The Specialist: Routesetting with Chris Danielson

Most of us have seen the BigUp film short, "The Insiders", right?  If you did, and you didn't instantly want to try the bat-hang-push-swing-drop-down move, then you just aren't as cool as I thought you were.  And what about that sloper route that Paul is working out?  Fact is, the problems and routes... more importantly, the movement... made that film more fun to watch.

The man behind that movement was Chris Danielson.  Not only is Chris the chairman of the USAC Routesetting Committee, the National Climbing Gym Rep for GTHI, and the founder of THREAD Climbing Wall Consultation, but he is the absolute go-to guy for any big comp or gym consulting project.  In my research about Chris, I found several instances of other professional setters naming him as their hero and inspiration.  In short, the guy is talented.

As Chris represents several companies, including E-Grips, Teknik, So Ill, PMI, Trango, Moon Climbing, and Five Ten, and is constantly shuttling around the country to teach setting clinics and help gyms get opened up, his time is limited.  When I asked him if I could ask a few questions, I expected to queue up in line and wait a while.  Surprisingly, the answers came back lighting fast, and much more in depth than I could have hoped.  I think Chris just really loves to talk setting.

Before we get started, let me tell you where the questions arose from.  I've been in the gym too many days lately, several of them setting a problem.  Yes, one single problem.  It's about 30 moves long, uses small holds, and hovers right around 14a.  I wanted it to be perfect, so there's been endless tweaking.  It still may not be finished.  The idea is to have a problem that can carry me through my maximum recruitment phase and that I might have an outside chance at sending by the time I'm wrapping up AE.

Those wrench turning sessions led me to think back to the questions I'd received about setting for your own training.  It's difficult.  That's a fact.  Who better to get some insight from than Chris Danielson?  Lucky for us, he's the nicest guy around... and he absolutely loves to talk setting.

Just to give Chris a general idea of where I was in terms of my setting knowledge, I pointed him in the direction of a previous post, Set The Stage.  I was pleasantly surprised that he took the time to critique my thoughts, as well as add a few tips of his own.  You can click the below topics to reference back to the original post if need be:

1.  Make it Ludicrous.

(Chris)  Yes, and no.  Really, it depends on who you are.  When setting for comps where the climbers are above my own ability, I often have a similar problem to what you have, choosing holds that are too positive and underestimating my own ability, or their's, on the first skeleton set of a route or boulder.  But, many younger or newer climbers/setters, I think, more often have the problem of making things far more difficult than they think it is going to be, and usually with extending the reach too far.  So, it can go both ways.  A way to broaden the point (and this is good for overall improvement of setting) is not just to try to make the holds ludicrous - but perhaps better sometimes, make the MOVES ludicrous - and by that I don't mean hard or big or crazy dynamic - just... not the first thing you would think to do, not intuitive.  When you are grabbing a hold on the wall, and look to the most intuitive place to put the next one, often it can be good to try to put it, instead, in the last place you would have thought of.

2.  Forget The Feet.

(Chris)  Definitely, using tracking feet can be great.  Another step would be to not use tracking feet at all, but ONLY use jib feet (this may mean having to litter your wall with small screw-on jibs).  If you want to work your footwork and tension, this is an excellent thing to build into your training.  Fill your wall with jib feet (not just at the base, but up to the high point of where your feet go) and then try problems you've set before for yourself with open feet, second with tracking feet, then, make it really hard by using just jib feet.

3.  Tiny Holds, Big Feet... Big Holds, Tiny Feet.

Absolutely.  It is another method of doing something counter-intuitive.  In commercial routesetting we often avoid using big feature holds or jugs as just footholds, since they can be better used in more interesting ways, but there are no rules. Even your own intuitive methods for how to climb or set, that may begin to seem like rules for yourself, of course are not rules.  So break them.

4.  No Wrenches.

(Chris)  This is an excellent lesson.  Although people know me as a routesetter, and that typically means to most that I'm turning a wrench to put up holds, in reality I only put holds on a wall maybe 40 - 50 days out of a year.  But I climb 3 - 4 nights a week, and EVERY time I climb, I am routesetting.  No matter where I am climbing or what gym I go to, I am always creating boulders based on existing holds on the wall.  For me, this is, without question, the best way to better understand how to create movement, and also understand the movement itself better.  On your gym's wall, or a home woodie, with enough density of holds, you can make up a dozen or more new climbs every night.

5.  Get A Tall, Strong Friend. 

(Chris)  Yup, always helps.  A phrase I often use to help people motivate is, if you can't reach it, just climb taller.

It's always nice to get validation from one of the best in the industry that your thought process is on the general right track, but it's even better to have them point you in a more efficient direction.  I would have been elated with just the responses I got concerning the "Set The Stage" post, but Chris had so much more to say.

