Whether you’re roping up at your local climbing gym for a training session or getting ready to compete in the World Cup finals, there is a very high chance that the route in front of you was set by a male. However, more and more, women are starting to break into this creative and exhausting profession.
In this interview, the very brave and intelligent Kat Hart-Gentry tells us all about her experience with being a woman in the otherwise bro-ed out realm of route-setting. You won’t believe she’s only 19 years old!
How did climbing enter into your life? Tell us about the early days of your climbing career.
The first time I climbed at my home gym I was four years old. My dad used to take me and my brother to the gym to race up the kiddy walls in the back.
When I was 12, in middle school, I started going to the gym to boulder every night after school—I don’t remember how that started. From then on I was hooked. I became a regular, and got to know the other regulars, most of whom were much older than me.
It was a welcoming, safe community where I felt at home, respected as an equal by the adult climbers, and at ease—able to forget about the stress of school.
When I discovered Zero Gravity, the competitive team that trained at my home gym, I knew instantly I had to join. I threw myself headfirst into the sport and into the competitive aspect of it, training 4 to 5 days a week after school and climbing for fun on the weekends. Thanks to my talented coaches, experienced and ridiculously strong teammates, and endless psych and motivation, I was able to progress extremely quickly. I had found my sport, my lifestyle.
I couldn’t get enough of the way I could see my improvement so clearly, the feeling of being on the wall and trying your very hardest, completely focused and in the moment, the rush I felt while competing, and the peace I felt when climbing outside with my friends. Though I started as a die-hard boulderer, at some point I made the switch to sport climbing and haven’t gone back since.
I competed in USA Climbing’s SCS and ABS climbing series until I was 18 and decided to take a break. I was a gym rat growing up, a competition-kid, though the need to get outside keeps growing outside me. That need (along with the desire to attend college) has brought me to Colorado, where I intend to learn how to trad climb, get outside as much as possible, compete in open comps for the first time, and start a CCS team at my school so I can coach and compete with other students.
When did you start setting?
I started setting about a year ago (July 2014) when I was 18. I had been coaching and instructing part-time at my home gym during my senior year of high school. When I heard a rumor that Touchstone was looking for female setters, I emailed the head-setter with an application.
I never thought for a second I’d be setting full time for the next year. Before this, I had never picked up the wrench or a drill, and I had no idea what a T-nut was, or how to build an anchor. At the time I started setting I was the youngest, least experienced, and only female route setter on a crew of about 20 older men.
What about setting do you love most?
It’s hard to pinpoint one aspect of setting that makes me love it. I think there are two or three things that make setting worth all the exhaustion and physical exertion that it requires, especially when setting five days a week.
The first is the people, the community. I may not have had such an amazing experience setting this past year had it not been for my coworkers and boss. Though at first glance they seem (and many of them are) extremely bro-y and macho, they are all really goofy, sweet, genuine individuals when you get to know them, earn their trust and respect by proving you’re there because you love climbing and you are willing to work hard, learn what you can and pull your own weight.
Also, the work environment. There are very few jobs that have such a relaxed, goofy work environment. You can cuss, make inappropriate jokes, and hang out after work and on the weekends with your boss and coworkers, and that’s normal, and fun. I probably laughed and joked around and said more ridiculous things in the past year than I have in the other of my 18 years combined.
Then there’s the creativity aspect. I’ve always been the artistic type. I love getting lost in my creations, my imagination. And I always had the bad habit of getting bored of the climbs in the gym after a while and deciding to make up my own, or play add-on. So getting to create my own climbs using my imagination and realize my “visions” (yes, I have visions when I set, and yes, the other setters make fun of me for it), and have that be available to all the members of the company I work for as well as myself and my friends is an amazing and empowering feeling that I never would have dreamed of before.
And, getting to be in an environment (climbing gyms/climbing community) that I love and want to spend time in all the time, an environment that feels more like home to me than anywhere else was so gratifying.
I also had a following of women who regularly complimented me on specific climbs, probably partially because I was the shortest and only female setter on the crew, which inevitably made my setting different and more accessible to some body types.
It’s the most gratifying feeling to have members notice the effort you put into a route, and acknowledge your success in creating something unique and fun, that has a nice flow. It’s even more gratifying when you get positive feedback and recognition from other setters, because there’s an inevitable hazing period and a tendency to jokingly put each other down rather than give genuine and sincere compliments, especially when you’re new to setting and have a lot to learn.
Setting to me was a dream job I was somehow oblivious to before I started. When I first realized it was an option for me I remember thinking
Who doesn’t want to spend their life around other climbers? And who doesn’t want to get paid to climb (well, fore-run, but still)?
