Jacky Godoffe setting workshop

Break the routine – A route setting masterclass with Jacky Godoffe

WORDS: Garry Williams, IMAGES: Simon Madden

A gym can have community, a gym can have yoga, it can have chill vibes and all the best coffee but if it hasn’t got good setting then it’s done for. The explosion of climbing gyms means route setting is becoming a serious business, Garry Williams – head setter at Northside Boulders and The Lactic Factory – went to French legend Jacky Godoffe’s recent Masterclass, looking for answers.

Before this workshop I had the notion that there was a way to define a good route. Surely the route setting God, Jacky Godoffe, would give me a dogmatic model with which to consistently produce these ‘good routes’. Reality proved the opposite as we were encouraged to abandon the search for rules and perfection and adopt an open, playful mind.

The workshop was attended by setters from all around the country and whilst the cross-state collaborate was hugely valuable, it also provided insight into the climbing industry.

We are in the throes of another climbing boom, with a new gym popping up seemingly every month. This boom generates a greater demand for setters and it looks like route setting may become a full-time gig for more people in Oz. Patrik Banda, setter for Urban Climb in Brisbane who attended the Melbourne the workshop, sees ‘more opportunities to travel, network and learn from other route setters as very encouraging and a great indicator of where this role is heading as a profession in Australia.’ Staying fresh and creative will be key to the success of setters who have to put up a lot of routes.

P1088250-Edit-EditIt might be true that at the heart of every gym’s commercial product are its routes but building stronger professional networks will lift the standard of setting and as a result all will benefit. Encouraging the flow of ideas between gyms and across borders will only strengthen our community. ‘More than anything, the clinic was a great way of getting to work with all different levels of route setters,’ Patrik again, ‘and an interesting insight into what methods and processes others are using to get their product up on the wall.’ The big winners from initiatives like Jacky’s workshop that hone our setting skills and grow our pool of talent, particularly to address the paucity of female setters, will be the climbers of Australia. Routes will get better, more challenging, more diverse in their movement and more fun.

The first great surprise of the workshop came when someone mentioned the scarcity of good local route setters, Jacky chuckled, ‘What is a good route setter?!’ Many times over the weekend Jacky would answer a question of ‘Should I do this?’ or ‘Is this better or worse than that?’ with an ‘Uh, maybe.’ followed by the most French of sounds – a mouthful of air forced out through pursed lips, a fart sound. His mentoring instead encouraged us to focus on the process, for us to try, perhaps fail and then learn. ‘If you have time, try and see. If you change it back, it’s no big deal.’ Jacky counselled.

In the lead-up to the workshop I had perused Jacky’s new book My Keys for Route Setting, a collection of anecdotes and insights from his long setting career. Looking for answers, I remember skeptically reading a section on joy, which accordingly to him was the key to his success in the maelstrom of competition and commercial route setting. Maybe I forced a mouthful of air out through pursed lips. When I met him that skepticism was challenged as what struck me most was his evident Joie de Vivre. Perhaps that chapter was the answer after all.

Jacky has a genuine enthusiasm for making something new and learning from new mistakes, without fearing scrutiny. He is largely responsible for the balancey ‘Font’-style of setting that typifies the modern IFSC Bouldering World Cup comps. Surprisingly he admitted that he has no love for slabs, it just occurred to him that the novelty of coordination and risky movement would be interesting – or ‘funny’ as he put it – for the competitors and the audience. Try something, maybe it works.

He is super enthusiastic and that enthusiasm is a source of motivation and inspiration that enables him to continually probe the unknown where there are no sure answers and everything is new and excitingly uncertain. This lack of fixity neatly tracks climbing where every body is different in size, limb proportion, flexibility, strength and insight, making each climb a personal challenge beyond objective measure.

The author soaking up the master in the middle of the class.

The author soaking up the master in the middle of the class.

The subjectivity of climbing defies any universal answer to the question of what is a good route and when you think about it for the setter that can be liberating.

One of the main things that I took away from the workshop was a suite of techniques to maintain creativity and motivation. Any job can turn into toil and this was my fear upon making my passion for climbing into my source of income by becoming a full-time route setter. I feared things might become stiflingly serious. Jacky’s outlook provides hope against that fear. Given that joy is such a powerful driver for him, it is no surprise that many of the new techniques I now have are playful vessels rather than dogmatic commands.

The pressure to be perfect can stop us from producing anything. ‘I’ve fallen out of love with route setting lately’, one workshop participant said. This is the dark side of job. Attempts to satisfy every possible constraint can lead to decision paralysis and end in frustration. Nebulous and unattainable expectations drive setters into a chaotic spiral, endless adjustment of a problem and ultimately decent into madness. Then add to this pressure the booming of the clock as it counts down to the gym opening its doors.

Jacky overrode perfectionism and replaced it with playfulness. He randomly allocated each setter a word to serve as a creative filter through which we would shape our boulder problems. Each word was vague enough to allow latitude for interpretation. ‘Contortion’ and ‘crazy’ wedged climbers into corners, ‘lost’ kindled puzzles and ‘joke’ trapped a tennis ball within a hold. These filters then became the framework for other setters to share their opinions and help each other tweak the problems.

Jackie with a hint of a joyous smile breaking out.

Jacky with a hint of a joyous smile blooming across his face.

These arbitrary challenges turned the setting session into a game, lowering the stakes and opening opportunities to experiment and learn. By adding what could seem like a limitation actually provided a simplicity that sped up setting and reduced stress.

Whilst many of us went into the workshop hoping to learn the tricks to setting World Cup-style boulder problems and forcing movement, the emphasis of the day was on Jacky’s process. ‘Break the routine! Unless you know the source of your motivation, even your passion can become drudgery, you become like a mouse in a wheel’. Jacky reminded us that the stakes are not so high and we needn’t be so serious. The workshop at Northside Boulders echoed with laughter and all day long everyone was smiling. ‘Don’t be afraid,’ Jacky said, ‘there are no mistakes, just situations.’

Jacky’s workshop was good for us setters. It will be good for the gyms around the country and – importantly – it will be good for the climbers who use those gyms. Next time you go into the gym remember that routes are more than just holds placed on the wall. They are an expression of the creativity of the setter, of their hopes, and hopefully of their joy.

Garry Williams is the head route setter at Northside Boulders and The Lactic Factory

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