May 8 was a hot day.
At the venue of the upcoming World Cup in Navi Mumbai, the shade of CIDCO’s Exhibition Centre and sunlit day outside harbored an indistinct disparity. It was warm even in the shade. Warm enough for two of the four gentlemen, waiting for a climbing wall to be ready, to take off their T-shirts. A third, who had visited India before and climbed at Hampi and Badami, had chosen a vest over a T-shirt. Manuel Hassler, Mathias Woitzuck, Laurent Laporte and Gen Hirashima, hailing from Switzerland, Austria, France and Japan respectively, formed the four member-route setting team dispatched by the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) to the Navi Mumbai World Cup. Praveen C.M, one of the best sport climbers in India, was expected to join as a fifth member.
Manuel was Chief Route Setter; Gen and Praveen, aspirant route setters wishing to grow their skills by working with the experienced. Laurent was the most experienced; he had begun route setting for international competitions conducted by sport climbing’s apex federation, at a time when the IFSC wasn’t yet born and sport climbing was still overseen by the UIAA, currently dedicated to mountaineering. The wall imported for the competition, had arrived and not been installed yet. The quartet admired the locally fabricated wall from far; they checked it up close. Then, the inevitable happened – they imagined routes on it. Doing so, they moved their arms to reach non-existent holds, raised their legs to step on invisible footholds and let the body flex this way and that for balance, generally swaying like ballet dancers.
Four components complete a World Cup ecosystem – athletes, route setters, judges and spectators. You have a good competition, when all four blend beautifully. Of these four, the one role functioning akin to a sensitive instrument gauging the ecosystem is the route setter. All serious route setters are themselves good climbers. That’s because a sense of body movement is critical to set routes that challenge climbers. But here’s the interesting thing. Most of us equate challenge and difficulty with moves requiring strength to execute. However, strength and power and are only two of the several aspects shaping a good climber. A good climber is a composite of many other talents too including the ability to solve a set of climbing moves that resemble a problem on a route; climbing creatively, handling the overall pressure of competition and taking risks while climbing.
When route setters stare at a blank wall defined yet only by its angled faces, they can imagine different configurations of climbing holds and features on it, to create routes. They work once a wall is ready to host climbing holds. When they work, designing a collection of routes ahead of competition, access to the wall is restricted. No photography is permitted because these routes are the puzzles at the heart of a competition. But it isn’t as simple as accumulating a bank of puzzles, tucking it away and monotonously pulling it out one by one from the kitty during the course of a competition. Route setters sway like grass in the wind for a valid reason. They sense which way the wind is blowing at a competition underway. Their imagination and response to real time stimuli is what keeps a competition entertaining. That means you may pull out routes from your kitty but the going will be dynamic, with changes in response to a live situation and state of competition. According to the team now in Navi Mumbai, route setting at the start of the World Cup season is a bit of a guessing game for the athletes are returning from a break and well deserved rest after the preceding competition season. You give challenges and gauge response for a sense of where the field stands. As the season progresses, the vagaries slowly fade and trends creep in. The athletes warm up to peak performance. The route setters draw into their bank of routes and play the virus in the system, keeping the going edgy and unpredictable with their creativity in route setting, building each competition to an interesting final. While doing so, they also listen to local stimuli, which is where the spectators matter.
Spectators nowadays fall into two categories – there is the audience physically present at an event; there is the global audience available through live-streaming over the Internet (the Navi Mumbai World Cup will be streamed live). An engaged audience, aware of climbing and its nuances eminently adds to the quality of proceedings. Marathon events worldwide are remembered by the cheering runners receive. As in running, competition climbers love support and encouragement. It motivates them to perform. It builds a climbing competition’s ecosystem. It is among stimuli, the route setters in the wings listen to. Since variety and edginess are essential ingredients for enjoyable competition, route setters too are used with discretion. One team doesn’t do the route setting for a whole World Cup season. The IFSC has its list of qualified, experienced route setters and multiple teams work on the many competitions of a World Cup season. This ensures that a single line of imagination does not dominate the routes set for a season. Each of the four route setters now in Navi Mumbai, have their individual preferences as regards climbing problems and climbing styles. They work as a team to make sure that all this is available at hand as ingredients and yet no one climbing style or type of problem unnecessarily dominates and characterizes a competition. This versatility – the desire to have a diverse tool box for one’s work – appeared kept alive by the individual route setter too. Laurent for instance, was clear that he valued having his personal climbing straddle both lead climbing and bouldering without entrapment in one.
As regards concerns – thoughts weaned from the experience of having set routes for many years – they said that perhaps the competition season’s length needs revisiting. Climbing is a demanding sport. As anyone who has attempted a challenging climbing route will tell you, the act drains you. Athletes on the competition circuit are climbing as best as they can; one competition after another. While the World Cup at Navi Mumbai is focused on bouldering, there are athletes taking part in both bouldering and lead climbing. It elicits a toll as the season progresses and in a circuit where athletes are one of the fundamental building blocks, tired athletes can affect that all important ecosystem. Should there be fewer competitions so that the ecosystem stays robust? – That could become something to think of. In the same vein, another important factor which may impact the route setter’s art is climbing’s potential debut at the Olympics. While details are not yet known, what has so far appeared in the media, seems to indicate a drift to acknowledging the best climber overall as the Olympic ideal. Competitive climbing currently straddles three distinct categories – lead climbing, bouldering and speed climbing. Like the temptation in science for a theory of everything, it will be interesting to see how the journey to the Olympics influences the route setter’s art.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)