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How Climbing Routes Are Set: Interview with Team USA Chief Route Setter Mike Bockino

Have you ever been climbing and wonder why is that climbing hold placed there? Or maybe you’re watching a competition and wondering why that foothold has that specific angle?

Every handhold and foothold has been placed on the spot and in that position on purpose. It has a reason.

To learn more about route setting I reached out to I think is the best route setter in the business, Mike Bakino, the Chief Route Setter for Team USA. Bakino has been setting routes for World Cups and commercially for years now and he was kind enough to give us some of his juicy secrets when it comes to route setting.

The process for setting a route

There isn’t a standard process for route setting. I teach a lot of route-setting clinics and we don’t really teach the process at all. It’s more of a methodology for how to go about attaining the goal of separating the competitors and not having ties while having a fair route.

My process for route setting has changed a lot over the years. I used to have a process where, at least for routes, I would pretty much try to map out the route before I left the ground. We used to we set on a rope, so we’d be jugging up and down a rope to set the route.

The process definitely changes from setting on a rope to setting in a lift. There’s a lot more room for creativity when you’re setting from a lift because you can bring up big holds and volumes and big fiberglass things that are you can do it on a route.

With setting on a rope, it takes all day to set a route like that because everything is so heavy. And it takes multiple trips down to the ground and backup.

My process is probably one of the least efficient ways at this point, I just kind of start putting holes on the wall without a lot of plan. And then as you’re forerunning, I dial-in exactly how the route is going to climb.

It’s not nearly as thought out as most people think. And I think that’s a product of more experience, though, because I think a lot of people when they first start out, if they try to do that, it’s a disaster.

When I started, I would have holds stacked in a bucket that was like these holds go at the top, these holes go in the middle of these holes go at the bottom, and then just pull holds off the top of the bucket and put them on the wall as I went up.

How holds are chosen for a route

In general, no matter what the grade, if it’s like 5.6 or 5.14, it’s going to be easier than the rest of the route for the first two to three bolts to so nobody falls on the ground. Then usually, I’ll have some idea of what I want to do for the style of climbing.

If I want to have a really technical style throughout the first third of the route, and then a really powerful style that’s going to affect my hold selection for those sections of the route.

If it’s going to be really technical, I’ll probably have really small holds and really small feet, forcing you to do a lot of really intense footwork.

And then as it goes into a different style, it’ll be maybe bigger, slopey holds that you have to squeeze and compress and pinch and things like that.

Sometimes putting some special move at some section of wall. For example, if you set in a specific gym long enough, you learn what movements are conducive to what angle changes and sections of the wall and things like that.

You’ll see this in a lot of gyms, especially commercially where you’ll not so much do the same move but the same style of movement in a certain section, whether it’s on a bouldering wall or a route wall.

If it’s a really sharp angle change, you’ll likely see a foot cut and then you put your foot up next to your hand and kind of rock over your foot. That happens a lot. But it’s really a product of the terrain and then what is the most interesting thing to set.

Mike Bockino’s favorite move to set

For me, it’s not a comp move. It’s not really that interesting but there is a boulder problem in Bishop California called The Specter and it’s a really steep part of boulder and it requires a lot of tension – you do this kind of jump move. It’s not like you’re not jumping, you’re releasing your feet and grabbing a hold.

I really like setting those types of moves.

Because I’ve set and been the chief route setter for youth bouldering nationals, I think I’ve set it seven or eight times now, you get into a lot of fairness issues because no kid who’s 13 is the same size as his friend who’s also 13.

I think that’s influenced my route setting style where setting actual jump moves like dinos and stuff, I don’t really do that often because it’s just been built into me that it’s not fair.

But the kind of move where it’s not a jump move, but your feet leave the foothold and then you grab a hold and initiate this really hard-to-hold swing is more interesting to me.

I really like climbing in that style too and I think that move is maybe the only move that I can think of that I’ve set multiple times on purpose. That’s probably the move that I enjoy setting the most because it’s it’s not hard but it’s really hard to do.

The difference between routes for youth and adults

The difference with youth and adult routes is there’s a lot more emphasis on fairness and height discrepancy with youth.

There is height discrepancies with adult climbers – the classic example in the US is Kai Lightner, Drew Juana or Shawn Bailey. But you have that height discrepancy in almost every category for youth so you have someone who’s 10 inches taller than the other competitor.

With youth, there is an everybody jumps or nobody jumps mentality. It’s a lot more difficult to make those types of things fair so setting a big jump move is inherently unfair.

We try to get around it by setting routes where the feet are really bad and as soon as you latch the holds, your feet come off the wall. Then the difficulty is holding the swing, rather than getting to the hold.

It’s a balance of difficulty with reach, basically.

How routes are set fairly

There’s fairness in competition, which is obviously, very, very important because it’s the route setters’ job to create this playing field. It’s similar to creating the soccer stadium, or the football field, or the baseball diamond, except those are all measured and are all exactly the same size, probably within inches.

Route setting in climbing is the exact opposite of that. I have lots of conversations with friends where we’ll be talking about who’s going to win the Olympics and the answer is always ‘it really depends on the setting.’

