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The Art & Science of Setting Routes: The Process

The Art & Science of Setting Routes: The Process

This past week, I released an independent story on routesetting — specifically, the creativity it takes, and how it parallels other forms of art, even though we tend to lump it in as part of a sport.

It feels a little self-indulgent, but I’m always interested in others’ writing/creative processes, and I thought it might be fun to share a little behind the scenes of what writing this piece looked like for me. I meant to do this for Don’t Stop & Paddle Hard last year, too, and it totally got away from me. But even though the stories are super different, the skeleton of their making is the same.

Like I mentioned in the story, the idea for the routesetting piece came just from noticing the routesetters’ names listed on grade tags and the realization that, oh, someone is making these. I’m always on the lookout for moments like this — where my own curiosity is naturally piqued, and I can’t necessarily find something written that scratches the itch. One of my roommates had heard me mention the idea and randomly met John, our gym’s head setter, at the gym one day. She passed my idea along to him, he was game to hear more, and she connected us via email. (Thanks, Lindsay!)

Once I explained the idea a little more, John and I met up a couple times — once just to flesh out what me writing this would look like for him and his team, and then again for a longer, baseline interview with him. He introduced me to the rest of the team and gave me some dates to come hang out while they set. (I’ll be honest, I also made a point to go climb on days and at times when I knew they’d be setting and tried to pay a little more attention to what was going on… I couldn’t build specific knowledge, necessarily, but as much general, contextual info as I could gather, I gathered.)

On one of those days, I interviewed a handful of the other setters, all of whom were generous with their time and words. One of my weaknesses as a writer, I think, is being overly worried about inconveniencing the people I’m writing about — I never want to be in the way or bother them, which means I end up saying my own no all too often. The Momentum crew said a lot of yeses before I even asked — ushering me into as many aspects of their job as they could, assuring me that I wasn’t bugging them, asking if I needed extra photos or coming up to tell me things they’d forgotten to say in their interviews. In my very first meeting with John, as he asked about photos, he eyed the lift they use for sport routes and said, “I mean, if you need shots from the lift, we could probably make that happen, you’d just need a helmet and some gear.” I would never have asked and couldn’t believe the possibility had even been offered. That’s when I knew the story had the potential to be really good — John and his team were so fantastic to work with.

Also, they were all incredibly loose in their interviews — normally I start with a few throwaway questions to get people warmed up and sounding like themselves. None of them required it, though. Not even Amin, who — side note — started his interview by warning me that he had only started learning English when he moved to the States a couple years ago and was concerned his accent or vocabulary mix-ups would be an issue. He then went on to absolutely crush the interview, and gave me my favorite quote of the entire piece, actually — about how he sees setting as a way to coach, and he tries to teach people through his routes. (I think about it constantly now when I’m sorting through moves on the wall.) As someone who hasn’t had the discipline to keep up a decent Spanish-speaking ability, I can’t fathom trying to learn English as an adult — it’s one of the least sensibly-structured languages on the planet. And I promise you I wouldn’t be good enough to monologue in an interview setting. I was in awe.

The material I came away from those conversations with was so great, I considered just editing the setters’ quotes and completely crafting the piece from that. In order to see if I could, though, I needed to first transcribe everything they’d said.


I have an audio recorder that I bought before the Texas Water Safari last year; but honestly, I usually just record on my iPhone. The Voice Memos app achieves pretty good quality in my opinion, and as of right now, I don’t do anything with my audio material other than listening back myself, so it doesn’t need to be highly editable or anything like that. I’ve also found that no matter how small or unassuming it is, nothing beats my phone in terms of what puts the interviewee at ease. Setting out a recording device tends to bring about more nerves, while pulling out my phone and tossing it between myself and whoever I’m interviewing is, well, pretty standard. We all have our phones within arms’ reach at all times these days, anyway, so its presence (and the rolling tape) is easier to forget about.

That means that transcribing looks like me playing (and rewinding, and playing, and rewinding, and playing, and rewinding, etc. etc.) Voice Memos back on my phone while typing as fast as I can for as many hours as it takes to get it done. This, in my opinion, is easily the worst part of the writing process, but also one of the most important. Some people outsource it, and you can do that really cheaply — send your tape off to someone, somewhere, and get a document with the audio written out word-for-word a few days later. But as tedious as it is, listening back to my interviews and typing them out myself allows me to gather more than just the words themselves. I make notes on the tone, where there was laughter or hesitation, and facial expressions I remember them making. Times when they had to stop and really think. Any time they got really excited or maybe a bit emotional. (It also allows me to review my own performance as an interviewer, and note what worked, what didn’t, and how I can get better.)

