Here at Climb, we are extremely fortunate to have so many talented folks on our team. Last week our Routesetting and Programs Director, Jonathan Brandt, had the honor of setting in Salt Lake City, Utah for the 2021 IFSC World Cup circuit. Top athletes from around the world came to compete. We were honored to have Jonathan out there representing Climb and doing what he does best.
Originally from Atlanta, GA, Jonathan moved to Nashville in 2015 after committing to routesetting as a full time career. He has traveled, climbed, and routeset all over the world – using those experiences to shape his setting and climbing philosophy. He engages in all disciplines of climbing and has somehow avoided the level of burnout that plagues other industry professionals. In his free time he enjoys watching cooking shows and reading about food… but actually does not do too much cooking himself. In June he and his girlfriend will move out of their apartment and into a vintage, 20 foot 1977 Airstream Argosy.
Q & A
Climb: How long have you been routesetting?
JB: I was introduced to climbing as a freshman in college in 2005 and began setting for fun on the small college wall. After graduating in 2009, I began setting professionally at Stone Summit Climbing in Atlanta, GA. In 2015 I moved to Nashville to assume the role of Head Routesetter at Climb.
Climb: How did you start getting involved in comp style setting?
JB: Just before I moved to Nashville I was accepted into a USA Climbing Level 2 clinic for competitive Routesetting. At the time, I wasn’t too interested in setting for competitions, but saw gaining certifications as a way to bulk up my resume as I was hunting for jobs. The timing of my enrollment in the L2 clinic was huge as I was feeling burnt out, under-appreciated at my job, and was questioning what I wanted to do with my career. The L2 was extremely motivating for me in many ways and rekindled my love for routesetting. I began pursuing more career opportunities in setting including setting for high-level competitions. Since then, I’ve been fortunate to set for numerous competitions including several National events, Pro-Am competitions at various gyms around the country, and the Pan-American Championships in Guayaquil, Ecuador.
In 2020 I achieved one of my long-term goals of becoming a USA Climbing Level 5 Certified Routesetter and in May 2021 I set for the IFSC Boulder World Cup in Salt Lake City, UT – something that has been a life goal of mine since I was first introduced to the world of competitive routesetting.
Climb: What did the setting crew look like for the event?
JB: World Cups setting teams normally feature a diverse set of international routesetters. For the SLC World Cup, the Chief Routesetter was be Tomasz Oleksy (Poland) and the crew was comprised of Tsukasa Mizuguchi (Japan), Jamie Cassidy (Great Britain), Brad Weaver (USA), Mike Bockino (USA), Nic Oklobzija (USA), and myself.
Climb: What were your goals for setting at the IFSC Climbing World Cup?
JB: The goal of any round of competition is for the team to give the most well-rounded climber the chance to prove that they are the best…at least on that day. You will notice that the setters aim to have a well-balanced round of climbs that involve an equal amount of power, technique, slab climbing, steep climbing, and creativity while appropriately navigating risk, intensity, and complexity. We don’t want a one-dimensional climber (someone who can only climb powerful boulders or technical boulders) to do as well as someone who is a master of all…or perhaps a master of none.
Climb: You mentioned risk, intensity, and complexity. What is that?
JB: Risk, intensity, and complexity (RIC) are the variables often discussed by setters when determining the difficulty of a climb or a round of boulders. People often ask “How hard are those climbs?”. This may be surprising but grades are almost never discussed during event week. Instead we apply the right level of difficulty to the climbs based on what we know about the climbers. We apply RIC because it gives us a way of determining how the boulder will “perform”. It doesn’t help us to identify two boulders as V8 and V11 if they may “perform” the same in the comp. A straightforward, powerful V11 may work just as well as a delicate, balancy, difficult to read V7 slab knowing that the competitors only have a few minutes to solve each of the boulders. This is where RIC comes in. That powerful V11 – high intensity. The delicate slab – high risk. Risk doesn’t refer to safety, it refers to the “chances” or likelihood of a competitor doing it right in their given time. Complexity may also be applied and refers to how difficult a boulder is to read or execute in the given time. A well-balanced round has boulders that are high in each of the individual categories while low in the others. If you set a boulder that is high in all categories, you may risk throwing too much at the competitor and perhaps no one will complete it.
Climb: What about your personal goals?
JB: My number one goal is to be a valuable team member. Setting for competitions is only partly about what you set and how you climb. In fact, it may surprise many to know that the ideas we first put on the wall are only partially complete and sometimes change completely! The bulk of the work lies in the forerunning process. During the forerunning process, the work being done is totally collaborative so the final product that competitors test themselves on and spectators witness is never the result of one person’s efforts, but is the sum of the setting team’s collaborative efforts throughout the week. Secondly, I want to set something new. “New” moves are hard to come by and rarely seen these days with the abundance of climbing content on the internet. I love to “wow” the crowd and challenge the climbers to think outside the box when presented with a new challenge.
Climb: Does anything in particular inspire your setting?
