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Are We Just Thugs?

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Current trends in route setting or the American way?

As an alpine climber and guide I learned and later taught the three standard techniques for walking up steep snow slopes using crampons. The three techniques are as follows: The German technique, the French technique, and the American technique. As in the alpine world the current indoor route setting trends in each of these countries seems to be clearly defined by very different styles.

As an American route setter and frequent competition climber, I’ve noticed for a while that the trends of modern day American style route setting are dramatically different from those in Europe. European climbers for example consider American style routes to be overhung burly problems consisting of more then 10 moves. They think of American routes to be campus style problems or V hard pinch and compression routes up a 45 degree wall.

For the most part I think this accurately describes not only the problems most American route setters like to set but also what most male American competitors like to climb on. I have been witness to many American climbers complaining about comp problems that were too slab oriented or required more precision and balance then brute force.

The question is not whether American route setting is thugy or not but why has American route setting evolved into the thugy form its taken on today. The adopted trend of setting in America tends to focus on problems with big footholds, ergonomically shaped holds that are comfortable to grip and the placement of holds oriented in very comfortable positions. Setters focus on the flow of a route and concern themselves about preventing injury in our gyms by avoiding awkward hold placements or tweak prone shapes like pockets. Due to these considerations, in order to create difficult problems setters seek the steeper terrain and use holds which require intense shoulder, core, and pinch strength. Setters then grade problems based almost entirely on physical exertion and ignore the boulder problem’s other potential attributes like balance, body tension, and complexity of movement. This grade trend is what feeds into the beast of thugy American style setting, because clearly if it doesn’t require as much physical strength than it couldn’t possible be harder. Thus, American gyms also tend to have higher percentages of steeper terrain, less volumes (which create less steepness), more moves (to tax the body and create more physical exertion), and bigger feet (because we’re focused more on physical exertion than body tension, and of course if the feet are too small then clearly someone can just campus the route and it’ll get downgraded).

In Europe things are a little different and the competition circuit reflects this. Americans tend to get shut down in European competitions because the setting is vasty different and focused more on route reading, balance, precision, body tension, and grip strength. There are 2 main trends involved and I will explain these trends and the difference between the German style setting versus the French style of setting.

In Germany, routes are super technical. They requiring very thoughtful body positioning, utilize terrible feet, and force the climber to apply more pressure to the footholds and think about the foot placements. Every gym has tons of volumes and at least half of the bouldering terrain is either low angle, slab, or vertical. The average length of a German boulder problem is under 8 moves and the setters use specific themes to engage the climber into each problem. Since the problems are so much shorter its easier to create problems that are very different from one another and they tend to set more interesting lower grade problems than American setters. Movement tends to trend on requiring less physical brute strength, but requires complex body movement, precision, and balance. There is more of an emphasis on creating new movement and pushing the bounds of what’s possible. This style of setting focuses on grading problems more on the difficulty of attaining the finish then on pure physical exertion, and weigh grades on complexity and body position as well as physical strength. This setting trend has led to a competitive team that consistently preforms extremely well on the European circuit.

 

France on the other hand seems to ignore modern day American setting standards and maintains an older ethos about creating movement. French style problems are less about ergonomics and fluidity, and more about themed climbing which require difficult moves. They take a “deal with it” attitude and tend to be purists in the sense that their problems are more like outdoor style problems. The difficulty of the climb might be because the foothold just isn’t there or the next hold is turned in a way which doesn’t feel quite right or is the wrong way entirely. This type of setting forces a more strait forward type of climb and the difficulty is based on its raw form modeling outdoor problems and the way natural rock forces the limitations upon us to overcome. This style of route setting forces climbers to develop excellent micro beta and pushes climbers past their comfort zone and keeps them on a problem when others would hop off and wonder what they were doing wrong.

These three setting trends or the hybrids of these trends predominately make up the way most gyms operate their route setting program. To summarize, the American route setters favor longer steeper problems which flow well due to ergonomic shapes and hold placements. The German setters love volumes and creating complex movements which force body tension and balance and precision over brute strength. Lastly, the French setters prefer movement that forces climbers to adapt to less than ideal situations and mimic more realistic outdoor movements.

Although there are certainly merits to all three techniques, just as in the alpine techniques I touched upon earlier, it would appear that under the surface there’s a reason these styles have developed nationally for these three countries. Since I make no claims to be an expert in the social dynamics of the French or German cultures I will refrain from looking at how those setting trends developed over seas and focus on the American version of route setting.

What I propose is that American setting trends could be a reflection of how we see and interact with our world. One could correlate that the comfortable ergonomic movements and flow of American setting could reflect the comfort that Americans strive to achieve, i.e. the comfortable house, car, or job. The flashy moves of our setting could also reflects the glamor and instant gratification hungered after by our culture. The steepness and grade bias towards brute physical strength could reflect our deep roots in the belief that the strong will survive and those with the bigger guns will dictate the rules. Could also the fact that we set with large footholds reflect the idea that we hold on to the belief that we are in control, that we like if not need to feel secure? And lastly, might it be that we set long sustained problems to satisfy the ingrained mentality that working long and hard at something is the only way to get ahead in life?

 

Perhaps this is all a bit of a stretch, perhaps I’m reading way to much into the possibility that our social memes and ideas play a greater role in our expression of who we are then is actually true. Or perhaps we as Americans really love the idea put forth by Tupac Shakur, that a thugs life is when you have nothing and succeed, when you have overcome all obstacles to reach your aim.

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