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John Oungst: Professional Route Setter Interview

John Oungst is a Level 4 USA Climbing National Route Setter, as well as the Director of Route Setting at Climb So iLL, the flagship gym of So iLL Holds, in St. Louis, Missouri. Setting for 12 years, he has set competitively through USA Climbing for 11 of them. Being in the competitive climbing scene for such a lengthy amount of time, John has been selected for multiple National-level competitions, including the last three years at Youth Sport + Speed Nationals in Atlanta, GA (2013, 2014, 2015), and set for this years’ Youth Bouldering National Championship in Madison, WI, as well as the Collegiate National Championship in San Diego, CA.

Additionally, John has taught several Level 1 USAC clinics as an Assistant Instructor, runs his own routesetting consulting company, and has even assisted the guys at So iLL Holds with routesetting product development, such as the increasingly popular So iLL setter buckets.

Oungst inspiring the next generation of route setters

Tick.Tape.Tighten: How long have you been routesetting for commercially? Competitively?

John Oungst: I’ve been routesetting commercially for 12 years and competitively for 8 years.

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

John: After spending an exorbitant amount of time in the climbing gym each week, I got into setting after watching some of the other volunteers set in their spare time (this was early 2000’s so the notion of routesetting as a career path wasn’t really a thing). I, like many others, would create my own boulder problems with friends using holds already on the wall. I wanted to take that a step further by trying to create my own problems from scratch. I spent a few Sunday evenings with the volunteers learning the basics and I was hooked. From there, everything sort of fell into place for me. Whenever volunteer setters moved on or got bored with setting, I would move up a little bit in the rankings until I became the Head Routesetter of my old gym. By that point, I was probably setting 4 days a week.

TTT: Some setters prefer to climb and set only routes or boulders. Do you have a preference in discipline? Why?

John: I enjoy setting both. Unlike most other routesetters, I have never been ardent about pushing myself as a climber. For me, climbing is more of a hobby and routesetting is my passion. Projecting climbs is often a driving factor in determining what discipline routesetter’s focus on – If someone is training to send a V13 in the Fall, they will likely gravitate towards boulder setting up until that point.

For me, I equally focus on improving my abilities to set routes and boulders rather than leaning towards one or the other. A great routesetter should have a thorough understanding of both disciplines and be able to consistently set high-quality routes and boulders.

TTT: Some setters have said that they consider commercial routesetting to be similar to that of a pair of “golden handcuffs,” in that they are always setting a climbing for others, and not themselves, on a daily basis. Do you find this to be the case?

John: Absolutely – and that’s okay. As a commercial routesetter you are responsible for the product the gym is selling. It is important that you always put the needs of the gym before the needs of yourself. While you may want to set that hard climb to train on, isn’t it more important that members have a fun jug haul to warm up on? Remember, we are never setting for ourselves in the commercial and competitive environments.

Instead of approaching this dilemma in a negative light, spin it into an opportunity to grow as a routesetter. Every time we set a climb we provide climbers with an opportunity to learn something new. For me, the joy of routesetting comes from watching others climb what I’ve set.

Surveying the routes at Climb So iLL.

TTT: How often do you get to climb for fun and not just for work? Do you find there to be a difference?

John: I tend to climb in the gym 3 – 4 days a week. Outside trips are dependent on how much I travel for competitions and the consulting I provide.

There is definitely a difference in climbing for work and climbing for fun. When I am climbing for work my focus is solely on how the climb performs: Does it function as a commercial climb? Is it fair for everyone (the commercial environment has, arguably, the widest spread of types of climbers!)? And most of all, is it fun? When I’m working I have a completely different mindset – I’m not even thinking about sending a climb (forerunning is not climbing!).

TTT: Do you have any other hobbies? If so, how do you juggle them all?

John: I really enjoy playing sand volleyball in the summer. It’s a nice change of pace. This past winter I recently discovered snowboarding so I imagine there will be quite a bit more of that in my future. Aside from that, I spent a lot of time with my girlfriend and other friends.

