Tony Berlier is the Head Setter at Boulderz and has been setting at Boulderz since it’s inception. He is also an active member of the Ontario Alliance of Climbers (OAC), where he has been co-chair for over ten years. He has been climbing since 1987.
How did you start climbing? And how did you get into setting?
I am from Cincinnati, OH, USA. I have always been an avid outdoorsman, and I was into backpacking and rappelling. I first saw someone rock climbing while I was rappelling – I was taking the easy way down and they were taking the challenging way up! When I went to university, I noticed an advertisement for an outdoor rock climbing class. I was hooked from the beginning. Within the first couple of years of climbing, I started setting at the small indoor climbing wall at Miami University in Ohio. Setting is finally becoming a profession now, but back then it was a hobby.
Climbing is a unique industry. In the early days, climbers used the gym primarily to train for climbing outdoors. Now indoor climbing is its own discipline, where we are pushing athletes to test their physical abilities.
What is your setting philosophy? How do you set for multiple body types and climbing abilities?
Philosophically we have a modern approach focused on creating a unique customer climbing experience.
As a setter you need to know and understand your audience. We set for kids and adults at all levels – beginners to world-class athletes – so we need an extremely diverse set of climbing challenges.
We are striving to create both a physical and psychological connection with the clients, so that anyone who comes to Boulderz can experience the physical aspect of climbing and have an interaction with the boulders/problems.
We help people do things they didn’t think possible for themselves. For example, they will look up at a climb and think it’s too hard, and then they learn to do it and their mind is blown. People get hooked! It’s great because there are an almost indefinite number of skills that people can learn, unlike most other sports. Every climb is different, you’re using different muscles and different movements. Of course, there are a broad base of basic movement skills that a beginner climber will learn, and then you can expand it from there.
We are trying to create challenges with our boulder problems and routes. Frequently we introduce specific techniques, a dyno or jump for instance. A person might say that they can’t or don’t want to jump, but then they start with a smaller or simpler jump and all of a sudden, they are thinking, oh wait, I can jump! Next thing you know they move on to others/bigger jumps.
Is there always one specific solution you have in mind when you set a route or a problem? How do climbers learn the solutions?
There are basically infinite solutions. Generally, we like to set routes and problems to help to teach skills. How they learn it really depends on the person. In competition you don’t get to see someone else do it. But in normal, day-to-day climbing, 95% of climbing is done with others. A person will find someone and say, “Hey, can you show me how this is done?” It’s very collaborative and social. One person unlocks the solution to the problem and the group usually follows.
My belief is that there is very rarely only one solution. Every body is different, their strengths are different, and rarely is there only one way to do a climb. We design one solution that we think is the easiest, but I like to say whatever works for you is best for you. People don’t typically do a problem only once. They do it again and again to master the skills and hard wire the memory.
How often do you change routes/problems?
We like to continually change and challenge the athletes. In general, we will reset our boulder problems every six weeks (i.e. each week we reset 1/6th of the gym).
Routes we will change in the 3 to 4 month range. It’s about double because the challenges are longer/more involved.
And just to make sure we’re all clear, what is the difference between boulders & routes?
Bouldering means climbing without a rope above thick padded flooring. Therefore, when you fall, you always fall onto the mats. I liken it to the 100 metre dash of climbing. Typically, you’ll reach the top in two to ten movements. It’s typically more gymnastic, with explosive movements.
Ropes are used on the routes. I like to say roped climbing is more like a marathon. At Boulderz our tallest route will take a climber a minimum of 20 movements. And roped climbing usually has a “softer” fall, i.e. the rope will “catch” you.
Tell me about your crew. How important is the team?
We are currently a team of nine, and the team is crucial. Our regular setting team currently is comprised of: Will Goodwin, Lucas Uchida, Brandon Barraclough, Mei Nagasako, Sammy Leung, Pierre Cusa, Linda Yang, and Ian MacCrimmon. It is very important to have diversity in all aspects, so we have men and women, a range of heights (ours is 5’ to 6’ approximately), and different body types. Everyone on the team needs to be a fairly strong climber in order to set challenges of all different levels, but there will be a wide range of climbing ability within the team as well.
Team dynamics are also important. Setting is very collaborative. We create from an aesthetic perspective as well as functional. Ideally, we set a route/problem that looks cool and is aesthetically pleasing, and where the movement works well for different bodies.
Where does inspiration come from?
Having a big, diverse team means we naturally get different looks, types of problems and routes. Inspiration comes from different places for each team member every week. It could be from outdoor climbing, something we saw online, something we experienced while climbing, or just a random idea.
In general, on a setting day, we spend the first half of the day creating shells of problems, and the second half we’ll go through the creations and assess what works and what we should change. We also step back and go through the full day’s work to make sure we have hit all levels we targeted so there is something for everyone and to make sure all the problems in the set work together. Sometimes there will be a weekly theme, like working on jumps, for example.
Do you have time to climb for fun and not just for work?
Yes, I make a point of climbing for myself, at least 2-3 times per week. I usually do my personal climbing in the evenings. On weekends I usually do a family session. I have a 7-year old daughter who also climbs. We also get outdoors to go climbing as much as possible.
I also visit other gyms and encourage the setting team to do so as well. It’s always good to see what others are doing, practice new problems, and get ideas. We also like seeing other holds that we like/want to eventually purchase. One great thing about indoor climbing today is the endless variety of climbing holds.
How do you get feedback on your routes/problems from the people in the gym?
We frequently get verbal feedback from people on the spot at the gym. Arguably the best feedback is gained by observing people while they ‘digest or consume’ the problem, watching their reactions after they complete it or observing their struggles. How did they approach the problem? What inspires them? What did they really enjoy?
Setting is very artistic. It’s kind of like going to an art show, where the artist can hear what people think of their work. We get to hear the customers reactions to our creations.
Recently we added a suggestion box at both Boulderz locations where people can anonymously give us their feedback as well. In addition, people can email our team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What do you do for fun when you aren’t climbing?
We are a very busy family! We like to go cross-country skiing in the winter, hiking, paddle boarding/canoeing, practice yoga and really anything outdoors – we’re a very physical/outdoor family.
Lastly, I’d just mention that I am very active in the Ontario Alliance of Climbers, a volunteer organization that helps ensure outdoor climbing areas stay open for people to enjoy. I am passionate about this work, as I want to help ensure that future generations can experience outside climbing as I have.