When it comes to climbing, I’m not a good spectator. I find super-fit people inching their way up walls of rock or plastic about as interesting as watching a bean sprout, but the first World Cup bouldering competition I saw, in Arco, Italy, in 2013, changed my mind forever.
The first competitor, Adam Ondra, stepped out of iso, wisps of thistle-thin hair cavorting around his head. He looked like a teenaged Einstein with a neck like a Tula goose.
Ondra gripped two tiny holds on the 40-degree wall and threw himself sideways, feet banking off three blue-comma volumes. He literally skipped across the overhanging wall and caught his swing with a preternatural toe hook. It looked impossible but somehow he’d done it. The crowd roared. Ondra looked out at the crowd and roared. I roared. Everybody was roaring. There was an electric connection between the crowd and the climber. In a way, the crowd became Ondra and Ondra became the crowd. I’d never experienced anything quite like it, and I was instantly hooked on World Cup bouldering.
Ondra glanced down at a ginger-haired, skinny guy and yelled again. The skinny guy was beaming.
“Who’s that?” I asked a reporter from Gory, a Polish climbing mag.
The reporter shrugged and replied in accented English, “I don’t know who he is. He is the route setter.”
At present there are about 30 IFSC- certified World Cup route setters. These are the guys (and one girl so far) who set the 12 World Cups every year, the wizards who, with a soft-impact drill and a bunch of holds, make the magic. Recently, I reached out to four of the best—Katja Vidmar, Chris Danielson, Jacky Godoffe, and Manuel Hassler, and asked them to give me the lowdown on World Cup route setting.
Chris Danielson, 42, is the senior U.S. route setter and an IFSC Chief Route Setter. He’s set 18 World Cups. “Munich will be 19, and Vail will be 20,” he says. “I’m strictly a boulderer. Got hooked on bouldering after a ’95 trip to Hueco. Maybe it’s the attention span, or the diversity of moves.”
In 2000, Danielson was accepted into a Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago and got his Masters in Social Science with emphasis on philosophy and political theory. “I focused on academic pursuits for a couple of years,” he says. “But I was always getting jobs at gyms. Sport Rock in DC, Metro Rock in Boston. I always found my way back to climbing.”
How do you set for athletes who climb so much harder than you? Remember, competitors have a much different experience. They only have five minutes per problem. We’re setting nothing even remotely close to V15, more like V6 to maybe V11 or V12. And I’m playing in the moves of these climbs, the team is assessing. Sometimes I get a ladder and imagine or put myself in position and often fail but envision. We also watch each other and gauge the move mentally. Is it gonna be right? Is it gonna be right after the last problem with only five minutes rest?
Does the field of setters have to be international? The IFSC Chief Route Setter cannot be from the host country, and given this requirement alone, it always means there will be setters from at least two countries.
What do you get paid to set a World Cup? About $2,000 for a week of setting, but any comp is really like 70 to 80+ hours of work, not including travel. IFSC setters typically get an average of two comp assignments per year, and most setters work many other comps each year, but no one makes a good living as a competition setter alone. Bottom line: All comp setters at a high level do it out of passion for the sport and certainly not for the money.
How much do you consider the audience/entertainment factor? A lot. It’s not principally about moves, though, as might be the common thought. It’s about the flow of the competition,
the energy, the tension and excitement and connecting the competitors and the audience. Sometimes this happens directly as it relates to specific movements, but it never happens without the tension of competitiveness and the unknown.
What do you think I should write about? You should talk about the variable field of play. There’s no other sport that I can think of that has such a variable field. They change the holes in golf, change gates in ski sports. But the skiers are intended to get down the course. Climbing is much further on the spectrum. The degree to which the course is changed each time is 70 to 80 percent. So the route setter is super important because not only do we create it new every time, but the athletes never try it until the competition.
Describe Parkour/skate style. Not just dynamic, but very dynamic moves where the movement of the feet are coordinated. There’s always a buzz around it. It’s part of the story about how climbing evolved. As bigger holds and pinches were introduced in the late ’90s, new kinds of moves became possible.
What’s your favorite thing about setting? The constant newness and problem solving. I wouldn’t do this without that. Climbing outside, once I understand how it’s done, I’m a little less interested.
Jacky Godoffe, 60, grew up on the outskirts of arguably the best bouldering area on the planet, the forest of Fontainebleau, France, a place he describes as “the lungs of Paris,” where he still resides. “I started very late, around 21 years old, by random, honestly, despite the fact I was living in Font. Not so many climbers at Font in the early 70’s.”
In 1993, Godoffe established one of the hardest problems in the forest at the time, the famous V13 Fatman, and is the man who, in 2004, set the Speed Climbing route that is still in use today. These days Godoffe works at the French Climbing Federation where he teaches climbing.
