Where Are All the Female Routesetters?

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While the gender split among gym climbers is nearly equal, routesetters are still overwhelmingly male.

It happens every time I go to the climbing gym. I try a problem well within my onsight limit and get fully shut down by a big dynamic move with no feet or some shouldery lockoff on slopers that’s so powerful I can’t even begin to work out the beta. Frustrated by my short stature and even shorter reach, I check the tape on the starting holds and see that—surprise surprise—the problem was set by a dude.

“Of course he can do that move,” I think. “He’s got more power, a longer reach, and bigger hands. It wouldn’t even occur to him that someone my size could never do it.” I try not to use my physical characteristics as excuses—after all, look at Nina Williams and Alex Puccio, they’re petite but powerful climbers. Still, I can’t help but wonder if maybe a female setter would have put a foothold or hand-bump in just the right spot, not to make the climb easier necessarily, but to make it doable at the stated grade for someone who is 5’4” with a -1.5” ape index. Furthermore, maybe a female setter would better understand all the intricacies of my size, strength, and body, and put up climbs that jive.

Look at the setting roster next time you go to the gym. When I scan the one where I climb most, I see that out of the eight names on the wall, none of them are women. Zero. This wouldn’t surprise me if it were 30 years ago and the first climbing gym had just opened its doors. Back then there were dozens of male climbers for every singular female. Now look around your gym. I bet, just like at the rest of the 400+ gyms in America, that the clientele is more close to an even male/female split.

Having more female setters doesn’t just serve women climbers—it makes everyone in the gym a better climber.

In theory, having setters with a diverse range of heights, strengths, styles, and sizes means more accessible problems and routes for climbers of all ability levels and body types. With 22 years of commercial and competition setting on her resume, including Level 5 (L5) comp certification, Molly Beard, head setter at the Multnomah Athletic Club in Portland, Oregon, thinks that having women represented on a setting crew means that female and youth members of a gym community have someone looking out for them. “Not everyone climbs like a 6-foot, muscle-bound guy,” she says. “Everyone should be having fun. My minimum gauge of a setting program’s success is that 80% of the community should be loving 80% of everything set.”

Jackie Hueftle, head setter at The Spot in Boulder, Colorado, suggests that the presence of more female setters doesn’t just serve women climbers—it makes everyone in the gym a better climber. “Women's bodies are different than men's, our weight distribution is different, our strengths are different,” she says. “Regardless of gender, the more moves you know, the easier climbing becomes, and [with more women], there will be a greater variety of problems set in gyms, so more types and sizes of moves will be available for people to learn.”

Another staffer reviews a problem set by Jackie Hueftle and Sarah Filler at The Spot in Boulder, Colorado. | Photo: Julie Ellison

It’s not about making gym routes easier or doing away with types of movement, rather it’s about involving as many perspectives in the setting process as possible to ensure that climbers of different physical builds will have plenty of climbs to enjoy. With the endless variety of hold types and sizes, there is always a setting option for shorter people that won’t necessarily change the difficulty for taller climbers. Hueftle says, “In my experience, many women set problems that the [male setters] do not seem to care for, but our customers tend to love them. This speaks to a big need in the climbing community for a greater variety in routesetting.”

"There’s a lot of opportunity out there for female routesetters, but women applicants are outnumbered 10 to 1."

Lance Hadfield, the head setter and operations manager of Stone Age Climbing Gym in Albuquerque, New Mexico, has been setting for 30 years, but he’s only seen female routesetters in the second half of his career. Beard and Hueftle were the first two women he worked with at a junior nationals competition 15 years ago. “There’s a lot of opportunity out there for female routesetters, but women applicants are outnumbered 10 to 1,” he says. “Simply put, more guys want to do it.”

“We joke that one female on a crew of eight setters is the standard quota,” Sydney McNair, head setter of Evo Rock + Fitness in Concord, New Hampshire, says. “We laugh because we know how ridiculous it sounds, but it’s kind of true.”

