ABS 16 Youth, A Commentary on Setting

Update: I wrote this back in April 2015 shortly after the ABS Youth Nationals and am now posting it. I wasn’t completely sure I wanted to do this, but as time goes on, it seems more and more necessary to speak up about these and similar issues.

Disclaimer: I’m a product developer for Evolv, having made several pairs of shoes for Ashima, and Ashima is an Evolv sponsored professional athlete.

Having not been involved in coaching actively at the youth competition scene for a few years now, I recently reviewed (as suggested by a friend) one problem for one age group of youth nationals that occurred a short time ago. I only looked at one of the categories since the competitors are of a world class standard, and I have limited knowledge of one of the climbers. This was Division B Youth Female. The top three competitors were Lauren Bair, Ashima Shiraishi and Brooke Raboutou. Ashima and Brooke climb at an internationally recognized level outside and of Lauren I know little.

Lauren Biss reaching the undercling with her foot on the low sloper. Problem #2 Youth B Nationals.

Lauren Bair reaching the undercling with her foot on the low sloper. Problem #2 Youth B Nationals. More importantly, her wrist is bent (requiring additional reach) to facilitate the weight transfer necessary to do the move.

What I want to comment on is forerunning. As much as there’s debate about the subjectivity of grades, one thing isn’t debatable, and that’s recognizing the difference between movements where a foot remains on a hold and the same movement where the foot leaves the hold and its associated difficulty difference. For competition climbing, setting is a craft where every element is controlled by the setter. With sufficient knowledge of vertical and horizontal reach, a “qualified” setter can dial in movement precisely that will dictate relative difficulty based on what that climber will have to do in order to execute the move.

If a setter doesn’t dial in each and every move for each and every climber in the competition field, that setter isn’t in control of their craft, and consequently, that setter isn’t “qualified” to create a competition that’s fair to all participants. Unlike the setting in Europe, in the states, the certification program is relatively new, and, honestly, little is available to assess the competence of the program except to participate in it.

The only way to achieve the goal of setting at a professional level is, in my opinion, to know what movement is and how it’s dictated. In doing so, one can then know when one climber is negatively or positively influenced relative to their peers. Over the years, I’ve seen too many examples of reach issues not professionally dealt with in our competition scene. In fact, it seems like it’s only getting worse without any productive development passed on from generation to generation. In fact, it seems like each new generation of setters is re-inventing the wheel of setting craft, and that’s a huge shame.

Back to Youth B Females: I’ve watched Ashima work and perform moves where established beta is useless. In doing so, she uses movement more dynamically to overcome reach issues, and this adds difficulty. How much? I can’t say, but I can say it’s harder to do it without conventional footwork, but not necessarily as hard as if a taller person tried that same sequence Ashima worked out. One problem that illustrates this, and that I witnessed, is Center Direct on the Grandma Peabody boulder, Bishop. If you have the reach, you toe hook to reach a higher but ok flat crimp. Without the toehook, well, Ashima sets up a high left side toe and a lower right flat toe under the overhang then kicks off that low right, pivots around the left side toe sticking the crimp and holding the inherent swing.

The crux on Center Direct, Grandma Peabody. She's set up ready to throw.

The crux on Center Direct, Grandma Peabody. She’s set up ready to throw.

Throwing without the toe hook. She stuck it in isolation, but on the 2 days she tried it while I was there, she couldn't link it.

Throwing without the toe hook. She stuck it in isolation, but on the 2 days she tried it while I was there, she couldn’t link it.

I bring this problem up because it’s similar in style to the crux for Ashima and Brooke on Problem 2 at nationals. Different in that the competitors are throwing for an undercling sloper, and Ashima is throwing for a flatish crimp on Center Direct. For Center Direct, the grade (10) is very much dependent on toe hooking to gain the higher right crimp. Jill did the move in question with a toe hook, and at 5′ 4″, she literally barely reached it, and in doing so, even though she was totally extended, she was still able to climb out of the toe with control. For Ashima, she tried over and over to link the dyno move to send Center Direct. She didn’t while I was there, having put in more tries on it then either Blood Meridian (13), Maze of Death (11-12), or Barberre traverse (12?). It wasn’t like she was confused or didn’t know how to climb the moves in question, she just immediately discovered that the toe hook on CD was not happening and immediately worked out the dyno sequence trying to send CD within the first hour on it. The fact is, though, that move made that 10 seem harder than 10, for her. This seemed obvious to both myself, Jill and Matt Birch (and probably anyone watching).

Brooke Raboutou trying the same move on one of her 3 attempts.

Brooke Raboutou trying the same move on one of her 3 attempts.

