Mike Bockino: Professional Routesetter Interview

Hailing from The Front Climbing Climbing Club out of Salt Lake City, Utah, Head Routesetter Mike Bockino has been in the climbing game for over 15 years. Holding a USA Climbing Level 4 National Routesetting certification, with endorsements in both Sport and Bouldering, Bockino was just the chief routesetter for the first stop of the National Cup Series, the Yank-N-Yard, in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

TickTapeTighten: Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to chat with us, Mike. Let's get right into it:

How long have you been route setting for commercially? Competitively?

Mike Bockino: I started setting in 2001, in a smallish college gym in Pullman, Washington. The guys there had the wall closed one day that I showed up, and they offered me a T-handle...as they say the rest is history. Competitively since about 2003 or 2004, setting smaller comps here and there, I set my first National in 2013 in Atlanta Georgia.

TTT: How did you discover climbing? Route setting?

Bockino: My older sister (Jackson Hole WY mountain guide, ski guide) took me to a dumpy little crag in North central Washington called Mazama...I led a 5.10c face climb, back clipping, z clipping and shit. I was stoked. I went home, bought some climbing shoes and started going to the gym 5 days a week.

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

Bockino: I prefer setting boulders, because I can do more creative things with the movement that you wouldn't usually see in a commercial route...and things that IF they are in commercial routes a majority of the clientele dislike as its really not "rock climbing". I actually prefer to fore-run routes though, its easier physically, and there aren't usually as many big tweaks needed outside of adding some feet and moving/turning a hold or two to improve continuity and fix a clipping position.

TTT: What was the most fun, unique, or inspiring event that you have ever worked? Why?

Bockino: Adult Sport and Speed Nationals, 2017. Another setter and myself had a bad experience a few years back working together (not in the interpersonal way, we just didn't gauge the field well and completely shit on a category-nobody got out of the start box...) and we were paired up again setting finals. It was a good feeling to get great separation, have an awesome show and feel vindicated from our collective fuck-up years past.

TTT: How often do you get to climb for fun and not just for work?

Bockino: I climb/train 2 days per week at the gym and I generally get out 2-3 days a week rock climbing.

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?

Bockino: Sure somewhat, but that's part of the job. I doubt that a barista goes home and drinks Folgers auto-drip, or a 5 star chef gets Arby's roast beef for dinner. They aren't depressed by the fact that something they also like is part of their job. I would say the only downside to the volume of climbing that I do is that it's hard to be fresh for my own climbing objectives, but my overall fitness level is so much higher because of it. A blessing and a curse I guess.

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 Bouldering or Sport Nationals, a World Cup, PanAm, etc. What events have you been a part of the setting crew? Care to share some of your thoughts?

Bockino: I've done all of them besides a Pan Am. The behind the scenes I guess is pretty similar from event to event. Setters tend to be a funny, inappropriate group of people for the most part, and that makes all the hours of work that much more entertaining. Long hours when you are tired are only survivable with some comic relief. From an organizational standpoint it was interesting that the World Cup that I took part in (as an "official" fore-runner: I did a ton of climbing and some setting) was probably the least strictly organized from a setting standpoint. There weren't assignments, no strict parameters. The IFSC delegates used feel more than anything to determine if the boulders were adequate. I think at that level it's way to hard to be specific so you have to embrace your gut instinct more.

Most of the time, people that aren't routesetters assume that the job is super fun, and not as much work. It's amazingly fun don't get me wrong, but the physical workload of an event like that is incredible. I was wasted for a week after the World Cup, and similar post bouldering nationals. Long days, lots of climbing and often climbing with 0 warm up.

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

Bockino: My first national in Atlanta I was setting a MYC qualifier and I'd jugged up to the top of the wall. I think I'd set like 10 routes on a rope at that point. I had a huge bucket full of holds, and I proceeded to pull it up hand over hand with the rope. About 1/2 way up, John Muse (Big Rig, the chief that year) walked over and was talking to Bret about something, standing directly under me. I was sweaty, getting pumped as hell and now had a 100 lb tub of holds 30 feet up in the air and about to drop them on the chief. Luckily I didn't, and I ended up setting an OK route.

I also ran into a pole in a parking garage last year in Vail (2016), with my entire citizens GoPro crew in the car. It was a rental. I just laughed it off but was panicking for sure. Gotta maintain that chief aura ;)

(Yank-N-Yard 2017 Live Stream)

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?

Bockino: I don't really have any techniques specifically. I filter things pretty well, from members, friends, other setters based on their experience, ability on certain types of climbing and being able to tell if they are just pissed that they couldn't do it, or if there really is a problem. As a routesetter it's important to be able to accept all of the feedback, and then filter it to get the important stuff out and apply it.

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

Bockino: It will definitely have an effect on commercial setting from top to bottom. Some negative and some positive. The positive is going to be the increased organization, more professionalism that will lead to higher pay, more support for physical upkeep of setters bodies, more opportunities for advancement internationally and an update to the safety systems used in routesetting. Looking at any other specialized work at height (for people who set roped routes) industry the pay is multiples of what most routesetters make, and the working conditions are far more regulated.

The negative will be tighter regulations on safety practices that slow down the process, make it harder to work efficiently, and an increase in OSHA violations being handed out in gyms.

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

Bockino: Don't forget how hard the boulders will feel after you have climbed through the whole round.

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