Even if every move is completely fair, it’s still going to depend on the setting because it’s going to help or it’s going to favor one climber stylistically, ending on what style is set the most.

Climbing is an inherently unfair sport.

In competition, the focus is on fairness of movement, not so much fairness of style. If someone is bad at a particular style, that’s not the fault of the route setters as long as it’s fair for all body shapes and sizes.

That being said, obviously, the finals boulders at the Olympics aren’t going to be three slabs or three steep boulders jumps. They’re gonna try to make a round that is diverse. There’ll be something steep, something slabby and something in the middle.

I ran a route-setting program at The Front in Salt Lake for eight or nine years and fairness there is basically the same as a youth comp. We would always talk about how is this person going to climb it. For example a five foot tall woman who climbs 5.11 and is super strong and capable, if they can’t reach holds, they just can’t reach holds and it doesn’t matter how strong you are.

So in the commercial sense, it’s more of a user experience and customer satisfaction type of thing, not so much actual fairness. It mostly needs to be accessible. If it’s not accessible to them, then it isn’t fair.

Fairness, in a commercial sense, is just as important as competition setting because those climbers are paying your salary and benefits and time off and all that sort of stuff.

What to do if you’re struggling with sequencing a route

Find a friend, make a new friend. Someone’s always gonna have a different idea of what the beta is for a route or a boulder than you do.

Watching other people climb, definitely, you learn so much just watching other people. That’s one thing that we used to do as employees at the gym is once a month, I would just sit on a couch in the bouldering gym with another route setter and watch people climb. We’d talk about how that climber is not doing what we thought they would because the move isn’t intuitive, or we’d see that that person can’t reach that hold – that sort of stuff.

I think even as a climber, you can watch other climbers and you can learn, maybe not so much in the sense of how they do it but what they do.

You can watch the stronger climbers in the gym. If you’re a beginner, in all likelihood, the strong climbers in the gym are going to be warming up on the things that you’re projecting so you’ll get to see a lot of people climb on them.

It might be really helpful for you to see how they move and identify ‘oh I move my foot before I go to that hold’ so my foot’s already up there and I don’t have to do this awkward foot match when I’ve all stretched out that.’

Even for myself, I do this at the bouldering gym, I go in and I’ll warm up and then identify basically, everything in my range of flashing on a new set of boulders or a new route. I treat it more or less like in a comp but I don’t tiere myself completely but I’ll give myself three or four tries on an individual boulder. I really like to do that mostly because it helps from a route setting sense.

I think it also helps get you in the mindset of how competitions actually feel and how hard you’re trying on each attempt.

No matter what your level of climbing is, you can go into the gym and do this: If there’s a new set of boulders, warm up on the old boulder problems, then try like every new boulder three times. And try as hard as you can. Review the boulder really well before climbing and look for moves and the intended beta – what looks like a toe hook or a heel hook, and then attempt the route.

That’s more or less, what the top-level athletes do. They go out and they preview their finals boulders and they have an idea of what’s going to happen but you never know until they actually get on the climb.

I think it’s it’s good practice to keep in mind for myself as a route setter that even if you have an idea of what the boulder is going to feel like, it can feel much different.

Depending on the sequence that you choose or the body position that you end up in, a lot of times, you’ll end up doing a move in a much easier way but then you’re stuck and you can get to the hold but then you can’t go anywhere and can’t move. Then you’re like okay, well that didn’t work. So now I know. I have to Just do it this really hard way and then you know that it works.

With lead climbing, it’s usually more like, okay, here’s the sequence. If you ever watched lead comps, you’ll see athletes doing their miming and it looks like they’re just paddling through the water with their hands. More or less, that’s reading the lead route and it’s definitely a little bit easier than bouldering routes.

There’s less room for super crazy moves on lead because you get one try. It’s not like five minutes of trying on a boulder. If there are multiple tries and lead, then you would see that difference coming through in route setting where it’s less of endurance-based in sequencing as it is a pass fail type of move.

We talk about that sort of things when we’re route setting. Is someone gonna figure this out in one try? Or even with bouldering, are they gonna figure this out in four minutes?

All these variables are taken into consideration. It’s also our job to push the limits of what people can do in one try or in four minutes. Sometimes you nail it, and sometimes you don’t and then it looks like you suck at your job.

What happens when a route setter fails?

If you’re like, I’m going to try to set this new move, or I’m going to try to do this thing and it doesn’t work, the amount of outside negative feedback that you get is usually 5-10% as much as you’re telling yourself that you suck.

It’s like you go out with this idea and you’re like, ‘okay, I figured it out. It works. It works. It works.’ And no one does it, you start rethinking everything. It’s, it’s a interesting process in that respect.

I mean, no one is usually outwardly, aggressive but the internet is the internet and people with alias and private accounts like to say lots of mean things to lots of people about pretty much anything. So yeah. Lots and lots of experience.

How Does Someone Become A Professional Route Setter for Team USA?

I started this route-setting 21 years ago. I took a level two clinic with at USA climbing, we do level one clinics, level two clinics, and then everything else from there is like a practical, experiential advancement process. I took a level two clinic in 2009. And I set my first national in 2013. I did a national chief practical in 2018.

