Setting the Direction

It’s a Monday morning and the Beacon Climbing Centre is almost empty. Empty, but not quiet. The torque ratchet clicks loudly on Zoë’s electric driver. She cups a large volume in one arm and screws it on to the wall with another. She repeats the process over and over; select a hold, place the ladder, climb it, attach the hold to the wall, climb down, step back. Sometimes holds are swapped, rotated or shuffled closer to each other or further away. The setter climbs the route a thousand times over during a few minutes; mostly in her mind. Occasionally she mimes out the moves subconsciously as she stands back. Visualising every hand and foot placement, every interim movement from start to top out. 

“I love the creative side of route setting. There’s this bank of moves that you can create; from delicate and balance-y to powerful and dynamic. And as a setter you are trying to guide the climber into a certain move. You are giving them a route-map, teeing them up with just enough clues to make the next move, but not just offering up the answer. It’s kind of like a game of chess; but in some ways, it’s one that as a setter you hope to lose. You want the climber to climb the route or problem but to have been challenged and have learned along the way. 

To be a good setter, you need to really understand how humans move and climb. It’s this magic blend of physics and physiology. Then of course, you are setting for all abilities. You need to be just as good at creating a route that differentiates the very best in a competition as you are at creating a boulder problem for a first timer that goes beyond being a step ladder and helps embed techniques that they’ll need as they develop as climbers. The whole process is really fulfilling”. 

The route to setting

I’m listening to Zoë Wood explain her passion for her fledging freelance routesetting career. The 22 year old’s body language gives the game away as much as her articulate description of the art (and physical demands) of placing lumps of coloured plastic on a plywood wall. She beams and air climbs as we talk. 

“After I finished school, I knew I didn’t want to go to university. I spent a while just going on as many climbing trips as I could, and worked at the Beacon to fund them. It was while I was there that I watched people set routes and I really wanted to give it a go. I’m grateful that Gill Lovick – the owner of the Beacon – gave me the opportunity to learn. It was so difficult; so physical. The Beacon has a big lead wall, and it was there that I learned the rope work and movement of setting. Hauling and jugging and hauling and jugging. Trial and error while I found a system that worked for me. I remember reflecting on my progress after a couple of months. It still felt hard, but I knew that I must enjoy it because I really wanted to keep developing my skills.

'Sometimes an entire route is built around a desire to use a single hold, other times the holds are simply tools to create a sequence of movement.''

Zoë sifts through candy-coloured holds in the store room; crimps and pinches, slopers and monos. Edges smaller than the pad of one finger and bulbous volumes. Like a drystone waller, she has half an eye for something specific, but an open mind; ready to be flexible if something else will fit. Sometimes an entire route is built around a desire to use a single hold, other times the holds are simply tools to create a sequence of movement. 

Our conversation moves on to how Zoë went from learning the skills and art of setting to it becoming a sustainable way to make a living. As with anyone breaking into a new career – particularly one that is so dependent on hands on experience – there were challenges along the way. 

“Throughout my time growing up and within my friendship group, I have been fortunate to climb with a lot of strong and very capable women. Even on a typical evening at the climbing wall or at competitions the ratio of men to women isn’t far off 50/50. I was actually quite surprised that that gender balance wasn’t really there in route setting. In fact, there are very few women route setters in the UK. 

“The situation left me feeling like maybe I didn’t belong. Some of that was probably a sense of imposter syndrome, but it’s hard to feel like you belong when there is no one like you to look up to. Rather than shying away, I wanted to make a positive step forward – and still do.”

It is worth pondering Zoë’s experience a little longer. She is someone utterly embedded in the climbing community; a strong climber, a strong person in every sense of the word. Yet, despite her credentials, she felt like an outsider. For every Zoë there might be another ten women – or members of any underrepresented group – that are at best unaware that a career option exists and at worst feel actively discouraged from pursuing it. 

'"Representation matters; it means diversity of ideas, diversity of experience, diversity of knowledge and richer outcome, for everyone.''

Force for change

Lack of representation matters – hugely – and not just because no profession should be seen as inaccessible to any group of people. Regardless of whether in industry, science, sport, culture or society diversity doesn’t mean ratios and box ticking; it means diversity of ideas, diversity of experience, diversity of knowledge and a richer outcome, for everyone.  

“Every climber has their own strengths and weaknesses, and preferred climbing styles. So too do setters; and as much as we try to cater to the whole spread of climbers it’s so much easier to do so with a diverse group of setters. Take national and international level competition for example. There is equal gender participation, but the setting is done almost exclusively by men. There have been times that the quality of competition has been questioned by that.” 

When we speak, Zoë is preparing to set for the British Lead Climbing Championships. It’s an opportunity that she recognises is one that is important not just to her personally, but as a step towards more women setting on a visible, high profile stage. And while the situation is frustrating at the least, her natural inclination is to be proactive; both in terms of her own career but also as a force for change. What that may look like, she isn’t sure – and it obviously isn’t her responsibility to create an entire equality, diversity and inclusion strategy for the sport – but she recognises that being seen is an important first step. 

Zoë swaps trainers for climbing shoes and moves the ladder out of the way. She pulls on to the large blue volumes, broad hand prints seeking friction on slopers. The problem requires large moves, precise footwork and fluid power. It’s the kind of challenge that brute force alone will not conquer, but a modicum of technique and thought will quickly bring the bar for success down. Before long, Zoë matches on the finish hold and drops to the mat. Content, she moves on. 


