A Different Kind of Game

Posted on 10. Jun, 2010 by in News

I asked Chris Danielson, the American Head Setter for the World Cup and good friend, to give an insider perspective on setting for the best climbers in the world. Here are his thoughts:

Competition climbing is an interesting game, both for the competitors who throw themselves at the walls and for those of us who organize and help create the lines they attempt to ascend. Jamie asked me to write a recap of the recent Vail Boulder World Cup we both set. This comp was a great achievement for USA Climbing and a celebration of the amazing ability of top athletes, including one American who really stands out. In so many ways an event like this captures the excitement of the sport, shows how much bouldering has grown, and also highlights challenges of climbing competition organization.

The annual climbing comp held as part of the Teva Mountain Games has grown from a tiny event once held on a small portable wall to one of the premier bouldering competitions anywhere on the globe. The level of planning and coordination needed for an event of this scale is much more than most would imagine and Kynan Waggoner of USA Climbing deserves most of the credit. The IFSC has been incredibly supportive of our event, and seasoned representatives Graeme Alderson and Tim Hatch helped ensure this year’s competition went smoothly. The IFSC Chief International Setter, Manu Hassler, brought not only some European flair to our routesetting, but an easygoing demeanor that helped balance a stressful week of preparation. Rock and Ice also made a great event that much better by providing a live feed so the masses online could devour some action.

While the past two years in Vail were headlined by the Alex and Alex show, 2010 was the year of Daniel. A review of the competition through Woods’ performance, with some comments on routesetting and comp climbing in general, seems most appropriate.

Woods demonstrated strength early on by completing four of the five Qualifier problems with relative ease. He made a couple slips early on, but then demonstrated his enormous strength by flashing the longest and perhaps most powerful problem in the comp, a steep thug fest with big moves on good holds. He almost went into first after the Qualification but despite a strong attempt, could not complete the fifth and final slab boulder. Daniel was in third after Qualifiers, with the Young Slovenian strongman Jernej Kruder in second. Paul had a very impressive performance, going into Saturday’s round at the top of the field.
In preparation for the Semifinal round, we had worked hard to ensure a wide range of styles. Routesetting is not a science. What we do is try to create climbs that have a number of different objectives. Our goal, first and foremost, is to divide the competitive field, but we also strive to showcase the climbers’ ability in varied types of movement, making it exciting for the crowd, and safe for everyone. In the Semifinals, the climbers would first encounter a short low-percentage slab bloc, with a hard-to-catch swing move, and a tenuous mantle. Daniel bested it second try with a thrillingly timed jump to the finish as his weight moved up and off the slab press move. Next up was a relatively straightforward power problem and then a steep boulder with a double-clutch jump followed by compression moves. Neither of these presented a challenge for Woods. The last boulder mystified many of the competitors, with a difficult to decipher starting sequence leading to a very hard finish requiring contact-strength on slopers. Daniel made an astonishing flash of this final problem and secured first place standing going into finals, being the only one to complete all four blocs. (Rock and Ice vid 2:05)

Finals started a few hours later and the competitors were not the only anxious bunch. As we finished the preparation for the round, our routesetting team was certain every detail had been checked – start and finishes clearly marked, bonus boxes accurately placed, set-screws in every hold, padding in place. But, the thing about competition climbing is, so much of the pressure for the success of an event is based on the creativity and intuition of the people turning the wrenches, and then the unpredictable performance of the athletes. We do our best to calculate accurate difficulties that will split the field fairly with exciting action, but when the climbing starts, we have to leave it to the climbers to create their own drama.

As the group of six finalists went from boulder to boulder, Daniel climbed last on each one and put on a great show for the thousands of spectators. He climbed the first arête squeeze bloc second-go. The second problem had a hard jump to two crimps off the start, and a wildly difficult “drive-by” for the finish. While all the finalists figured out the start jump and made it to the last move, only a couple even touched the last hold, throwing their bodies up and out at the jug, and spinning off. Daniel latched the finish with a small swing. He kept his foot on.

The third boulder was the least inspiring and a miscalculation from a routesetting perspective. Each of the climbers made multiple attempts at a finishing launch that was just an inch or two out of reach. The crowd screamed enthusiastically before each climber went for the finish, but the cheers would be followed with a long communal sigh each time. Even for Daniel, that move was just too much. On the final bloc, the climbers would start in a dihedral, facing the crowd, set up and jump out to a huge ring, then finish up hard moves on crimps. This proved very difficult for most, with only Kruder sticking the early jump as others repeatedly swung off.