Ashima Shiraishi on her 3rd attempt to stick the undercling move.

Ashima Shiraishi on her 3rd attempt to stick the undercling move. This image shows how far left the right sidepull is in relation to the left undercling.

Here Lauren is starting to turn her body to stand up into the undercling...

Here Lauren is starting to turn her body to stand up into the undercling…

Here she has just cut the foot and is stable...

Here she has just cut the foot and is stable…

For the comp problem 2, the crux that yielded the top was reached either by a left or right undercling sloper on another small volume higher up, pictured above. Lauren went to it with the left hand, as did Brooke and Ashima. Lauren is much taller and was able to keep her left foot on the lower sloper, reach the left undercling, then rotate slightly (a very important transition component) before cutting loose the left foot and elevating to reel in the undercling sloper. In other words, she was able to establish tension BEFORE leaving the lower foot. Both Brooke and Ashima needed to stick the undercling while in motion and only on the right foot trying to control the outward rotation of the left foot that kicked off the low sloper. The key here is the need to establish tension into the undercling BEFORE leaving the low foot. Trying to establish that tension on the fly is realistically harder and lower percentage… the exact same issue on Center Direct. The dyno is also a complex momentum move requiring the body to shift aggressively to the right over the right foot while simultaneously moving upwards into the undercling. This presents one problem: the right sidepull limits the climber’s ability to shift right far enough while not impinging the trunk into the right hand sidepull, cutting short the right lateral move…AND creating more rotation as the right sidepull tries desperately to reel the body into the wall.

Needless to say, Lauren did it on her second go, sending and winning while both Ashima and Brooke gave it 3 tries each. Ashima came close to sticking it on her third try using the same sequence all 3 times, slowly dialing the move in. Brooke attempted the move 3 different ways: right up, left up then doubling to underclings with no success.

She is actually static in this position for a split second before trying the move on her 3rd attempt.

She is actually static in this position for a split second before trying the move on her 3rd attempt.

Here Brooke is going with the right hand

Here Brooke is going with the right hand

...and though she is fully set into the undercling, she can't stop the rotation and looses the gaston with the left hand

…and though she is fully set into the undercling, she can’t stop the rotation and looses the gaston with the left hand

I was impressed by both Ashima and Brooke in their different approaches. One tried to dial a single move while the other tried every variant she could think of.

Brooke attempting to double to the holds. I was impressed by both Ashima and Brooke in their different approaches. One tried to dial a single move while the other tried every variant she could think of.

Given the time limitations, 3 attempts is usually the max most experienced climbers attempt if the move in question is higher up the problem. The irony is that both girls tried it differently, either trying to perfect the throw or cover all their bases. Was Lauren the stronger climber? Did Brooke or Ashima only need to try it one more time? This is the conundrum every climber needs to balance with this type of format. Try again and get no higher and be more tired for the next problem… as the rests are insufficient for true recovery. For Brooke and Ashima, this is a move that requires working out before sending. If the climber has enough experience with this process, they will usually just stop and accept that as their high point. Ashima has that experience, in fact, one can say she has a serious amount of experience on hard moves equivalent to most adults.

Another option that the setters might have left open for shorter climbers was to go to the volume with the right hand or double clutch the move. Of the two holds before the volume, both faced right making a gaston with left as the right reaches to the undercling seem illogically hard. This was evident when Brooke tried it. The double clutch makes sense but with one problem. Doubling to two underclings requires maintaining foot pressure with the right (the highest foothold), but in the photo of Brooke, her arms are still extended while the foot has some flex. This means she has to create upward tension with arms mostly outstretched to keep foot pressure on the right with some bend. The higher she gets to reel in the arms to control the underclings the higher she gets on the foot and the closer it gets to straight: a passive position that lacks sufficient tension to stop a body in motion. Lose the foot, lose the underclings.

Something else to keep in mind is that by doing the dyno with the left foot off the lower sloper, there is inherent rotation in the move going with the left hand because the right hand is sidepulling and driving the body to rotate counter-clockwise while the left hand tries to press up and right to mitigate that rotation affect. But the left has to let go to reach for the undercling, and once the left foot leaves the low sloper foot, nothing is obvious to stop rotation.

The one other option is a delayed double clutch where the right foot is intentionally placed as a front point to allow the body to rotate naturally, and as the left hand reach causes the body to reach the point of too much rotation, the right hand moves up to the right undercling as the body continues to move laterally, and NOT outward as would be without controlling the vector of the momentum energy. This is something that requires intense practice. Momentum theory is way cool and should be learned by all.

