Can a Climbing Wall have Great Design?

Climbing – or more specifically, bouldering – has quickly become one of my biggest hobbies. The combination of skill, fitness and problem solving has me hooked. There are three major bouldering centres in Glasgow, and they seem to be a hit with engineering students especially.

Sam climbing a new-school, volume-based route

Just to be clear, bouldering is where you only climb a short height – short enough that a crash mat can replace a harness.

The mess of colourful climbing holds is not random. The objective is to reach the top of defined routes. These routes have defined start and end points, and the colour of the holds both indicate which holds you can use as well as the difficulty level. This introduces clear progression in the sport, and with the routes being changed every month or so, there is enough content to keep you coming back.

New routes are set by official ‘route-setters’; experienced climbers who know what they are doing. But route-setting is a completely different skill to climbing, I would call it a dark art. Just recently, Glasgow’s biggest climbing centre proudly announced that they have had new routes set by a professional London-based setter.

There is such a thing as a great climbing route. It is hard to define but you know it when you see it. Some routes just stick in your memory for a long time.

Me climbing an old-school, crimp-based route

So the question presents itself, what makes a great climbing route?

I will attempt to set out some key indicators of a great climbing route.

Regardless of physical difficulty, it must be mentally challenging. The best routes have you spending more time on the ground staring at them, trying to figure out the correct sequence. It is a common sight to see climbers standing, staring intensely at the wall, hands making climbing motions in mid-air, whispering to themselves, trying to understand. It’s no wonder the engineers are so attracted to it.

A good recipe for confusion is to force the climber to use the same holds several times throughout the route. Perhaps they must grab it with their left hand, then a few moves later with their right, then later they must use it as a foothold. Introduce lateral movement, especially if you can make the climber double back on themselves.

Secondly, you want the climber to have to try something new. With hundreds of differently shaped holds, and virtually unlimited combinations, it is possible to create a new idea with every route. There are a number of interesting positions which you can force the climber into. Knee drops, knee bars, rose moves, underclings, the list goes on.

Third, there must be flow. Flow can be created by maintaining a consistent level of difficulty throughout the route and avoid forcing the climber to awkwardly reshuffle their position or swap their hands too often. That being said, some really memorable routes shatter this rule. Such ‘one move wonders’ are the routes that are defined by a single crazy jump or push, with the rest of the route being almost redundant. That’s fun, but not great.

If a route manages all of that then it is certainly on the right track.

Like any other artform, there have been various periods.

Bouldering began as a pastime for outdoor rock climbers, something they could do while they wait for their turn at the start of the real climb. It wasn’t until the last 1950s that bouldering became recognised as its own sport, after being popularised by climber John Gill.

In the 1990s, David Belle effectively founded parkour, with the idea of achieving peak human mobility – maximum efficiency. This ethos is reminiscent of bouldering, and this is no coincidence. David Belle created parkour by initially navigating climbing walls. This branching movement would eventually come full circle and influence modern bouldering.

For the longest time, bouldering was seen as ‘short rock-climbing’, with similar routes and similar holds. Indoor bouldering world championships began in 1999, and the routes being set had tiny holds, demanding careful movement and great strength. This is what is now seen as ‘old-school bouldering’. Over the past decade, route-setters have taken queues from parkour, by replacing tiny holds with oversized ‘volumes’, and demanding much more dynamic movements. In modern climbing competitions you will see multi-move jumps, wall runs, and other motions that look more like parkour than climbing.

Mari climbing a new-school, volume-based route

This is a controversial change. On one hand this makes for a greater spectacle, bringing new people into the sport. On the other hand, the skills required have vastly diverged from those required for traditional climbing.

What should a route-setter make of all this? Does this change what a great climbing wall should be?

 I don’t think so; both old-school and new-school route-setting bring their own challenges and force you to practice different aspects of your skills and fitness. A great climbing route can be either, what matters the most to me is that the route engages my brain as much as my arms or legs. It is the problem solving that is the most satisfying aspect and serves to cultivate a friendly community, where strangers can have a discussion over how best to tackle a climb. For me, any route that does that has great design.


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