A strong (in the widest sense of the term) climber doesn’t automatically make a good route setter, but it’s fair to say that to be a good setter – at least one that is able to set at  competition standard – needs to be a strong climber. They need to be able to create everything from engaging and thought provoking easier routes through to lead routes that will challenge and differentiate the best in the country. A good setter needs to be able to make new-school dynamic boulder problems and classic style problems across the grades. And to be able to do that effectively, the setter needs to be able to climb at or near the grade they are setting. 

“Setting has absolutely improved my climbing. It has forced me to look at the styles I don’t like so much and embrace them. As a climber you can avoid or work around your weaknesses. You can’t shy away from them when you are setting, you have to tackle them face on.”

Setting done for the day, and with drizzle floating in the autumnal air outside, Zoë is in no hurry to leave, so takes the opportunity to get some training done. She pulls on the system board, working laps of problems at 45º. She takes obvious joy in the simplicity – and the complexity – of movement. She twists and contorts her body into impossible looking, yet entirely natural feeling positions; tension and power, elasticity and balance. 

“It’s the movement that will always bring me back to climbing,” explains Zoë. “When you are in that moment, you are feeding off an instinct and it just feels right.” 

It is a concept of flow that many climbers – in fact anyone, whether they find that flow through climbing, cycling or even knitting – will relate to. That state where we can reach the conscious and subconscious connection between mind and body; miniscule adjustments in body position completely changing the feel of a single move. Connected to that, Zoë describes a clear awareness of the aesthetics of climbing. She waxes about the inherent beauty in a move and the body shapes it creates; power and precision and elegance in a fragile intermarriage. 

''Its the movement that will always bring me back to climbing.''

Growing up as a climber

During this conversation the influence of Zoë’s parents on her evolution as a climber is utterly evident. It was perhaps inevitable that the offspring of two stalwarts of the British climbing scene – Libby Peter and Ray Wood – would not only inherit their love of rock, but also some of their philosophies. Zoë grew up in the heart of the North Wales climbing community, but it’s clear that this is a path that she has chosen rather than had inflicted on her.

“I’m super thankful for the early experiences in the outdoors that my parents gave me. Most of my very early climbing was with my mum. [Libby Peter climbing guide, coach and is regarded as one of the most respected climbing improvement gurus in the UK]. It was obviously an incredibly important part of her life, but she didn’t want to force it on me. She’s a very conscientious person. We would go to these beautiful places and have a fun time, and climbing was part of that, but it was always relaxed and it was never the sole focus. It was always about the adventure. Over time, climbing became the way that I wanted to enjoy being outdoors; and my mum supported me on that journey. I remember her soloing alongside me and my sister as we did our first trad leads. Mum has an amazing gift for encouragement and I think I still carry that with me as I find my own way in the climbing world and beyond.”

“My dad [Ray Wood] is one of my best mates; we go on climbing trips together whenever we can – we were in America this summer, and are heading to Fontainebleau in a few days. He’s a climbing photographer [Wood senior has documented the cutting edge of British climbing and beyond for the last few years] and has got an amazing eye for the aesthetics and artistic side of climbing.”

I suggest that routesetting reflects the perfect blend of what she has taken from her parent’s attributes; the eye for movement, body mechanics as well as the desire to help others improve their own climbing from her mother. The eye for a line, and an understanding of not just how movement feels but how it looks from her father. 

“Yeah, I think so – I’m not always consciously thinking about those things, but they are both fundamental to what I do and to why I enjoy it so much.”

Moving on up

This is just a fleeting visit back to the homeland for Zoë. She recently moved east; to that other stronghold of the UK climbing scene; Sheffield. 

The weather improves enough to risk heading outside, so Zoë climbs in her van and drives up the Llanberis pass; the roadside Cromlech boulders providing sufficient shelter to stay dry even on a dreich day. Well chalked holds of Jerry’s Roof almost glow white in the gathering gloom of the late afternoon on the last day of October. She works individual moves under the roof, feet occasionally cutting loose, always in control on rock that she almost literally grew up climbing.

 “I chose to move to Sheffield partly for practical reasons – there are just so many more climbing walls in the city and within a short driving distance, but also because I was craving a change in scenery. I’m looking forward to climbing more on grit; harder stuff, but also long days climbing classics. I’ve been out a couple of times already and it’s a totally different style of climbing to master.”

We move on to what the future may look like. On a professional level, it is consolidating her current work and using that to build a life in a new location. Climbing wise, Zoë feels as though she’s not even scratched the surface.

“There are so many places in the world that I want to climb. So much that I still want to do. But, I guess I’ve talked about my love of the physical act of climbing. The other thing that I love is the sense of adventure that it brings. I’d love to do some proper expedition style stuff. Big walls and all that. I’m also going to Jordan soon and developing a new bouldering area. I love that idea of climbing stuff for the very first time.”

It feels like a good place to end the conversation. I am left with the enduring sense of having spoken to someone who is comfortable with their place in the world; but that doesn’t mean that she’s content with the way that world works. I am also left in no doubt at all that Zoë will influence and lead change – whether that is vocally and proactively, or through simply being very damn good at what she does. Either way, the future is bright. 

''I've talk about my love of the physical act of climbing. The other thing this I love is the sense of adventure that it brings.''

Produced by: Coldhouse Collective

Words: Tom Hill

Photos: Lena Drapella

1 March 2024