The last to climb, at first it looked as though Woods would be shut down by the dyno. But with only seconds left to get on the wall for a final attempt, Daniel demonstrated what I think may be his most mature moment as a competitor. Though by completing the second bloc he had already secured the win, he would not give up. After setting up and staring down the dyno, he jumped out and caught the ring, his body swinging up and past horizontal. The crowd went wild. Woods settled on the jug, then campused up and drove through the crimp moves Kruder had fallen on, with the thousands deep field of spectators roaring at every move. On the final two crimps he was well in control and staring down the finish jug. He placed his feet and went to pull but slipped off as he generated upwards.

Those last thirty seconds made for a nearly perfect finish for the World Cup Champion, and an enormous sigh of relief for our routesetting crew. We cannot predict exactly what the climbers will do, and this reflects the incredible subtlety of climbing competition. Daniel did stick the dyno and almost finished the boulder. If he had, it would have been absolutely incredible. I can hardly imagine how loud the crowd would have cheered. But, with seconds left, he could have also missed the jump and left us all a bit disappointed. The spectators may have been disappointed in the event, some climbers perhaps disappointed in themselves, and the routesetters certainly disappointed in their efforts. What makes climbing incredibly unique also presents a great challenge for our sport at the highest levels.

I have yet to learn of a sport where the environment that determines competitor performance is so malleable. At each event we are preparing anew a fresh competitive arena. In climbing competitions like the Boulder World Cup or most others like it, we cannot know for certain whether the climber(s) will achieve the pre-determined goal of getting to the top. They have limited time to attempt the climbs, but whether and (most of the time) exactly how they will, is entirely determined by the creative guesswork of routesetters.
There are sports, similar to climbing, where the preparation of the competitive arena changes by venue, but where each individual competitor encounters the same thing during the competition. But in any of these examples, the factors for success are very well-defined (for both the competitor and the spectator). Though the contours of the terrain and placement of the pins change, the golfer, for example, will get the ball in the hole eventually and the winner will be determined by who has made the least attempts to do so. Though the hills are carved differently and the gate placements altered, the skier will make it to the bottom of the slalom course and the winner will be the one who does so the fastest. In climbing, nothing is that simple.

We want first and foremost to split the field of competitors fairly. We hope that their performance on a variety of climbs will show, through a balance of power and fitness, mental tenacity, route-reading and on-sight ability, which among them is the best. Regardless of the format, competition climbing is anomalous. After this event, I am happy, but also pensive, trying to consider how to ensure successful competitions in the future, considering the unique challenges of how it all works.

In this example, Daniel put on a dramatic performance and finished off the competition in style, showing off how amazing bouldering is. Congratulations Daniel on an excellent win, you are a true competitor.

-American Head Setter Chris Danielson

21 Responses to “A Different Kind of Game”

  1. allmeatnocheese

    10. Jun, 2010

    Thanks Chris and Jamie for posting this. It’s always interesting to read about what setter thought about the comp as opposed to just climbers point of view. Just out of curiosity…do you only put up problems that forerunners were able to do? Or is it good enough if all the individual moves are done by forerunners? Have you ever put up a comp problem with moves that forerunners couldn’t do but you were sure it could be done by stronger climbers?

    p.s. I’m sure folks at RS.com would love to read this as well but I don’t want to put up links without your permission. Just a thought

  2. jghedge

    11. Jun, 2010

    Did the strongest guy win again? Gee what a surprise.

  3. B3

    11. Jun, 2010

    @jghedge Are we really going to have to go over this again?

  4. Narc

    11. Jun, 2010

    Excellent perspective from Chris. I’m wondering if he has any thoughts about the difficulties there seemed to be in separating the women’s field and the different challenges setting for the different sexes pose for route setters in general for these high level comps.

