower or move the ladder than to tweak something in my body.
One statement that women and underrepresented setters often hear out there is “you only got the job because you are [insert minority group].” What is your response to that statement?
Understand that what they just said has absolutely nothing to do with you. That is not constructive feedback, that is not a real question—that is a tool of oppression and power that they’re trying to use to put you in your place and has nothing to do with you or your skill set or your career…I think you can just make some eye contact and a slight smile and just walk away. You do not owe that person anything, any sort of energy or engagement.
Everybody has a different relationship to climbing due to their identities, their expressions, and that can make a really beautiful climb [and] a really beautiful route setter. And [these] diversities are important. It’s important to hire women. It’s important to hire people of color. But those people did not get there because it was easy to get hired. If anything, it’s really truly the exact opposite.
Can you share some examples of how routesetters, whether they’re head setters or directors, have helped create equity in a space, not just equality?
What I’ve found is there’s not a real conversation within the crew about how to communicate with somebody who is gender diverse about their gender expression and their identity…As you move towards hiring more diverse people who have different backgrounds, knowing how to take feedback from them—how to tell them that there is a system and a structure for them to give feedback when harm has been done, especially around their identities—and knowing how to do that before you hire people is essential…Listen, communicate, keep listening, keep communicating.
For those who are widely represented out there, what is something about tokenism that they might not even know about that you want to share?
I think there’s this little bit of a check that people see in terms of hiring one diverse person. It misses the point a little bit because all that’s doing is acknowledging that all you needed to do was hire them. But you’re forgetting the fact that “I should be respectful of their identity. I should allow them to express and communicate in a way that might feel different than what I do.” [Allow] that diversity to actually change the crew a little bit, rather than “Oh, we checked a box.” …You should allow people of different identities and different backgrounds to be able to change the space.
Looking ahead at what’s to come in the setting industry and your own career, what’s something that you’re really excited about?
I am excited that things are moving forward. We really are starting to acknowledge what needs to be done and move forward, which is a nice first step. I am hoping it goes a lot farther than that. I’m excited to see how setting changes, honestly. I think we’re already seeing it in comp style setting, the different moves that are coming out of it, and the different questions we’re asking climbers on the wall. And I’m excited to see how [more] people from different backgrounds and different accessibilities are able to, once they start routesetting, change the game. I’m really, really stoked to see how queer, trans [and] femme people and black and indigenous people can really [change] the routesetting game. I think we can learn so much, and I think this entire sport can really evolve and turn into such an incredible space.
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.”
Read our interview with Holly: Storytelling Through Movement