While women have slowly trickled onto the commercial setting scene, this has not directly translated to competition setting. Commercial setting is what you find at the climbing gym down the street, whether it’s a tiny bouldering wall or a shiny mega-gym. Because these places are increasingly becoming a person’s first experience with climbing, the most successful gyms focus on making the experience fun for all levels of climbers. That means a wide range of climbing styles and grades, variety more easily found with some female setters in the mix.

For competition setting, there’s a long certification process to set for regional, divisional, and national level comps. There are five levels of certification: Levels 1 and 2 are clinic-based, while Levels 3, 4, and 5 require experience at specific competitions, as well as endorsements from higher level setters. To apply to one of the 10 to 15 Level 1 clinics offered across the country every year, one must have at least six months setting experience and be able to comfortably climb V3 or 5.10. Level 2 is much more competitive, with only two clinics offered each year.

While the certification process is equally accessible to both men and women, the bottom line is that there are very few women even attempting it. John Muse, the events manager for USA Climbing, says, “We have tons of females taking Level 1 clinics, but as you get into the higher levels of certification, the percentages diminish.” Muse received 40 applications for 10 spots in an upcoming Level 2 clinic in San Diego. One application was from a female.

As head setter and assistant head setter respectively, Jackie and Sarah stand out in the setting world. | Photo: Julie Ellison

In general, routesetting is physically demanding work that is more akin to manual labor than fun climbing with friends. Setting and forerunning a few days a week is exhausting, and can mean being too tired to train or achieve personal climbing goals outside.

Setting for elite comps is particularly grueling. Over four days, setters try out dozens of problems, climbing each one repeatedly and working together to tweak hold types, angles, and placement so each problem is appropriate for the competition field. Mike Bockino, an L4 setter who has worked at several national comps, says, “The forerunning process is so intense and so long and so many days in a row, I’ve seen super-experienced routesetters crumble into pieces because they’re so tired they can’t function.”

Flannery Shay-Nemirow, who’s been setting for various gyms and forerunning upper level comps for more than eight years, describes routesetting as a “glorified construction job, hauling heavy loads of holds, rigging with ropes and ladders, and working with power tools.”

There aren’t that many women working construction jobs either.

When seeing that most routesetters are men, it can be easy for women to assume that the setting world isn’t a place for them.

Historically there were fewer women climbers, but as the number of female climbers has increased, the ratio of female routesetters has not followed suit. A variety of factors are causing this disparity, none of which appear to be intentionally fostered by the routesetting or climbing community.

As is the case with many male-dominated fields, it might not seem like a viable career option for women. When seeing that most routesetters are men, it can be easy for women to assume that the setting world isn’t a place for them. “Women have trouble fitting into the male social hierarchy that forms,” Hueftle says. “In a gym crew, the women have lots of time to show their strengths to the group and find a social balance. In a short-term comp set where everyone shows up and sets a whole comp in a week, the work structure is set, everyone works hard, opinions must be heard, and compromises have to be reached.”

Add in the fact that there’s not really a clear-cut path for getting started as a setter, and breaking into the field can seem intimidating for newcomers, period—male or female. One must have setting experience to enter the competition certification process, and many routesetters get their first jobs because of personal connections to local gyms or established setters.

Jackie Hueftle foreruns a problem on the Hueco boulder at The Spot. | Photo: Julie Ellison

But there's a glimmer of change. Shay-Nemirow points to The Heist as a great example of how to get more women involved. Held every year at Central Rock Gym in Massachusetts, The Heist is a “bouldering comp set by women for women,” according to their website. There’s also an educational aspect with movement and setting clinics the same weekend. Hueftle also enjoys mentoring new setters, and has helped several women start and grow in their setting careers.

Regardless of the reasons behind the gender imbalance, most people working in the industry look forward to the day when there are more females routesetting. “Women round out the team,” Hadfield says. “If you only have 50% of the population [setting the problems], you’re missing half the potential.”

I look forward to a day when I walk into the gym and see at least a few female names on the routesetting roster. If more women setting means we all become better climbers, we all win.

 

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