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Routesetting at Skyhook Bouldering-The ultimate experience for discerning climbers and gumbies alike

Updated: Jan 20

Routesetting is more art than science, but when its good, its good, when its mediocre... its bad.

What is routesetting?

If you are new to climbing, you might be wondering what routesetting is. A routesetter is someone whose job it is to create the fun bouldering and rope climbing problems that are fun, interesting, and just challenging enough to keep you coming back, all while teaching you how to climb in the process. Routesetting is the act of putting climbing holds and volumes up on the climbing wall, in a way that provides an appropriate level of challenge for the grade, in an interesting way. A route should be a fun mental and physical problem, that you as a climber figure out how to solve, by getting to the top of the wall, or the end of the problem.

To put it another way, A Routesetter is like a chef

When you step into Skyhook Bouldering, you're not just entering a climbing gym; you're embarking on an adventure. Just as a chef creates delicious dishes from carefully selected ingredients, our routesetters craft thrilling climbing experiences using holds and volumes as their artistic palette. In this blog post, we'll take you behind the scenes and explore the fascinating world of routesetting at Skyhook bouldering, in South East Portland

The Gym as a Restaurant: Imagine our gym as a restaurant, with climbers as the patrons eagerly awaiting their unique dining experience. The routesetters are our chefs, and the walls are their culinary canvas. Just as a chef curates a menu, our routesetters curate climbing routes that cater to various tastes and preferences.

An older ugly wall
A great route can be had on an old wall, but its much harder for the setter.

A great route can be climbed on old, ugly walls, but walls can drastically impact the quality of a route, from too little texture, not being flat enough for modern macros (large holds) and volumes, to being overly featured which leads to challenges in keeping routes from feeling stale.

In this analogy, if the gym is the restaurant, and the routesetters are the chef, the climbing walls are a combination of the plating process, and part of the ingredients or cooking implements used to make the food. Some of the best food you eat might come from a hole in the wall restaurant, but a michelin star chef with the highest quality ingredients and sous chefs will have an easier time providing consistent quality.

The Ingredients of Climbing: Holds and Volumes: In the kitchen, chefs rely on a variety of ingredients to create diverse and delicious meals. Similarly, our routesetters depend on a diverse selection of holds and volumes. These climbing "ingredients" come in different shapes, sizes, and textures, allowing our routesetters to concoct routes that are both challenging and enjoyable. We aid in this process by being careful with our initial order of holds and volumes. Poorly curated hold selections can plague gyms for years, sharp, uncomfortable holds that cause finger tweaks might remain in rotation for far to long, because setters are loath to throw anything away if they don't have a good ongoing hold budget.

A sharp broken hold
A sharp hold... Might have been less sharp before it broke but....

The Creative Process: From Vision to Reality: Routesetting is a creative process that begins with a vision. Our routesetters visualize the climbing experience they want to offer and then carefully select the holds and volumes that will bring that vision to life. Just as a chef combines ingredients to craft a harmonious dish, our setters arrange holds and volumes to form engaging and dynamic climbing routes. To help give our setters all the tools they could want, we purchased more than 80% of our holds from Europe, with help from an amazing setter who used to work at Skyhook but is now head setter for two different gyms in Germany.

A picture of the setter who helped us with our Euro order.
Thanks Riley, you rock! Cant wait to have you back for our opening set!

He helped us select the best holds that haven't really been seen much in the American market. Why don't more gyms import holds? European holds are more expensive, and they take as much as 8 months to arrive depending on the brand. Plus dropping tens of thousands of dollars on holds that you personally haven't touched or set with before can be a scary prospect for many setters. Gym owners often don't want the additional expense, and hold budgets are frequently the first thing cut when gyms start running into issues. We avoided these problems by ordering our holds almost a year ago, and some of the order is still trickling in even now!

Balancing Difficulty and Enjoyment: The Climber's Palate: Much like a chef ensures that a meal is flavorful yet not overly spicy or bland, our routesetters aim to strike the perfect balance between difficulty and enjoyment. They consider the climber's palate, offering routes that cater to beginners, intermediate climbers, and seasoned pros.

We will be doing a post specifically on the pros and cons of circuit grading soon, and you can learn more on what that will look like in our next post!

The Art of Surprise: Adding Spice to Climbing: Great chefs know that a dash of surprise can elevate a dish. Similarly, our routesetters sprinkle surprises throughout the routes—unexpected holds, unique sequences, and creative challenges—to keep climbers engaged and excited.

Part of how we can keep things interesting and engaging for our climbers is by having plenty of volumes. A volume is a removable wood or fiberglass shape that is made for other holds to be attached to and is treated like part of the climbing wall, meaning its on for every route near it. Walls designed for modern gyms have large flat wall sections, to make it easier for setters to use volumes to keep the wall itself fresh and help the routes stay fun and interesting.

A climbing wall with a lot of volumes.
The large trriangles, octogons, wedges and other things attached to the bouldering wall at our Tigard location give an idea of some of the unique volumes we made when we were first starting out!

Most gyms the size of Skyhook Bouldering, at least here in Portland, have around 100 or so volumes. We plan to open with 400 plus volumes. We have been heavily inspired and influenced by Seattle Bouldering Project, which we think is one of the best gyms in the USA, and their heavy use of volumes. They have an in house team that makes their volumes, with input from their setters. We do the exact same thing, and our setters help our build team design and come up with amazing volumes you wont find anywhere else. This also allows us to create less waste as we refurbish and breath new life into volumes as they age and wear.

Community Feedback: Our Tasting Panel: Just as a restaurant values feedback from its patrons, we welcome input from our climbing community. Climbers' feedback helps us refine our routes and ensure they meet the expectations of our diverse clientele. Most setters love the art they create, and love nothing more than setting. Here at Skyhook Bouldering we try to give the setters every possible tool they could need to make the best possible routes for our customers, and the feedback we get shows that.

Conclusion: At Skyhook Bouldering, climbing is more than just a sport; it's a sensory experience where routesetting becomes a form of artistry. Our routesetters are dedicated to crafting routes that are as satisfying as a gourmet meal. We invite you to join us on this climbing journey, where every ascent is a delicious adventure. Want to learn more about the grading of routes at Skyhook Bouldering? Click here to read our post about it!

Stay tuned for more updates on our gym's grand opening, and we look forward to serving you a delectable climbing experience!

Climb together, Reach Higher


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