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Outdoors

Climbing gyms used to only offer dead-end jobs. Now, they’re a foothold for a route through the industry.

As the rock gym industry has grown -- there were 507 in the U.S. last year -- and become more sophisticated, so has work keeping climbing routes fresh

TJ Sanford, head setter at EVO Rock + Fitness in Louisville, prepares his holds as he plots a route for The Monkey House in Carbondale on Aug. 15, 2019. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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On a Saturday morning at The Monkey House, Carbondale’s new rock climbing gym, four people scale ladders with drills in their hands, creating the routes that people pay $100 per month to climb. The setters place footholds and adjust the angles of handholds, making sure each movement is fun and engaging.

Along with the new routes, they are creating a career.

For most of the brief history of climbing gyms, boulder and sport climbing routes have been created by owners, volunteers or short-term employees. Once you got a setting job, there wasn’t much room to move up. 

But the industry has expanded exponentially since its early days. In 2018, there were 507 climbing gyms in the United States, and route setting has expanded along with gym memberships. In 2019, route setting is evolving as the outdoor industry’s newest career, complete with certifications, conferences and internships.

Fabrizio Zangrilli, who owns The Monkey House, said he’s willing to invest in the one product he sells: well-set routes. He’s not alone. As the climbing gym industry continues to grow, with chains getting bigger and local gyms serving more small towns, competition is heating up, and franchises are looking to set themselves apart. 

Sarah Filler, head setter at The Spot Bouldering Gym in Boulder, is also The Monkey House’s head setter. She hires on a team of setters who come from all over to set sport and boulder routes at the gym in Carbondale. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Sarah Filler leads the setting team at The Monkey House and has seen the industry grow up since she started setting routes at her local gym in Buffalo, New York, in exchange for a membership.

“It started with volunteer setters, who are your local strong kids who just want membership trades. Now, people are making a career out of this,” Filler said. “There are bigger spots opening up. In commercial setting there are setting directors, and all of these really big, big gym chains have a lot of higher positions.”

Filler now runs the setting program at The Spot Bouldering Gym’s Denver and Boulder locations, and she says there are still ways to move up. Two of the country’s biggest franchises, Earth Treks and Planet Granite, just merged, and they’ll need regional head setters, even national ones. In 2020, someone will be setting for the Olympics. 

While Filler works her way up through the ranks of commercial setting for rock gyms, there are other pathways as well. Rock climber Flannery Nemirow used to compete at a high level, and got introduced to route setting when she was recruited to forerun difficult routes before competitions, rating them for difficulty. Now, she is essentially a freelance setter, moving between competitions and limited-time climbing gym work. She lives in Arizona, but when she arrived in Carbondale, she says she hadn’t been home in months.

“I really like the problem-solving aspect of it,” Nemirow said. “There are a lot more variables than there are in climbing.”

Filler credits new career paths to a growing appreciation of the work setters do. In her mind, she is creating the product that gyms sell. Zangrilli agrees with her, saying the climbing holds and the route setting are the two things climbers primarily interact with at his gym. To get a good product, he’s willing to fly setters in and house them, shutting down the gym for three days as they put up a new selection of routes.

“I think honestly the setting is the most important thing in a gym. I think that that dictates how the customer really interfaces with the business,” Zangrilli said.

David Sumada sets up a ladder to create his next problem using drills, plastic holds and bolts. Sumada is the head setter at Redmond Vertical World in Washington state and flys in to help The Monkey House in Carbondale reset. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

While advanced climbers can typically distinguish between good and bad setting, looking for fluid, creative, and engaging movements up rock gyms artificial walls, Zangrilli says good setting is important for beginners, too. Good setting, he said, can allow new climbers to try routes at the limits of their ability, and get better faster. 

Although the sport comes with inherent risks, experienced setters can also make climbing safer by avoiding movements that tweak tendons or joints, or have the potential for bad falls.

Zangrilli brings in four setters because he wants different body types and setting styles to test routes before he opens them up.

“I’m 6-foot-2, Flannery is probably 5-foot-3 and ultimately we came up with the decision to set for median height of 5-foot-6,” Zangrilli  says. “We have limited space. And so out of the 80 to 90 problems we have up, they’ve got to work for the majority of people.”

Alpinist Fabrizio Zangrilli, owner and operator of the Monkey House in Carbondale, aims to create a vibrant indoor climbing community in the Roaring Fork Valley. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

As more gyms open up in the same areas, and consumers gain the power to choose between different gyms, Zangrilli and Filler expect route setting to become even more important. Setting is one way Zangrilli is hoping to set his gym apart from the small walls at the Glenwood Springs and Aspen recreation centers. In Boulder, one of the places Filler sets, there are four gyms, and commuters could go to Golden or Denver on the way to or from work. Filler’s first boss, whom she worked for in exchange for a membership in New York, recently called her. A new commercial gym opened nearby.

“She reached out to me and was panicking,” Filler said. “Now she understands how important it is.”

Filler used to work at a bank, but found the work too dry, and wanted something more active. She’s stayed with setting because of the creativity that goes into putting up each route.

“If you asked me like six years ago where I thought my career was headed, I wouldn’t have guessed it,” she said. “I didn’t think I’d be able to make enough money or was confident enough to be in this position, and now I’m here I’m really trying to push forward and progress.”