Setting the Stage
Between now and mid-January, we will host a bouldering competition at one of the two MetroRock gyms every 2-4 weeks, a total of 5 events in 4 months. Unlike a racetrack or an arena, where the playing field need only be maintained, a climbing competition requires a whole new set of challenges each and every time. We set all new problems--everything from the v0s for the novices to the v10+ for the pro finals—for each event. Wiping the slate clean gives each comp gets its own set of routes or “problems” to insure that climbers have something new to work on. If you estimate 10-15 holds per problem and about 75 qualifying problems and 18 finals problems per event, that’s more than a thousand holds which need to be taken down, washed, put back on the walls, tweaked, tested and repositioned before we’re ready for competition.
It may just look like plastic bolted to an angled wall, but putting the right hold in the right place is an artful craft. It is a labor of love brought to you by a team of chalky warriors armed with sick beta, twisted notions and power tools. The work begins the weekend before each event when the boulder areas get stripped and prepped for the new sets.
Some of this is straightforward—with experienced setters many problems go up quickly and work well with very little revision. Others, in particular the finals, are more complicated. After the initial set, forerunners work the route to make sure it goes, it isn’t too reachy (especially for youth problems) and that it feels and looks good. A good problem is appropriately difficult, feels good to climb and has strong aesthetic value as it is being climbed. A lot of tweaking takes place, especially for finals problems. At the end of the day when the pros take to the stage, the whole crowd is watching, the cameras are rolling and there’s no room for mediocrity! This is why it may take our lead setters several days to put up just a handful of problems.
When a bunch of setters are going at once, the gym fills with the drone of power tools, whoops of joy, the occasional curse, bump’n music and the muffled thwump of holds landing on the soft floor. The area around the boulders is roped off and littered with holds, bolts, tape, ladders and tools like some bizarre crime scene. It’s a week full of ups and downs with small victories, minor setbacks, lots of laughs and milestones marked with tape, chalk, plastic and plaster. At times, a strange vibe comes through the gym and a funny sort of elation takes hold as the caffeine kicks in, the music hits the right beat and frustration gives way to pure, free-flowing energy. In these moments the setting becomes a little easier and the problems get more creative.
You may hear complaints about how exhausted we are by the end of the week but on comp day, when we see climbers enjoying the results, it’s all worth it. As a creative act, setting is a strange collaboration between people who may never meet; like setting a stage for unseen actors to perform on. We put the holds up but you put on the show and whether it’s just a handful of people watching during qualifiers or hundreds of spectators during finals the climbing is what brings you to the comp. We just make sure the problems are worthwhile.
All this takes a lot of hard work by a lot of people. By the end of the week, exhaustion takes hold but until that last problem is run, the last loose bolt picked up and route placards are all in place, we keep going. There is no rest until Saturday night when the climbers have left, the room is cleaned up and the celebration begins. Then a few days later, we start gearing up for the next one!