I Want That Job! - Tom Randall, Professional Route Setterby Jack Geldard - Assistant Editor Jan/2008
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© Tom Randall, Jan 2008
Name: Tom Randall
Job Title: Professional Route Setter (Currently freelanced to the Edge in Sheffield)
Relevant Qualifications: I've climbed for over 10 years all over the world, from the gritstone crags of the UK to the big walls in Yosemite. I've put up new routes outside, both in the UK and abroad up to E6. I've route set for around 4 years, having been mainly based at Mile End Wall in London and the Edge in Sheffield. I'm also Manager for the British Lead Climbing Team and a Coach for the Peak Area in the Junior Team.
Salary: Depends on what you're doing and where you're working – between £100-200 per day.
Perks and holidays/time off: As I'm freelance, it depends on what I can afford and which wall I'm attached to! Currently, I probably take around 6 proper trips abroad each year. Really, it's a case of balancing your work load with the quiet season (summer) and the busy season (winter).
Describe your job:
Essentially, my job involves taking down and putting up new routes for people to climb at either indoor walls or climbing competitions. It's a pretty intense job as I tend to climb a lot outside as well, which means I spend a lot of time complaining to my wife about how knackered I am! My working day is normally around 10 hours.
How did you end up at The Edge? Did it just sort of come about organically?
In many ways my present job is one of my dream jobs as I had spent a number of years working in London route setting part-time. I moved to Sheffield in 2006 and tried to get some route setting work in Sheffield, but not having built myself any sort of reputation up North I failed to get anything decent. Luckily this was around the time that Percy Bishton left The Edge to set up the Climbing Works so I jumped at the empty spot! With a few people willing to take a risk on me and a couple of good references I managed to secure the job.
What attracted you to the job in the first place?
I was attracted to route setting originally, if I'm honest, because of the free climbing. The wall I climbed at offered free entry in exchange for a few hours of route setting. This soon led to paid work within a couple months and after only 6 months or so I was totally addicted. In many ways route setting for me is an outlet for my frustrations with the British weather and inability to get outside as often as I want, so I try my best to set technical, interesting routes that I hope will keep others less frustrated as well.
How long have you been in the job now? How long do you see yourself continuing?
I've been doing this for around 4 years and as I'm enjoying myself at the moment I don't see any reason to change. Should I get too injured, then I suppose I would look at moving on.
Describe your average day at work:
I arrive around 7-8am and set up my safety ropes (or not if setting boulder problems) and then strip the walls of the dirty holds. These old holds are then taken out to the back of the centre to be jet-washed clean by some poor soul. I then spend the next 4 hours or so putting up new routes or boulder problems, tightening the holds and testing individual moves along the way. Late in the afternoon I then have the rather enjoyable (if I'm not tired) or hideous (if running low on sugar) task of climbing and grading my own routes and boulder problems. Afterwards, it's straight back home to either do my own training or a good bit of food. On average I work about 3 days a week depending on weather outside and trips abroad.
Is it how you/other people imagine it to be?
I think in many ways it's a fairly misunderstood job within the climbing community as to be a full-time professional route setter you've got to have a lot of passion for the job, otherwise it would be impossible to do long term. I think many people have the idea that we just slap up holds in a random fashion and guess the grades. As for the subject of grades – what a nightmare! After a while you tend to get lost in your own world of grading where the more you think about it, the more confused you get! It's one of the main reasons most full-time route setters are a bit touchy about their grading as you're rarely told when you get it right, but always when you're wrong.
The best day? The worst day?
Best day – feeling full of energy all day long, injuries are non-existent and then to cap it all off someone comes into the wall and says they've really enjoyed your routes.
Worst day – probably those really harsh days when you wake up so achy that you feel hung-over, only to realise you've got to put up a quality 6a, 6b, 6c, 7a and 7b in the next 10 hours. Fortunately it doesn't happen too often and I've got a good supply of Sherbet Dips and an espresso maker at home!
© Tom Randall, Jan 2008
I'm not sure I'd say I 'love' my job – more that I enjoy the lifestyle that comes with it. I'm a very physically active person and it's great to be able to exercise all day long every day of the week. The days that I'm not route setting I tend to be outside climbing, which I know I'd never be able to do with most other jobs. I also enjoy the creative side of the job as I get to 'create' a product and watch how people interact with it. Art-farty I know, but it's very satisfying.
