Last weekend, I got the chance to try out some “route setting” with a friend.
For every route on every climbing wall, some wonderfully dedicated soul has spent a long time in a harness, up a ladder, hanging off a hold and other various methods, bolting and occasionally screwing those pieces of plastic onto the wall. Not only that, but they’ve taken the time to place and rotate them in a very specific way. A select few make a career out of route setting.
While I’ve not been looking to hang up my testing hat and permanently put on a harness, it’s something I’ve been very keen to try. There’s something in the design of a thing which other people get to experience, play around with, be delighted/frustrated by, that really appeals. When I was very young, I used to design board games on large squared paper or with cork boards and drawing pins on the floor of my bedroom before my parents woke. Some years later, it was computer games (aside: I once had my work published as a magazine’s free floppy disk giveaway). Later still, I designed tracks for a racing sim game (aside: I won competitions for those!). At all of those times and types of design, I loved putting myself in someone else’s head, thinking through how they’d experience those things, what they’d like, what wouldn’t work for them and so on and this was only surpassed by actually seeing those reactions to what I’d built. The feedback was useful too, either helping refine the design into a finished product or affecting subsequent new products. So designing routes for climbers feels right up my street.
On the weekend, we were route setting on a MoonBoard, which is a ~5*5m square piece of wood, set at a 40 degree overhang with a lot of holds attached to it. The clever thing is, it’s all predefined and so there are hundreds of these identically created MoonBoards all over the world. With some LEDs lit up below a specific subset of the holds, routes can be designed, saved and shared. So, you can set a route, share it with someone in Australia and both start working away on the same problem.
The interesting part was that after turning a few LEDs on and off, adjusting the holds away from “so small you can’t see it let alone hold onto it” to “the biggest one on the wall but it’s still ugly and you wouldn’t normally choose to use it” we got to do some testing! After all, it’s no good setting a route that:
- Nobody can do
- Isn’t close to the labelled grade
- Isn’t safe
- Isn’t “fun” (OK, that’s hard to define, but some routes are definitely more fun than others and it’s not related to how difficult/thrilling/etc. they are)
Combined, we’ve got around 8 years of climbing experience but can barely manage a single move on any problem on this massively overhanging board, so pre-release testing was going to be hard, let alone even setting a route in the first place. How did we start setting it? Quite simply, we tried picking the biggest, chunkiest, juggiest holds there were, lit them up on the wall and started seeing how it felt to climb.
Frankly, it felt horrific. We could barely lift ourselves off the floor, let alone take a limb away from the wall to move it to another position, so bit by bit we removed holds and added new ones, seeing what worked for the two of us. Gradually, we started to find sequences and positions that felt like they might work. Of the roughly five moves it would take to complete, we were able to do two – although it would be fair to note that they weren’t even moves that were strung together. We had to start halfway through in order to achieve either.
At this point, things would’ve been tricky to test. It was a bit like asking a pair of developers to try testing some software they’ve partly written without a spec, for a product they don’t understand. Thankfully, we were unexpectedly joined by a tester in the shape of a climbing instructor and route setter.
It was probably less of a reflection on our route setting ability and more on how difficult this board is, that our “professional tester” also struggled. After a couple of tries, we got some feedback and suggestions – this move doesn’t feel right with your feet over there, why don’t you switch the finish hold at the top to that one, and so on. Like some sort of agile team, we iteratively modified the route, worked together testing the moves out, gave feedback to each other on setting and climbing and came up with The Plough. You can go and try it out yourself, if you’ve got a MoonBoard to hand.
A couple of days later, we found a few others had completed the problem that we had set, somewhere around the world, and rated it highly – 3 stars out of 3. Not bad, eh? It felt good too, to know we’d done something people liked. It had a familiar feeling of joy to it, knowing we’d built something others were finding fun. As for the development and testing of it, I think we all enjoyed that as well, at least up until the point the skin started to peel off our destroyed hands.
(Final note: I really enjoyed “setting” on the MoonBoard, but I found it slightly limiting. After all, there’s a set position for all these holds so there’s a limit to any creativity you can have. Our other problem? We’re not really at the sort of grade the wall is aimed at – the lowest route you can set is a V3, and that’s usually around our limit of what we can climb on a really, really good day.)