In october of 2011, I was invited to Japan to set for a 2 day team training course and to set for the Japanese Lead Championships in Nagano. The success of both events prompted a second collaboration with the Japanese Mountaineering Association, so in February 2012 I was invited to Nagasaki for another double booking : Team training round 2 and Boulder Japan Cup, the national bouldering competition.
If you want to get the most out of a training session in this day and age, you need quality resources, a wall, volumes and holds. Then you need setters and a coach. Then you have to get your athletes there, then there is the issue of accommodation, transport, food and various other expenses like airport shuttles, train commutes. Even for large federations with a solid budget, all these things are not easy to orchestrate.
It boils down to money, something that climbing seems to have trouble connecting with on long and bumpy road to being a professional sport. So I can only admire the efforts made by the JMA, and in particular Kazuhiro Chiba, National Coach and technical director for climbing, for having skilfully managed bring together the double event for which I was hired. He even managed to get small monetary contributions for the setters who volunteered to help out, as recognition of the effort they put in. Props to Chiba-san!
As skillful as Coach Kazu is, the scheduling still required some sacrifices to keep the budget together. One of those was the tight timetable I had to stick to in order to get the training boulders done on time.
I stepped off the plane on a sunday evening and monday morning I was at the climbing wall, jet lag and all, exposing my training plan to the team. Since it was pre-season, coach Chiba and I figured it would be good for the climbers to have a mock World Cup comp with a qualifier round on the first day and then a semi-final on the second day to give everyone a chance to see where they were at.
Seth and Zoe had all the newest sets sent to me via Tak Kiori and his company Crux that distribute Teknik in Japan. So our mission on the first day was to unbox a whole bunch of new holds and then set the semi-finals round with very 4 very defined styles for each circuit. The semi finals round often being the hardest of a competition, and training being always a little harder than real competitions, we had to set some of the hardest boulders of the week on the first day, and I was still waiting for my brain to step off the plane…
In training I always make it a point to try new things or to take risks that I can’t afford to take in a comp, or at least not blindly… The spectacular effect of setting a move that is new and original or setting a boulder that only one person tops, usually involves a lot of maybes, and when it fails, the route setters usually end up looking stupid and/or incompetent.
So since my trip to Singapore in December, I had been musing about this new move that had originally been set by Irwan Mohad (head setter at Climb Asia) a singaporean setter in the Gravical event. Basically it’s a very long campus move from a bad hold that is very hard (ideally impossible) to do statically, but, if you swing your body back and forth to generate momentum and then time your release just right you are able to make the move. I thought this was awesome.
As a travelling setter I try to make it a point to spread good ideas, and with Irwan’s permission, I promised to try to reproduce the move for top level climbers, hopefully in an international event. But before that, I had to understand it, practice it, and figure out how to force it and how to set it on different walls and to adjust it’s difficulty as needed.
So decided that would try to set the Singapore Swing, as we dubbed it for the men’s semi finals circuit japanese training course. The other mens boulders in the circuit were one very complex volume balance problem that required no power, one very physical volume problem and a brutal coordination crimp bloc, with no volumes at all.
On the women’s menu I put strange and powerful volume climb, an awkward coordination hop to 2 bad slopers followed by a hard mantle, a steep arete with some balance moves at the top, and then some small crimps in a steep wall to a committing move into a slopey Climb-It halo.
With the added time constraint and the pressure of having to manage the team and test all the boulders, when time came to strip the first days blocs to clear the wall for the next days setting, the singapore swing wasn’t working. Not even close. Across all the variations, we always found either an easier heel hook method, or couldn’t do the move at all.
Since all the other boulders set that day where good, I decided to strip it as it was and figured I would have time to fix it when we put them back up. Wrong. When we put the boulders back up a (busy and tiring) week later, even with fresh testers I couldn’t get the idea to come together the way I wanted. So I bailed… I didn’t want the men to have a 3 boulder circuit because 1 boulders was either stupid or undoable.
So I hacked the women’s circuit that was missing a straightforward dyno – a common weak point for japanese female climbers. We decided to change Womens 3 into a men’s boulder, it only needed a bit of distance added to the already awkward coordination hop, and the failed singapore swing was turned into Womens 4 mondo jump. It’s a signature move, maybe only Irwan can set it…
After a few training courses, all over the world with climbers of different levels, one thing I noticed is that it takes the climbers some time to get comfortable, with the idea of pretending to be in a competition and trying as hard as they need to, and usually I am hired to set styles that they are unaccustomed to. A lot of the climbers have trouble being on their ‘A’ game on the morning of their first day.
