How The Mine Bouldering Gym keeps its routes fresh
January 2, 2018
Wednesdays are route setting day at The Mine bouldering gym in Kimball Junction.
Each week, the plastic holds are unscrewed from a wall and taken down, and the tape marking the starting point and its grade is stripped off, leaving a clean canvas. Then route setters, both full-time workers and people brought in specifically for the task, go to work.
Starting at 7:30 a.m., they start inventing routes, placing holds of varying shapes and sizes until they've built a vertical pathway.
It's the heart of the gym, what keeps its customers coming back. Without the variety provided by route setting, there would likely be few, if any, regulars. For the setters at the gym, it's an anticipated tradition where they get to use their imagination, strength and climbing experience to create something new. It's also a formidable workout – starting with what's called "forerunning," where the setters systematically test and adjust each route until they match their intended level of difficulty.
"I'm just saying, my belly is full of grease and coffee; ready to climb," route setter Andreas Sederholm said as he approached the area the setters were working on. "Normally I just eat like five (jalapeno) poppers and some coffee, and I'm ready to go."
Some things to know about bouldering: climbers don't use ropes, it focuses on short, intense routes ranging in difficulty from V-easy (essentially a ladder of holds going up the wall) to, in the Mine, around V10 or V11 (which look like a sparse constellation of plastic chips blown across a wall).
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On a recent Wednesday morning, Sederholm, Luke Turkington and Dayton Henriksen start with the V-easies in an area called "the arch," because it has an arch that runs over the middle of the area from wall to wall.
"This actually is, I would say, our most difficult set just based on the angles of the walls and the arch in general," Henriksen said. "So it's usually a little bit slower process — harder to figure out how to get out of those different areas and corners."
Turkington climbs up a purple V-easy, hops off, grabs a small plastic hemisphere and a long bolt and mounts it to the wall with a power drill – another foothold.
"Sometimes, trying to make a V-1 and V-2 that's fun for an adult and not going to shut down a kid, it's almost harder than just making a hard route, like a V-7 and V-8," Turkington says.
To build a V-1, they have to make something that's accessible to people of all heights and nearly all skill levels, meaning it must be on a vertical wall, but also find ways to make it interesting.
At this grade and below, setters extend their arms out over the holds as they climb, seeing if their elbows can touch them, as a proxy for the short arms of their youngest clientele.
"We try and get a different variety (of setters)," Turkington said. "The more body types we have setting the better, and the more climbing styles the better."
He said he and Henriksen have different climbing styles, so they frequently set together, with Henriksen setting more powerful, dynamic moves and Turkington setting more technical moves.
"Then we try and bring people with experience setting at other gyms," Turkington said. "They can bring in different knowledge, different experience, and also different body types and climbing style as well."
After 30 or 40 minutes, the setters have finished the easy routes, and the difficulty starts to creep up.
The person who sets the route watches as another setter climbs it for the first time.
In V-2, the routes start to become overhung. In V-3, they start requiring more technical skill. The setters keep climbing, revising, and tweaking their routes. V-4 turns to V-5 and V-6 – Henriksen's favorite grade to set.
"V-6 is just a fun grade to climb," he said. "You can just start implementing a lot more as a setter. At that grade, it's more mentally challenging than anything else."
Just for reference, V-4 is generally where climbing starts to get genuinely difficult. It corresponds to the 5.12a classification in roped climbing, which often represents a barrier to casual climbers. There's even a book published by Falcon: "How to climb 5.12." It recommends doing things like watching what you eat, keeping a steady schedule and climbing more than twice a week. There are, however, people young and old that can climb this grade.
At the higher levels, the setters are faced with another conundrum: How do you set something that's at the peak of or beyond your own skill level?
It's one thing to set the route. It's another thing to know it can be climbed. And Mine staff can't leave a route unclimbed and call it climbable.
So the real climbing begins.
Near the end of their recent session – about 3 p.m. — the setters start working through a route made of about 10 yellow holds, estimated at V-8 or V-9, that starts with the climbers hanging underneath the arch, then moves across small, shallow holds until he or she must throw a hand out around the edge of the arch and climbs up its face.
By this point in the day, Sederholm has dislocated his shoulder and is out of commission on the shoulder-intensive climbs. Turkington and Henriksen take turns on the route, making small progressions in each try, until both get stuck on the last move.
Henriksen rounds the corner and pushes himself off of a small hold at the bottom of the arch's face, and onto a pair of yellow globes, keeping his body nearly parallel to the ground. He reaches up and touches the bottom of the final hold, but can't get his hand around the top of it.
After some cursing and straining he falls.
Turkington tries and comes away with his finger bleeding.
Henriksen tries again with the same result, then crawls away from the route and sits on the matted floor.
"Just wish this was over because now Luke has to do it, and if Luke can't do it, I have to do it again," Henriksen said.
If neither of them can finish the route, then they will relocate holds until they can.
Eventually Henriksen sends it, then Turkington, leaving them only three more routes with a similar grade to climb before opening the wall to the public. After 48 hours – kind of a comment period for regulars and competitive climbers – the setters post the difficulty ratings at the base of each climb, and the work is done for another week.