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Women of Route Setting: Insight from a Professional Female Route Setter

Sydney McNair, Head Route Setter, Evo Rock

Being one of the of the hotter topics in recent years, and with no sign of slowing down, the subject of "women in rock climbing" has taken a hold on many facets of the industry, and for good reason. In a generally male dominated environment, female athletes everywhere have been relentlessly subjected to years of "bro-life", whether purposely, or incidentally. As such, numerous climbing organizations designed around female climbers have developed, and come to life rather quickly. A cursory browse online will take a climber to notable websites, such as, "Flash Foxy", "Crux Crush", and "Women Climb", designed completely around female-empowerment and growth within our sport. Personally, we at TTT are psyched on these developments, and are looking forward to more badass women climbers to set the bar with unique and inspiring challenges in the climbing world (we're looking at you, Miranda Oakley, Heather Wiedner, and Lynn Hill)!

But if we delve a bit deeper, into a more specific realm of the climbing? What do we know about females in the route setting game?

In the past, female setters were few and far between, especially those setting full-time, or competitively. Today, nearly every large-scale climbing competition employs at least one female route setter to work on the crew.

Why? What’s the difference between a male setter and a female setter? The outcome of the job is the same, right?

To help answer some of these questions, we sat down with Sydney McNair, a USA Climbing Level 3 National Route Setter, as well as Head Route Setter of Evolution Rock + Fitness, to hear her take on what its like to be a female route setter in a male-dominated industry.

Tick.Tape.Tighten: Why is it important to have female route setters on a crew?

Sydney McNair: In general I feel that regardless of whether it is commercial or competitive setting, the addition of female route setters to a crew brings with it a greater diversity in climbing styles and ideas, as well as a broader perspective on how best to cater to your field of climbers. Physically and mentally woman bring a different perspective to the ideas of movement, power and technique than their male counter parts. Women setters are able to take “manly” moves and make them more suitable for female climbers, youth athletes, shorter climbers or climbers with smaller hands. Also, because women typically (but not always) lack as much raw power as men, have a smaller hand size and tend to be more flexible, it can allow a setting crew to see different ways beta can be cheated.

I know that for some female climbers, seeing women on the setting team at the gym or at a competition gives them more confidence that what they are going to climb is possible, if they try hard enough. I remember last year at Youth Sport Nationals I demonstrated the FYA routes for Qualifiers and afterwards several of the athletes came over and thanked me for climbing their route. As they put it, “…it was nice to see a girl on our route instead of a 6’ tall burly dude like we usually get…” I could hear the relief and the confidence in their tone of voice. It was because I was a better representation of the climbers in their category and how the movement would most likely feel as they climbed the route.

I will say that as setters become more experienced they are able to learn various techniques that allow them to properly judge climbers of different sizes. However, as more and more new setters enter the scene I think it is important to have the presence of female setters on a crew so those with less experience can visually understand why certain beta can be cheated or why certain sequences work or do not work for climbers of different body sizes and strengths. It’s one thing to discuss the concepts and ideas of how to set for climbers of various statures and strengths. It’s another to see it and experience it first hand. Plus the more exposure the industry and those coming into the industry have towards female setters, the less intimidating it will be for future women looking to break into the profession.

With such a growth in climbing over the last decade and the fact that there are just as many women out there climbing as there are men, I would say it is more important now than it has ever been for gyms and competitions to incorporate more women into their setting teams. It would be great to see a more balanced representation of men and women in the setting profession.

TTT: Is it difficult regularly being a minority in a male-dominated industry?

Sydney McNair: That is a tough question. I know that perspectives vary drastically on this subject. Over the last few years, with more women setting at a National level or just setting, I feel like this question pops up fairly regularly. For me, I feel like my emotional and mental outlook on this subject has bounced back and forth on whether I feel it is difficult or not.

Personally, when I first started out, it did not feel all that difficult being one of few, if not the only woman on a setting crew. I was very fortunate however, to start out with a great group of people whom I respected and who respected me. They were very encouraging and helpful as I figured out the finer points of route setting and honed in my skills. Eventually, I actually really enjoyed it, I enjoyed being the only woman with a crew of guys and I enjoyed the challenge of making people see that I was just as good and just as capable as any of my male co-workers. I had the privilege of working with some amazing setters who cultivated an environment where we were all just route setters and gender didn’t really matter. I was able to really grow into my own and gain a lot of self-confidence in my abilities through working in that type of environment.

That being said, now that I’m no longer working with those individuals and am on my own in a sense, I do occasionally feel on edge about being the “odd man out.” I’m sure many other female setters are, or have been in the same position. Work environment and how we, as female setters, are perceived by those we are setting for, or with, strongly influence whether choosing route setting as a career path is a negative experience or not.

