I was recently watching the IFSC world cup held in Meiringen. One of the interesting observations that came across (made by the commentators) in the semis was that the routes were much easier for a shorter climber than the taller ones. And in the finals, the routes for the women turned out to be much easier than the ones set for men.

So, is there a standard followed when it comes to international sports competitions regarding the routes set? Are there minimum difficulty levels that need to be matched by the route setters?

  • Competition routes are never graded. Not really sure why but they're just deigned to be hard. finger in the air I'd guess about v10 bouldering but there is a lot of variance.
    – user2766
    Commented Apr 16, 2018 at 11:02

1 Answer 1


Regarding Grading

That's a very common question for people new to competition climbing. Route setting for competition is in general quite different than for "regular" gym routes. Route setters at comps have several, sometimes conflicting requirements, which also vary depending on the round (quali, semi, finals):

  • Create spread
    Nothing more unnerving than having competitors tied and needing to resort to previous round to resolve the ranking.

  • New and diverse problem types
    You don't want to do problems that the competitors do every day and you need to have difficulties for all kinds of body types to prevent an advantage for one. Often at comps special holds or such that aren't yet commercially available are used.

  • Spectacle
    You have a live audience to capture and on a bigger scale, promote the sport. It is especially important in finals, that's why often finals are a bit easier and potential more straight forward than quali/semi. In an ideal final, all these points are fulfilled

    • Suspense: The winner is decided on the last boulder.
    • Tops: Every problem is topped at least once to showcase every move.
    • Circus: A great climbing problem isn't necessarily great to watch. That's part of why you see huge dynamic moves, 360° campussing, ...

All of this means that there can't be any strict rules. There is a big team of route setters at work and to try and fulfill all of the above points (and probably more I am not aware of/didn't think about now). Their routes also aren't set in stone: They obviously set their routes in advance, but they adapt routes in between rounds to adjust them to how the competitors are performing.

Also modern style (well it's true for a while) competition bouldering is focussed on big volumes. Sure there is always a slab in there, but you see almost no steep, crimpy, teeth grinding boulders. That's partly for spectacle and setting uncommon problems, partly to prevent finger injuries. Meaning they are hard to compare to "normal" boulders. You probably expierenced that in a gym too: Big unconventional routes don't necessarily fit in your personal route ranking, because they might not suit you. That's generally true, but much more so in those kind of routes.

There is no such thing as a minimal grade in comps. Setting comp routes is an experience base art and a kind of "shadow-competition", trying to get the perfect set of routes to the wall to cater the competitors and watchers needs.

Note about lead:
Most points also apply there, but as there is just one route and one attempt per competitor, it's even harder to set right. And it's even more obvious that you can't grade them, as they usually start of significantly easier than they end.

Regarding standards

I am not aware of either a written standard (at wold / IFSC level) or a fixed course syllabus to become a route setter. As far as I am aware, it still works in the usual way for emerging sports: You start off locally, get experience, get to know relevant people, get the knack of it and have fun. Then you start setting local competitions and show your prowess, get to know more people, go national and by that time it's just a question of whether you are willing to keep up the probably huge work effort to keep setting at that level. If you do, you're name will probably pop up as chief route-setter at a world cup eventually.
Yes I am aware - that was really not helpful ;)

  • Interesting. The reason for asking the question was how relative a route could become. There were talks of how in the semis the route was easier for the shorter climbers. Especially those with slab sections. Lack of standards means there's no consistency. Commented Apr 16, 2018 at 12:39
  • That's certainly got a point. Some consistency comes from the route setting team, which as I understand isn't entirely new every comp. The other "problem" (I'd call it an advantage) is, that inconsistency is inherent in climbing. I believe this is a big reason for the common "speed isn't real climbing" opinion. How can you be really consistent and still present new problems all the time? If you'd remove most elements of chance, the sport would be dead for me.
    – imsodin
    Commented Apr 16, 2018 at 12:52
  • 1
    The most memorable boulder attempt I've ever seen, was a climber bypassing almost all holds (and bonus) by using a really awkward corner. Was it consistent - not by a wide margin. Was it fair and good for the comp - hell yes, coming up with weird solutions is a major climbing skill. And thanks for the video @Ricketyship, that's a perfect and awesome example for "Circus".
    – imsodin
    Commented Apr 16, 2018 at 12:53
  • I agree, the lack of consistency is actually an element of chance which makes the sport what it is. Else, it would be mechanical and thereby lose the creativity which we see from the climbers. Commented Apr 16, 2018 at 12:54

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