Written by Keith Erps
Photos by Felipe Colomer
The air is electric. The climbers methodically reach into their chalk bags, pump their arms and still their minds, straining their focus on the sparsely featured wall that is set before them. Eyes twitch back and forth, searching for the line of least resistance as their hands translate the moves into a choreographed dance.
Whether it’s a local comp or a world cup, qualifying rounds or finals, the past weeks, months and years of training have culminated into this single moment. The tension created either leads the climber to meet the moment or watch the experience pass by. The climbers have prepared, but can they perform at the crucial moment? The history of discipline and commitment meet with the focus of that moment. On that one climb. That one move.
These moments spark imagination and inspiration. It’s why the crowd is on their feet, palms sweating. It’s also why we create goals and pick projects. All for that intoxicating collision where past discipline and present moment become a uniquely profound experience.
This is what can be so compelling about competition. It’s this intersection of past investment and present moment that creates a truly unique experience. Competition creates a setting where these experiences happen with regularity.
The moments don’t just unfold and happen after the lights are turned down and the music turned up. They have been mindfully cultivated by a team of setters. There is nuance in delivering an experience that inspires and awes. In a way, it’s much like a story.
The final set is unveiled after it has been carefully shrouded from the public eye. Spectators take their seats and begin to look over the problems on the wall, anticipating the cruxes and trials awaiting for the competitors. The anticipation builds as competitors begin the process of previewing the set.
Murmurs move through the crowd. The setters look for climbers that might find a different approach than they had imagined. Perhaps the dynamic muscled climber will find a certain foothold too nuanced and complex to be worth their time, choosing instead to risk cutting feet through the crux. Maybe a shorter competitor will find an easier time dealing with closely-placed holds on one problem after failing to make a reachy deadpoint on the previous one. The tension builds as all present ask what story will unfold?
The best way to create an experience is by first inundating yourself in it, preferably in a way that expands your mind and stretches your comfort zone. Due to his consistent presence and idealism in the route setting community, Bouldering Project director of setting Tonde Katiyo traveled down to Chile to be the chief setter for the North Face’s Master De Boulder competition in Santiago.
Having already set at dozens of top-level competitions, this wasn’t so much a trip to shake off the rust as it was for Tonde to view another angle of the complexities and inspiration that compose a competition. In addition to passing on his knowledge to a still-developing climbing scene was the freshness of ideas and perspectives that he would be exposed to while leading the team that North Face had assembled.
While working alongside routesetters from Chile, Brazil, and Argentina, new voices entered the eternal dialogue of the philosophies and idiosyncrasies of climbing movement. Every set, every forerunning attempt, every tweak, pushed the conversation forward.
Similar to the circuit-style philosophy at the Bouldering Projects, Tonde guided the team to ask varying questions of the climbers. Could they withstand linking several intense moves in sequence? Did they have the skill to decipher a complex problem on their own with the weight of the crowd and the timer hanging over them? Would their focus and attention allow them to execute a risky low-percentage move at the right moment? Each boulder was designed to test these very different movements and mental states.
After several days filled with the sound of drills and the taste of climbing chalk, the day of the competition had arrived. Knowing that each climb would be done in complete isolation by some of the world’s best climbers, each problem had been carefully engineered to create separation between the competitors, rewarding those who sound that evasive intersection of focus and discipline.
This experience became even more fleeting once the field separated and the finalists were announced. Thousands packed into the stands while bright lights beat down on the solitary finals wall. The climbers waited together in isolation, spending their time preparing in a way that best suited their unique personalities. Tonde sat and watched, his work done but the experience far from over. The setters whispered back and forth through each attempt, observing the top-level climbers navigate their work, all vying for the top spot on the podium.
The stress for Tonde and the setting team lies in the simple truth that they have no idea what will happen next. In all their setting and forerunning, they would incessantly ruminate on all the possible outcomes that they could imagine or hope for. In reality, an entirely different set of events could occur the moment the lights come on and the crowd stands to their feet. The way the competitors interact with their work leaves them, at times, bewildered. For Tonde, this is all part of the beauty in creating a competition experience.
Bringing The Journey Back Home
The dust settles, and the experiences that we gather outside the walls of the Bouldering Project meld together to push our project forward. We make connections, exchange ideas, and find inspiration.
On one day each year, we seek to bring this energy inside our own doors. We call it Boulderfest. It’s a unique and intense experience to participate in, and it’s one that we want to create and share with our community. We set out to deepen our understanding of how this reflects back on the experience of climbing.
We believe climbing is a creative pursuit. An early morning circuit session has a different posture than a climbing competition. The feeling of arriving at the climbing gym is offset a few degrees from the feeling of approaching a climb outside. But there is a thread that runs through it all. These expressions of climbing are wound together.
At the Bouldering Project, we are seeking to create a diversity of climbing experiences. It takes shape from the environments we create, the culture we seek, the spaces for expression that we design, and the importance we place on the act of climbing.