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Analysis of the grading systems

By micktousignant September 19, 2017 General

“I don’t care about the grades…” I think every climber would like to think like that, but the truth is that grades are an important part of every climber’s life.  Who doesn’t feel very good when sending something a grade harder than what he usually does?  So, I think, very few climbers are 100% committed to the “I don’t care about the grade!” thing.  That puts a lot of pressure on us, route setters, to put the right tag on the right route so the climber can tell if he or she is climbing well today.

Grading is a complex and delicate part of the route setter’s job and for this post I wanted to stop and think as much as possible about the subject.  I asked myself different relevant questions and tried to answer them as precisely as I could.

The goal here is not to tell you “this is how things should be done”, but to share some of my thoughts and interrogations on the matter.  I hope this exercise will help me, and you at the same time, better understand the whole grading process and see things a little bit more clearly in the future.

Why do we grade?

The first question I wanted to answer is “Why do we even grade in the first place?”.  Why don’t we just put routes and problems on the wall and just let people climb freely on them?

The way I see it, there are 4 main reasons why it is important to have some kind of grading system inside a climbing gym:

Easier to make sure there is enough stuff for everyoneOne of the most important thing in a climbing gym is to be able to offer diversity in terms of styles and difficulty. If you have no grading system at all, how would you keep track of all the climbs inside the gym.SafetyYou don’t want inexperienced climbers taking awkward and dangerous falls at the first quickdraw of a very hard climb because they didn’t know it was “out of their league”. Sure, some climbers will try things way above their climbing abilities sometimes even if there are grades, but at least they know what they are going up against.Providing some kind of “road map” for the customersI don’t think climbers would like to have to scout the entire gym trying to analyze each and every route to finally find one that might be the difficulty they are looking for. Intermediate climbers want to know where the intermediate climbs are and beginners the easy ones, so it would be nice for them to be guided somehow.Keeping the climbers psyched by being able to see their progressionThis is especially true for beginner climbers. As we get stronger we find other ways than grades to measure or progression.  Like being able to do deadhangs with 10 more added pounds or finally doing 1-5-9 on the campus rungs.  However, beginners only have grades as reference points to get them psyched.  It is nice for them to see that 1 month ago they couldn’t do any climbs of a certain difficulty and now they are able to top almost all of them.

In the light of this analysis, I think that the most important characteristic of a grading system is that it must be coherent inside the climbing gym.  It doesn’t matter if the V2s at your gym are easier than the V1s at another gym, as long as V2s at your gym are, in general, harder than V1s and easier than V3s.

Why is it so hard to grade?

OK, now that I have established that we are doing the right thing by having grading systems, my next interrogation would be: why is it so hard to agree on a grade sometimes?

I think that the answer is really simple and every climber/route setter know it: grading is subjective.  There are no set of rules or checklists to tell us that when you have a 1 pad crimp in a 45 degrees overhang it is a V6.

No, everything comes back to how hard it felt and this is what makes it so hard.  Everybody has different body types and experience different things, even the same person on different days can find a problem easier or harder.

Another reason I think it is hard to grade, especially if we are trying to use outdoor grades, is that there are so many levels.  Let’s say that we only have 2 grades: Easy and Hard.  It would be so much simpler.  I think that everybody would agree on 95% of the climbs.  Only the ones close to the separation would generate some kind of debate.

Now, multiply this problem by the number of separations in the outdoor grading systems.  We are now having to argue on 75% of the climbs because they all fall close to a separation point and it is very important that this 5.11b is not 5.11c.

This will be addressed later, but using groups of grades or made up grading systems with fewer levels are, I think, a good way to make it easier to grade.

Different grading systems


Now, I would like to analyze different grading systems that I have come across at different gyms by trying to find the pros and cons of each ones.


Outdoor grades

Pros: Well known by the climbers and by the setters, easy to put in place, easy for the climbers to follow their progression.

Cons: Easy for people to complain that the grades are not right, lots of different grades makes it hard to hit the right one.

Groups of grades or circuits

Pros: Same as the outdoor grades since it uses them in the background, fewer grades makes it a little bit easier to grade, by using circuits you can even combine styles inside the circuits. (i.e. in every blue circuit there is 5 boulders from V1 to V5 and at least one slab, one overhang, one acrobatic and one very complex.  It is also not necessary to tell which problem is V1 and which one is V5)

Cons: If the grade span inside a group is too large it becomes hard for the climbers to see their progressions because the gaps between the grades are bigger.  You can make the groups overlap to make it a little better. (i.e. One group is V1 to V3 and the other V3 to V5)

Made up grades

Pros: Nobody can tell you that you didn’t give the right grade, YOU made up the system!