I think what can make it feel challenging as a female setter is if there is constant feeling of skepticism or second-guessing of our capabilities. I’ve had individuals who have little to no understanding of my route setting experience tell me that I set too reachy (I’m 5’5” and I like to climb with high feet), that if I want to be good at my job I have to take criticism, lecture me on route quality, gang up on me to have certain sets put up in the gym, tell me how to run the setting program at the gym where I’m the current Head Setter and more. Yes it is part of the job and as a route setter we all have to deal with varying degrees of unsolicited advice, passive aggressive or aggressive comments or backhanded compliments. However, as a minority in the industry the more you hear it, the more you hear it from the opposite sex and the more you hear the occasional condescending tone when people make these comments to you, the more frustrating it can become. It can also become discouraging and disheartening to continue in the profession if there is constant resistance. That is what makes it hard and that is actually why it is so important for female setters to be more of a norm in the climbing community. The more women are represented in the industry the less men and women alike will see it as a man’s job that can only be done well by a man. Because let’s be real. That is just NOT the case.

TTT: What are your thoughts on:

Separating genders within climbing comps?

Sydney McNair: Each year I think we are getting closer and closer to not having to separate gender in climbing competitions, at least for adult competitions, not youth. However, we are not there yet. The gap between what men and women are capable of on a competitive level is closing. We see it watching the likes of Alex Puccio and Ashima Shiraishi. Along with a handful of other incredible female athletes who can throw down on the “boy” climbs. But again, I think we still have a ways to go before there are enough female athletes to make it a more exciting realization.


Sydney McNair: There are definite pros and cons to First Female Ascent titles. On one hand, I think it is inspiring to see how far women have come in climbing and how far they continue to push the boundaries of what is possible. On the other hand I would like to feel that we’ve come far enough to not have to define men and women’s ascents differently. I think more and more, female athletes are getting tired of having their gender be the main emphasis and their athleticism being second.

Stylistic stereotypes (Girls can crimp, but can’t jump; boys can pinch, but have no technique, etc.)?

Sydney McNair: I think these stereotypes used to be truer than they are today. Nowadays, climbing, training and competitions are really pushing the boundaries of what we used to think were possible. So much so that to stay on the top of your game as an athlete we are forced to be more well rounded. I think every year more of these stereotypes are broken, women overall are becoming more powerful and stronger on holds typically thought of as more suitable for the male climbers. Men too are becoming more technical and comfortable using their whole body while climbing as opposed to relying on raw power.

When I first started setting competitions (10 or so years ago) I was told that I set “man climbs” because the types of holds and moves I enjoyed climbing were not seen as “female friendly”. It used to make me laugh because, I’m a woman and those are the climbs I really find fun and enjoyable. So, why shouldn’t they be thought of as women’s climbs? Why should we as setters, limit, in a sense, what men or women are capable of climbing by restricting them to climbs deemed “men’s climbs” or “women’s climbs”? I learned to rein myself in a bit and tweak moves to make them more appropriate for less powerful climbers.

After hearing throughout those early years “girls can’t pull those moves” or “it’s too technical, the boys will get shut down”, my train of thought towards route setting and my route setting was that it should be our obligation as setters to push climbers to change they way they think about their climbing. As in, setting more dynamic movement for women and using holds that maybe would normally be avoided. As well as setting more technical and subtle style climbs for men. Basically more of what we see today on a competitive level.

That being said, fairly recently (in the last couple years) I set a competition and one of the organizers for the event expressed concern that the crew had not set enough crimp problems for the women. We actually went back through some of the upper end problems for the competition and swapped some holds for crimps. Fortunately most of the women competing were strong enough that it didn’t matter that there weren’t more crimpy problems. At that same competition I set a powerful pinch problem for the women’s finals. I felt the women were fully capable of climbing that type of boulder. After the competition I read a comment from one of the female competitors regarding that particular climb. She said she was surprised they were given that style of boulder because it wasn’t really what you would think of as a women’s climb. So, as far as we’ve come in climbing, as climbers, as coaches and as setters, those stereotypes are still out there unfortunately.

"Can't take yourself too seriously... I guess.."

TTT: How can interested female setters get more involved in the industry and route setting community?

Sydney McNair: If you’re serious about learning how to set, talk to your local gym or route setters. Find out if they have an apprentice or intern type setting program where you can learn the basics and have the time to grow your skills. USA Climbing’s Level 1 clinics are also a good starting point, however they are an investment, as you have to register with USA Climbing, pay for the clinic, acquire appropriate tools and potentially travel.

When you’re climbing, learn to dissect the climbs. How are each of the handholds oriented? How are the feet placed and turned? Are there multiple ways to climbing the sequence or does everyone have to use the same sequence? Why? Teach yourself to notice these little things and mentally it will help you understand some basic route setting concepts.

Other things to keep in mind are that you can’t be afraid of failing; it’s part of the process and the only way to get better. There may be moments where you feel discouraged or where people’s critiques seem harsh, but don’t give up. Always look at those moments as opportunities to gain new knowledge and learn. And each climb that is set, it’s temporary. They don’t and won’t all be perfect masterpieces.

Have a thought regarding this article, or another relevant topic? Feel free to start the conversation below!

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