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The mildly bizarre route setting rant


What further trickery must climbers master to make podium, or simply survive? It's a relevant question each competitive year. Route setting seems to continue its fast tracked evolution from obvious to abstract.


Like many art forms, indoor climbing branched off from its origins and took its own path. In the early days (80s, 90s and even the early 2000s), a great indoor route represented classic outdoor movements. Holds were often shaped with this goal. Create training blueprints to beat the limitations of weather, and then maximize a good season. This still happens, by the way. However, hold makers also ventured from imitation to imagination. Futuristic shapes - scoops, bulbs, pipes, geometric outlines, creepy babies, 'volumes' mixing textures and grips - started appearing. <Pic - SoiLL bubbies?>


With these, setting styles changed somewhat quickly. Especially for bouldering, the focus shifted from controlled, precise movements to highly coordinated, bigger dynamic movements. Climbing without cutting feet went from being an admired trait to an occasional weak link. The gap between high-end sport climbing and bouldering continues to broaden. Comps became the perfect events to play up the new aesthetic. With the wild array of new shapes, it would seem like routesetters occasionally even attempted visual art on the wall.  


I even recall one comp (Sean McColl won) where holds lit up as they were grabbed. Typically, this is in the thick of hyper-coloured clothing and unabashed sponsor placement. But, what's wrong with that? There is a salty purist vein which feels indoor route setting (especially bouldering) is descending further into gimmickry and parkour like movements. Run and jumps, triple dynos, suspended holds, downward finishes - how often is this encountered in outdoor climbing? It's fun to watch and definitely interesting to try. But is it even 'climbing'? Who cares!?



Heel hooks and knee bars were considered bad form at one point, nowadays they're crucial to some of the hardest outdoor test pieces. What is interesting though is the physical transfer of skills. Does this help outdoor performance? From a dynamic standpoint, definitely. The newer styles are recruiting different muscles and honing cross-disciplinary creativity. They take from crossfit, parkour and gymnastics. Of course climbers are thinking of newer ways to solve problems. And here, it cultures the virtue crucial to progress - imagination.


This weirdness seems natural to the next level. Look at Adam Ondra's 'Project Hard', a possible 9c, in Norway's Flatanger Cave. "Too many funky strange moves" he says. Like what? "Not a full figure of 4, but you're heel hooking on your forearm." Thing is, the future is usually bizarre if we're too absorbed by present standards. No move or style is irrelevant. 


The artistry of hold making is building upon that. It's no longer a simplistic basement style resin pouring process. Holds are now shaped after years of research with inputs from route setters and climbers, and inspiration of course! "I always keep in mind that grips are for the hand before the eyes!" says Ian Powell, founder of Kilter Grips, one of the world's leaders in hold making. That means incorporating surface subtleties through delicate sculpting. Like climbing itself, shaping with its mix of inspiration and imagination is an endless process that ultimately steers towards detail. And, it has the exciting prospect of technology. Who knows if malleable blobs will become the new fad? If holds can change shapes midway through a climb, imagine how good steady grips would seem?


Certainly helps to climb on rock to fully understand the resourcefulness and brilliance of indoor climbing. Also, nature is full of ironic reminders that monkeys have been doing the new dynamic uber-coordinated 'circus' style of climbing a few eons it became a thing. They're not particularly hipster about their climbing 'styles'. In Hampi, you just feel silly arguing about aesthetic when a langur runs up your project. And down. And up again. It might not have been a 'clean' start, i suppose it was just the obvious one.  <Hampi pic>