  5. B3

    11. Jun, 2010

    I would like to publicly thank Chris Danielson, Manu Hassler, Mike Helt, Juan Jose Fernandez and Scott Mechler. They are all great setters and I was impressed in some way by every problem that was set. It was great to see Mike Helt step up for his first adult comp, as he has worked very hard for a number of years at the Junior level.
    This was the 23rd national level adult event I have set, and after so many successful events, the microscope with which we look through to analyze the comp is a finely tuned instrument. This was not our best event, but it was a very good one, and Scott, Chris and I have a very good track record. Mike really stepped up and it’s awesome to see some new blood in the mix.
    Routesetting is always a roll of the dice, and as much as we would like to pat ourselves on the back everytime things work out really well, there are times when we toe the line on the other side. It’s my hope, and I think the evidence suggests, that time and again we are narrowing the margin of ever-present and inescapable error.
    Every single move was climbed successfully by a forerunner that had bouldered V12 outside, but no harder. Remember two of our competitors have climbed V16. We make the best judgements we can based on our knowledge of the field, our knowledge of our own and our forerunners abilities, and our experience. It is worth noting that Kilian had a recently broken toe that seemed to be seriously affecting his performance. We were all surprised at his failure to do the jump on Men’s 4.
    Anyways, just some thoughts on the weekend, and thanks again Chris for posting this!

  6. a-punter

    11. Jun, 2010

    from the videos it sure looked like a good comp but its a shame that the finals seemed to revolve almost entirely around jumping (for the men at least). From the video it looks like the hard move on every problem was a large dyno (forgive me if i’m wrong).

    Did the qualis and semis involve more varied climbing styles? i hope so as it seems a shame to decide a world cup winner based on essentially one climbing style.

    Nice job tho, looks like it was a great event. Good effort to kilian for coming 3rd with a broken toe!

  7. ken

    11. Jun, 2010

    Interesting and enjoyable post + comments.

    Do you feel there is still a lot of experimenting taking place with the nature of the problems as setters determine how far to deviate from moves found on real rock? I’m thinking, for example, of that obvious stopper jump on Men’s final #4, or the long dyno to finishing jug in the Battle of the Bubble (the one that many believed bypassed the intended sequence). Extreme examples are comps with suspended, swinging volumes.

    In general, should bouldering comps stay true to outside movement patterns? Or should they move further into a style of their own? And to what end? — is it all about the spectator and increasing audience size? (which is not necessarily bad)

    A parallel could be drawn to the mogul competition in the winter Olympics. When freestyle mogul comps first hit the scene decades ago, the skiing really felt on the edge, with surprising and spontaneous moments. Today, this event has become so refined, so homogenized, that it seems contrived. Sure, it’s all still skiing, but has the essence been lost?

    In this still early, evolving era of climbing comps, are you concerned about the direction in which to steer the sport?

  8. campusman

    12. Jun, 2010

    one person really cant control too much of which direction anythink should be driven. the idea’s need to be obvious to everyone, and then someone usually speaks up and says hey for everyone to act.

  9. campusman

    12. Jun, 2010

    crazy how any nation thinks it needs a president, our last one gave a flying duck.

  10. danielson

    14. Jun, 2010

    @Narc: The women are always a different challenge than the men, and perhaps a bit more so with a World Cup since we can expect the top 6 to be relatively similar in ability (whereas in most US comps, it is assumed Alex and Alex will dominate, a step above the rest). In this particular comp, I felt like we did well in the Qualifying and Semi rounds for both genders. In Finals, I don’t think we had a really difficult time dividing the field, though if anything, a very slight turn might have made one or two of the women’s problems just a bit harder (whereas with the Men the opposite might have been better). It’s not a science at all, and the best we can do is have a good understanding of what the field is capable of. But, we can’t see the future, and we also can’t ever really know if hindsight is 20/20. The change we imagine having made could have worked better, or maybe worse… we’ll never know.

    In the World Cup, it also makes it a little more tricky when we have to consider they have four minutes to climb, but in the case of finals, will typically have significant rest in between each problem (different from Qualifiers and Semis or ABS Nationals format). Furthermore, a very significant difference regardless with the World Cup, is that the format rewards Tops first, then defers to Attempts to Tops, and following that, Bonuses, then Attempts to Bonuses. This means that for the routesetting, it is important to have some emphasis on low percentage movement (generally harder to set), which we can hope will result in the climbers being divided by their attempts, even if many climbers finish problems. This is just a different thing to consider, not necessarily more or less difficult than setting for another format.

