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Route Setters of the Tokyo Olympics: The silent architects in a game of choreographed skill and chance

In just four days, the first internationally ranked pro-climber would step out onto the mats of the 2018 Vail World Cup as a raucous crowd of spectators in the field below watched their every move.

While nervously fumbling with my tool belt, I watched the World Cup setting ace, Frenchman Romain Cabessut, take a light drag from his hand-rolled cigarette and begin to systematically gather materials for an intricate problem that took him just 15 casual minutes to set. Further down the wall, famous Japanese setter Obe Masatoshi, who never warmed up, effortlessly pounced from one shallow mono-pocket to another, as if his body were filled with nothing but air. Behind me, Chris Danielson—the guy who invented route setting as I had come to know it in the States—was blithely stacking random jibs on several different volumes the way a child arranges Legos.

The vague ideas pooling inside my sparsely populated brain seemed to evaporate under the sun as I stared up at my section of blank wall. Hundreds of holds and volumes, different shapes and sizes, littered the green lawn that seemed to stretch on for an infinity. Jagged pentagons, pyramids, rails, ramps, kites stacked on top of diamonds. One of them looked big enough for me to crawl inside of and disappear. I felt like an imposter. It’s just another comp and it’s only climbing, I thought. Get over yourself. This was the first hour of the first day of the only World Cup I have ever set, and the pressure felt immense.

Percy Bishton, on Stasis (V9). Photo by Dom Worral

Unlike most sports in the Olympics, the field of play in competition climbing constantly changes. The lines on a tennis court do not shift overnight, just as the size, shape, and circumference of a soccer ball does not change from one game to another. Apart from speed climbing up a standardized 15-meter sequence, the boulder problems and routes that athletes spend their lives preparing for are imagined, created and manipulated by a peculiar group of introverted movement engineers—the ragtag remnants of society’s outliers—otherwise known as route setters. Some people say comp climbing amounts to nothing more than a reverie, but for the competitors training eight hours a day, five days a week, precariously dancing on the edge of the peak of their lives, it’s do or die. The margin for error at the international level, either setting too hard or too easy, is razor thin.

Percy Bishton, IFSC Chief Route Setter of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games bouldering discipline, and his crew, Manu Hassler, Romain Cabessut, and Garrett Gregor, will have just five days to set 14 problems for 40 of the world’s best climbers: a rigorous test of athleticism and grace under pressure.

Manuel “Manu” Hassler set his first World Cup at 24. Photo David Schweizerch

“At the Olympics, climbing will have an audience of millions of people who have never seen the sport before, and so the challenge is to present the sport well and to inspire people. This comes down to everybody involved, from the athletes, officials and organizers to the broadcasters and commentators,” says Bishton, an IFSC setter of more than 30 years with tweaky knees, bad hips, wobbly ankles, sciatica, ruined elbows, fat fingers, whiplash, torn rotator cuffs, ligament damage, slipped discs, torn muscles, and arthritis to prove it. After jumaring over a quarter of a million meters of rope, he cannot straighten his right arm, but he can climb, mostly pain free. As a reminder to take care, he keeps a little plastic pot on his desk containing a sugar-lump sized piece of bone that was removed from his elbow joint. “The setters are only one part of the machine, but they are an essential part.”

For me, it’s important that the climbers enjoy the challenges we’ve created for them—if they are enjoying the problems we’ve cooked up, then that will always lead to some amazing performances,” says Bishton. But when things are going badly—like having ten climbers unable to get off the mats—“you feel like you want a hole to open in the floor and swallow you up.”

Within the combined Olympic format, 20 women and 20 men will race in speed, then boulder in a four-problem qualification round, and finish with one try on one lead route. If they finish in the top eight, they move to the Final round, with multiple speed runs, three boulders, and one route. Since this format mixes three different disciplines of climbing into one mega-comp, setters have an even more difficult challenge to tackle than normal. “The combined format presents us with some unique circumstances, where there is a slightly larger difference in ability amongst the athletes than normal,” says Bishton, given the fact that being a top-notch specialist in all three disciplines is rare. “We have strategies in place to help get an even spread of results, but also to let all the athletes climb and perform to their limits on our problems.”

Jacky Godoffe tweaking a problem. Photo Reinhard Fichtinger

Based on wall angle, hold type, and volume usage, setters aim to test an array of skills ranging from slow and subtle to fast and dynamic. While these elements are mere building blocks to the increasingly complex combinations of modern-day movement, back in 1985 when the first climbing competition was held in Bardonecchia, Italy, at a local crag, the idea of a ‘run-and-jump’ to a ‘double-clutch-paddle-toe-catch’ was unheard of. After setting a 1998 World Championship in Bercy, France, Jacky Godoffe read in a newspaper the event was “as exciting as watching paint dry.” Unfortunately, to the unfamiliar laymen, hard climbing can often look boring—and even easy, which is why “the paradox between a pragmatic result for competition and the idealistic vision to make climbing look more alive,” as Godoffe once articulated, is the root cause to the craft’s most severely criticized dichotomy.

While climbing is not just about showing off and creating drama, setting style has evolved over the years as competitors inevitably mastered the basics. Even though the intricate finesse of a subtle bump inherent to the iconic Fontainebleau or funky Gritstone has not been lost, modern trends leaning towards gymnastic, high-risk jumping have undoubtedly helped to push the sport forward in the eyes of the crowd.

