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“What do you think the grade is?” This is a question I hear every day and at every climbing gym I’ve ever walked into. For most of us, grades give us some insight into how we are progressing as climbers. Occasionally, we’ll disagree with the given grade and form our own opinion. Our job as routesetters is to maintain a fairness and consistency throughout the gym. Here is how we do it.

New Route

The first step in the process is setting the route’s skeleton or first draft. At the beginning of the workday, each setter is assigned a grade and an area in the gym. The setter considers the following – types of holds, angle of the terrain, and difficulty of movement that would be appropriate for the grade. Some would assume that the work is over once the holds are on the wall, but the second step is actually the most important part of the process.


Forerunning is the process of testing routes to ensure that the target grade has been met and that the climb will provide a fair challenge for climbers of all heights. At Climb So iLL, we forerun routes as a team. Every setter has her or his own style, body type, strengths, and weaknesses that factor into how we estimate the grade. I personally have a checklist that I run through:

  • Complexity: Is the sequence involved or straightforward?
  • Intensity: Is the difficulty based on a few particular moves, or does every move of the climb demand the same level of effort?
  • Risk: Is the difficulty based on a move that requires coordination or accuracy? Are the crux moves low percentage, or do they require more commitment from the climber? For instance, a dead-point or coordination move may be more difficult to execute consistently than a straightforward move.

With that criteria in mind, we determine if the climb offers an acceptable challenge for the assigned grade. Now, this is the tricky part; setters are human and grades are subjective.

As a group, we pool our collective climbing experience and knowledge of setting to find a consensus on the grade of each route. A taller climber may be able to skip a move but get scrunched up at the finish. A shorter climber may need to move more dynamically but can cruise the rest of the route. We consider these scenarios when we test each route, and ensure that the grade of the overall climb, not just each section, is acceptable for each end of the height spectrum.

Once the route has been adjusted and finalized, we place “New Route” tags on the start holds. We do this to give climbers the chance to test their route-reading ability and onsight skills, but this approach also allows climbers to determine the difficulty of the route without bias. Furthermore, it encourages discussion within the community about the route and its perceived difficulty.

As setters, we put considerable effort into determining which grade to assign. Next time you climb at the gym, consider the checklist and think like a routesetter before determining the grade personally. What are the holds like? What is the required intensity? What is the terrain like? Did I use the most efficient sequence? What would the sequence be like for a climber with different physical attributes? We challenge you to adopt this way of thinking, particularly during the first week of a new set. As always, your setting team encourages feedback and hopes to inspire conversation in your future sessions.

Miles West

Author Miles West

Miles West is an instructor and the acting head routesetter at Climb So iLL. His teaching specialties include bouldering, basic climbing technique, and route reading. Look for Miles’ routes and boulder problems throughout the gym.

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