Ryan Sewell, originally from a suburb of Dallas, Texas, is one of the best setters in the country. Currently in Denver, Colorado, Sewell works as the Director of Setting at Movement Climbing and Fitness. In between tweaking boulders and adjusting plastic, Sewell finds time to make trips to Rifle and other local crags, where he’s been known to tick 5.14ds (Moonshine in Wild Iris and Planet Garbage in Rifle) and V14s.
Each of the past five years, Sewell has applied to set in the Vail World Cup. He wasn’t selected until this year, but in the meantime Sewell set around ten National level comps and was a National Chief setter in the 2019 Sport and Speed Open competition.
Following the 2019 Vail World Cup, Gym Climber caught up with Ryan Sewell to learn about his setting career and what it takes to set at a World Cup.
Tell me your story. How did you get into setting?
Setting sort of found me a couple years after I started climbing. Before I was old enough to drive, or for that matter even get paid, I was in the gym most days after school (dropped off by my parents of course) setting whatever they’d let me.
I was so incredibly lucky to have some really amazing mentors as I got started. It still amazes me that this tiny little gym in Arlington, Texas (Dino-Rock) had such incredible people! After a few years of working as a young route setter at the gyms around the Dallas/Ft. Worth metroplex I moved up to Colorado looking to go to school and pursue my passion for route setting in a more climbing-heavy environment. Needless to say school quickly fell to the wayside and setting became my sole focus.
What was it like advancing from level to level?
Each level represents a new aspect of learning. As you progress, the expectations and responsibilities go up. I wouldn’t say it’s extremely difficult to progress so long as you’re focused on doing everything you can to put on a great competition, but it does take patience.
How did you get selected to set in Vail?
The setting crew in Vail was made up of three IFSC certified route setters, three setters from USA Climbing, and an exchange setter from Germany. Just like any National level event for USA Climbing, the positions are made available via an open application window to anyone with the requisite certification level. The final decision-making process is handled internally by USA Climbing. The goal in choosing a team is to provide an opportunity to those who have earned it while also ensuring the overall effectiveness of the team. This was my fifth year in a row applying, and it finally happened!
What was it like?
I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect going into the week, but it certainly was eye opening. In terms of workload, we only set about one problem per setter each day. The rest of the day was made up of extensive forerunning, tweaking, and of course coffee.
For reference, I average between four and six climbing days when I’m back at home and that usually leaves me a little sore. By the end of day two in Vail, I was absolutely wrecked. At a World Cup level the element of difficulty is so multidimensional that I was legitimately sore from my fingers to my toes. People like to write off World Cup bouldering as tricks and parkour, but I can promise you, these boulders require immense physical and technical climbing skill.
Expected and unexpected challenges?
The biggest expected challenge I personally faced was definitely my lack of hip and shoulder mobility. It’s crazy how much more flexible the athletes are than most of the setters!
The most unexpected challenge we faced was probably on day three when we determined that we liked the semifinal round more than the final round. While it may sound a bit unorthodox, this happens more often than you might think. In the end the Chief decided we would swap the rounds by putting what we set to be semifinals up as finals and vice versa. It was definitely a challenge, but in the end the decision proved to be the right one.
How do you think it turned out?
Overall I’d say we were fortunate to have the athletes perform the way they did. Competition route setting is a bit of a gamble. As much as we try and predict what will happen, in the end it’s not up to us. We were lucky to have the drama unfold the way that it did in the women’s category with Janja needing a top to secure the victory and the season sweep. That storyline was bigger than we could have hoped, and the same can be said for the men. Having the win and the overall season title up in the air until the very last boulder was incredible. In the words of Romain, (the most experienced setter on our team) “This time the sun shined on us, but it’s not always like this.”
What advice would you offer other setters?
- Setting competitions is the responsibility of a team, not one individual. The most successful setters are the ones who work well with others.
- Never stop being a student of the craft.
- Always try it before you make up your mind. Climbing is fun after all!
Do it all over again! It’s been a goal of mine to set at the World Cup level for quite some time and I hope this is just the start.