ghost stories

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Ghost Stories

In my pursuit of ways to share more advanced route setting methods, there is a concept that has been haunting my last few route setting courses. It has been showing itself in glimpses, just outside of my ability to explain it… reasonably. It is the answer to the question I get asked often: ‘how do you know when you have set a great boulder problem or route?’ At least a better one than I give right now, which is: ‘You don’t, until it gets climbed and revealed that way by climbers, audiences, critics.'

"how do you know when you have set a great boulder problem or route?"

I am a strong believer that making good climbs requires a lot of forerunning, some productive conversation and then some efficient work, preferably in that order. Each of those three steps are universes unto themselves that setters must navigate shrewdly to find their way from the climb they envision to climbers experiencing what was intended.

The world of forerunning is a bizarre forest where the senses are constantly tricked, holds that once felt small can suddenly feel easy to hold on to, sometimes positive holds feel too hard to hold on to, others setters can float moves that you cannot touch and visa versa. Partied last night? Just finished a training cycle? You’re off the couch? Been climbing outside more? been climbing less but resting more and eating better? Just had a kid? Broke up with your girl/boy friend? Every known path in the world of forerunning can feel familiar but might leave you at a different destination. And the worst is once you start digging, you find that there actually are days when you are right and everyone else is wrong. But which ones…?

Climbers are prone to these loses of bearings too, right? We all know, or have been the climber who blurts out some sandbag grade based on their impression of how well things went for them. And when questioned they answer, quite honestly too: “It can’t be V-whatever or 7d minus because I have never flashed/onsighted that grade”. How do you factor in the benefits of the regular training sessions that have slowly been building up strength, confidence and flow?

But climbers don’t have to take decisions about how that climb should be changed, or sometimes graded. Route setters however have to produce a particular effect or experience for a group of climbers that they may or may not belong to. Setting for kids? Taking into account girls when you’re an all guy crew? Setting for world cup climbers when you’re just an “okay” climber? As I see it, setters need an accurate perception of their own climbing ability, both in general (what you’re good at or bad at) and at the moment (fitness level, fatigue, stress). I would even argue that a good perception of your own climbing skill and ability is more important than being a “strong" climber.

So once you have survived the forerunning of someone else’s route, and come out the other end with impressions, feeling, and opinions, you are faced with the challenge of communicating them.

“So...? What do you think?"

Let me stop a minute and for the sake of clarity to make a few academic assumptions. Lets assume that you were a perfect forerunner. You could climb the grade comfortably and it was within the range of what you might actually climb in one of your own climbing sessions; so you are actually in the target group for this given climb. Let us also assume that you just happen to be in a great phase, climbing regularly, not too tired, uninjured and therefore your perceptions are pretty accurate. If something felt hard on the route, it actually did signal an issue in the route setting, say a misplace foothold or a handhold that is too poor.

Let me also remind you of the complexities of social interactions at large, of ego (are you one to over- or under- play a performance?), of gender issues (a broad sampling of my experience says, on average, good luck being a girl on either side of that conversation. I said on average...), of hierarchy. So many tiny filters that turn the objective into the subjective. With all that in mind, lets get back to giving our expectant setter feedback on his or her route.

“You should move that foot down and left and improve that hand hold and then it’s perfect."
“You should move that foot down and left and improve that hand hold and i'll check again in 10 minutes."
“That foothold is in the wrong place and the handhold is too bad. The rest is okay"
“That foothold is in the wrong place and the handhold is too bad."
“It’s good, dude, no changes. I mean i didn't think that hold matched the set, you could change it, but you know…"
“Well I liked it”.
“So what where you going for…?"
“Can you try my route first, and tell me what you think so we can compare?"
“What I would have done is used pockets to force a rose move or something more interesting”.
“I didn’t use that hold, that hold and that one just after the Fatty Fat pinch, you should just take them out”.

Each one of these responses or a combination could be valuable starting points for a conversation, but once again every exchange, every held back piece of information (like the fact that you didn’t really enjoy that route). Some setters will respond better to clear direct orders, they are reassured when they feel like someone tells them what to do. Others will resent that and prefer that you give them more general impressions and be left to make adjustments. Some will argue, because that’s who they are, others will not. My point is that in those discussions can be lost or found the keys to a great climb.

And it is somewhere in the meanders between my impressions as a forerunner and the words I pick to express how to make this climb better, that I get my first shiver. Certain tweaks seem to feel more right. Choices. It’s all about choices. But in all honesty, during this phase it really is just a feeling, a tickle, a murmur. It’s me, my head my imagination. It might as well be a hallucination, I have nothing to report.

So the conversation, hopefully managed to produce useful, actionable information for the setter to be able to enter the next phase of the work and a balance (some might say a compromise) between whatever grade or style was requested and how that setter expressed it was achieved. If all went well some agreements where reached about how to improve the first draft and turn it into hopefully, a great climb.

Then the setter, after having done some digging in the crates to find the right hold gets back on her rope or his ladder to actually make the changes. Again, as a setter I am most interested in, and enjoy the most, the phases where I am actually climbing. Climbing to produce climbing.

So I always encourage my setters to be fast to set and meticulous and playful when they are forerunning. The phase of work where you have climbing shoes on but also have a drill at hand is the one for me where greatness happens. Climb, tweak, climb again, trim the superfluous, scale to perfection, dial angles in tiny increments.

And often, just after a successful round of this work is when I began to see it. Particularly on climbs that I had looked at after a first test climb, and then had not seen again until after well discussed tweaks had been applied. And if it worked, if we had been successful I began to see the success as if the boulder or route had it’s own soul that would shine off the wall if we, as setters, had succeeded in finding our way through the many complex challenges of route setting and pieced together the puzzle correctly. A fleeting visual acknowledgement that we had balanced some sacred geometry, as a child might accidentally draw a perfect pyramid.

"Can you see that?” I have asked several times. "Can you see how... right that looks?” The most understanding I have gotten so far is that I am referring to the aesthetics of the climb. Tonde is a designer, his setting is very visual, he must be talking about how good it looks. But that is not what I mean, so I literally feel like I am talking about ghosts that only I see. Well almost… There are a few people with whom I feel like the level of conversation is so high, so subtle, that between the words we might be talking about… perfection? Another impossible concept.

I don’t understand this new vision of things. Sometimes I think I could just be making it all up. I think about those literature and art history courses, where I learned that artists through their work, in their own ways were, through science of their own where just trying to pierce the secrets of the universe. I think about all the anecdotes in the X-Files, the Sixth Sense, the decorations on churches… I'm afraid. I'm afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going.

Many ghost stories have been explained. There may be a rational explanation for what I see, that future knowledge will explain. Perhaps it’s just that our understanding of the laws that govern climbing movement, and the science of setting are just not deep enough... yet. Even more likely is that I am not expressing what I see in a way that people around me understand.

Jordan Landin