Ailsa Graham calls for more considered routesetting at climbing walls to help people of all heights and abilities to progress...
I started climbing when I was 9 and by the time I was 11 I was competing. I grew up in the sport and have watched it shift from a relatively small community, where you knew half of your local wall-goers and knew who was setting the climbs and they knew you, to something much bigger. Climbing has become incredibly popular in the 16 years that I have been in the sport. People from all walks of life have found the joy that comes from the activity. The sport is growing, but with that growth comes new challenges.
I'm small. Not crazy small, but small enough for me to be at the lower end of the height spectrum for adult climbers. Standing at 156cm - not quite 5'2" if you're old school - can have its advantages, but with a negative ape index, perhaps it's a bit of a stretch to say I have it easy. Bunched moves don't bother me. High feet are normally fine, but there is a limited number of climbs that my size is suited to. More often than not, I come across big moves that are clearly set by someone much taller than myself. Having grown up climbing and competed at a national level, I am used to the idea that 'being small is never an excuse', that you often have to simply find other beta to reach holds and - to quote Joe Brown - 'climb up to them'. I think this is important for kids as we need to teach them to think around problems, to look for what else might work. Problem solving is a big part of climbing and an important part; letting kids give up when a move is a 'little big' won't help the sport progress, but at the same time excessively big moves can be discouraging.
From my years of competitions, I also am very aware that really hard climbs don't need to be reachy. I only have one memory of a competition climb where I fell off because the move was too long and at the end of the event the setter came to see me give it another go and when he saw me on the move (it was the move from hold 1 to hold 2) he apologised for making it too reachy. In the kids' competitions, hard climbs were hard for everyone, but they were generally set with smaller people in mind. At the wall, this doesn't seem to be the case very often.
Having left competitions when I was 17 due to injury, I had the best part of 6 years away from climbing, mainly due to illness. I started back properly last year and found myself in an entirely different sector of the sport. In the world of social climbing that I found myself in, people came from all walks of life. Compared to the years of my childhood when your climbing partners were your team-mates and everyone had been climbing since they were kids, this was a whole new world. The numbers back up my experience: nearly one million people (935,000) tried indoor climbing or bouldering in England in 2019, compared to 850,000 in 2017, placing these activities just below netball, but above hockey in terms of participation in the Sport England Active Lives Survey.
The diversity that climbing's growing popularity has led to is promising. People have come to climbing for so many different reasons and somehow this great mix of demographics and abilities can form large, social groups of people happily climbing together. These days, most of the people I climb with entered the sport as adults; they don't have the years of experience I have, or the coaching. They also didn't grow up being told that size didn't matter and that there is usually a way. I climb with a lot of smaller people. I climb a lot with women, and in this world of climbing for fun, having to jump for a hold on a 6a because the setter didn't give any alternative footholds for smaller people isn't fun.
Sometimes it can feel like the setters, often strong men, have forgotten that people our size exist. For a good technical climber, a high foot isn't always an issue, but if it's the only way forward on a easier climb it can seem unfair and frustrating. I know people who will specifically look for climbs by female setters as they know it's less likely to be reachy. Choosing a climb based on setter gender shouldn't be a thing, but for a lot of small people it is, and it's limiting. Our sport should be inclusive and as it diversifies, setters should accommodate for a diverse range of climbers. When climbs are being tested, smaller people should be taken into consideration - and I don't mean smallish men, I mean small women and children too. Some centres have integrated kids' circuits with more moderate spans between holds - but no compromise in technicality and quality - and I know that some shorter adults actively seek them out.