This is why the move is easier with the left foot still on. That foot stops rotation and allows the climber to stabilize on the undercling before committing to stand up on the right foot and into the undercling. And most importantly, that left foot on the low sloper allows the right foot to work as a pressure point to triangulate against a hold or wall for stabilization (think drop knee extension): in other words, the body wants to move right (or more accurately rotate right around the left hand/foot axis) when tensioning into the high left hand undercling. Though Lauren is fully extended when on the undercling, she can maintain that position because of her other two points of contact which act as another form of extension (right hand pushes left while right foot pushes right). This micro component of the position acts as a single third point to triangulate with the left hand/foot.

Another perspective on this is that the setting was was designed for climbers to cut loose on the move as Brooke and Ashima tried, and that the setters didn’t realize the lauren was as tall as she is. If that’s the case, then the question begs: why didn’t they know Lauren’s height/reach?

This issue can be easily mitigated with a tape measure, some basic measurements, and knowledge of movement. Tape measures are cheap (remember setters usually own power drills), measurements should be standard practice taken by the organization at the time of registration (youth are always changing in dimensions unlike adults), but knowledge of movement simply doesn’t exist within the construct of the setting qualifications system in American forerunning and setting. This last item is the fault and 100% responsibility of the governing body and managing organization. USA Climbing is the governing body and USAC RSC (routesetting committee) is the managing organization. There are 5 national level setters. One of them, Ian Mcintosh (who also co-authored the bouldering guidebook for Black Mountain that avoids the traditional boulder grading scale) is the head forerunner for this competition.

Anyways, their expertise should be the foundation for teaching setting, and this type of error simply shouldn’t happen. If the USAC adopted a standard measurement practice before every youth nationals where max vertical reach and horizontal reach are measured for every competitor, the setters could at least measure out each move to ensure that either every climber has a usable foot for the move, or a different sequence created with comparable difficulty.

It’s my opinion that the industry of setting and competitions is basically putting the cart before the proverbial horse and trying to be a legitimate organization before establishing fundamentals necessary to be a legitimate organization. The competition results over that last few years have shown that the priorities of USAC are not the priorities for a fair and impartial competition. It’s my position that climbing comps are inherently unfair and biased as they are based on human engineering, and humans are biased and prejudiced naturally. It’s the job of organizers to seek by any means necessary a way to mitigate this problem.

The USAC is the governing body and they want input, but they have an agenda that tends to be intolerant of input. They want the Olympics but don’t have any sense of perspective on the craft and sport of climbing. Most USAC are volunteer parents with little or no climbing experience. Just imagine once climbing is in the Olympics and later we find a better competition format. Oops!

Surfing gets it. They stay very clear of the insatiable desire for grandstanding that is the Olympics, an organization more into itself than it cares about it’s host city, country or athletes. Of course surfing also requires waves, and so far none are had artificially to truly create a legitimate comp. Climbing competition organizers need to spend more time and thought attempting to remove bias in the craft of setting than trying to be a media hit. But in doing so, they only make themselves and our sport of climbing competitions appear amateurish to the knowledgeable.

Does anyone remember 2014 ABS Nationals?

Caution: The idea behind indoor climbing is to attempt to capture the spirit of movement that real rock offers, but real rock presents so much sophistication, nuance, and complexity that it would be impossible to accurately reflect that character on plastic. As a result, we replicate certain moves we like. But in our effort to create a competition, we can easily forget that we are only interpreting moves that we’ve “discovered” and experienced ourselves. This presents a problem because competitions are based on fairness, not experiential character. Real rock’s complexity has no design premise behind it. It’s abstract and as such is neither fair nor favors anyone. It may seem so, but in fact it’s our limited experience that makes it seem so. In other words, we are woefully short of really understanding what we set.

Lets take an example from nature: Terre de Seine, Hueco Tanks State Park, Texas.

This problem has been successfully climbed by short and tall persons, so it’s a good example for learning about “fairness” as nature has offered and our interpretative capacity has learned. The start has two good holds, one left angled undercling and one right flat crimp. There are low feet and one good high foot. A decent height up are a myriad of holds from a high left pocket crimp (A), just below it a very small flat crimp (B) that an adult might get 2 finger pads on or a child might get all 4 tips on, to the right an obvious horizontal (C) blade that’s incut but shallow, a slightly left facing incut (D) that’s better but higher up and further up, and a right gaston that’s very incut (E) and even further up.

Graham went C (right) to A to E (right) via the undercling start, C to D to E via the flat start hold, etc, basically going from large holds to large holds via the undercling start or flat crimp. Shiraishi, took the bad crimp B (left) to D to E (left) and cut loose similar to Graham did when he went to E. If this was to be represented on plastic, there would be at least 5 holds placed in a matrix above the start with a similar set of feet around the start; the setter(s) would have to either guess or know that such variations are possible, but setters don’t set guess work and rarely set options unless by error.

