Routesetting Wu Wei

Holds and an impact driver for routesetting - The Stone Mind

We Petzl employees are lucky enough to have a bouldering wall at our Salt Lake City offices, and sometimes a few of us use our lunch breaks to put up holds. During one such lightning setting round, I noticed we had a surplus of one particular kind of hold: a rounded, pad-and-a-half edge colored like the marbled paper I used to make in elementary school art class. On a whim, I grabbed all the marbled edges and went to work on a traverse.

My lunch break drawing to an end, I slapped up the edges in a hurry, with only the loosest sense of the moves I wanted to create. In a state of “flow,” I bolted on all the handholds in five minutes, then nabbed a box of foot jibs and sprayed those up even more quickly. Certain I’d have to do some serious editing to this hastily crafted route, I grabbed my chalk bag to give it a test run.

Right away I was surprised. Everything flowed better than I suspected. I hadn’t pictured every detail of the climb, but was pulled by an intuition of the moves as I set them. The result, I think, was a more complete representation of my intent than I could have reasoned out with precise planning and goal-oriented forethought.

In routesetting as in climbing, the best performances often come when following our instincts. First we must assiduously practice our art of choice, of course, but then, when given the appropriate circumstances, we can go beyond what we could have done by willful action alone. Many view this state as the unification of body and mind or even self and universe. Ultimately, this idea of acting without striving or “non-doing” (wu wei) is a cornerstone of Eastern religions, from Hinduism to Taoism to Buddhism.

One of my favorite Zen stories, “The First Precept,” deals with this concept nicely:

The Obaku temple in Kyoto has a carving over the gate which says “The First Principle”. The 200-year-old carving, with exceptionally large letters, is admired by many as a masterpiece of calligraphy. It is the work of Kosen, the master carver.

Kosen would sketch the letters on paper and they would be carved on wood by his workmen. Now, Kosen had a rather audacious student who prepared large quantities of ink for his master. He was often very critical of his master’s technique.

“Not good enough!” said he, about Kosen’s first attempt.
“How about this one?” asked Kosen after his second drawing.

“That’s worse than the previous one!” exclaimed the bold pupil.
Kosen wrote out eighty-four sheets of “The First Principle”, but none met with the student’s approval. Then the young man stepped out of the room for a few minutes. Kosen thought to himself “Here’s my chance to escape his sharp eye!” Freed of distraction, he hurriedly wrote “The First Principle.”

The student returned. “Brilliant! A masterpiece,” he exclaimed.

It’s so simple: we practice with intention again and again, always weighted down by the desire for a particular outcome. Then, eventually, we find ourselves freed from the desire for whatever reason, and we are able to act from a deeper place. You might say this place is within us, or that its part of some underlying force (the tao), or that they are one and the same. Regardless…

So what’s the lesson then? That to do our best, we must let go of the desire to do our best. It’s another of those pesky puzzles that reason can’t solve. Words can only point us towards the answer, but as the old Zen saying goes, “Don’t mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon.” Instead, quiet the conscious mind and let the answer appear.

On the Evolution of Plastic

Alex Puccio bouldering on plastic at Momentum Climbing, Lehi. Photo: Randyl Nielson.
Alex Puccio climbing on holds you probably wouldn’t find in nature. Photo: Randyl Nielson (

In the old days, it seemed like the epitome of a good indoor climb was one that evoked an outdoor climb. Many of the most classic shapes ever carved from foam came out of this mindset.

I used to pour holds at a place called Pusher, and I remember filling latex molds to produce plastic approximations of Fontainebleau’s sandstone slopers, Little Cottonwood Canyon’s granite flakes and edges, Hueco’s eponymous dog dishes, and limestone pockets and tufas like you might find in France and Spain. I’ve even seen sets designed to replicate the holds of specific routes, like Chris Sharma’s Biographie (back then is was still called Realization). But over time, as any art form does, plastic climbing evolved.

In design speak, skeuomorphism is a style that copies structures that were once necessary elements of the medium or manufacturing process, but no longer. For example Apple used skeuomorphic design in its old Calendar app that looked like a physical paper calendar, complete with leather stitching and the torn remnants of past months’ pages. The design-saavy tech giant eventually did away with such elements and adopted a “flat” design more in keeping with the digital times.

Similarly with hold design, shapers came to see that plastic could do more than imitate rock, and setters realized that the gym’s canvas allowed for more than the simulation of outdoor climbs. Holds shaped like cubes and spheres, or like household objects (lightbulbs and telephones) began to appear.

The only limitations, folks realized, were in the materials and the imagination. There are still plenty of hold sets designed to look and feel stone, but plenty more that aren’t, and the shapes just seem to get funkier all the time.

New production techniques now allow for the creation of big holds, enormous “volumes” to which holds can be affixed, and even modular wall systems, all of which means more possibilities in the setting realm. When I was pouring plastic, the size of the molds, the cost and weight of the plastic resin, and other limitations of our rudimentary production system kept our holds to a certain size and complexity.

These days I’m routinely entertained by the abstract shapes I find waiting on the wall in the local gym. They look cool and often require creative thinking to navigate. I’ve even noticed a trend towards routes that enter the realm of visual design. Beyond just creating cool moves, routesetters are using holds to create arresting patterns of shape and color. Maybe it’s gym climbing’s version of the aesthetic draw found in classic outdoor lines?

At first glance, you might ask, How well do the otherworldly forms of the modern climbing wall prepare people for outdoor climbs?

But I’d suggest that they don’t have to. Indoor climbing is no longer just preparation for outdoor climbing; it is its own pursuit. (We’ve seen such cleaving off of climbing sub-disciplines time and again: bouldering outdoors was once practice for technical sections of longer ascents, but has grown to be very much a stand-alone activity.) Therefore, indoor climbing is free to go as far as routesetters, hold shapers, gym owners and of course climbers are willing to take it.

I’d also suggest that today’s funky indoor antics will allow climbers to bring new skills and strengths and, most importantly, new eyes to the rocks. An example of this fresh vision for climbing outdoors might be Chris Sharma’s Three Degrees of Separation. First climbed in 2007, no one has completed the route in the years since. The route’s name comes from the three massive dynos required to climb it. It’s hard to separate out Chris’ unique vision as an individual and the lessons he learned coming up in the age of plastic, but undoubtedly the two are interconnected. If my guess is correct, the next generation of climbers will continue to make quick work of former dynamic testpieces and add their own where previous climbers saw no possibilities.

Today, gym climbing is taking influences from outside climbing, too. The popularity of dynamic activities like parkour, CrossFit, and American Ninja Warrior has pushed increasingly gymnastic styles of movement into the world of indoor climbing. Some of this is controversial in setting circles, as purists insist that such “circus” climbing—routes that involve running and jumping, monkey-barring, holds suspended on the ends of ropes or chains, or other trickery rarely or never found outdoors—is no longer climbing at all, but something else entirely. Of course there are others who disagree and welcome the change.

What will people be doing in climbing gyms in 10 years? The future is unwritten. What’s cool is that the folks putting their creative energies into this arena today will be the ones shaping the future. I’m pretty sure it’ll be cool to see.