Story & photos by Owen Woods | firstname.lastname@example.org
ANNA Greenberg, a Chicago-native, transplanted here to the Valley with an incredible and powerful passion for rock climbing. In all its aspects, she has traversed experience into a way of life.
When she’s not climbing outside, she’s climbing inside. Around these parts, there’s really only one place to do that.
Why climb inside, with all the stellar climbing we have in the Valley? “[You] get stronger, it’s fun, and ya know, it’s a lower commitment,” she says. “If you’re trying to work on a specific type of move or specific skill, instead of having to go out and find a climb that can force that skill and then go out there and wait for the weather, wait for a partner, just come here.”
“Here” is Rex Gym at Adams State University, which has a pretty entry-level, humble climbing wall in the middle of the building. The Adams State Adventure Program (ASAP) is responsible for the wall.
ASAP is also responsible for spicing it up. Which means, by and large, creating new climbing routes that vary in difficulty and sequence. In shorter terms: “setting.” There are community members who have experience setting and show interest in helping out. It lightens the load on the ASAP staff and opens up the wall up to more forms of expression. Everyone has their own method or style of setting. “One of my routes, I pulled one of the hard moves off of an outdoor climb. I kinda replicated it. I tend to set in a ‘more realistic way;’ that doesn’t mean it’s better.”
It gives the climbing wall a grand presence in the community.
The process has always intrigued me. So a couple weeks back Anna invited me to hang out to watch and learn. I was invited to be a helpful hand and quick dial to 911 in case something happened. Though the process is safe, it is climbing, so there’s risk involved. Setting routes by yourself not only sounds like a lonely time, but perhaps is dangerous in a way.
Having company around is part of the process.
During Adams State’s spring break, I spent four evenings with Anna helping set routes and observing the process firsthand.
Anna, for the most part, lived on the rope for a few hours every day. Anna learned to set routes at the University of Pittsburgh. “We used to host regional climbing competitions and we’d strip the whole wall, clean all the holds, and reset the entire wall in a week. And I would just set it when we needed to.”
Setting and resetting bouldering problems and climbing routes is all done by hand. The setting process is a balance of both technical ability and creative license. It requires intimate knowledge of how to climb well and how to maneuver your body up there from the ground. For the most part, you should have a clear idea and be able to clearly visualize the route.
More important for the sake of a quality route, the setter has to know how to make it feel right according to its difficulty grade. That means, in part, which types of holds to use, where to place those holds, and a keen understanding of how the route will force the climber’s body to move.
“I pick a wall and I pick a rough grade that I want. So I pick the wall so I kinda know what types of movements and types of holds are in line with that grade that I’m trying to get. If I’m gonna set a [moderate] climb on the overhang it’s gonna be all jugs. If I’m gonna set an easy climb on the slab, if it’s all jugs, that’s way too easy.”
Setting the routes requires hauling up bolts and wrenches and a bucket full of holds.
“It’s just very time intensive. Setting rope climbs is just very physical. It’s just kind of exhausting.”
I spent most of my time on the ground tossing dropped bolts or wrenches back up to her.
The system for how the holds are bolted onto the wall is quite simple, really. The climbing hold has a threaded hole somewhere through it and the wall has a threaded T-Bolt screwed in from the inside of the wall. The entire wall is filled with these holes allowing for really easy or really challenging routes to be set as cavalier as you please.
Every once in a while, however, the T-Bolts or hold bolts become stripped, stuck, or cross threaded. There is a solution to this kind of problem: an angle grinder. I climbed into the bowels and innards of the climbing wall, which is a skeleton of concrete and welded steel, and got to zap off a couple of bolts.
Anna rigged herself on a Petzl ascender and a sling that allows her to scale the wall without having to climb. Traversing via the “rainbow route” allows her to use the existing holds to her advantage to gain some wrench leverage and find a more stable platform.
Her method is challenging and hard work. The last route she set had a series of angle changes and an overhang at the beginning. Even though the route’s rating falls in the 5.9 range, the setting was much, much more difficult.
“The purple one that I did yesterday didn’t take me that long because the wall was really easy. And this one [the orange 5.9] is an easier route, in terms of the thought process and stuff, it’s easier, but setting it was way harder.”
IT all would have been much easier with a scissor lift.
Visualization of the route is done on the ground, by laying the holds out in the pattern created by the power of imagination. Anna drew two of her routes on paper. “I’ll think about one particular move or thing that I want to force. And then I kinda build it around that.”
After she sets the route, it’s time for forerunning. That is, testing out a route to see if it translated well or poorly, if holds need to be moved, added, or replaced. “It’s like its testing phase…. It’s basically just editing.”
Forerunning is done on top rope. My main priority for the forerunning process was to belay Anna. I spent a good amount of time on belay. It made correcting the route or changing things up a lot easier for Anna. She could climb and descend with an extra set of hands.
“I like when something works. When I have it in my head I’m like I’mma try this, see if I can force this move and it works.”
The Gym’s Reopening
It paid off, that hard work, on the following Monday night. The climbing gym was packed and everyone was trying everything new. There was a subtle energy in the gym that highlights the camaraderie of climbing. There is a quiet excitement among everyone because there is something new to climb. You get to test yourself and test your skills. It also presents a little bit of pressure. “Will the route hold up? Will it keep people interested? Will climbers work on these routes continuously or get bored with them? What kind of feedback will be received? Who will hate the route and who will love it?”
The one downside to our gym is the lack of dedicated setters. The ASAP staff already have enough on their plate and consistently surprising climbers with new routes is sometimes a mountain of a challenge. Most of the routes will stay up for months at a time. It’s difficult to get the kind of energy and dedication required for that kind of commitment.
“Setting is understanding body positioning, understanding balance… so if you’re a new climber and you’re able to understand those things then yeah I think you could set something within your climbing ability. So I think a new climber isn’t, understandably, as aware of the nuance of body positioning…. Being an experienced climber doesn’t translate to being a good setter.”
It’s also difficult to find people who have experience setting. The process itself is relatively intuitive, but getting into the minutia of it all requires some experience setting and climbing.
This isn’t all bad. It does give gym climbers projects to work on – difficult routes that require effort over completion. It’s a test of both physical and mental strength. To have a route that you can come back to time and time again to test yourself is something you can only really find on real rock. The ability to work on a problem whenever you want, without having to travel far and wide, is only one of the advantages of a climbing wall.
I overheard one climber tell Anna, “Thank you. You put in the work and we’re the ones who get to enjoy it.”