Recently, Max Zolotukhin, one of our PG Setters, headed out to Vail to set for the GoPro Mountain Games Citizen Comp. ┬áIt was an amazing time – and we’re psyched he shared his experience with us!

citizens comp ready to go

The Citizens Comp all ready to go!

One of the best things about being a route setter is the flexibility; how many jobs out there let you take off for two weeks on a whim to work for someone else?! That’s precisely what I recently had the privilege of doing.

While commercial setting is my bread and butter, I usually jump at the opportunity to set for large events several times a year. It had been 11 months since the last large competition I set for (junior sport nationals in Atlanta; going again in a month!), and I had been feeling the itch pretty strongly. When I found out my good friend Dave Wetmore was the chief route setter for the Citizens’ Comp at the Go Pro Mountain Games in Vail, I quickly sent him my assistant application.

For those not familiar with the Go Pro (previously Teva) games, it is a three-day long festival held under the pristine Aspen-covered slopes of the small resort town of Vail, Colorado. The Games bring together a throng of extreme summer sportsmen and women, competing in events such as kayaking, down-hill mountain biking, slacklining, and even dog jumping. Thousands of families and outdoor enthusiasts descend on Vail at the beginning of every June to watch talented athletes, roam around the vendor villages, acquire various SWAG, and enjoy the warm mountain air.

Laying on the mat

Citizen Comp Interns Stephen Bryant, Philip Symmons and myself.

In 2008, the Games became an annual host of the only IFSC sanctioned bouldering World Cup on American soil. To the uninitiated, the International Federation of Sport Climbing holds between 15 and 20 World Cups all across the globe every year in the disciplines of bouldering, sport, and speed climbing. For twenty years, the US was outside the scope of IFSC competition until finally in ’08, USA Climbing brought the World Cup to the green slopes of Vail.

I had attended the Vail World Cup thrice before, twice as a spectator, and once as a competitor in 2009. It’s always the most exciting event of the American comp season as our best athletes get to pit themselves against the ultra-disciplined pros from Europe, Asia, Russia, etc. An interesting disparity between competitive climbing in America and abroad is that USA Climbing is the only major power that does not receive any funding from its national government. While athletes in countries such as France and Austria are able to train and travel to World Cups on their countries’ dime (in addition to greater support from local sponsors), Americans are left in the cold when it comes to support from their federation. This is not so much a reflection on USA Climbing, which is a member supported non-profit, but the general disregard towards supporting the arts that the US government has continued to take. All of this is to say that it is always exciting to see our underdog professional climbers compete for a spot on the podium with the likes of Anna Stohr and Killian Fishhuber.

Back to the task at hand; the Sunday after finals have taken place, the Games hold a Citizens’ Comp for any and all kids and weekend warriors who want to test themselves on the same wall as the pros. The crew for the Citizens’ Comp is small, just one chief, one assistant, and two interns. We arrived in Vail on Thursday evening, a full 11 days before our actual event was to run. We drove up to the wall Friday morning and saw a blank canvas sitting in a parking lot overlooking a soccer field on the outskirts of Vail Village. The biggest thing I want to impart with my recap of these two weeks is just how many facets of putting on an event such as this that are so far removed from the daily grind of turning a wrench.

The easiest part of the entire job was putting boulder problems on the wall. The four of us created 32 great looking problems from V0 to V10 in roughly 7 hours. Saturday and Sunday morning were spent stuffing 30 giant Asana pads full of foam, forerunning, perfecting, and subsequently stripping our problems, stringing them up in boxes and marking each used t-nut with a sharpie and tick-marks so that 7 days later we could throw our problems back up in their exact same orientations. With our problems neatly tucked away in giant plastic tubs behind the wall, we sat back and relaxed.

