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Steve Gaspar on Route Setting and Climbing

Steve Gaspar Route Setting, Image by Primo Chalk

What’s your birthday?

I was born on May 14th 1987. The epitome of the Taurus sign.

Where’d you grow up?

I was born and raised in Fairfield County Connecticut – not exactly a mecca for rock climbing. I spent a lot of time outdoors, and some time as a teenager mountaineering and honing rope skills in the mountains that would later serve my rock climbing. None of the routes were very challenging from a technical rock standpoint, however they taught me very valuable lessons about route finding, climbing at altitude, and being in the mountains.

How old were you when you started climbing?

I started traditional mountaineering when I was 11 years old, and it wasn’t until I went to college in Boston that I began pushing my limits in the sport. I spent a lot of time in Vermont and New Hampshire in the White Mountains and the Presidential Range.

Who helped you get started climbing?

Once I left for college and really started taking climbing more seriously I found a partner in my college roommate Ryan Broderick. We had some epic adventures together, and really learned what it meant to suffer in the mountains.

What’s you training schedule like?

As far as training goes I have 2-3 days a week of on the wall training. Long sets of technical routes that just completely pump me out until I literally cannot close my hands around a hold anymore. If I feel like I haven’t challenged myself enough physically on my on-the-wall training days I might finish up my workout with a few sets of hangboard / fingerboard training, and some campus boarding.

I usually have at least one day a week where I incorporate finger training after an on-the-wall session. I then will alternate depending on if I have 2 or 3 days of climbing training with 2 or 3 days of physical cross training – for instance if Monday, Wednesday, and Friday are climbing days, then Tuesday and Thursdays are cross training days. The following week would then alternate -Monday, Wednesday, Friday cross training, then Tuesday and Thursday would be on the wall climbing days.

Cross training includes everything I can do for my antagonist muscles that don’t get used in climbing – all of my “push muscles.” I work a lot of chest and shoulders, some biceps, and other overall injury prevention exercises. Plus, lots of gymnastic training with rings, and LOTS of core! All of this training does not include any weekends when I am usually travelling and climbing outdoors – that doesn’t count for training at all. Of course based on my schedule with setting competitions and traveling this training plan is subject to change. I won’t even go into my training when I am on the road – hahaha.

How do you work out when you aren’t climbing?

When I am not climbing I love going for hikes and exploring new areas – always with the idea in the back of my mind that I am looking for new outdoor climbing possibilities. I also love swimming, especially in the ocean. More recently I have gotten into playing soccer. I hate running at all cost, and having an incentive to chase a ball and then kick it makes the mundane cardio activity much more fun.

If you were on a long climbing trip and could only pack 3 foods, what would they be?

Ha – good question. I take my diet very very seriously, and I am working around learning my body on a nutritional level all the time. I recently discovered an intolerance to gluten and dairy, and simultaneously removed most other animal products from my diet for personal and moral reasons. I still eat eggs and certain cheeses (that don’t upset my stomach) from time to time, however my diet on a day to day basis consists of a lot of supplemental protein sources, fresh fruits and veggies, and fish. Coming from a strict paleo diet this was a tough change for me, and I am still adjusting to it especially having to eat enough protein to fuel my extremely active lifestyle.

I shoot for 120-140 grams of protein a day, so trying to spread this out between a few meals is a challenge. I normally wake up around 5am and don’t eat until 11am or so. My first meal is usually 4 eggs with veggies or a huge salad. Then I will snack throughout the day on protein bars and shakes and some peanut butter or cashews as a daytime snack (I recently discovered I am also allergic to almonds – a more recent development). Then I will have dinner – Thai food, tacos, something that is a bit more substantial, yet tasty and clean. I finish my day with another protein bar or two for dessert.

I don’t eat very many starchy carbs at all – a holdover from my paleo days. I find that not eating rice or potatoes, or any kind of gluten free pastas keeps me feeling light and strong most of the time. My one vice is sushi – I have rolls with rice usually once a week. I of course have cheat days where I do go a bit overboard – I have a sore spot in my stomach for a killer gluten free pizza.

