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Kaleb Thomas and the Next Step for Routesetting

Kaleb Thomas is one of the country's most experienced route builders. The future of setting is coming, but what will it look like?

Setting is hard. Although almost anyone can put bolts in holds, route setting requires a team of trained individuals that build toward a goal. Depending on what the setters have been charged to build, the intent behind the reset can differ.

A commercial reset takes place in a gym and prioritizes comfort and reclimb-ability. By contrast, a competition will require setters to prioritize separation. Separation, refers to the manner in which the competitors finish. Good separation will see a definitive ranking of competitors in the results of the competition.

Although a competition will want to ensure that separation occurs, the routes’ aesthetics can also become a priority. The setters for the Tokyo Olympic Games will ask head setter Percy Bishton and his team to set a competition unlike any other. For the first time, the route setter will have to cater to an audience that has never climbed before all while separating the best climbers in the world.

For industry workers this event has become important. Many have hedged their bets on an industry explosion where thousands of new members join their local climbing gyms. Although climbing has increased in popularity every year over the last decade, the pandemic halted its momentum.

It seems as though climbing will pick up that pace after the pandemic concludes. Many have bet on the Olympics and its ability to supercharge the sport. The Olympics has done this to other sports in the past.

In some ways, the amount the sport grows as a result of the Games will be due to the route setters in Tokyo. The way they entreat the audience to consider climbing for themselves through the impossibly challenging moves of the World Cup circuit will make for a unique competition.

For those not working the Olympic Games, many wait to see how these setters tackle such a problem. In the past, high-profile competitions have led setters to develop new moves. Every World-level event offers insights into how one might better set. This year’s Games does the same, but at an unprecedented level. This lends questions as to the possible futures setting might hold.

Canada’s Kaleb Thomas believes that setting will always have a future. He thinks it will continue to develop, just maybe not in the ways we suspect.

Thomas cited Jacky Godoffe’s book, My Keys to Route Setting, as an explanation of this point. Godoffe says, “During the first European Bouldering Championship in Italy, we had very poor holds to set with on a very basic wall. Fortunately, when we arrived, we met a carpenter who worked close to the event. He watched us work and we got to know each other, and he offered to build us some volumes to decorate the wall. The following day, he came to us with some twenty wooden volumes that we immediately used to set.”

Kaleb Thomas with the Green Tape – photo by Studio Bloc

This little change in perspective would go on to become the impetus for the large shapes that seem to define modern indoor climbing.

Innovations like these have led some to believe that route setters are not the only one driving modern route design. Sometimes, hold makers lead the way. The Meiringen World Cup described this concept. Thomas reflected on the competition.

“I think this situation ebbs and flows. At the beginning of the World Cup, the setters were the ones pushing the limit with the style and the movement. Then we had this period where the large holds, and more interesting shapes, started to characterize the movement a lot more.

“It’s not that the setters weren’t creative, but the hold companies were bringing a lot more creativity then they were in the past. I think now, the most forward progression is coming from the people who are designing holds with the intention of bringing new moves to life.”

Thomas has found that many of the best shapers work within the context of route setting. Those that build holds with the intention of creating new moves make holds that allow for the sport to develop.

These grips have driven competition route setting toward nuanced beta. They have also made it easier for commercial climbing gyms to produce high quality routes and boulder problems.

Kilter has expressed this in the past. Although best practice suggests that a high-quality boulder can be made out of low-quality holds, Kilter, and brands like it, work to make holds that eliminate the possibility of low-quality routes.

While competition climbing often sees route setters pushing the development of setting, the grip manufacturers have made it easier for non-elite route setters to produce fun boulders.  What does this mean for the commercial industry? Thomas believes that commercial indoor climbing will soon reflect the restaurant business.

“With so many high quality lines of holds, its very easy for setters to produce routes, right out of the box, just like cooking burgers at McDonald’s.”

Thomas believes this development will help more boutique-like climbing gyms attain memberships as well. He does not believe all indoor climbing will become homogeneous.

“There are going to be people that know what they want. They will seek out the small local restaurant because they want a curated experience. There’s going to be those that want to pay the cheapest price to get the most boulder problems they can. That’s okay. The more options available to the clientele, the better it is.”

As the number of people in the sport increases, so will the value of the industry. With more money comes greater opportunity for hold designers and boutique climbing gyms to push setting’s development. Ultimately, it is less about any individual making one giant step toward the future and more about creating numerous opportunities for many people to discover just what the future might hold for route setting.

“There will always be innovation,” said Thomas. “There always has been and there always will be.” He believes it will be organic as with the carpenter and his volumes. Thomas admits that he cannot see the future; however, he sees potential with wall in-sets, modularity and hydraulic integration.

Wall in-sets offer a unique challenge for climbers that have not trained on them before. The issue with them comes down to making the wall more modular. Most climbing walls have not been designed to accommodate in-sets. Still, they have received support from many newer European climbing gyms.

Modularity seems unavoidable. Despite the resurgence of a more old-school, grab-and-pull, style of climbing found in some of the boulders of the Meiringen World Cup, the modularity of volumes facilitates unique angles and hold placements that athletes cannot become overly familiar with.

Between Dimension’s stacks, Kilter’s complex shapes, and Cheeta’s multiple modular wooden volumes, modularity appears inevitable.

While the materials and climbers steadily improve, it seems likely that one of the greatest innovations to the climbing industry will come from increasing the diversity in route setting.

Thomas believes that this point cannot be overstated.

“Every gym in Canada needs to reconsider the way they are working and hiring.  We need to understand the importance of having a setting team that matches our clientele or reflects the type of clientele we want to have. If you’re setting team is four white males, then it’s more likely your gym will be full of white males. I’m not a specialist, but I know that we can do better than we are now.”

Thomas said that, too often, the work that does get done appears performative instead of practical. “Route setting teams will hire a woman because they want to have diversity in their product. Then, every time a woman sets a boulder, men reset it. The men need to accept that the reason you have a woman on the team is so that they can set boulders that men may not like.

“If you have a female on your team, or someone with a different background than you, try and see what is beautiful about what they are offering. Having a girl on your team, only to change all of their boulders means the product is the exact same as it always has been and nobody gets better and nobody moves forward. We all just need to stare in the mirror a little and realize we can do better.”

One of Thomas’s favourite things about setting boils down to the fact that there always remains something to learn. As the Olympic route setters tackle the task of separation and showmanship, climbers await the potential evolution of their industry.

Featured image by Mathieu Tranchida.