The next 4 days were spent experiencing something very unfamiliar when it comes to route setting work; boredom. Every morning was like Ground Hog Day, we would show up methodically at 9am, ask the World Cup setters if they needed us for anything, and then wander off in search of something to kill time. Luckily the weather cooperated and I was able to check out some bouldering 3 of those days and even got to tick off some great local test-pieces I had heard of and even add a first ascent of my own, a V10 I fittingly named Sports Action. After climbing all day on Thursday we showed up at the wall and were given the opportunity to have a friendly competition on the Women’s Qualifiers that would serve to separate the field the next morning. I was exhausted and only managed to top out the first of the five boulders as Dave put on a good show and did three himself. It was a fun time despite our fatigue, and we were thrilled to finally be involved, if just briefly, in the actual World Cup setting process. Route setting politics are tricky and both Dave and I have aspirations of being on the big-boy crew in the future as several of our friends have done so after being on the Citizens’ crew previously.

forerunning team

Male World Cup forerunner Johnny Hork, US World Cup setter Mark Mercer, US World Cup setter Jeremy Hardin, and me.

Inter-crew dynamics are one the most interesting takeaways I had from the World Cup. While the four of us had a pretty relaxed dynamic, it was fascinating to watch the three American setters for the WC who happen to be good friends of ours, interact with the Austrian chief and the secondary international from Britain. Throwing together people with various styles and backgrounds always makes for interesting results and I was keen to observe the way the Euros went about their business. Suffice it to say there were no cosmic revelations, but just being around the the WC crew was enlightening as to the different ways one can approach issues that arise when setting for an event like this at the highest level.

Friday and Saturday were both exciting and monotonous, as we sat through 3 rounds and 15 hours of competition. It was fun rooting for our American friends, with 6 girls and 3 guys making the top 20 semi-final round, and two more girls making it into the top 6 final, as well as Paul Robinson doing likewise for the guys. After finals drew to a close around 6:30pm on Saturday, we feverishly stripped the finals problems with help from the WC crew, and methodically began putting our problems back on the wall. 5 and a half hours later, with everything cleaned up and placards hung up, we caught a bus back to our condo. I felt like we were the designated drivers of the competition; while all our friends got to go party with the Euros, we were stuck drilling holds on a cold wet night till one in the morning.

Bleary-eyed, we were at the wall early the next morning as three waves of competitors (kids, citizens and para-climbers, and a second wave of citizens) threw themselves at our creations. Everyone seemed to have a blast, the fields were separated nicely, and the wall looked great. All in all we were quite pleased, if not a little bored again. With little respite, as soon as the third wave ended, we stripped the entire wall once more, and proceeded to diligently take apart the padding structure we had pained to construct a week prior.

The most memorable day was our last, as Vail all but emptied of the thousands that flocked to the Games that weekend. After another 8am start, our foursome and several others were tasked with tearing down the entire Entreprises climbing wall. While I had done a bit of work with several other modular walls, I had never been privy to the entire process of deconstructing an event site such as that. Over the course of 11 hours, we filled up two 53-foot trailers and a twenty footer with everything from climbing holds, volumes, pads, tools, equipment, and of course giant pieces of steel, wood, and panels of the 64 foot by 20 foot wall. I can’t say that when I started route setting 13 years ago I thought I’d ever be helping to move giant stacks of particle board with a fork-lift, but when all was said and done, we were rewarded with the satisfaction of a job well done and a solid burrito from the Cantina.

wall tear down 2

Tearing it all down

wall tear down

I came away from Vail having added another notch to my event belt and having gleaned a little more insight into how the big boys run their show. My 12 days spent in Colorado definitely had their ups and downs, as well as prolonged bouts of tedium, but in the end I was once again thankful to have worked with some incredibly inspired, hard-working, and talented individuals in an amazing place and hopefully get my foot in the door for future events of even greater proportions. I will be sure to apply again next year, and can’t wait to flex my setting chops again at youth sport nationals in Atlanta in two weeks!

You can check out more photos of the comp HERE!

130130 - Max Profile Shot


About the author: Max has been climbing and setting for half of his 26 years; when not debating the finer points of what makes a perfect boulder, he can be found training on the plexie at PGSF, playing basketball, or drinking micro brews in the Mission.