Favorite outside problem/route? The one that was never sent before.
How long do you get to set a World Cup? In general, we spend five days for setting a normal World Cup with a team of five setters for about 56 problems to set. In the case of a Youth Cup it is a longer process because instead of two categories we have to set for six.
Are there any women World Cup setters? Yes, now we have fortunately some female route setters, but I would say that it is very new and up to the women themselves who did not want to try. Katja Vidmar from Slovenia is now international. From France, Helene Janicot is a junior setter this year, and in the following years I hope more and more will be involved in the game. Anna Galliamova from Russia could be ready soon.
How can you create a “fair” competition given different body sizes and heights? It is one of the crucial points to know every climber’s skills, and size, especially arm span, arm-to -foot span and height in order to make the setting as fair as possible in a round. I would say that now it is, on average, harder to be very tall than to be very small, considering all different styles of setting.
Describe your creative process. I have a goal, but I never know what I will start with. I have many different tricks I can use to approach the setting. An idea of movement, the shape of holds, an idea of an aesthetic line. I try to be as fast as possible for the first draft. Then I have more time to do the adjustments before proposing this setting to the other members of the team. Sometimes I change nothing, but not that often. Most of the time it needs some changes, and in the worst case I have to strip the boulder because it doesn’t fit the goals. With the team we make more specific adjustments to have a better boulder at the end.
How much do you consider the audience/entertainment factor? This is an essential point for the general alchemy of a good competition. Because if spectators are captivated by the game, they share good vibes with the climbers that help them to be better in the moment.
How has route setting evolved over the last 20 years? There has been an evolution of material, especially the development of volumes and innovations like double texture and PU [polyurethane] instead of heavy original holds.
At the very beginning, ranking was very simple. For example, test finger power, body tension, campus moves, jumps, compression, bad foot holds and mantels. Now more and more the styles are mixed, sometimes hard to identify fast, and most of the time the same problem has two different steps. For example, the first step can be powerful biceps movement and the second involves footwork with crimpy moves.
Speak to the evolution of men’s and women’s comp climbing. The women’s evolution has a way more pronounced arc in the past 10 years. I remember really well setting for women at the end of the ’90s. We needed to be able, more or less, to climb the boulders without climbing shoes to be sure they would be doable during the comp. That’s not possible anymore.
In general, for both genders, we play more and more with the doubt factor, setting some problems that are basically impossible to read. You just have to climb and feel what you have to do.
What do you like about route setting? Number one is the emotion shared between climbers, spectators, coaches and judges. Sometimes it happens that everyone almost cries. This is, for me, the sign of a great event.
Manuel Hassler, 38, started climbing when he was 10 years old in the Jura region of Switzerland. He was light and strong, and it wasn’t long before he was competing at the international level. He immediately gravitated to route setting and shaping. At 12 he was playing around in his father’s workshop, “experimenting with polyester resin,” using bowls and dishes as molds, adding salt for texture. “Manu” set his first World Cup when he was 24.
Hassler is also a strong outdoor climber with V14/15 first ascents and repeats of some of Switzerland’s most iconic problems like Heritage (V14) in Valle Bavona and Veccio Leone (V13) in Brione Ticino.
How do you get to be a World Cup route setter? An IFSC pool of setters chooses the best aspirant setters. The criteria are: Very good climbing level, female setters and a good international diversity. The plan is to have one new setter coming into the IFSC each year.
Who are the best route setters in the world right now? It’s a teamwork job. You can be the best route setter in the world, but if you can’t involve your team the right way in the work process, you’re not gonna be good. You have to be able to motivate your team, make them give everything they have and create a great atmosphere where everybody is able to express him or herself best.
How can you create a “fair” competition given different body sizes and heights? You make sure that every problem is set in a way that everybody can play in it. But sometimes taller guys have a small advantage, sometimes it’s the opposite. I think it’s better not being too tall for this sport. We are always afraid about the advantage of a tall person, but these people don’t perform better than others.
Any climbers who are difficult to set for? Girls. The density of strong girls went higher the past years, but there is still a big gap between the very strong ones and the rest of the field. In the men’s category the density of strong climbers is huge, and everybody ranked between one to 50 could potentially win. It’s really hard to set a final for the top two girls. I don’t like it when they both top all the problems and it comes down to tries. At the same time, when you push a bit too much to avoid a tie, you take the risk of having not many tops, and for sure there will be no tops at all from girls ranked third to sixth. Setting for the girls is a very fine line.
How do you get inspiration? Moves I do in my training, moves I did at competitions which I want to develop more. It’s always a dream to create something totally new. Competitors inspire me while I look at them during their attempts. Maybe their moves don’t work on the problem, but you can see what you need to change to make it work for a future problem. Mistakes, unforeseen moves, or solutions give me a lot of inspiration.
