Breaking Beta

April 15, 2021
Breaking Beta - Chimera Climbing Route Setting

A centre is nothing without its community, everyone knows that.

The smiling faces, the shared jokes, being spotted on a scary move. Climbing walls need climbers, period. But those climbers need something to climb, and that is where the setters come in.

Chimera is incredibly lucky to have a dedicated group of experienced route setters who work in-house every week. On top of which, when allowed, guest setters come in to bring a different set of ideas and movements honed from years of climbing all sorts of routes outside.

But just how do the setters go about their work? Do they come in with a plan, or just see how the holds play out and what moves they can create as a result? We were lucky enough to spend a day with the setters, and soon found out that there is a lot more to it than meets the eye…

A typical setting day starts early - well, early in climbing-land. The coffee machine is on and brewing, with the setters falling into the mould of not fully functioning without their daily caffeine intake. Boxes of colour co-ordinated holds are lugged out onto the mats, ready to be examined as the steam rises from cradled mugs of frothy goodness. But who - or what - moves first?

Big holds and volumes are the answer. The volumes are divvied up between the setters equally and then it’s a free-for-all over who gets which section of wall, otherwise known as whoever has drunk their coffee quickest. The section of wall itself has been allocated a set number of routes across all the colours, but it is up to the setters to ensure there is a suitable range of grades.

Volumes up, big holds come next. At the moment, those are the new off-circuit ‘cyan’ holds, and are used to create dramatic looking blocs. With such a range of styles able to be created, this is the fun part of the morning where each setter lets their creativity take hold - no pun intended - and all sorts of shapes are thrown up onto the wall.

Traditionally, then the setters work backwards and put up the hard blocs first. This is for a number of reasons, firstly because these take longer to do and secondly, because it is easier to visualise a route with no other holds in the way. That being said, it is not so easy to try a move to check it works… and realise there is nothing to down climb with.

The setters are still working independently at this stage but occasionally glance up to see a bloc emerging beside them, with quiet mutters of ‘sick’, ‘sweet’ and ‘awesome’ floating through the centre, barely audible over the incessant whine of the impact driver.

In terms of where the ideas come from, the list really is endless. Sometimes a favourite route from outdoors will be recreated, or sometimes even just a specific move. Some blocs are designed for teaching and practicing particular techniques, such as rock overs and foot swaps. Others appear after the first hold is bolted to the wall, with the setter seeing where that takes their body naturally. Favourites from the past resurface, with a move taken from someone else’s bloc from many sets ago, but that specific move is then followed by a completely different sequence . As always with climbing, the possibilities are endless.

Planning out which blocs go where becomes more complex as the day wears on - the lower graded routes often have larger holds which can easily get in the way of other routes if not carefully placed. There has to be a full range of grades within each colour, and across the whole wall in general. Often the lower graded routes wind up harder to set, to make sure they are accessible to a full range of ages, heights and arm spans.

No one wants to climb the same thing over and over again, and for the climbers on the lower grades, they simply have less routes to run at within their ability level. This is given careful consideration by the setters, to ensure there is an even bigger range of techniques and styles across the likes of the yellows, oranges and purples, to make sure the variety is there.

Variance is also needed across the whole set for those who will likely climb every route - just because one setter had an idea for a cool dyno, doesn’t mean another setter didn’t also want to set something similar. If not carefully monitored, the whole set could have a very ‘same-y’ feel.

Blocs up, and the work suddenly becomes collaborative. Every setter tries every bloc they can, with a group consensus on what does and doesn’t work. Some holds just need to be tweaked - which is harder than it sounds, with very little left to choose from if a hold needs replacing. Other blocs might be perfectly in their grade range for a shorter climber, but far too easy for a lanky climber and vice versa.

And then comes the beta breaking. Just because a bloc has been set a certain way, doesn’t mean that is how everyone will climb it…

Testing is by far the most gruelling part of the day, with a whole new set climbed in a couple of hours. It is also mentally exhausting - as much as the setters try their best to predict what will happen when the set is open to the public, there will always be someone who’ll manage to come up with some beta that is so outlandish, it could turn one hard bloc into a much easier one. That being said, those days are few and far between, such is the experience level now of the setters here.

Blocs tested, beta perfected, tags up and every route logged on the app, the day is finally done for the weary setters who head home with heavy arms and tight fingers. But yet to come is the feedback from the public, all of which is valuable for making sure they’ve hit their target of a full range of styles and grades.

Setting can make or break a wall, and that is why far more effort goes into it than first meets the eye. By the end of the day the wall looks absolutely incredible - a clean array of brightly coloured holds, all shapes and sizes, some barely even noticeable at first glance.

A lot more goes into this than meets the eye...

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