From the first day that I route set to the time that I became a national chief route setter, I had 18 years of setting experience.

Not full time during the first five to eight years, but a lot of competitions and a lot of failure and learning. A lot of time spent putting holds on the wall and then taking them off the wall.

For the national team, national championships and World Cups and things like that, there’s definitely a prerequisite level of climbing that’s usually necessary, just because to forerun things at that level, you have to be able to climb close to that level.

I would say though, one of the things that I’ve noticed and learned in the last two or three years is the fact that there’s absolutely no reason that for any of the routes, you should be able to do all the moves.

All the competitors are so much better than us. So much stronger, so much better. But that’s also a point where as long as you have all that experience and you have an idea of the the level of the competitors, you don’t necessarily have to be as strong.

It’s helpful to be able to climb that at a higher level to set in for that those events. That makes perfect sense and I appreciate that understanding.

A lot of times we see commercial settings, and oftentimes the route setters are more than capable of climbing them but for competitions, you’re literally setting for the best climbers in the world.

Most of the route setters climb at an incredibly high, elite level. The top route setters in the US have climbed V13, V14 and hard 5.14. Competitors are flashing or they’re doing that level in one or two tries.

They’re way better than us. Sometimes we think, ‘yeah, one of them could do that move’ and then 25 of them do it.

I had a very good experience in Vail a couple years ago with a men’s qualifier with this jump move that I tried probably like 100 times. I got super, super close to doing but I never did it. And then I think it got done by like 28 competitors, and a lot of them did it first try. They’re so good. And so strong.

I mean, that was a qualifier with the idea that it would have like, you know, 30-50% tops throughout the round. That was a success.

So for the route in Vail, if it had been the hardest qualifier and that many people did it, then it would have been not a success. However, it fit in where it was supposed to fit in so it was it was good.

I think the biggest thing, regardless of the number of tops from competitors that I personally took away from that event, was the reaffirming of the idea that I don’t have to do all the moves. It adds to your level of experience, keeping the idea of how hard was that move in the back of your mind and then how many people did it and how quickly they did it. Then in the next comp, you can be like, oh, okay, well, they did a move a little bit easier than this one, but a ton of them did it, so this one is fine.

A day in the life as a route setter for TEAM USA

There are three US setters and four IFSC setters, which one of the IFSC route setters happens to be a US setter. The chief route setter for IFSC is from Poland.

With most chief route setters from IFC that I’ve worked with, we will probably get to the wall by 8:30 or 9:00. Usually, there’s a short conversation about who’s setting what, where. Someone will write things down on a ripped-off box top or something, have a little diagram of the wall or a whiteboard with the style that they’d like to see in that zone and the number of tops or the percentage.

There’s very little “you should try to set this move.’ It’s more like ‘yeah, I’ll set something dynamic,’ or ‘I’ll set something super weird or coordination’ and then you go off and find the volumes that you want to use and holds you want to use.

In general like my setting style at this point is, especially for boulders, unless I have a move that I want to try them make work, which usually takes a really really long time, I’ll kind of just put things on the wall without like thinking about how it’s gonna climb in so much of that sense.

Then as I’m forerunning, I’ll add volumes or add screw-ons or something like that to make it the right level of difficulty that actually functions as a boulder.

We’ll set one round a day. We start setting at 9:00-9:30 and we’re done putting holes on the wall by like 11:00. The holds usually go on the wall super fast. When you’re working with people at that level, it doesn’t take very long and most people will have like a skeleton of a boulder up in an hour or two.

Then it’s hours of forerunning, like four to six hours of climbing a day.

Then we’ll tick all the holds with sharpies and take pictures of them, then take them off the wall.

The forerunning process for these events is definitely the bulk of the time because it’s such a high level of accuracy or our estimated accuracy. Because no one ever knows what’s going to happen until it happens, the estimated accuracy needs to be as high as possible at these types of events. So the forerunning is definitely very, very good and methodical and analytical.

It’s also just a very long process. We’ll probably start setting on a Sunday, sometimes on Monday. And the qualifiers on Friday.

Basically, every day is the same thing. Get up, put holds on the wall forerun for a really long time, take the holes off the wall, and then just kind of repeat that throughout the week.

Obviously, there’s like a ton of conversation between route setters but we’re not talking about specific athletes and we don’t usually do a ton of ‘do you think this person will do this move.’

When it comes to setting finals boulders, we’re definitely thinking about things like the show. How is it going to look? Is it going to be a really cool move to watch happen?

Then as the rounds go from qualifiers to semis to finals, consider the trends of what’s happened in the last few years. There are more holds in qualifiers and there are a few more volumes and some more fiberglass in semi-finals and then the finals are like these gigantic volume fiberglass creations that look very visually appealing.

I wouldn’t say there’s a plan for that throughout the week but it usually just happens because when we go to set up for the finals, everyone wants to set a boulder that looks like a finals boulder. Not like a qualifier.

it’s just it’s a repeated process, day in and day out and then like in most competitions are that way. But it’s also super fun.

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