While reading about your setting, I've noticed a consistent theme: quality of movement.  Many setters speak more about difficulty than quality of movement, and I find that in many cases, the two have a hard time coexisting.  Is there something specific you do to ensure quality movement when setting hard problems?

(Chris)  There are many things, but quality of movement is subjective, just like everything else in climbing, so for me it's very personal.  When I create moves, whether I can physically do them or not, I want to have fun in the climbing itself.  More often than not, this means I want to be "comfortable", which generally means avoiding really sharp holds or positions that torque the wrist or knees, etc.  However, sometimes creating movements that feel uncomfortable until you figure out how to make them feel comfortable can be rewarding, too.
There are a couple other things I would say are essential to my approach to routesetting and I think hopefully, the resulting quality of the product.  One is that I very seriously consider the aesthetic look of the boulder or route (the path of the line, the "art" of how the holds interact with each other or the wall or the climber, and how the complete product looks on the wall).  Another thing that I always ask myself in this same vein is, does the camera like it?

Are there any "tricks" that you employ to escape the "smaller hold, bigger move, less feet" dilemma that seems to haunt the difficult problems of many gyms?

(Chris)  Many, yes, but most are common sense.
Use worse holds but put them closer together.
Use small or directional feet, requiring the climber to use body tension or pull or push (in a direction other than straight down) with the feet rather than just stand.
Instead of orienting holds in relatively horizontal positions, try more often to rotate them between 10 and 2 o'clock, and 4 and 8 o'clock.
Go sideways. I like to say, "When you go sideways, cool shit happens." and that's true but also, you can move away from tracking feet, and thus define the difficulty of the movement with specific additional footholds, rather than just "Grab hold, stand on last handhold, pull and reach to next hold."

For the purpose of training, many of us would like to be able to set problems that are just outside of our current ability - something to learn on for several weeks - but find it difficult to do so without really understanding more difficult movements.  Can you take us step by step through your process of setting a problem like that for yourself?

(Chris)  This is hard to explain or teach, but fundamentally it is about your ability to visualize movement effectively.  The better you can tell when looking at holds on a wall what best position the body should be in to be able to do the move, or whether the reach is too far for a certain height, or whether it is "x" difficulty - the better you will understand climbing.  The better you understand climbing, the more able you are to calibrate difficulty. 
Step by step, I suppose I would say the best way to get better at this is to create boulders from existing holds on the wall.  I will start with one or two start hands and then select the next handhold to move to.  The next step, before just choosing the handhold(s) in the next movement, is to consider the feet.  I prefer to set visualizing the feet, and thus body position, for every movement rather than choose an entire sequence of handholds and then assume tracking or put feet on afterward.
Also, if you really want to get better at it, don't try each move as you go.  Try to visualize the entire boulder or route, and then try the whole thing.  Only in this way will you be able to evaluate whether you are gauging distances, quality of holds, and body positions accurately.  It is all trial and error and eventually you can begin to visualize what is possible outside of your own current ability, or as I often do, for other climbers both below and above my ability. 

Setting for Paul Robinson or Daniel Woods must require an understanding of movements that you may not be able to do.  Any tips not for setting, but for just understanding those more difficult movements?

(Chris)  Much of what I wrote above answers this in one way or another, but the one tip to add is watch.  Watch everything.  The distances.  The way a climber grabs holds.  The speed at which they move from one hold to another.  The placement of the feet.  The positioning of the core of the body in relation to the points of contact, etc..

You've set for some of the strongest boulderers on the planet, as well as for some very strong tiny kids, like Ashima, and I imagine that you don't always get the problem right the first time.  Is there a process of tweaking that you go through to get those problems just right, other than just "make the hold smaller or the reach bigger", while still keeping true to your creative vision?

(Chris)  I definitely don't get it right all the time.  Impossible.  What I focus on trying to get right is what we sometimes refer to as the "geometry" of the movement.  Especially when setting for kids, the challenge is in the distances and body positioning.  I work hard, taking my time in the actual setting process with the choice of holds and placements, and to "put the holds in the right t-nuts", meaning that I want to get the distances and body positioning right through the visualization.  I will sometimes have to make changes, of course, but more often than not the changes are in the orientation of the holds, or the holds themselves.  
My goal is always to basically set it "perfect" the first time, but there IS no perfect, so I am always striving for the unattainable.  It starts with the geometry, then if calibration is necessary, I first consider turning the holds, then perhaps to move or add a foot or intermediate hand.  If further work is appropriate, I then consider changing the holds or the t-nut positioning.  Lastly, if something is still not working, I consider changing the sequence entirely, starting from scratch. 

Lessons like these are rare, and I value them greatly.  I've read and reread what Chris wrote, and I'm sure I'll be rereading it many more times in the hopes that I can learn some of this master's approach to crafting movement.  Hope this helps you, too.

Special thanks to Caroline Treadway for allowing me to use all the wonderful photos in this post.  You can find her blog, and more of her photo work at

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