Increasing numbers of women are discovering climbing and setters need to be conscious of this. From my limited Google-based research, the average height for a man in the UK is about 177cm or 5'10", and for a women it's 164cm or 5'4". That's 13cm of difference between the averages alone and within that there is a massive range of people of different heights. It's also important to consider the strength and power differences between the sexes. One study showed that women are approximately 52% and 66% as strong as men in the upper and lower body respectively. Elite female athletes don't compete against men on routes and problems set for men for reasons of physiology, so differences in height and power should be taken into account in commercial climbing walls, too, when it comes to setting more powerful, dynamic moves. If we want climbing to be enjoyable for all, routesetters need to be thinking about a smaller size of climber when setting and making sure that climbs aren't getting harder just because the reaches are getting bigger.
Don't get me wrong, I know that big moves for me aren't big moves for everyone! There will always be fun dynos for the 6ft+ climbers, and bunched start moves that I fit perfectly. There should be harder problems with bigger moves to stretch men and the strongest women, but don't tailor every problem to the tall. I'm not against jumping or powerful moves as a style, but as my grade has increased, I have found myself with little option but to jump for poor holds when the setter hasn't intended that to be the move. I know there are often multiple ways to do a move, but there are times when there is a clear intended sequence and no option for alternatives to be found. This will often mean a very dynamic move or jump is the only option. On a crimpy route, this isn't ideal as it also increases the risk of injury. Routesetting is a thankless task and it is tricky to get it right every time, but it's only fair to try and be reasonable about reach in broader terms, especially on easier and mid-grade climbs.
Indeed, it's not just about progression for experienced wall-goers, but about accessibility for new climbers. People are discovering climbing walls later in life, with varying degrees of fitness and athleticism and without outdoor climbing roots, as it often used to be. Climbing and bouldering are replacing conventional gym sessions for many and in my experience, there's a much broader range of body shapes and sizes entering the sport (and rightly so). Routesetters need to do their best to help make progression possible for beginners. I have climbed in a lot of centres and often find the gap between the easier climbs aimed at beginners and the high 5s low 6s to be a big jump, so to speak. I don't think I should ever be struggling to reach a hold on a 5+, or be forced to do a massively high rock-over on a 6a. These climbs should be increasing in difficulty and technicality, not just getting more reachy. Often, an extra foot-hold slightly higher up or an intermediate hand-hold wouldn't change the grade of the climb, but it would make it more accessible.
People can be put off climbing if the setting isn't inclusive. If people feel like they have stopped progressing or have been stuck on a grade for too long, or are continually getting frustrated by big moves, they'll fall out of love with the sport. Motivation is tied to success and if you find that most of the climbs you try have big moves in them and no accessible way round them it can be frustrating and demotivating. Even with my years of training, there are some walls I just don't go to as the setting there is skewed in favour of the those with more reach and I know I'll get frustrated. It can be hard to keep going when on most climbs you try, you find a long move for which your only solution is to jump and - all too often - fall short of.
At times it feels like it is all or nothing for smaller climbers. I can often get on a climb towards my grade limit and onsight it no problem if it isn't reachy. It's normally easy to tell why I have fallen off something and I think I'm pretty honest with myself, too. If I fall because of a lack of power I can accept that I need to improve in that area; if I'm super pumped I will concede that I need to work on my endurance. If I misread a sequence, I will take another look at it. In climbing there is always something that can be improved and if I fall for any of those reasons it motivates me to get better. But I can't change my size, so some setters need to keep climbers like me in mind!
Some do, and there are setters on whose climbs I have yet to find a move that has beaten me because of my size, so I know it can be done. But it feels as though for people like me, we are looking for the right setters, the female setters or the setters for childrens' competitions to give us the climbs we can progress on. To give us moves that challenge our ability, not just our height. As we approach climbing's Olympic debut and the expected boom in participation following Tokyo 2020, this needs to change. Perhaps by encouraging more women to try setting, or making sure that climbs are tested by people who are smaller in stature, or simply by reminding setters that there is this often forgotten group of people who want climbs they can improve on and that challenge them without being super reachy. After all, climbing is diversifying and we need our setters to diversify - both in terms of inclusivity and approach - too; they should be creating problems, not causing them.