On Setting Hard Boulder Problems
I started setting boulder problems at a local climbing gym a while back and after a few months I was asked by the manager how I set hard problems without just making them "powerful". He went on to say that to make problems harder he usually just makes the holds smaller or further apart, but he noticed that wasn't the case with the harder problems I'd set. At that time, I didn't really have an answer for him.
A few weeks passed and I'd set a problem that had a move in it that required quite a lot of flexibility to work though. I really liked it. It was at my limits of flexibility and so when I moved through it it made my body feel good and empowered. The next day my manager confronted me about the move, saying that it seemed too difficult, too inaccessible. I acknowledged that it was hard, but that that was the point. You should put another foot in, otherwise it'll just be way too hard for V5. No one will be able to get their foot that high.
I put in the extra foot hold and didn't really think about this interaction for about a month until the other day. Why it popped back into my head was its connection to his earlier comment about how to make climbing problems hard without making them powerful. It dawned on me the other day that, for some reason, it is acceptable to make climbing problems harder my making them more powerful, but not acceptable to make them harder because they require more flexibility. Problems that require a high level of flexibility are called inaccessible, while problems that require a high level of power are called V6. What's going on here?
What I'm about to say assumes that power and flexibility are gendered, that power is more infused into mainstream masculinity, and flexibility infused in mainstream femininity. If that assumption doesn't resonate with you it may not be worth your time to keep reading. But if it does, you may then come to the same subtle conclusion that I arrived at, that some climbing gyms tend to set problems that affirm traditional masculine physical advantages, while marginalizing (or rather, being oblivious to) physical movements that may affirm other body types. And I say here other body types because, just like our world, this observation is not dichotomous between masculine and feminine. Frankly, in the real world of climbing, the rock doesn't care.
What folks who only climb in gyms where difficulty is measured primarily in power may not know is that there is probably a real rock route out there that is a grade or two above what you believe you can climb that would be easy for you because it affirms your bodily advantages, where everything is the right size and in the right place. Similarly, for those same folks there are real rock routes out there that are far below what you believe you can climb that will be very very hard. If you climb 5.11 at your gym I promise there are 5.9s out there that you'll flail on.
This is all to say that we setters, myself included, need to be careful about what aspects of physicality we're including in the process of making problems harder. What actually makes problems inaccessible versus just makes them hard. This feels important to me because one of the most empowering things in the world is finding something easy that others find difficult. I know that may be too real for some, but the fact is is that for every thing that needs doing, there is someone who's just really good at it. Where this goes wrong is when we too narrowly define what the thing is that we're doing, and then we come to believe just men with huge back muscles are good at it.
I believe in setting boulder problems we may have a bias toward power as the primary variable motivating what is labelled a hard problem. Further, I think in many cases we don't even consider other variables such as flexibility in making problems more difficult, instead labelling them inaccessible. This affirms traditional masculine physical advantages over others. Or like, let's just get on with the patriarchy and avoid talking about how these overt ways of prioritization infuse every aspect of our lives. Yeah like, chill man. When did bouldering become so political?