Updated: Jul 13, 2022
The Singapore climbing industry has come a long way since 2011. Using faded polished handholds, Allen keys to tighten, tape to indicate boulder problems, and having random volunteers route setting, the Singapore climbing industry has progressed to having some of the best tools, processes, and talents that offer some of the best route setting in the region.
Tools – Soft Impact Drivers and Holds
From using Allen keys to drills, to impact drivers, setters in Singapore (and in fact, the world over) have progressed to using Soft Impact Drivers. Its oil-impulse cocking mechanism softens the sound made by traditional impact drivers, which have probably destroyed more than a few setters’ hearing.
But even that is nothing compared to the dramatic improvements and innovation with the shapes, style and materials that modern handholds are made from. Some of the notable innovators and shapes include – Flathold, Cheeta, Kilter and Euroholds.
Unless you are a veteran climber or route setter, you may not have noticed that the better-designed holds are designed to be “directional”. In that, they are best loaded in a particular direction. It is directional holds that help a setter build a vision and a pattern of movements that they intend for the climber to move.
It is the goal of setters to develop a problem that, while it can have different solutions (depending on height and skill-set), will always only have one answer.
Volumes – Fairness, Aesthetics, Enigma
Until the interview with Hilman for this article, it never occurred to our team that a volume can make a climb “fairer”. Think about it – because of the extensive surface area of volumes, it gives more options for climbers of different stature to decide where to step or hold.
Aesthetics is important. A well set but plain boulder will get less attention than an aesthetic boulder which may not climb that well. That is not to say aesthetics are everything, but image matters. For example, holds these days are designed to be both functional and aesthetically pleasing.
Enigma - A volume will change the plane of the surface it is mounted on. A high profile one could make the move an easy sit-in, and a low profile one could create a smear-tension effect that might rip the fabric of your reality on what is friction.
All in all, volumes create unlimited possibilities. (At the point of writing, the Head Setter has chided the guy who ordered too little volumes for Boulder Planet. However, that is what we are working to resolve before Boulder Planet 2 opens. Shhhhh 🤫)
The Process – Consistency, Fore-Running, Experience
Go to any climbing gyms in the world, and there will never be a consensus on grading. And that IS the nature of this sport - embrace it!
Depending on your stature, strengths, mobility and sometimes mood, climbs will feel quite different for yourself at different periods (depending on how you feel, high-gravity days sucks). The subjectivity is amplified when you take into account the variances between people.
That is not an excuse, though, as the setters at Boulder Planet try their best to make boulders feel as consistent as they can.
The AFEAT system
Featuring a setting system pioneered by Hilman, the AFEAT system incorporates checks in:
Accuracy – If the boulder is supposed to be a Grade 5, the first draft should be within one grade of the desired difficulty.
Flow - How the moves flow into each other (a poor flow could be a hard start, and then all easy moves for the rest of the boulder).
Ergonomics – Set in a way that emphasises natural body position and movement. If you’ve ever tried an awkward move, you know what this means.
Aesthetics – Yes. Not only must it climb well, but the boulders must also look good.
Teamwork – How well do the different team members work together to create good boulders.
The AFEAT system is also what Boulder Planet will base on in training future setters.
Perhaps overlooked by most, fore-running is the most critical part of route setting, more than the actual physical work of putting up handholds. Fore-running is the process where the team gets together to try the boulders that each other set and make edits to improve the quality of the boulder.
The process helps each other overcome their inherent biases due to their size, strengths, and personal experience. Together, the setters check each other for:
Safety – Does a move have an unacceptable level of safety for the grade? E.g., Is a sideways dyno at the top of the wall suitable for a Grade 4?!
Hacks – Can the intended beta be hacked (a.ka. done in a way that is more obvious but not intended).
Flow – Does it climb well? At this juncture, depending on where one began one’s climbing journey, what climbs well can be hugely subjective. If you started climbing at Pull Universe, you might not like balance-intensive boulders so much. If you started climbing at Fontainebleau, you might try to compress everything. And if you started climbing at Dyno Universe, you would hate everything static. That is why at Boulder Planet, there is a range and a variety. So if you start your climbing journey with us, you will soon join the Boulder-Right Planet.
Accuracy – The Grade 4 you climbed, could have been set as a Grade 5 originally—vice versa. The fore-running process helps setters to come to a consensus on the grades. And as with all things statistics, the larger the pool of data (experience, feedback), the more accurate we arrive at the correct grade.
People – Who are our setters?
Hilman, Dennis, and Zam - names that the Singapore climbing community is familiar with.
Each of them comes with loads of experience in:
Managing large climbing gyms
To Boulder Planet, our boulders are, first and foremost, the essential product for our customers. And that is why we are selective in the setters we hire.
The first part of Boulder Planet’s plan - to “professionalise” this occupation. Just as professional piano tuners are essential to tune the pianos for the best pianist, trained professional setters are necessary to set good routes for climbers to climb on. And we start with the most fundamental – good training, good tools, a good environment, and a respectable wage.
The second part of our plan is to train the next generation of route setters. From picking up a tool, choosing the holds to use, grinding a popped t-nut, to setting up a rig to haul ourselves up the wall - route setting is a job that demands attention to safety. It requires years of experience to be at the top.
So, if you are keen to explore the realm of route setting, drop our Head Setter an inquiry at email@example.com. Our first route setter course is planned for the 4th Quarter of 2021, and we hope for you to be our first batch of trainees.