“All plastic climbing, from routes to boulders, are aesthetically more fun to watch than they were back in the day,” says Robyn Erbersfield-Raboutou, one of the leading female competitors of the 1990’s—the genesis of modern competition climbing. “When I was climbing in competitions, they were raw power and basic, nothing like it is today. Right hand, left hand, cross move, maybe an under-cling into a rose move. The circus-trick type stuff we see a lot now is what made climbing more of a spectator sport.”

Trends come and go. But for better or worse, “it seems like the fast-paced, high-risk nature of this type of climbing often gets the crowd more hyped up and keeps them more engaged than slower, static, technical climbing,” says veteran World Cup competitor Angie Payne. “I have also seen competitions where a great deal of suspense builds as a climber creeps across a slab or does a delicate move. Crowd appeal aside, it is a logical and natural progression for an art form like setting to go through changes and eventually move from one end of a spectrum–pure-power moves, mostly static moves, not many volumes–to the other–coordination moves, jumping, and negotiating volumes.”

Even though route setting has only evolved for a few decades, many niche moves—like a palm press into an inverted gaston—and their variations have been set, trained for, regurgitated, and repeatedly practiced into submission. When a novel move does occur organically, it is immediately sucked into the black hole of social media for everyone to copy and repeat. Since the athletes know what to expect to some degree even with a constant influx of new shapes and different textures each season, setters are constantly searching for new ideas.

After the first combined 2019 World Championships in Hachioji, Manu Hassler, unanimously reputed as one of the strongest climbers among a group of only 31 IFSC route setters, says that “in general, we always try to push the limits. And I think that often, I pushed a bit too far. If you never push the limits, you will never know where they are. I think we need to do it sometimes, otherwise everything goes smoothly, and it will never be extraordinary. The best competitions are the ones where the athletes overcome a little more than usual, then the magic begins to appear.”

But sometimes, like anyone else, setters can push too far. The Hachioji women’s final round ended in a perfect scenario; it was anybody’s game until the very last problem, but the men’s round was too hard. Tomoa Narasaki managed two tops and no other climber completed a single boulder. “It made me question myself seriously, about the future, about what I was going to do or not,” says Hassler. “Do I continue? Do I have a desire to continue? It made me question myself more than any other competition, that’s for sure.”

Regardless of the result, comp setting is stressful. As a setter, you want the problems to work—to challenge the entire field while teetering on the edge of ‘too hard’ so that only the best will win. “For me, it’s important that the climbers enjoy the challenges we’ve created for them—if they are enjoying the problems we’ve cooked up, then that will always lead to some amazing performances,” says Bishton, emphasizing that when things work, it’s an amazing rush, but when things are going badly—like having ten climbers unable to get off the mats—“you feel like you want a hole to open in the floor and swallow you up.”

Chris Danielson, IFSC Chief route setter, has set dozens of US Nationals and over 20 World Cups. Photo Jeremy Nathan

Even with a deep combination of experience, knowledge, and expertise, creating a fair and diverse round often feels like rolling the dice—much of the finished product is up to chance no matter how you slice it.

“We can go to 100 events and still not even be 50 percent sure of what is expected of the athletes one week into another. We can’t know what Jakob [Schubert] or what Kyra [Condie] are going to do from one week to the next,” says Garrett Gregor, the youngster on the crew dubbed the Machine by IFSC standards. He got the call after Katja Vidmar gave up her position on account of starting a family. “We depend on each other’s ability to observe rounds and make changes where and when we can for the benefit of the competitors.” After setting the 2020 Qatar Beach Games in heat so extreme that venue workers dropped dead of sudden death syndrome, Gregor is accustomed to working through unforeseen variables, but ultimately, he says, “it comes down to delivering as a team.”

Garret Gregor, at the 2019 Meiringen Bouldering World Cup. Photo by Eddie Fowke

For Bishton, who says “he is retiring from saying he is retired,” teamwork is the name of the game, and since older setters simply cannot climb as hard as many of the up-and-comers, they rely on wisdom—brains over brawn. “Because setters often get locked into creating a certain idea or move, they can miss an easier solution,” says Bishton on identifying moves that could be skipped. “The older setters are the ones who can often see how problems could be ‘broken’ by the competitors.” While being able to climb every move on every problem is certainly valuable in calibrating overall difficulty, it is certainly not everything. Walls change from year to year, so arriving with “no expectations and a clear, fresh mind,” as Hassler points out, is not only important in identifying potential glitches, but crucial in discovering new sequences and combinations.

Despite the indisputable impermanence of the pursuit—the walls stripped bare and each dusty hold packed away again—Hemmingway once said that “the individual, the great artist when he comes, uses everything that has been discovered or known about his art up to that point…and then goes beyond what has been done or known and makes something of his own.” In this way, the setters too, armed with decades of practice and intuition, will contribute to writing the history of climbing’s Olympic debut, and hopefully, they succeed.

The cracking of an impact driver broke my daze.

Chris Danielson—still effortlessly adrift in a sea of his own thoughts—now had multiple versions of several different problems up in his section. He caught me staring and quickly raised both eyebrows high without flinching a muscle in his face, as if to say he knew I was thinking, but nothing was happening.

“What’s up?” he said absentmindedly, but somehow concerned, with a Fritos chip dangling dangerously between his lips.

Some words tumbled out of my mouth like scree breaking loose. “I don’t know what I should set. I’m feeling a little overwhelmed right now.”

Turning ever so slightly, the way an inquisitive puppy cocks its head when posed a question, he glanced at the two slopers I had bolted on and with a bemused look on his face, split the tension.

“Hmmm. Go up. Yup. I think you should go up.”

After all, it is only climbing.

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Author, Dave Wetmore.