The lesson to take from this is that “fairness” is based on options. Fairness is based on understanding how different height climbers interpret holds that fits their style and body parameters. For setters to achieve this level of “fairness,” they would have to either place more holds randomly in order to hope that they’ve offered enough options, or…. reverse the thinking and understood movement and set options that different height climbers can use.

In the context of the above example at Youth ABS 16, knowing that having a foot to stand on in direct opposition to the undercling sloper is key to sending, and allowing a shorter climber nothing in direct opposition would be “unfair.” The option would be to allow for a shorter climber to use a higher feet in a pattern unusable by taller climbers. Another option is to offer a hand hold in a different place, but this is in direct contradiction to the scoring system devised by competition organizers. Feet can suffice. Offering options in this context (observer POV) would be foolish without being there and understanding the relationship between wall angle, hold locations and hold character. I can derive hold location but not the other 2 factors. I could guess that higher feet might mitigate the problem, but it wouldn’t be a simple “higher” foot that does it, but a combination; this combination would be directly related to the fact that the 2 hand holds are right facing and therefore limit control by the climber to set up with control.

By knowing movement, a setter can ensure that any additional options necessary for fairness also don’t offer an additional unfair advantage for a taller climber higher up or on another part of the climb. Typically because competition setting is limited to foot-based solutions, small and sloping feet or the obvious choice since they rarely offer a reasonable handhold for other climbers.

It’s not my intent to offer a solution but to point out the obvious “problem” with climbing competitions and why it’s NOT a good idea to set any competition format into “stone” until we better understand the medium we attempt to replicate: real rock climbing. That stone is the Olympics, and in my opinion would be a big mistake.

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~ by r. mulligan on 2016/01/20.

11 Responses to “ABS 16 Youth, A Commentary on Setting”

  1. I think that it’s not setters error when taller climber uses easier beta, because he can reach something the others can’t reach. Because if we removed problems which are easier for taller from competitions then there would be only short climbers, because they are lighter.

    And the idea to measure how far the tall ones can reach and move the hold so that they can’t reach it is not fair in my opinion.

    • I think you might be misunderstanding what he is trying to convey.

    • Ahq, you realize that these problems are created by setters in the first place… meaning the reaches are artificial distances determined by a setter.

      Regarding: “And the idea to measure how far the tall ones can reach and move the hold so that they can’t reach it is not fair in my opinion.” … but it’s ok to place the holds far enough away so that it is harder for shorter climbers is ok?

      The taller climber isn’t using easier beta, but THE beta that’s easier for being taller. Outside, your statement is true, but on plastic there are no other options.

  2. Wait…..a guidebook with no grades!? 😉

    Nice write-up as usual. I couldn’t agree more, especially in regards to the disparity between plastic and rock. One is, generally, infinitely subtle and the other is usually blatantly obvious.

    Thanks Rob

    I’m off to eke out one day on lovely Oregon basalt! Can’t wait to see you guys.

    • Well said. Thanks for your comment.

      Josh is in season, Up40 is calling your name, and temps are holding up (or is that down)… sorta!

  3. You hit the nail on the head! Great analysis and write-up. I think this problem gets even worse when you start looking at the setting of local gyms, where the setters are even less experienced. Of course, there isn’t a comp on the line, but I have noticed that many shorter climbers can get discouraged when there are a large number of less experienced setters not accounting for different body types.

    Again, great analysis!

    • Agreed regarding short people. Too many setters use reach and power to increase difficulty, not footwork, not tension. Reach and power are legit options, but too often they’re used most often.

  4. Hmmm, really interesting! I have to say my hat goes off to route setters though – I wish I had their vision

    • Thanks for your comment. In my haste to focus on error, I’ve forgot to put the setting industry into context… and they have done an excellent job since setting began in the 80’s in America. Caution must be taken since climbing comps are the only comps I can think of where humans engineer the substance and fairness of the comp, rather than depend on objective standards like distance, time, or scoring. In other sports referees can make mistakes, but they aren’t directly involved in the creation of the course. Even in mountain biking, the course is fair for every bike that travels the path. Maybe one day a computer will randomly create the climbing course based on objective inputs of athlete dimensions. But the program would need to know everything about movement, not unlike they way a computer plays chess.

      • I reckon they could do that with a computer now if the money was there, but I don’t think climbing and computers will ever mix. The purists would die on the spot

        • Maybe so… but if the problems of comps continues AND a computer solution arrives, all bets are off I think.

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