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What's it like to be a route setter?

Have you ever wondered what its like to be a route setter? We managed to grab Wild Country athlete and professional route setter Alex Fry for a quick chat about what it takes. Alex is currently in Rocklands, South Africa but will be back in the UK and setting us a batch of routes in January.


How long have you been climbing?

- Just over 20 years, but didn't take it that seriously for the first 5 or so.

How did you get into it?

- My dad took me out a few times as a kid, (he was into hill walking mainly but did a bit of climbing). I then went to a local club that met at a small wall in a leisure centre when I was 16 and that was what got me going regularly. Then at University there was a good wall, (Warwick University), and it was in my second year there that I stopped doing other sports and just climbed.

What is your favourite kind of route to climb and do you think it effects the routes you set?

- I'm relatively heavy and have big fingers so I'm not very good on crimps or small pockets. I'm ok on pinches and powerful climbs with bigger holds on steeper ground, so I guess I prefer that style. I think it affects the boulder problems I set, if being asked to set something really hard, as you tend to move towards your own style but more often than not you have to set with what you have available (I'm not going to set a powerful roof climb if setting on a slab with nothing available but small crimps!).

When did you start route setting?

- I first started setting at the local club I was going to when I was 16. We used to set all the routes ourselves. We would ab down on stick plates with the holds in a chalk bag and wrap the rope round our thighs when wee wanted to stop and put a hold on. We also used to wire brush out the mortar between the bricks to make small foot holds and crimps. Seemed normal at the time! I then started working at the university wall as a student in 2001. I used to instruct, strip and wash holds and do a bit of setting, so that's the first time I was paid for setting. I gradually did more and more setting there and then after graduating I stayed on full time at the wall and did the majority of the route setting myself.

Who showed you the ropes?

- My boss at the Uni wall showed me initially how to be safe on a rope for setting, then I did my IRATA in 2006 and so adapted some things from that. In terms of the creative style of setting I was fortunate to be able to set alongside some very experienced guest setters like Steve Mclure and Rob Mirfin, but I think the person I learned the most from and was the most inspired by was Ian Vickers. I think I owe a lot of my "apprenticeship" to him, particularly work rate. Trying to keep pace with him was hard work, and he was always really thorough. Nothing was signed off till he'd climbed it.

Do you have a memory store of different routes or do you go full freestyle?

- You kind of have to go free style as having a very distinct plan only works if you have all the pieces of that particular puzzle in front of you. For comps you may have a plan, we need one techy problem, one burly one, one jump etc. I very rarely come in with a particular move in mind. Mainly because it can be a good way to waste loads of time on a problem that can probably be cheated.

What is needed to make a good route?

- A good route setter! Good holds and volumes and a good wall obviously make our lives a lot easier. Also a wall that is fairly blank, (no built in aerates, corners, sharp angle changes etc). The more blank a canvas we have, the more creative we can be and the more likely the problems will be slightly different each time. Wall building companies have a tendency to try and build features in the wall which look great in a photo but make the route setters job difficult as they are forcing us into setting a certain way.

What is your favourite angle to set on?

- I like all angles really. My favourite type of wall to set on would be one that is just one continuous angle with no corners, aretes or any angle changes in the wall, (like a woody style panel). Give me that and a load of volumes and I can create whatever you want!

What is involved in being a professional route setter?

- To be honest its a bit different every day as every wall is different and they all want different things. Sometimes we wash and strip as well, (though that is pretty rare these days). There is a lot of manual labour. A typical day at some walls will start with an hour or two of picking up 30kg tubs of holds and carrying them up flights of stairs. At some walls all the holds are laid out neatly on the floor waiting for you. Some walls want 10 problems, some want 30. Sometimes you have to set a 20bloc V1 circuit and some times its a 20bloc V8 circuit. Competitions can be 12hrs of setting and 4hrs of gaffa taping! Some jobs I can be done by lunch time. They're all different but it would be hard to make a standard formula for it as all walls are so different, both in terms of layout and the in-house staff they have to help.

Where do you stay when you are at the wall?

- Some times with friends, sometimes at a hotel, sometimes I sleep in my car. Most setters have vans but I still have just a car as it is pretty rare that I have to sleep in it, so the car is the overall better option as its much cheaper to run.

How do you manage your climbing and route setting time?

- Not very well! The best thing in a way about being a full time route setter is that I'm self employed. So whilst it is hard to go climbing and climb well whilst I am setting as I am always tired I can still train a lot so I tend to do big stretches of setting but then take big stretches of time off. Typically I take all the school holiday off as I have two young kids and my wife is a teacher. These questions are being answered next to the fire in the travellers rest restaurant in Rocklands South Africa, so its not all bad! Not many full time jobs would allow me to take 8 weeks holiday at once. Maintaining 10 to 15 weeks of setting 5 days a week is hard though and not many people can or will do it.

What is your favourite climb? And have you ever tried to recreate it inside?

- Probably my favourite route is Austrian Oak (8B) at Malham, and my favourite problem would be The Wire (V12)at Parisellas. Both are really funky but powerful climbing with no nasty holds. Whilst I have never tried to recreate them directly I'm sure the sequences are firmly locked in my subconscious and have come out occasionally!

Thanks for your time Alex, now get out crushing!

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