Cons: No reference point outside your gym, having to educate climbers and new setters to your grading system.

Final thoughts


Like I said in the beginning, the goal of this article was not to end up with THE right way to grade, but to try to understand as much as possible the challenges of grading.

I think that whether we like it or not, grades are an important part of indoor climbing and we should try to find the best way to use them according to our gym’s goals and vision.  Try to be coherent inside your gym and don’t be too obsessed by finding the perfect grade for every climb.

It always helps to compare climbs to grade them.  If you think a climb is a certain grade, climb different existing routes around this grade and ask yourself if it “fits”.

I learned a lot in the process of writing this post and I would love to read your thoughts of the subject.  Feel free to comment and share with your fellow route setters!

Go set something awesome!


Low grades, high expectations!

By micktousignant August 18, 2017 General, Tips

I know that setting easy boulders or routes is not the favorite thing for route setters.  We might feel that we don’t have many move options or that we always come back to the same things and sometimes it is hard to find inspiration.

Setting in the low grades is one of the most challenging task a setter has to do.  Finding inspiration for grades you climb every day is easy, on the other hand, finding the right combination of complexity and strength to create a nice V1, that’s the real challenge.

In this week’s post, I will talk about setting in the lower grades and I will give you some tips to set the most awesome easy climbs for your gym.

Who will climb it?

First, it is primordial to understand the role easy climbs play in a climbing gym.  They are not just some jugs splattered on the wall so beginner climbers will have something to climb when they come to the gym.

The way I see it, there are 3 types of climbers who will climb the low grades:

BeginnersIntermediate climbers looking to improve a certain skillAdvanced climbers warming up

For beginners, it is probably the first holds they will ever touch.  As setters, we must make sure that they have a wonderful first experience and that they will want to come back.  “How do we do that?” you may ask.  Well, most of the tips will be given in the next section, but, for now, I’d like to share a comment an experienced setter said to me when I started setting: “Beginners are often happy just to get to the top of the wall.”

So, my first advice would be to not overthink it.  It doesn’t have to be too complicated, even if the climber doesn’t do a campus 360 during his climb, if he manages to get to the top of the wall he will probably feel like he has accomplished something.  Remember that every move is new to them and that they don’t have the technical knowledge yet to appreciate clever tricky sequences.

In the case of the intermediate climber it is important to give him or her plenty of different basic skills to practice in the easy climbs.  Here are some examples of themes you can target:

Foot placementRoute readingBalanceStrength in overhangsFlexibilityUnderclingsLaybackSmearingAnd many more…

I think it is more important to think in terms of skills instead of moves for the lower grades because it is sometimes hard to force moves using very good holds, but you can generally create some sort of general feeling for the climb.

One important thing to keep in mind when trying to “teach” skills to climbers, is to use the best possible holds for the most complicated moves.  It is not dramatic if the move is skippable if you power your way through it, but the easiest way should be the intended and more technical way.

The last, but not least, type of climber to think about when setting in the low grades are the advanced climbers who w ill warm up on those climbs.  Sure, the climbs must be fun, but let’s be honest, the guy who comes in to work on his 5.13 project won’t probably remember the 5.9 he did to warm up.  The importance is not necessarily in the originality of the moves, but more in the variety.

If a climber wants to warm up for a crimpy hard route and the gym only offers complex juggy easy routes, then it will be hard for him to properly prepare for the effort to come.  In my opinion, there are two types of easy climbs: Complex moves on good holds or simple sequences on “bad” ones.  There should be plenty of both types inside a climbing gym to provide enough choice for a good warm up.

How to make it awesome

Now, it is easy to say that we must make the easy climbs awesome, but how do we do that in practice.  Here are a couple of tips you can use to make fun and original low grades climbs.

Make it move aroundI’ve said earlier that beginners are happy just to get to the top of the wall, but if they get there in 3 moves or if they have the feeling of climbing a ladder, they won’t have as much fun as if they had to move around left and right before arriving to the top.Use different hold anglesI’ve seen very often low grades climbs with all the holds placed horizontally. I think setters are sometimes afraid that it would be too difficult to use sidepulls or gastons.  If necessary put bigger feet, but do not be shy turning those holds around.Make it aestheticEven thought we can’t force super complex moves in the low grades it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make them look appealing. Clusters, lines of holds, usage of big holds are all good ways to make an easy climb look awesome.Give optionsDon’t be too bothered by having only one beta for the climb. Make sure the route looks nice and if all the options are around the same grade than you’ve done a great job.Think about the feetDon’t be shy on footholds in easy climbs. If a move feels easy for you, but you realize you are using a flag or that your core is somehow engaged, it may mean that the move is too hard and that a foot chip is needed.Use 3DSetting easy climbs with jugs on a face wall all the time might become repetitive. Throw a couple of volumes in there and make the climber move in a 3D space.  Even if it is super easy, the beginners will have a great time moving around and discovering new body positions.