I transcribe directly into Evernote, which is basically a map of my brain at this point; and I separate each interview into its own note titled with the interviewee’s name. Once I was done doing that for the setting story, I printed out all of those transcriptions and read through them with a highlighter and pen in hand. I highlighted quotes that stood out as ones I definitely wanted included and wrote a general topic description of what the person was talking about next to each of their answers — personal background, setting style and influence, career progression, etc. (I realized pretty quickly that setting style and influence was the bulk of what they talked about, and so I’d write sub-topics under it — music, personal experience, geography, anything like that.) Then, I went back to Evernote and retyped out the interviews; but this time, into notes organized by those topics descriptions. (I also made sure to mark which quotes got highlighted, so I could see those at a glance as well.)


I did this last year for the TWS story, and loved it because it helped me structure my story so much more easily. If I have a big idea I’m trying to communicate and all these points I feel need to be made in order to do so, having my interviews divided into those points helps me see which I have a ton of material for and which I don’t; or which points got the bulk of the quotes that I’ve already highlighted as my best material, and which were lacking. That way, I don’t build a story structure around a point and then find that, actually, I don’t have much to support it.

In the case of the setting story, I had originally planned on writing primarily about career progression. There are five routesetting levels in USA Climbing, and I was interested in how you become a routesetter and progress through those levels. At the time of our initial interview, John was one of just twelve active level five setters in the country, and he has a fantastic personal story that he was generous enough to share. Before I talked to the other setters on the team, I’d planned on the piece using his story to explain setting from a career angle.

I already knew that angle was probably going to change after my interviews with his team — none of them, not even John, was really all that interested in discussing the USA Climbing levels with me, or necessarily put that much stock in them.

“That stuff means a lot for sure, but I think it doesn’t mean as much as some people think it does?” Kenny told me, choosing his words carefully. “I’m a level four in USA Climbing, I got that last year. And someone like Amin is only level three, but he has an international certification that makes him more experienced than me, technically. More experienced than John, even? But in this country, he’s not. And there are some people that are amazing routesetters that don’t have certifications at all — they’ve been doing it for so long that when the certification thing came around they thought it was, like… dumb, you know?” He laughed. “So it’s certainly a new-school thing. I put weight in it in the sense that if you’re a level three or four, you’ve probably been setting a while, which means you probably think this is a career for you. So if you come to my gym or if I meet you, I don’t write you off.”

“Kind of like a college degree?” I ventured.

He squinted, cocked his head to the side. “A little bit, for sure,” he nodded, though the response told me the emphasis was on little. “A little bit. It just means you, like, completed something. And in USA Climbing’s eyes, you made the effort to actually go and do something.”

They all mentioned creativity in some form or fashion as I talked to them, though; and while I don’t know much about routesetting, I do know about art process, and I couldn’t get over how familiar it sounded. I found it easy to jump off and ask follow-up questions, and they were all pretty eager to follow. Even those that identified themselves as leaning much more analytical than creative (Kenny and Tyler, primarily) could see parallels to other creative work and recognized that it played a significant role in what they did.

When I divided up my interview transcriptions by topic, the word count for the note titled “USA Climbing” was 677, none of which was marked as standout material.

The material in the notes titled “creativity” and “setting style/influence”?

4,478. And the bulk of it was riddled with pink highlighter and exclamation points.

I don’t remember who said it — though I’m sure more than one person has — but I once heard someone talk about the importance of letting the material be what it wants to be. I could have still written the story I planned on writing originally, I’m sure. But it was clear, once I had it all in front of me, that it would be way harder to write, since that wasn’t what the material wanted to be. It also wasn’t what interested me anymore — I’d been totally captivated by the idea that something so unfamiliar could fall into such a familiar context for me, and I thought it would help others understand and appreciate it, too.

I spent a week or two trying to see how I could still weave John’s personal story in, since I loved it so much and had enough material for a true, full-length profile piece; but I finally admitted that was what it deserved to be, and stopped trying to jam two separate stories together. The creativity piece was the best fit for my own site and interests, and I have some ideas for getting John’s story out there in the future as a standalone thing.

Once I made that decision, the structure came together pretty easily. A lot of times, I try explaining what I’m writing about to a handful of people and pay attention to what order I tell them things in — that’s often the most logical progression for a story, and provides the skeleton for my outline. From there, I relied heavily on those topically-organized notes to let me know where I had the most to go off of and what areas would need a little beefing up or playing down.

I always knew I wanted the story to be very dialogue-driven, since the interviews were so fantastic. I hoped readers would feel as though the setters were telling the story, and not me — that you were listening in on a conversation they were having with each other, not reading an informational guide to what they do. I left everything I could to their voices, and tried to provide a little context with my own only when necessary.

Once I’d written the rough draft, I went over it a couple times myself for small adjustments. John was then kind enough to go in, double-check details for me, and make sure nothing sounded too much like a non-setter had written it. I implemented his suggestions, made a few more edits of my own, slapped a sub-par title on it (I am terrible at titling things), and went ahead and released it to the world. I’m pretty proud of the end result, and love how many questions of my own it answered.

Anyway, that’s the very, very in-the-weeds version of how The Art & Science of Setting Routes came to be. It’s been fun hearing from people who have read it, climbers and non-climbers alike, and already has me itching to find a new project to work on. Hope you enjoyed it.

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