If a young person said to you 'I want to be a route setter, like you' – what would you say? Recommend it? Warn them off? Laugh?!
Strangely I've had that exact same thing said to me by a teenager! I told him to get back to school... No seriously, I'd give them the relevant information and let them get on with it. I'm a strong believer in people self-starting.
There is obviously a limited number of full time jobs in the route setting trade, but many walls have a band of route setters that work part time. Is that how it started for you?
I previously (to the Edge) worked part-time for Mile End Wall as a route setter, which for me was a great place to learn my trade. The wall has a number of different route setters there, which means you can bounce ideas of lots of other setters and also see how they work. It also has a vast array of different angled surfaces to set on, which is invaluable to becoming a more rounded route setter. As a part timer I was paid from £5-15 per problem I set, depending on it's length and height. I was pretty sad to leave Mile End Wall as it was packed full of good people and good climbing, but unfortunately the lure of love took me up North to my (now) wife!
How would you go about getting enough skills to be involved with something like that? I know you're a really experienced climber first of all, but is there a 'standard qualification' in route setting?
There are two main standards or qualifications in route setting in the UK, both for domestic walls and competitions. The first is provided by CWMA (Climbing Wall Manufacturing Association). This is not needed to work in nearly all walls, but is useful if you want to set in council owned properties or with the military. The BMC also runs an occasional National Route Setters course, which then allows experienced route setters to set at National Competitions like the BLCC and BBC. First port of call if you want to take part is to contact your local climbing wall manager/owner or Lucy Creamer at the BMC. They'll tell you what the best course of action is in each individual case.
The most important thing is to build up a solid base of climbing over a period of years – it's not necessarily about being the strongest climber in the world, as many of the route setters that I respect the most are those that work below the cutting edge level, but are always outside putting up new routes or boulder problems. Once you feel you're ready, get down your local wall and offer to set some routes/boulder problems for free – you'll rarely get knocked back. As it's a job without many official qualifications, it's all about building up experience and reputation.
Any friends through work?
It's great because I get to meet far more climbers than I would have if I worked a desk job somewhere and so I've ended up with some really good friends through work. I'm also not the most out-going person in the world, so a complaining/complimenting customer often gets me chatting!
Any amazing stories?
I wouldn't say that I have any amazing stories – just a few odd or funny things really. I remember once seeing someone deck out at the wall and running over to help, whilst another person ran through the front door of the centre shouting that a man had collapsed outside! Fortunately my wife who's a doctor, walked down the street at that very moment. Quite a coincidence really. I've also been told that Chris Bonington came in one day and was asked if he could belay correctly by a receptionist who didn't recognise him – she hasn't been allowed to forget that little slip...
And finally - What's your dream job? Why?
I guess my dream job (realistic one) would be a combination of what I do now and the finance job I used to do in London. One would provide me with the money and the other with my physical and creative outlet. This would of course be for only a couple of days a week so that I could still have plenty of time to go climbing outside!
Tom Randall left his career in Finance to pursue his passion - climbing. He lives in Sheffield where he climbs indoors and out as much as possible. He loves it when people tell him at the wall: "That's never a 6a+ - it's definitely a 6b, you've no idea about grades!"
© The Edge, Jan 2008
Opened in 1994, we aim to provide a climbing experience that is enjoyable, imaginative and challenging. Our facilities are continuously developing and feature a 13m articulated wall that can rotate to minus 45deg. The bouldering area was completely rebuilt in 1998 and is now double its original size. The Edge is also a founder member of the Association of British Climbing Walls and supports the work of the British Mountaineering Council.
With over 150 marked routes, The Edge offers a unique indoor climbing experience. We offer many different types of course, so if you're a novice, want to book a birthday party or are a college or school we can get you going. It's all set in a friendly environment and there is something for everyone.
The Edge can announce that its highly successful Adult Intro Program has now been extended with 3 new follow-on courses: Indoor leading, coaching and understanding advanced equipment. Additionally the Edge Climbing Club now also meets on a Sunday morning, and a summer outdoor programme is available. For Kids the new NICAS scheme will offer a nationally recognised achievement programme and should be up and running in Feb.
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