It felt too good to be true.
You are one of the few female setters in the country. How, if at all, did your gender affect your experience with route setting?
I think my gender affected my setting experience a lot. But I don’t think you can separate my gender from my age or my lack of setting experience when considering how these aspects affected and shaped my time setting.
I was unaware when I started working at Touchstone that it is a huge presence in the climbing gym scene, owning 11 large gyms in California. It never seemed like a corporation or company to me, because to me it was comprised of familiar walls and faces. So it was alarming to me to realize that such a big company with such a large setting crew would not have any females on the crew.
I think that was part of why they wanted to hire females (two at least, I was told), because in addition to adding diversity to setting, it kind of looks bad that they didn’t have any females on the crew while other, smaller gyms do and maybe seen as more progressive because of it.
I’m going to be completely honest and candid about my experience because I think it is really important to talk about the fact that setting is a male-dominated profession and climbing a male-dominated sport, in my experience more so than other professions and sports. But keep in mind, as I describe my experience as a female route setter, overall I loved my experience setting full time, feel lucky to have had the opportunity, and came to feel accepted and valued by my coworkers, who are all good friends and hilarious, good-humored guys.
When I started, though, things were difficult. Like with any new setter, making the transition to setting five days a week, fore-running most of those days and trying to climb for fun and train on top of it was exhausting. I was also starting from square one, having no knowledge of setting other than my experience with comp climbing, which taught me to be attentive to the setter’s intended beta and the particular gymnastic, showy type of setting that is typical of comps.
On top of that this was my first full-time job. And I was representing the females, feeling a strong need to prove my strength and ability as an individual setter but also as a female setter. I was constantly pushing myself physically (carrying 16-foot tall ladders that some of the guys never carried solo for fear of hurting their backs) and emotionally. I was exhausted at the end of every day, and for the first three months my average bed time was around 8:00 (granted I woke up at 5:30 or 6 every morning).
I wanted to learn, so I asked questions, but I also wanted to show my competence, so there were multiple occasions when I did not ask for help (whether it be carrying a bucket, taking down an anchor, retrieving a hold from the ground, or removing a volume) when I should have, because of my pride and the pressure I put on myself to prove my toughness despite my youth and gender. There were multiple days I found myself having to take lunch early to go cry in the woman’s bathroom or the hold room or wherever I could find space, because of a series of difficult challenges, often including rough remarks from coworkers (the kinds that can sometimes be out of line or offensive but are usually just meant to keep newbies in their place or show masculinity or be a sort of tease).
There were times I had to confront coworkers when I felt they’re comments were unnecessary, mean, and unfairly directed towards me and only me, which wasn’t easy, being new to setting and wanting to prove I could withstand some “hazing.” There were a few occasions on which I felt objectified, or taken aback.
One pretty harmless example of this is when a coworker said,
Would you be a doll and go grab me my drill?
There was also a time when a member came over to the setters to ask for someone to help fix a spinner in the bouldering area. When no one volunteered, I grabbed a stepping stool and a wrench and headed up the stairs, asking the member to show me where the hold was. He asked if he could help carry something for me, almost insisting, despite the fact I was not struggling to carry the five-foot step ladder (really small and light) and my T-wrench, as I usually carried much more weight than this. I know he was just trying to help and be kind, but would he have insisted to carry something had one of the other (male) setters offered to help fix the hold? I’m not so sure.
Then there’s the empowering part of being a female setter. There aren’t that many of us, which is unfortunate, yet this means that we are in demand, valuable, and provide unique perspective and qualities to setting that men can’t always provide.
Women’s bodies are built differently; that’s just fact. This means we climb differently, and gravitate to climbing styles and techniques different then those that men use. Sometimes we are unable to rely as much on muscle and sheer strength, and have to draw on creativity, alternative beta, flexibility, or technique. This being said, I tend to enjoy reachy, burly, gymnastic, overhanging climbing rather than the slabby, controlled, technical style that many people typically associate with feminine climbing and setting.
One of the most gratifying parts of being a female setter is providing accessible routes that are built for female bodies to female climbers whose needs and styles can go under met or ignored (not purposefully), especially at a company that has a mostly or completely male setting crew. The other amazing part of being a female setter on an all male or mostly male crew is you get the opportunity to set an example, be a role model, prove that this can be a woman’s career.
I have many female climbers coming up to me in person or commenting on my blog saying that they would want to set, or that they were interested in setting but intimidated, or just that they thought it was really cool that I was setting as the only woman on the crew, and that it made them happy or gave them hope or proved to them that it is an option for women as well.