    In any case, we had tremendous help from excellent forerunners Johnny Hork, Flannery Shay-Nemirow and Angie Payne, and our result was pretty good overall I think. The perfect comp, from a routesetting perspective, is always elusive. When you think about success from so many different angles (competitor division, building of energy, exciting moves and finishes, safety, etc, etc…) and the positioning of holds in fractions of inches, perfection is never really attainable.
    @Ken: Thanks for the inquisitive comments. I personally am always interested in any fun and unique movements, whether they are found outside often is not as important to me. For my part, I don’t think an active effort to try to re-create the “feel” of outdoor climbing on plastic (whether for competition or commercial setting) is necessary or serves a specific purpose of pushing any direction to the sport. I have a difficult time thinking about the direction of climbing in a broad sense, because “climbing” is so incredibly diverse, I’m not even sure any of us could agree on what it is. How competitions are perceived and how they play into what climbing is, may mean something for young climbers looking to compete, but probably means absolutely nothing to those training for the next 8,000 meter ascent. I think these are really interesting questions, but I find myself always resorting to “I like it because it’s fun.”

    The climbing movement we do on manufactured walls is simply it’s own thing. Personally, I love it. And I’ve always thought, even those really dynamic movements that are sometimes criticized for being overemphasized in plastic competition, are all found outside somewhere. To me, it’s all just movement and the overall all goal is to enjoy it. I actually just have a lot more fun when the body moves in a wide array of crazy positions – and when I’m in the gym and see people climbing, they seem to enjoy the types of movement that get them doing something “different” than the most basic positions (whether moving sideways, feet-first, horizontal, upside-down, swinging, dynos, stemming, balancing or mantling on slab, whatever it may be…) and I definitely think people like to watch these types of movements (at least when compared to small moves on sharp crimps, for example). If part of the goal is to make the crowd roar (which it is), then it’s hard to argue against a great face-out jump like the one on Men’s 4. When Daniel stuck the hold, that was a moment unlike many in climbing, and so in that respect, I thought it was excellent.

    It is our goal as a routesetting team in a competition to create a range of varied movement styles, definitely including, but not exclusively emphasizing, dynamic movement. The range of movement styles is definitely no accident. At this comp, I feel strongly that we did have a very wide range of movement over all the rounds. I can certainly attest to the fact that the moves that were not jumps, were really quite difficult. For those that only watched most of finals, they may think it emphasized jumping a bit. I’m not sure if I’d say there was a higher percentage of hard dynamic moves in the Final round for the men than earlier rounds… maybe. If we were to break it down, we might say there was about 1 dynamic move for every 8 static, in Men’s Finals. Is that a lot? Not sure what determines a lot…

    Certainly, if those hard dynamic moves had been done more, people might not consider them an issue any way – and on Men’s Finals 3 and 4, we did expect they would be done more. An inch or two difference, and we might have seen them done too easily, which may have garnered different criticism.. so, it’s a fine line.

    We always work hard, and it really is like a game… just like the athletes, sometimes we win some, sometimes we lose some.

  11. campusman

    14. Jun, 2010

    I can tell you really enjoy what you do danielson, never stop exploring.

  12. Narc

    14. Jun, 2010

    Excellent, thanks for sharing your thoughts Chris.

  13. Ken

    14. Jun, 2010

    Really appreciate the thoughtful and insightful answers. Thanks to Jamie for creating this opportunity!

  14. […] a nice write-up about the comp from the perspective of the route setters check out this piece by Chris Danielson who was American Head Setter for the comp. AKPC_IDS += "8623,"; stepcarousel.setup({ galleryid: […]

  15. g

    16. Jun, 2010


    nice insight on routesetting.

    i have a question about routesetting and injuries.

    looking at the comp, the famous one arm dyno+swing looked very dangerous for shoulders, at lest from the perspective of someone who injuried one while climbing.

    It made me think of when i’ve dislocated a shoulder during a friendly comp at my local gym : starting from a 30°, you had to take this very far jug in the middle of a roof as gaston, twist yourself 180° (facing the mat), match the jug, cut feet loose and swing.
    Fun, cool loking move and quite easy once the beta was figured out, but a small mistake (feet sliding off the polished foothold a moment before i matched the jug) resulted in the injury, as i was trying to hold on anyway.

    Do you as a routesetter consider the injury potential of the problems you set and avoid those moves that, in your experience, could result in the worst injuries?
    If yes, how do you know that a move would be too dangerous? Is it based on your personal story (eg you trashed all your pulleys and avoid to set hard moves on crimps), on what youre forerunners might say abou this, on your experience of what happened at previous events, on all of this?
    How do you feel if an athlete injuries during the comp?
    finally, do you think some moves can be a safe proposition for stronger and more experienced athletes, but not at lower levels?