To answer the initial question about what 3 foods I would bring on an extended climbing trip they would be protein shakes (pre made like Muscle Milk), gluten free & almond free protein bars (like Quest Bars), and a good gluten free beer (like Omission) or hard cider. Anything else I need I can normally find anyplace I travel.

What’s in your bag when you head out for a climb that might surprise people?

I usually have some sort of superstitious lucky charm with me. I cannot walk past a heads up penny without picking it up. I’ll have one or two of those with me most of the time. I try to go as light as I can when I am out, so very few extraneous things make their way into my pack.

Something I ALWAYS have that surprises me that not everyone carries is a basic first aid kit, and headlamp regardless of when or where I am climbing, even if I am 5 minutes from my car in the middle of the day. It is a habit I learned when I was younger that stayed with me – I have never needed my first aid kit for more than a bandaid, but better safe than sorry.

Where would you love to climb?

I would love to climb in the Alps – The Eiger, The Matterhorn, The Dolomites. I also really want to climb an 8,000 meter peak at some point. Getting to the Himalaya is in my future. I would love to climb in some of the classic areas in Spain and France too.

What’s a great spot to climb in California that very few people know about?

Steve: I’m not telling… 😉

There’s been talk about the divide between indoor and outdoor climbing is growing – do you see that as a trend?  Is it good, bad, or indifferent?

At this point I consider indoor and outdoor climbing two completely different sports. I see this as neither a good or bad thing, just something that is happening. There are certain similarities such as the muscles that are used in both sports are the same, and the concepts for balance and techniques are similar.

However the similarities pretty much stop there. Indoor climbing tends to be much more gymnastic and showy. Much more jumpy and risk taking oriented movement. Outdoor climbing tends to be much more slow and controlled. You certainly take less risk outdoors and the climbing tends to be more mental and spiritual. Outdoor climbing is much more of an adventure, and a time to learn about yourself, and what and who matters in your life.

How long have you been route setting?

I have been route setting full time for 5 years now. It has been my passion and my only job.

What first got you excited about route setting, to begin with?

I went to college in Boston for Guitar Performance at Berklee College of Music. I was an artist through and through. When I began climbing in the gym in Los Angeles I was immediately drawn to route setting due to the creative nature of it. You are literally an architect of movement. You can set climbs that challenge people’s physical strength, mental fortitude, problem solving skills, flexibility, and more! I truly believe it to be an artistic pursuit in the truest sense of the term. There is nothing better than choreographing a climb, and then spending a night with gym goers watching them try it, and helping them work on it!

What do you get out of route setting that you didn’t get from climbing?

I get to be creative, and construct movement. Climbing in a gym gives me a workout, and a time to socialize and have fun, but I don’t really get my creative outlet from it. When I climb outside I love exploring and trying new routes that Mother Nature set. It inspires me to go inside and get to try to recreate the movement that I worked on outside. Furthermore, getting to set championship level competitions gives me the opportunity to push myself as a setter and try movement that I might not be able to get away with in a commercial environment.

The level of climbers that come to compete is always so advanced that you almost need to set impossible movement for them to compete on. The worse case scenario would be every competitor finishes your route – how can you tell who won?

What kind of preparation/planning do you do before setting a route?

It depends on the route – each one begins differently. Normally I will pick a hold set and lay it out on the ground. This will be the blueprint of the route. Then I would take certain holds and place them strategically on the wall. Sometimes this means getting large holds or volumes up on the wall first so I can fit them and then setting around them. Something I love doing is setting top down, or setting the route backwards – I find that I get really interesting lines of movement up on the wall this way.

If I am really busy working commercially sometimes I will have two or three routes going up on the wall at a time. It really depends on the day, the terrain I am setting, and the routes that I have to set.

What, if any, route setting certifications do you have?

I am a USA Climbing Level 2 certified route setter. I have set multiple championship level events and am very close to moving up to a Level 3. I hope one day to be an IFSC certified national level setter.