Receiving these unexpected comments was the most gratifying part of being a female setter to me. It made me feel powerful, like I had an opportunity to make a difference just by doing what I love and persevering through challenges that arose during my career.
What are some of the challenges that women face as route setters?
First you have to overcome your own fear, insecurities about working in a male-dominated field in which physical strength is seen as an important asset. You have to be your own advocate, be aggressive and proactive in proving your worth even if you are unsure of your abilities as a setter. And this is proven to be more difficult for women than men in general, even when trying to get your foot in the door in careers that are more even in terms of gender employment.
The other thing is, as a female, your setting style is likely to be different than that of most of your coworkers’ or your boss’ style, assuming in most cases they are predominantly male. This means they may not like some of your climbs, even if they work well for a female body-type, or for your flexibility-level, sometimes the guys won’t be able to fore-run a flexible or scrunchy move and they’ll ask you to change it because they don’t understand.
Then there’s the balance between standing up for yourself, finding your voice and picking your fights and knowing when to take other’s advice or let other people tweak your route or tell you to do something different, even if it’s inconvenient for you. As women in a male-dominated field, it is important to be strong and find your voice, but as route setters, it is important to listen to your coworkers and be open to feedback, changing your routes, sacrificing your vision for the good of the crew or, more likely, the members.
One thing I struggled with particularly was wanting to be seen as a diligent worker, cooperative and not a problem or hard-headed, but also needing to stick up for myself and not let myself be pushed around all the time. Sometimes you feel stuck, like you can’t be seen as cooperative and a good coworker and team player at the same time as being your own advocate. Those situations are particularly rough. Being an outsider or a minority is inherently difficult, whether it’s because of your gender, race, social standing, climbing ability, or sexual orientation. So when you add the tendency of woman to be more sensitive (I know this is a stereotype and not always true, but it is true in my case) to a work environment that can be really rough, teasing, full of sexually inappropriate or explicit jokes and high tensions that can explode into harsh and serious verbal fights (at times), it can be really hard to be a female setter amongst men.
It’s not always like this, but I do remember times when I was struck at how quickly and seriously disagreements or minor power struggles would escalate. I remember thinking and even asking other setters,
Are those guys for real right now?!
What advice do you have to other women who set or want to set?
Be assertive! Stand up for yourself and just go for it. Ask questions until you find the right people to talk to about it. Reach out to other female setters to ask questions (reach out to me, I’d be happy to share my experiences and advice). Just take the chance. You don’t have to have any experience. As long as you decide to stick to your goal of setting (which I highly encourage—we need more women to set!), and you have the energy and commitment to work hard, ask questions, and do your best to learn and improve and work with the group, you’ll do fine.
Remember that the start is the hardest for so many reasons—exhaustion, self-doubt, not having any clue what you’re doing, if you’re improving, or why you’re putting up with the shit you sometimes have to put up with. Put stick with is if you like it, if something keeps you coming back every day, and if you think it’s right for you. Be your own advocate and speak your mind.
And know the importance of being cooperative and working as a team. Know that when you first start a lot of the time other more experienced setters do know better. Listen to their advice with an open mind, and don’t hesitate to put in the extra work to tweak your route. But take criticism and advice with a grain of salt, and, once you get some time and experience under your belt and you trust your gut, try defending your opinions when you think they are right. Pick and choose your battles or you’ll wear yourself down. It’s a balance between working as a team and trying to satisfy everyone and making sure your individual style comes through and that you sometimes get to take risks with your climbs.
But do know there is privilege to seniority in setting, because you really do improve and learn so much with time. If you don’t know where to start, start by paying attention to the setter’s tags on the climbs you climb. Identify different styles and techniques, think of the climbs from a design perspective, and then go up to a setter at your gym and introduce yourself. Ask questions, start a conversation, don’t be shy! If they know anything about setting, they’ll know that we need more female setters, and even if that gym doesn’t have any openings, they’ll know to acknowledge your interest and hopefully point you in the right direction.
Anything else you’d like to tell us?
If you’re interested in setting, especially if you’re a female, I say go for it! If you need some guidance or encouragement, reach out. You can reach out to me and I’d be glad to help, otherwise I recommend reaching out to someone at your local gym. I really hope to see more female setters in the future, to see route-setting become less male-dominated.
I really do believe men and women have unique abilities and perspectives to bring to the table, and that the setting and climbing community would benefit greatly from having a more equal balance between female and male-set routes.
A huge thanks to Kat for her honest, thoughtful answers. The climbing community is so lucky to have Kat as one of its members. We wish her the best of luck in college and beyond!