  16. danielson

    16. Jun, 2010

    @g: We definitely do consider every situation we can think of, including all the injury possibilities. I have heard from a few people who thought that move in particular looked likely to cause injury, but if we thought it was a serious concern, we would not have included it. As many as a dozen people tried that move (or various iterations of the same move, most being more difficulty) in forerunning and did all kinds of swinging, spinning, and careening onto the mats. In total, people jumped from that position in forerunning well over 100 times I’m sure.

    That doesn’t mean the move could not have been injurious – any move can be. Personally, my biggest climbing injury came while falling straight down from about a height of three feet. Bouldering is dangerous and we can only mitigate the danger with thoughtful consideration of the possible circumstances of injury, and in the case, using the best padding I’ve ever seen at a competition.

    Like anyone, I would feel bad if an athlete gets injured. But as long as myself and the routesetting team have done our best to consider safety, which we do every time out, then I feel like we’ve done our job. Anyone bouldering at all, competition or otherwise, knows the risks.

    To your last question, the answer is definitely yes. There are a number of types of moves that we avoid for youth for example, both because they may not yet be able to intuit certain movement types, and because they are not yet developed enough.

  17. Paul

    16. Jun, 2010


    I thought the setting was excellent and is never an easy job. The great thing about climbing competition is everyone gets the same problems to climb. For this competition you had seperation so great job on the setting.

    It did seem like the men had steeper terrain, the woman had 2 slabs in finals. This would seem to play into Woods strengths in mens and against Johnson and Puccio’s strengths in womans, just an observation. Did it just work out this way, or is there a reason for the terrain choice?

    The mens problems seemed to cater to bigger moves with lots of extra body movement while the womans problems were more precise, static, not allowing for extra movement. Again, just an observation, and wondering what the thinking is behind the setting styles for woman versus the men?

  18. danielson

    17. Jun, 2010

    @Paul: The location of the problems is well calculated before the routesetting begins. Both the Men and Women had very similar arete terrain for their first problem. The women had only one slab – the far right wall, for Women’s 3. The other wall that may have looked like a slab, Women’s 2, is actually just slightly overhanging. The Men’s problems 2 and 3, on opposing sides of the wall, were actually not that steep. Both the final 4s for the Men and Women were on the steepest terrain.

    Some of the considerations were that at least years finals, with the wall nearly the same layout – the Men’s Final 3 was on the slab… thus we wanted to avoid redundancy and this year get the Women on the slab for finals. Also, in the round just prior, the SemiFinals, the Men had that slab for their first problem.

    The walls lend themselves to certain styles and we try to work in ways that will provide for a good overall dispersion of styles throughout each round and over the course of the entire competition, for each gender.

    While it’s natural to focus on the hard big moves, because they do stand out for spectators, we do work hard on variety. Men’s Final 3, for example, (prior to the too-big jump at the end) was all technical, involving the body going almost completely horizontal while smearing feet onto only the plywood, with hands on bad crimps. Though we only were able to see two climbers high up on it, Men’s 4 had a technical crimp section definitely requiring smart body position along with strength.

    The Women’s first problem, by contrast, was all power and squeezing, and the final Women’s problem, similarly, involved a lot of power, cutting the feet and a really hard jump at the end.

    These are just examples. We certainly do not set in favor of one or more climber’s strengths or weaknesses, we just do our best to set a wide range of problems over all the rounds for both genders. Our hope is that this provides a great show for the crowd while getting the climbers to demonstrate their proficiency in a lot of different types of movement, strengths, and styles. Again, it’s not a science, but we work hard at it.

  19. Just some average climber

    21. Jun, 2010

    This blog post and the comments have been great. cheers.

  20. Adam M

    23. Jun, 2010

    Nicely done everyone. It’s rare to see a forum discussion stay civil.

    I thought that was one of the best comps I have ever seen. Yo guys really leveled the field of ridiculously strong people. That comp could have gone to anybody at any moment.

    Danielson, Emerson, you guys rock. Great work, really.

  21. […] In dit verband is onderstaand interview misschien ook wel interessant. Jamie Emerson vroeg Chris Danielson, de hoofd routebouwer voor de World Cup in Vail, om een insiders’ visie op hoe het is om bij een World Cup te bouwen voor de beste klimmers ter wereld. Lees het interview. […]

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