How has comp climbing evolved in the last 20 years? I’ve been setting for maybe 18 years, and when I think about the time before me, yes, it was very different. I think the development of the material is one of the key points. With bigger holds, very tiny footholds and volumes, it changed the gravity point—climbers less close to the wall and less controlled. It allowed a lot more to play with in terms of setting. It was very easy to propose something new, because it was new for everybody. Now it isn’t easy to make new things. More and more we are combining styles. At the same time you need to prepare the climbers before you propose the next level. They need to recognize things quickly and be able to climb all kinds of moves and sequences before you can propose a full version of a complex combined sequence.
Speak to the evolution of coordination versus strength in World Cup setting. For sure coordination evolved much more than pure finger strength. It’s easier to create something more interesting for the audience in terms of show, because the climber moves around more, less static, more risky. I like it when there is something from two or more styles in a single problem and to have an equally balanced round of diverse styles. These days coordination problems are way more physical than they were maybe two years ago. This physicality is probably what’s changed the most, because without any real physical aspect in it, competitors just would have been cruising. They progressed so well in this style because they trained it a lot. That’s why it needed to change and evolve to something a bit different. The climbers can do almost everything and are very quick in understanding what is set. I think the terrain is ready for something new.
What’s the future of climbing competition route setting? The direction of combining different aspects of climbing in a single problem will evolve, but at some point it won’t be enough. Material-wise there will be more and different shapes and textures, walls will change, and I also hope that young route setters will enter the circle and change things, but that’s not really the case right now. In terms of scenario, there is a lot to be done. How do you play with a full round of problems, instead of just single ones? How will they affect the climbers until the last problem, and what should this last problem look like? How can you create an open comp that’s interesting until the very last climber? These are all things that contribute to a great comp and a good show.
Katja Vidmar, 34. This past April, in Moscow, Vidmar became the first woman to act as Chief Route Setter at a World Cup. Vidmar, who grew up in Slovenia, started climbing in 1997 and competed in World Cups for 10 years. Her best finish was second place at the Fiera di Primiero, Italy, Bouldering World Cup in 2008. She’s an avid outdoor climber whose hardest ascent came in 2011 when she topped out the highball Petting With an Alligator (V12) in Maltatal, Austria.
“I love climbing, obviously 🙂 … traveling, nature, dogs and ice cream. What else do I do?” Vidmar asks rhetorically. “Everything I do in my life is connected to climbing. I’m part of the 360holds team (a climbing-holds brand from Slovenia), and this is actually my main job. Today I feel lucky and grateful that I’m able to do what I love, and route setting is one of those things.”
How would you describe yourself? Hardworking, creative and shy.
Where do you live? Postojna, Slovenia.
How hard do you have to climb to set a World Cup? You must be fit enough to be able to test the climbs, feel the level, and adjust the difficulty, but also to be able to climb and set for many days in a row. You need to have a good feeling and understanding of your climbing and the climbing of the competitors.
How many WC setters are there? I think there are about 30 people now and I would say quite a big waiting line.
Are there any women World Cup setters? Last year it was just me from the IFSC and this year Helen Janicot from France is a junior setter and will set a lead World Cup in Inzai. I’m really happy to see more women doing the job. I think it’s really cool when the team is mixed.
How much do you plan before setting a World Cup? For me it’s more about inspiration in the moment. When I see the venue, the wall, the hold selection and the setting plan, I think about what I want to do. If you’re a chief there’s more organizing before the setting starts. In any case, I think about the moves, boulders and climbing constantly. I wouldn’t say that’s planning, more part of preparation or just passion.
What’s the best problem or route you’ve set? It’s something I will set in the future.
Describe your creative process. Being creative is my favorite part of setting. The process depends on many things, and it’s not always the same. For some styles and in some situations, I have a clear idea of the moves I want to set, and other times my process is more spontaneous. I just go with it, and everything happens as I start putting holds on the wall. In general, I try not to overthink things.
How do the rules (four-minute limit, controlled start, bonus etc.) affect your setting? There’re just many things to consider and think about. For 4-minute limit you ask yourself if the problem is too long or too complex or too hard to read, or is it easy but not easy to climb in this time and things like that.
Speak to the evolution of coordination versus strength in World Cup setting. Are you influenced by Parkour/skate? I like the modern dynamic style, it’s impressive. But I like it when it’s not just coordination, when it demands a combination of skills, and it’s more complex than just running on volumes. I think it goes hand in hand more than most people think. To be able to do those coordination moves takes a lot of power, precision, balance and good technique in most cases.
Describe your vision of the perfect competition.
For me a good competition is not just a perfect ranking. It’s having excitement, emotion, unexpected moments, failure, fight, success. To get this, a setting team must take some risk. It’s a very thin line between success and failure.