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

John: I’m not sure I have a proudest moment. I enjoy every setting opportunity I get, whether that be setting for USA Climbing events or our local So iLL Showdown. If there is a standout moment that is more memorable that others, it would have to be setting for Chris Sharma when he visited St. Louis. Myself and the other setters at the time teamed up to set Chris a 5.14 on our lead wall and it was extremely rewarding getting to watch him climb it and then talk with us about it afterwards.

Oungst and Sharma talking shop.

TTT: I’m sure many of our readers would like to know what it’s like behind the scenes of a major championship event, like Bouldering or Sport Nationals. Care to share some of your thoughts?

John: Competition setting at the National level is one of the most rewarding experiences you can have as a professional routesetter. You’re given the opportunity to not only set for the best competitors in the country, but also set with the best routesetters. I always learn something new at every National event I set.

Each event is going to be different and dependent on the crew you work with. You really have to adapt to the challenges that arise on the fly, but with some of the best minds in the country working together, the outcome is almost always incredible.

Everyone’s role is different at a national level event. As an Assistant I am expected to set the absolute best climb or climbs I can set. I also have the opportunity to teach the Interns and Apprentices about the event or other general setting ideas. As an Intern or Apprentice, expect to work hard, do grunt work, and assist and learn from the Assistants. An important takeaway is that national events are a team effort – you either fail or succeed together as a team.

If there’s any one single tip to give for aspiring national setters, it would be: Be prepared to work long days, be prepared to do a lot of climbing (i.e. be in the best physical climbing shape you can be), and remember to have fun.

John setting at the 2014 SCS Youth Nationals in Atlanta, GA

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

John: Easy. You’re all hearing about this for the first time – that’s for sure.

At this year’s So iLL Showdown, after countless hours of work planning, setting for, and putting on the comp – I accidentally set the Finals timer to run in 3:00 minute climbing intervals instead of 4:00. I didn’t realize my mistake until after the first wave of climbers were on the wall. There was nothing I could do by then and it would have been too distracting to tell all the climbers in finals so I just went with. It definitely put more stress on the climbers as they had less time to climb (and rest!), but the event was still incredibly successful.

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

You answered this one in the question itself. The key to receiving and giving feedback is to always be constructive in your thoughts. It doesn’t matter if it’s a commercial or competitive setting environment, we are only human and we make mistakes. I always keep an open mind when I receive feedback from others and try to look at it from their perspective.

TTT: What are your thoughts on the growing number of climbing gyms throughout North America? Will this effect commercial routesetting? If so, in what way?

John: The indoor climbing industry has come a long way since I started climbing. As climbing grows in popularity, I think we will see more and more “gym rats”, climbers who strictly take up indoor climbing as a hobby and don’t venture outside, necessitating a stronger focus on high-quality commercial routesetting.

Already, this has effected commercial routesetting for the better. The trend has shifted from volunteer, for-trade membership setting to full time, salaried routesetting positions. And as more gyms open up, the need for professional routesetters will continue to grow.

Ashima Shiraishi sticking the jump on one of Oungst's boulders at this year's Youth Bouldering Nationals in Madison, WI.

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

John: I don’t know that there is one single piece of advice that has had a profound effect on my setting career. I’ve learned a lot over the years from countless other routesetters. If there’s one piece of advice I wish I had learned at the beginning of my setting career, it would be what I discovered teaching a USAC Clinic with National Chief Routesetter Mike Helt:

If you’re ever in a rut or experience setter’s block, remember that there are only four ways you can use a climbing hold: downpull, sidepull, gaston, or undercling. That’s it. Those four hand positions unlock the opportunity for unlimited movement.

It sounds like a really mundane thing, but I’ve found that novice setters have really taken that piece of advice to heart and it has helped improve their setting efficiency. A good exercise if you are ever stuck on the wall is to take those four hand positions and don’t repeat them more than twice in a row.

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