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Inside Beta

Par for the Course – Designing Routes for All Climbers

Have you ever been at a climbing gym where the routes seem to have been set by a 6-foot mega-beast with a positive ape index? Here are 9 steps to better route setting.

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This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 243 (July 2017).

Have you ever been at a climbing gym where the routes seem to have been set by a 6-foot mega-beast with a positive ape index? Are the problems graded hard simply because the holds are far apart? Setting gender-friendly and all-inclusive routes is difficult. It takes practice and awareness, not only of your own body and capabilities, but those of people of all shapes and sizes. For that reason, female route setters, and men who can set for women, are increasingly valued in setting crews.

I learned how to route set with Rob Napier, a Sheffield local. Napier is an exceptionally strong climber, and he also sets routes that climb well for all
shapes and sizes. I asked him to teach me how he sets, and now, six years later, I am in a position to pass along practical tips for setting routes or boulder problems for all, and for ensuring that your setting doesn’t alienate (or consistently favor) any particular physique or either gender.


1. Sprinkle in moves that require flexible hips and high steps, which favor the kinesiology of women and kids. However, think about how the sequence will work for everyone; will a taller climber also have to follow the sequence, or simply be able to reach through?

2. Many women avoid awkward sloping holds or power moves. Try to set viable problems involving these holds and moves. This provides a stepping stone to building confidence and getting stronger. For example, use slopers but provide good feet, or, if appropriate, add a small intermediate hold or a heel hook to help on powerful moves. Climbers can eliminate these little assistances as they progress.

3. Be careful when adding footholds to help shorter climbers. Use small smearing holds to ensure they can’t also be used as handholds, which could unintentionally lower the route difficulty. A useful trick for deciding if something is too reachy for short climbers or kids is to tuck your hand into your armpit and try to touch the next hold with your elbow.

4. Avoid pandering to gender stereotypes. As an example, women do often like crimps more than slopers, but don’t just set a crimpy problem and consider it “female-friendly.” Setting should facilitate progression and development, so you should set problems that help women improve and gain confidence, rather than limiting them to one style.

5. Be aware of your strengths and your body size relative to others. Just because you climb 5.13 and can lock off on tiny crimps down to your waist, or can dyno six feet on V10 boulders, doesn’t mean that everyone can. Awareness of your strengths when setting is pivotal to making your problems accessible.

6. Be aware of size- or strength-dependent stopper moves in low- to mid-grade climbs. For example, a huge reach will immediately exclude a large number of climbers. And a bigger reach doesn’t necessarily mean a harder climb.

7. Climbing is subjective, and disagreement can occur within a setting crew, particularly between climbers with different styles and of different sizes. Have a range of climbers with different body types try your problems, and tweak them if a particular type of person is getting shut down.

8. Think about your skills, and endeavor to transfer them to your setting. I like a climb with a continuous, technical style, and employ these skills in my setting by using bad footholds and balance-based problems to promote good footwork.

9. Watch or participate in the occasional competition for inspiration and useful tricks. Look at both the men’s and women’s problems, and note any differences in style or hold spacing.

Emma Twyford, a professional route setter, climber and coach has been climbing for 23 years. She has trad climbed 5.13 R, sport climbed 5.14b and bouldered V10.