Pulling On Plastick

Written by Keith Erps

Photo by Truc Allen

Walking into a climbing gym can cause a bit of sensory overload. The smell of chalk. The upbeat music and energetic conversations discussing beta or recent send. The sight of brightly colored holds adorning the walls. Bright pink jugs. Giant blue slopers. Distinctly-shaped volumes. More neon crimps and jibs than you can shake a stick clip at.

Climbers that have spent their fair share of time in a gym know that there’s a method to this madness. That method starts with routesetting, a design process that occurs behind the scenes.  

“When you go to a fine-dining restaurant, you don’t need to know what is happening back in the kitchen as you enjoy your meal,” said Tonde Katiyo, director of setting for The Bouldering Project.

If there’s anyone that understands the complexity of putting plastic holds on the wall, it’s Tonde. With decades of setting experience all over the world, he has had plenty of time to meditate and challenge the routesetting process. This guru-like knowledge has spread to the entire Bouldering Project setting team and is the foundation for their climbing experience.

For Bouldering Project setters, the process of creating a climb is about uncertainty and asking questions of the climbers that interact with their work.

“Setting is one-third construction, one third-athletics, and one-third creativity. It’s really about encouraging human experiences,” said Tonde. “When people climb outside, it moves you and causes you to react. Routesetting is about making those experiences happen in a climbing gym.”

The Bouldering Project is working to create these experiences and rethinking how climbs are set and discussed. Instead of solely discussing difficulty using grades, they assess their work by talking about the climb’s risk, intensity and complexity of the movements. Each characteristic is rated on a five-point scale in an attempt to quantify the experience of each climb.

“The scale is not absolute. We’re not redefining grades. We’re figuring out which dials need to be turned to create an experience,” said Tonde.

While this is more complex than simple “V grades”, it’s a more elegant way for setters to view and discuss their work. At the Bouldering Projects, these ratings are made by observing people climb the problems, rather than assigned by the setters themselves. By recording these values for every set, the team can easily see the types of climbs needed to create a well-rounded experience for gym goers.

However, the sheer volume of setting that happens in modern climbing gyms makes this approach complex and incredibly time-consuming. The team sought a tool that would facilitate their setting process while also providing powerful, real-time data on the experiences that climbers are having.

“We needed a way to visualize and capture the data from our sets more accurately,” said Tonde.

The solution to this problem is Plastick.

The Bouldering Project tried working with several app and software developers to create a tool that would add value to the gym climbing experiences. The first few editions and iterations all fell short until a member of the setting team took the project in his own hands.

“The first two attempts fell short because the project itself demanded someone with an intimate understanding of the setting process like Marc,” said Tonde.

Plastick developer Marc Bourguignon first learned about the project during his time as an apprentice setter at Seattle Bouldering Project. With a degree in computer science from the nearby University of Washington, Marc instantly saw opportunities while using a previous version of the app or a clipboard on days the old app crashed.

“We used clipboards and spreadsheets which felt error-prone and archaic where data and working hours were constantly being lost,” said Marc. “After experiencing initial designs attempting to address these problems, I knew I could design and build something truly valuable for the routesetting and climbing community.”

Derived from the slang for climbing holds, the first edition of Plastick took Marc three months to build. He directed his focus on eliminating bottlenecks and creating something that was intuitive and easy to use. Marc’s new app provided a fluid interface that setters could easily use to chart progress and analyze filtered data. Each setter can access the app from their own device rather than chasing around a single tablet or clipboard to track their climbs.

“The main attraction of this tool was never just about setters,” said Tonde. “It’s about everyone who takes part in the climbing experience.”

As they began to integrate the app into their normal workflow, Marc began realizing the potential to share this app outside of the Bouldering Project gyms. Initially, the app was intended to create a tool for Seattle Bouldering Project and the setting team. However, Marc saw the opportunity to further develop Plastick and share it with the rest of the climbing industry. After a few discussions with the Bouldering Project team, he started the process of expanding the app.

Since it was based on the system used by Tonde and the Boulder Projects, Marc is working hard to create a platform that pushes the industry forward while also being fluid enough to be used in various types of gyms that have different setting philosophies.

“It's really important to encourage the Bouldering Project routesetting philosophy and ideology; however, I wanted the platform to be flexible and customizable enough to support and complement any routesetting process,” said Marc.

The Plastick app is currently being tested and perfected in 30 different gyms across the nation. When guest setters come through to exchange ideas with  Bouldering Project setters, they often ask how to get their hands on the software, instantly recognizing the value it could add to the quality of their own gyms.

The massive potential is daunting, but Marc is confidently and methodically working with the Bouldering Project to make the app even better while simultaneously introducing the project across the nation. The process is akin to a climbing project, carefully dialing in every aspect while staying open to new experiences, always thinking outside the box. It's this project mindset that can look at a setter's clipboard and transform it into a powerful app that has the potential to evolve modern routesetting.

Jordan Landin