Final thoughts

Try to enjoy setting easy climbs as much as you enjoy setting hard climbs.  Every time I have something easy to set I tell myself: “I will make the most awesome climb of that grade!”

Also, remember who you are setting for and what these climbers look for in an easy climb.  Have as much variety as possible in types of moves, angles, styles and holds.  If with all this you can’t seem to find inspiration at one day or another, just create a nice shape with jugs on the wall and you could be surprised how fun it is.

Once, I just did a circle with some jugs, alternating their orientation and it was one of the most interesting easy boulder I had ever set.  There were multiple options, people were drawn to this boulder because it looked nice and it was not too hard so practically everybody could reach the top within one session.

Go set something awesome!

Communication (or the art of giving/receiving feedback)

By micktousignant July 28, 2017 General

Communication is very important inside a route setting team and it is not always easy to tell someone what we really think of his or her route.  Too often I see setters forerun a climb and the only words that come out of their mouth afterwards are: “Nice climb, I liked it.” Or “I didn’t really like this one.”

To improve as a route setter, it is as important to be able to accept criticism as it is to be able to give good feedback to other setters.  By forcing yourself to be as critical as possible towards other people climbs, you will learn to be as critical with your own work and, with time, you will be able to set quality climbs much faster.

In this post, I will give you some tips to improve your communication skills and make sure you are not afraid to give constructive criticism when you are forerunning.

Be constructive

The first and, I think, most important thing to remember is to always be constructive with your feedback.  The goal is to make the climb more enjoyable and/or help someone else improve as a setter not to attack personally another person.

Here are some examples of non-constructive criticisms:

This is the worst climb I ever climbed.It was cool.I don’t like slabs.It’s a powerful route.

Now, how it could have been said:

The section near the end felt very awkward. It was hard to read and I had no holds for the feet.  We should try to make it better.I think it was very fun to climb, but maybe it can be even better if we change a little bit this one move. Or we could try to make it more visually appealing.I didn’t feel stable in this section on the slab. Was this the feeling you were going for?  Did I do it the right way?I think that these couple moves are a little bit too powerful for the grade, maybe we could try adding a foot or using better hand holds?

Before saying any comment, you should always ask yourself if what you are about to say is at least giving some hints about what has to be modified to end up with a better climb.

Using “I” instead of “You”

Ask any psychology expert and they will tell you that critics are more easily received when they are formulated using the first person.  The person on the receiving end won’t feel as attacked if you start what you are about to say with:

I feel that…I found that…I didn’t like this part…I couldn’t reach…I think …

Instead of:

Your route is…You always do…You have to change this …

By using “I” instead of “You”, you tell the other person that you are willing to work with him instead of putting all the blame on him and giving him the responsibility to fix everything.

Explain yourself

I try to never say that I don’t like something if I can’t explain why I don’t like it.  It can be because the hold angle makes it uncomfortable, because it is not intuitive, because it is too hard, because the foot hold is not at the right place, etc.

Whatever the reason is, I must find it before I give my feedback.  I may have to climb the same section multiple times and try different methods, but it is important to know why a move doesn’t work and not just say “I didn’t like this move, let’s change it.”.

By finding the “why” every time you don’t like something, you will improve your understanding of movement and you will be able to propose adequate changes more effectively in the future.

Propose solutions

Nobody likes someone who only complains and never proposes any solution to the problems.  Therefore, I always try to follow up a comment like: “I didn’t like… because…” by something like: “Maybe we could try to…” or “what if instead we…”.

Don’t be afraid to propose something even if you are note sure it will fix the problem.  Your proposed solution might just give some other idea to someone else and this new idea will generate another one and another one… until you finally end up with a good solution.

This is something I noticed less experienced setters have more difficulty doing.  They can generally tell that something is wrong, but struggle to propose a way to fix it.

If you haven’t been setting for long, try to propose a solution when you are faced with something that doesn’t work.  With time, you will learn why certain solutions works better than others.

On the other hand, if you are an experienced setter working with someone with less experience, encourage them to speak up and always explain calmly why some of their propositions won’t work.

Be open-minded and enjoy the discussion

Route setting is not an exact science.  There is no absolute truth or perfect answer.  Someone might like a move that someone else just hate.  Therefore, it is crucial that every setter keeps an open mind and must be willing to have a discussion with the others.

