John Muse: Professional Route Setter Interview

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Welcome to the first installment of our Professional Route Setters interview series, featuring John Muse!

We are very excited that we were able to get a chance to chat with John for our inaugural Professional Route Setter interview. For those of you don't already know, John is a cornerstone in the rock climbing community, especially when it comes to USA Climbing and its competitions. As a Level 5 USAC National chief route setter, USAC route setting clinic instructor, chief of numerous championship level events (including the upcoming 2015 SCS Youth Nationals), and owner of Stone Moves in Texas, John has been and continues to be a major component in the inner workings of competition route setting as we know it. On a more personal level, despite his intense gaze and intimidating stature, John is one of the most soft spoken and unassuming individuals I have had the good fortune of working with.

TickTapeTighten: So let’s get down to brass tacks, John. How long have you been route setting for commercially? Competitively?

John: Commercially about 14 years and professionally since 2008.

TTT: What got you excited about route setting in the first place?

John: After my first trips to youth bouldering and roped Nationals back in 2001 I saw setting that I have never seen before. I wanted to try and emulate those climbs for my youth climbing team. I felt we were at a disadvantage unless the youth on our team could be provided with the setting they would see at higher level competitions. Don’t get me wrong the setting in my local gym was awesome but there was something different about competition style routes and boulders.

TTT: Many people prefer to climb and set either routes or boulders. Do you have a preference in discipline? Why?

John: I personally enjoy climbing and setting boulders over routes and I suspect that most setters will have a similar opinion. For me it is easier to play with the moves that I am trying to create when they are lower to the ground. If I think something is cool then I will try and add it into a route but only once I’m confident that the movement will need minimal tweaks and that I can efficiently add it into a route’s sequence.

TTT: Do consider commercial route setting to be similar to that of a pair of “golden handcuffs,” in that you are always setting and climbing for others, and not yourself, on a daily basis. Do you find this to be the case? How often do you get to climb for fun and not just for work? Do you find there to be a difference?

John: To the first question my answer would be yes. As a commercial route setter you are mostly setting for others providing a product that the owner of the gym wants on the wall. However, I find a tremendous amount of enjoyment watching others climb what I have created on the wall. Even if I am not psyched on what just went up I always keep in mind that each time a hold is placed on the wall a leaning experience can take place. To the second and third questions I feel they go hand in hand. Each time I climb it’s fun even when it’s work. Sure I may get frustrated when I hear a customer complaining about reach or the movement but that comes with the territory. I think we have the best job in the world.

TTT: I absolutely agree with you, John. In addition to being the owner of Stone Moves in Texas, USAC route setting clinic instructor, and chief of many championship level events, like the upcoming 2015 SCS Youth Nationals, you’re also a family man. Do you have any other hobbies? How do you juggle them all?

John: A carefully planned schedule even down to when I’m gonna hang out with my wife and kids. Wearing this many hats you get pulled in a lot of different directions and your attention is always in demand. I try to make each moment wearing each hat unforgettable and without regret. Only then do I feel I have balanced my schedule appropriately and haven’t left anyone off to the side. Recently I have gotten into triathlons as a hobby.

TTT: What do you consider the proudest moment in your route setting career?

John: I would have to say ABS Youth Nationals 2010 at Sport Rock. I was testing for National Chief under Mike Helt, Editor and Chief of the CBJ, and was assigned the YC category. As a team we severally underestimated the boys in that category and as a result ended up with an 11 way tie for 1st going into finals. Back then there were only two days for Youth ABS Nationals. Once the results were tallied we had as a team threaded the needle or split the field perfectly 1 - 11.

TTT: I’m sure many of our readers would like to know what its like behind the scenes of a major championship level event, like ABS/ SCS Nationals, World Cup, PanAm, etc. Care to share some of your thoughts?

John: It really depends on the position held within the competition. As an Assistant route setter your job is to create the most amazing boulders or routes you can think of for a given competitor field, which you should be able to do if you have been selected for the team. As a Chief route setter for any of the above mentioned events there is a much higher sense of responsibility. In most cases you are also there putting up the most creative boulders and routes but you are also responsible for everyone else’s creative boulders and routes as well as the global view for how the competition will turn out. Your mind is consumed with thoughts of what your route setters are thinking, managing your team both creatively and emotionally, what does the competition organizer feel about the product your are giving him/her, and what will the spectators/parents think?

TTT: What is the most stressful moment you’ve encountered in your route setting career? How did you handle it?

John: The most stressful moment was at SCS Youth Nationals 2013. Everything was perfect going into finals in all categories. As a team we made a decision to ease a couple routes up for a better show and to be certain of a top. The first two youth out for each of those routes went right up to the top. Man I was worried. Then the second two youth did the same thing. At this point all I could do was take a deep breath and make a plan of action for a very large tie and a competition that would end as the only roped nationals where two entire categories climbed the final’s route. At the end of the day both of those routes did their job without needing adjustments. For some reason the first two youth out were able to climb them with ease and the rest of the competitor field were split perfectly. It was pretty stressful during the moment.

(2013 SCS Youth Nationals. Stone Summit. Atlanta, GA)

TTT: Constructive feedback and route setting go hand in hand. What techniques do you have for handling feedback from others on problems and routes that you set?

John: When we set in my gym or even at a competition I try to set things up so that each member of the team can provide feedback on any boulder problem or route. It’s important to not only listen to feedback but also ask appropriate questions when feedback is being provided. By taking this approach I feel that an environment is created that allows for all members of a team to feel comfortable talking about each others boulders or routes.

TTT: What are your thoughts on the growing number of climbing gyms throughout North America (currently nearing the 900 mark)? Will this effect commercial route setting? If so, in what ways?

John: It will certainly effect commercial route setting. More jobs will open up, the demand for more qualified route setters, safety standards and practices will evolve, more available gyms for competitions to be held, etc.

TTT: What’s the most important piece of advice anyone has ever told you that applies to route setting?

John: I don’t feel like there is one piece of advice that I was given that changed my route setting but rather all the advice from each and every one of my mentors. I began setting under Tom Carter in Louisiana, worked my first nationals under Molly Beard, set many comps with and learned a tremendous amount from Mike Helt, instructed clinics and set with Chris Danielson, and heard comments in passing from Kynan Waggoner. I only mention all of my mentors names because they had the greatest influence in all that I have accomplished in route setting.

TickTapeTighten: John it is an honor to have you give up time in your extremely busy life to take a few minutes and share your route setting experiences with us. Thank you very much for your time.

Be sure to look out for our next Professional Route Setter interview, where we will sit down with Boston’s very own Dave Wetmore and discuss what drives him and his insatiable appetite for competition route setting and first ascents in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

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