JB: Above all else, cooking. The similarities to a well set climb and a well plated, well prepared dish are abundant – as are the similarities between a setting environment and a kitchen. In both arenas, it’s the goal of the chef/setter to dream up a new idea, prepare it well, and present it in a way that’s easy for the customer to “digest” (pun intended). I like to think of the commercial arena as the test kitchen and the competitive arena as dinner service for the world’s top food critics who will translate the setter’s work to the rest of the world.
Climb: What do the days look like for the setters leading up to a comp of this level?
JB: Five days of routesetting will go into preparing for this event and we usually work in the inverse direction of the flow of the event – setting finals first, then semifinals, then qualifiers. We set this way because since qualifiers happen first on Friday, we want to set those and leave them on the wall. This means that with each finals and semifinals round we set, we will also take them down and store them to go back up at the right time during the weekend. To do this well, we use pictures of the climbs, sharpies to mark where holds go on the walls, and numbered earplugs to go into the t-nut holes where holds were bolted on.
The individual days usually look like a few hours of setting in the morning followed by several hours of forerunning in the afternoon. Each setter will only set 1-2 boulder problems per day and spend hours forerunning and perfecting each of them based on what they know about the competitors. Once the competition starts the setters closely watch every single competitor in an attempt to understand how they’re performing and also be on standby in case any wall or hold maintenance is needed. After each round, we strip the walls, put the next round of boulders back up on the wall, and forerun/tweak them based on what we learned about the competitors during the previous round of competition.
Climb: Do you have a specific style that you prefer to set?
JB: I don’t really think I have a preferred setting style but I certainly have my setting strengths and weaknesses. I excel at creating dynamic or complex (difficult to read and/or execute) sequences. I don’t perform as well setting slab or vertical technical climbing. I can do it, but I’m not great at putting new, creative material on the wall using that kind of terrain. For this comp, I’ll most likely try and focus on setting what I’m good at. Comps are a great time for setters to showcase their setting styles and work within their comfort zone so that the climbs remain high quality and the setting process moves quickly.
Climb: What kind of competitors climbed in this competition?
JB: Most of the best competition climbing athletes in the world were in attendance at the SLC World Cups. Most of the climbers qualified for the Olympics competed as well as many other high-level climbers who stood a chance at standing on the podium. Big names like Adam Ondra, Kyra Condie, Brooke Raboutou, and most of the Japanese climbing team were competing. As a setter, you always hope the best athletes show up because that provides the best chance to showcase what you can do and challenge yourself as a setter.
Climb: How do you know how hard/easy to set for these competitors?
JB: Knowledge on the required difficulty of the climbs comes through competitive setting experience and knowledge of the competitors. It may surprise many to know just how much guesswork goes into competitive setting. One of the things that dictates the success of a setter or a setting team is just how educated your guesswork can be. You set the initial climbs based on what you know about the field of competitors and then further tweak the individual rounds of boulders based on how they appear to be performing that weekend.
Climb: How will you know if the comp was a success?
JB: Success is determined by achieving complete separation (no ties) through a set of boulders that proves who the most well-rounded climber is… all while putting on an excellent show for the spectators. We will strive for every boulder to see “TOP” but ideally, by different individuals. There is a sweet spot between too many Tops and too few Tops that we will try to hit. We don’t want several competitors finishing one boulder and we don’t want more than one boulder with no finishes. Ideally, the diverse round of boulder problems gives each climber the chance to showcase their strengths – rewarding the climbers who can perform well across the board. As the rounds progress and the viewership increases we will try to make the boulders more entertaining and “showy” while still testing the climbers in the ways we intend.
One of the best feelings in the world as a routesetter is for climbs to perform just as the team hoped they would, the crowd to be greatly invested in the show, and a close competition culminating in a nail biting finish that yields perfect results.
Climb: By these standards, was the comp a success?
JB: Well that depends on who you ask! Ask that question of a routesetter, a coach, a competitor and a spectator and you may get four different answers! For the first SLC event, however, I think that most would agree that it was successful. Every routesetter is extremely critical of the event and the results they did or didn’t achieve, so there will always be room for improvement, but I can confidently say that the results, performance, and show created a “lifetime” setting experience. Men’s and Women’s qualifiers and Semifinals were excellent in terms of results and, in my opinion, only needed very minor tweaks to reach near perfect rounds.
Anyone who watched finals knows just how awesome the round was! There were some sections of boulders in each of the categories that could have been made slightly easier or harder to reach ideal performance but in the end yielded great separation, creative setting, and a totally nail-biting finish. I won’t spoil it in case anyone hasn’t seen it but finals are totally worth watching and featured one of the best endings to a comp I’ve ever seen. I’m very fortunate to have been a part of the setting team that made that possible.
Climb: What are your plans for after the World Cup?
JB: I’d love to set for more World Cup events and, one day, the World Championships or the Olympics. In the short term, I hope to bring back new ideas, new stories, and a heightened level of understanding of the abilities of these world-class climbers to share with my fellow setters and friends.