Always remember that it is not about being right, it is about offering a good variety of climbs for the customers and to please every type of climbers.  Try to put yourself in someone else’s shoe when having an argument about a climb:

A short climberA tall climberA powerful climberA technical climberA trad climberA beginnerA very strong climberA child

Being able to give and receive feedback are very important qualities a route setter must have and if an entire team can master these abilities, then the team is prone to great achievements.

So, my final comment for this post would be to put your ego aside, give as much feedback as you can and enjoy the discussion.  It is when ideas clash that we often come up with the best innovations.

Go set something awesome!

Be creative? Challenge accepted!

By micktousignant July 21, 2017 Basics, Tips

I challenge you to be more creative

I’ve often heard and said myself that to improve as a route setter you have to be creative and get out of your comfort zone.  It is easy to say, but it might be hard to figure out exactly how to do it.  You can’t just say to someone “Be creative!” and expect him to suddenly become creative.

In this post, I will give you some tips and ideas of challenges to give yourself and/or your team a chance to explore new ideas and make it a little bit easier to get out of your comfort zone.

Before getting into the challenges ideas, I’d like to clarify that getting out of your comfort zone will not make things easier or more efficient for the current setting session.  On the contrary, you might have to spend more time setting and tweaking since you are trying something new and it won’t probably work on the first try.  However, it doesn’t mean there are no upsides of trying new things.

First, customers are going to be happy to climb something different right away.  Secondly, and most importantly, you will add this new move, position, feeling, mindset, experience, etc. to your setting tools and will be able to reproduce it much quicker in the future if needed.

So, if you want to be a better setter in the long run and you want to try a couple of the challenges listed bellow, make sure to commit fully to the task and that you don’t have too much of a time constraint.  It is easy when things get a little harder to just fall back to our old habits.

Challenge #1: Reject every first idea

Every route setter who have been setting for some time have some sort of “setting reflexes”.  It can be:  favorite holds, signature moves or anything else we intuitively do while setting.  The first thing I personally like to do when I want to set something different is rejecting every first idea that comes to my mind.

Let’s say that I have a 5.10b to set and, when entering the hold’s room, I’m automatically drawn to a certain set of holds.  Well, I will definitely not use those holds.  Then, I arrive in front of the wall where there is a roof and the first thing that comes to my mind is a rock over on a heel to pass the roof.  I will try my hardest to find some other way to get out of this roof.

You can use this technique whenever you feel like you are doing the same things over and over again.

Challenge #2: Team setting

I love this one because there are so many variations that you can do.

There is the classic one, where you set in pairs in full cooperation.  This is great because you get to see how other setters think and great ideas often comes from the discussions that this method generate.  It can also be a great way to help newer setters by pairing them with more experienced ones.  It is important thought that the experienced setter does not take full control making the rookie just a spectator.

Variation 1: If you want to make it more like a game, you can do it in a way that setters take turns placing holds on the wall.  You have to work with what is already on the wall and decide where to put the next hold.  It is not about placing holds at random or trying to make it hard for the other person to find something to do, but more about combining different ideas.

Variation 2: For this variation, one setter can be responsible for placing the hand holds and the other the foot holds.  This can help you realize that there is not only one good place for the feet and depending on where you put them it can create different types of movements.

Variation 3: I’d call this one 10 on 10 off.  Setters work for 10 (or more) minutes on their respective climbs and then they switch.  10 more minutes and they switch again.  Repeat this process until the climbs are done.  Do not spend time modifying what the other person has set, try to keep on going with what is already there.

Challenge #3: The trader

This challenge consists of having a setter choosing the holds for another one.  I think it works even better if the goal is to choose “poor” holds for the other person.  This way it really gets the setter out of his comfort zone and he must be creative to come up with something nice.

Challenge #4: The spinner

This is very simple, every time you put a hold on the wall you make it spin and fix it as it is still spinning.  Then, you have to use the hold as is.  Add feet where you want them to be according to the new hold and decide where you would like the next hold to be.  Repeat the process until you are at the top of the wall.

There might be some weird sections that will need tweaking during forerunning later, but try to commit as much as possible to the challenge, accepting every hold as they land.

Challenge #5: Setting the mood

One of my great friend and experienced route setter, Guillaume Nadeau, told me about this one yesterday and I really liked it.  He told me that him and two other setters were giving a song to listen to and then they had to set a route being inspired by the song.

It turned out to be a very interesting experience and the routes were original and fun.  For example, the guy who had to listen to Born this way by Lady Gaga ended up with a big powerful route for people who were “born this way”.  On other setter listened to Poker Face also by Lady Gaga, it was the theme,  and his route was technical and complex demanding good route reading skills.

In this particular situation they used songs, but I clearly see it work with movies, famous people, emotions or anything to give a general tone to the climb.  One of the setters at my gym once set a route called Die Hard… I’ll let you imagine the result

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