Has route setting improved your climbing?  If so, how?

Route setting has opened my eyes to being able to read routes and come up with the solution for climbs before I am actively in the sequence. I can “read ahead” and plan more accordingly. It has also taught me many concepts of balance that I can apply to indoor and outdoor climbing.

There is nothing random about route setting, every hold is placed for a purpose and having the knowledge to set a route gives you the ability to dissect other routes, and outdoor climbs. It also forces me to climb a TON and forerun a lot of different routes. I am forced to try climbs that I otherwise might skim over because they aren’t my “style.” Having to climb all of the routes at my gym on a daily basis consistently makes me stronger, and gets me out of my comfort zone.

What makes a great route setter?

A great route setter has to be creative – I have met so many setters who are painters, or musicians, or some other creative type. They also have to be willing to take criticism on a daily basis. You cannot please 100% of climbers 100% of the time. At some point someone is going to tell you they don’t like your route – maybe it isn’t their style, or the are having a bad day. This has to roll right off your back.

More on that idea, setters have to be willing to work on a team and take advice from their peers. Forerunning all of the new routes is the most important part of  the setting process and we are constantly tweaking the moves. There is no ownership of routes, they are a product of the entire setting team, so if I make a change on one of my setter’s routes, he has to trust me that I am making it better, and vise versa. They also have to be work horses – believe it or not, setting is a large part manual labor, and working fast while minimizing the risk of a dangerous job at height is not something that a lot of people are cut out for. It is exhausting.

Where do you see yourself, professionally, in 5 years?  10?

The climbing industry is growing so rapidly that it is an exciting time to be a part of it! In 5 – 10 years I hope to be a USAC Level 5 National Setter, setting at the highest level national competitions. I would also love to branch out and set some World Cup Climbing competitions internationally. I also would love to be the head setter of a “mega facility” – a giant 50,000 square foot 60+ foot tall gym.

What route setter do you look up to most?

I have had some AMAZING teachers and mentors that I have had the privilege of setting with. I was lucky enough to take my USAC clinics with John Muse, Ian McIntosh, Chris Danielson, and Jeremy Hardin. These guys have set just about every national level comp in our country. I have been lucky enough to work on other competitions with such amazing chief setters as Louie Anderson, Aaron Couzens, and Molly Beard. I would not be where I am today without having been able to set side by side with all of these guys.

At my home gym Rockreation in Los Angeles I have been so lucky to be able to work with amazing setters on a daily basis. Ben Weaver, Norman Montes, Erin Guinn – I have learned so much from all of these guys!

Who in the climbing/route setting world, would you most like to meet, and why?

To be honest, I have been so fortunate and gotten to meet and climb with some of the best climbers in the world from Alex Honnold, Sasha Digiulian, John Long, Ben Rueck, John Cardwell, you name it. I have also had the opportunity to set with some of the best setters in the world!

Someone who I have yet to meet in the industry that I think is really pushing the art and craft of setting to the next level is Tonde Katiyo. His ideas for managing setting programs and coming up with creative ideas is on another level. I would love to work with him one day!

There is also a crew of setters working at a gym in Germany called Stuntwerk that are just on the moon – their setting style is part parkour, part climbing, and part something else. I would love to meet and set with those guys!

What’s the best piece of climbing/route setting advice you’ve ever gotten?

The best advice I have ever gotten about climbing and setting is sometimes you are just having an off day. Sometimes you can barely climb out of bed, let alone up a wall. On the same token, sometimes your routes don’t come out very well. Even if you are psyched, you just can’t force it. When this happens it is important to recognize it, and not let it frustrate you. Go home, go play some soccer, go for a hike, clear your mind and come back tomorrow.

You didn’t lose your ability to climb or to set, you are just having an off day. One of the things that makes climbing so special is that it is not automatic. Everything has to come together in just the right way for magic to happen. The temperature, the light, your diet, your training, your partner, your overall attitude – they all have to be PERFECT for you to perform at your limit.