I decided that instead of the shock therapy of World Cup circuit climbing, I would start everyone out with a different and -arguably- more gentle kind of shock. I designed a circuit for each gender with 4 in boulders each to be climbed in rotation but 3 minutes on, 3 minutes off AND only one attempt per boulder.
This idea came to me and my co-worker Florian, while we where working in Singapore. We have learned from our work with coaches, and from observing many athletes that poor quality of attempts is what keeps a lot of climbers out of the next round. So we came up with this exercise, to get climbers to practice higher levels of concentration and attention to details in a single push.
Obviously the boulders where set accordingly, the intensity of the boulders was lower than in a standard comp circuit, the risk factor however was pushed up as high as possible.
Our intern, 20 year old Ryoma Sato set the quintessential one-shot boulder problem with the new set of Big Fat Slopers, it was no more than maybe V6, but the slight overhang and the huge unknown slopers made it possible to fall from every move. And the prominent Bloctite in the middle looked like salvation from the desperate slapping and hooking? WRONG! as soon as you grabed it you swung out to the doom of your single attempt.
Setting for the comp
After the 2 days of setting for the training, a fresh team of route setters arrived to set for the Nationals. Okano-san took over as chief for the event, but as always in good team dynamics I didn’t feel like it changed much, we where all working together.
I had already played around with Big Fat Slopers during training, but I really wanted to set a boulder with the Problematics that I had in red. So on day 1 of the comp setting I decided to try a kind of weird dyno which required that you swing off the start holds and jump to a large volume very close to the ground for your feet that you had to kick off to reach the next holds. Followed a overhanging dihedral in which the problematics offered some large slopers but also corners that you had to wrap with your hand to stay on, much like volumes.
As it turned out this boulder didn’t work at all. It was set for the girls but none of them figured out the first move. Akiyo Noguchi did finally get on the right track but she timed out before she could succeed.
I dislike boulders that can be labeled party tricks but they often fit the bill for a finals problems : dynamic, graphic, only a single solution (also known as a forced move), not too hard so potential for multiple tops and my personal favorite : not so obvious, therefore creating confusion for the climber and suspense for the audience…
In the case of this particular boulder, although we toned it down in the fine adjustments just before the finals round, it was still too much for the particular group of climbers it was intended for. As a matter of fact we pretty consistently messed up the girls rounds throughout the whole comp.
Setting by numbers
I really only noticed in what proportion we had made a mistake by studying my excel sheet detailing the boulders and the results. I’ve mentioned before that inspired by Laurent Laporte I had started experimenting with the computer as a tool to improve my setting. Over the past year, I have been recording detailed information for each boulder in the events I set for during the setting, and more recently I began cross referencing it with the results very accurately.
At BJC 2012 I feel as though I made a serious advance in how to use that information. I’ve added 2 columns to my excel sheet to record the intended tops and actual tops. So during the final phase of tweeking I ask the setters how many tops they think their boulder problem will get. I’d like to think that the number we settle upon is a reflexion of both our expectations as setters on the one hand and our knowledge of the field on the other.
I watched this comp like I watched many others before, and yes, it looked “a bit” hard for the girls but not “disaster” hard, there where tops it didn’t look like people where not getting off the ground, we got separation, no ties. It looked OK you know… But after the comp, when I added up the number of intended tops for all four semi-finals boulders for women I got 24. The actual number of tops was 7.
So all these mistakes were made, but I only realized the exact nature of them once I was done compiling all the information in my little program. It’s still very empirical and inaccurate but I’ll keep you posted on the evolution of this tool that is also helping me articulate a wider vocabulary to teach route setting in the clinics we give.
After the comp exhaustion set in. I was really burned out from trying to find new ideas on the same wall. I had an insufficient rest day before doing a couple of days of courses for local climbers. The I travelled back to Tokyo to do a couple of days of setting at Rhino & Bird in order to prepare another training course. I was told that I’d have some help. It was some help. All the best setters in Tokyo showed up including Yuji Hirayama. It was a little strange giving instructions to a guy who had been a legend and inspiration in my teens, but he was very open minded and generous, and working with him was a real pleasure.