Monday, July 07, 2014

Setting Easy for Summer Sweatfest Wasn't So Easy!

I recently had the diverting experience of assisting the setting crew for the initial competition in this year’s Summer Sweat Fest bouldering series. The opener was held at The Rock Oasis, my home gym.

My first time setting problems for a bouldering comp!

I learned that setting for a competition—even a casual one like Sweat Fest—is a lot of work, and harder than I imagined. Comp routesetters: you have my newfound respect!

Often when you read (or watch videos) about cool boulder problems that people have made, the focus is on hard movement through advanced sequences—so I thought I’d write a somewhat unstructured piece regarding the other end of things, and relate my first-time personal experience of trying to set easier and moderate problems, in the context of a comp.

The head-setters were Adam Tataryn and Adrian Das (both professional setters), and we were joined by Dave Machado (another ‘recreational’ setter like myself). The way it shook out, I wound up authoring a modest chunk of the beginner and intermediate grade problems, which freed the other fellows to focus primarily on the Open category and advanced scramble-format problems.

An Emphasis on Fun
It’s important to note that with Sweat Fest the emphasis is on a friendly bouldering series, with beginners and youth encouraged to participate. Other themes would be low cost, informality, and the general aim of fun.

There were 26 scramble-format problems, numbered in roughly ascending difficulty (e.g. 1 was the easiest, 2 a little harder, etc.) (There were also 5 Open problems each for Men and Women).

The challenge was, how do you set problems which beginners find stimulating, but without being frustrating or too difficult? And at the same time you can’t just let the intermediate climbers cakewalk through your problems either.

It was a learning experience for me—it was my first time ever setting for a comp. The most apparent lesson is that I’m still figuring out how to properly set at a given grade.

My problems tend to favour movements that I personally find entertaining, or that I’m trying to improve on. I had to continually remind myself (and occasionally be reminded) that I was setting for newer, moderately skilled climbers, and youth.

This meant: You can’t make moves too hard. You can’t make moves too long or out of reach. You have to take into account a lack of technique. You have to make it extra safe.

Following are a few of the problems I set (bear in mind this is only a small subset of the comp). I’ll briefly discuss my intent versus how it turned out.

#8 - Yellow (click images to view larger)
This short V1 requires calm, deliberate movement. Despite the brevity, the volumes give the route a curiously exposed feeling; the hand holds are tolerable, but not overly good, pinches that you have to negotiate with.

We turned the start and middle holds so they were easier to use. I wanted to create a longer problem with more moves, but at that skill level I didn’t want the finish to be over either of the two volumes, in case of a fall. So it wound up being quite brief. Perhaps I could have put a couple of easy traverse moves leftwards at the top.

#10 - Purple
I was happiest with #10. It has two distinct playful movements. The first involves stepping up onto the red volume and balancing on it with no hands. The second move is leaning left from that balanced position until you 'fall' onto the next hold. Both involve the climber doing something coordinated, a bit out of the regular.

The start hold (on the green volume) was added to prevent the climber from skipping the above sequence and grabbing the left hold immediately. Instead, most people will step up on the red volume from the right side, leading into the balance position. I was delighted to watch people get on, reach out left, then realize they had to leave the safety of the start hold and balance on the red volume, exactly the way I had imagined it.

I added two left side footholds for the 2nd half. Originally I wanted to make the climber smear up but it proved too challenging for the grade range we wanted to use it in.

#5 - Green
This simple problem caused me headaches, believe it or not. I wanted to set an easy (V0) overhanging problem. The challenge is that most beginners are not strong enough to do much on an overhang.

I put up the biggest, juggiest holds I could find — and it was still too hard. Then we substituted in the big hold in the middle, adjusted a few angles to be smoother, and that solved it; the problem became doable for novices.

I also couldn’t make the problem too lengthy, again because most beginners haven’t the endurance to deal with an extended overhang. So the problem peters out after not going anywhere exciting. If it were twice as long, it would make for a nice warmup.

During the comp I watched this problem specifically, and was gratified to see climbers on it, sometimes falling off, but ultimately mostly completing it.

#19 - Yellow (green tape)
The blue volume is the highlight of this V3. (Though if you’re short like me you have to fight with the opposing vertical holds, also some good work. I should have moved the start hold further right to force this for everyone)

You have to wrestle with the volume to get to the end. Adrian and Adam removed a foothold I originally placed under the volume. It was an excellent tweak, and really forces the climber to deal with the volume. Thematically the end is like the reverse direction of the Women’s Open problem (pink holds) shown in the same photo.

The tail end of #16 - Grey/Black (beginning not shown)
#16 (about a V3) has a pleasurable sequence at the end where you have to use the (left) triangle volume in a couple of different ways. Approaching from the left, you pull on the spine of the volume as if it was a big hold, moving your feet from the small knob below it (in the yellow paint) to the next foothold out and up to the right. Then you move forcefully upwards into a double gaston, which you must maintain as you shift your body right in order to high-step the left foot onto the side of the volume. After establishing both feet on the side, launch for the finish.

I had originally made the top of the wall the end, but then we moved it down and used a nice soft finishing hold.

#20 - Blue
This one qualitatively turned out very different from what I intended! I wanted to set an elegant, somewhat beta-intensive problem where the climber has to thoughtfully push and pull the corner, in order to get around it.

Instead it climbs very messy and a tad sketchy. The lower hold on the corner is slick and slippery, a real pain to deal with first as a handhold going left around the corner, and then a couple moves later as a foothold when you come back right for the finish.

An ugly problem, but it served its purpose.

Final Thoughts
In general, I had a tough time relaxing and ‘setting loose’. I felt overly self-conscious about balancing the tension of keeping the grading consistent, versus spicing things up. I had to tone down several of the problems because I would lose sight of the audience who would be climbing them. And the pressure of setting in quantity within a given timeframe unnerved me. Although I’m happy with the overall end results, I felt that a couple of my problems (not shown) perhaps leaned towards the mundane, and in that sense I was not entirely satisfied with the expression of my creativity. I was glad that the other setters were there to worry about ‘the big picture’ of where problems fit into the context of the overall competition.

The comp turned out great—there was a solid turnout, and people enjoyed themselves. Crucially (to me, at least), people got on my problems! And within the more-modestly-skilled set of competitors, the problems didn’t all get sent on the first try, nor did they frustrate and bedevil everyone. I saw smiles!

So it was a decent mix.

I want climbers to get something out of the problems, to feel like they’ve accomplished something at the end, that they’ve had to apply their mind and bodies to solve the puzzle.

Big thanks to The Rock Oasis and Karen McGilvray for the unexpected invitation to participate—I had a fantastic time. Thanks to Adam and Adrian for their thoughtful advice and direction, their trust and patience with my setting and questions, and to Don Williams and Dave for forerunning with me. I enjoyed myself.

The problems from the comp are all still up at Oasis, so by all means go and check them out! They’re a lot of fun.

Other Climbing Posts I’ve Written (recent or otherwise)
Hub Climbing in Markham: a great bouldering experience
What is it like to Judge an IFSC Bouldering World Cup?
Why is Tree Climbing Illegal in Toronto?
The Secret Life of Iyma Lamarche, Rock Climber
Hurrah For The Ontario Access Coalition