Riding home along the Main Yarra Trail, I passed the Burnley Bouldering Walls and noticed that the holds were missing. Tools were strewn across the landing mats, and bread crates, filled with what looked like shiny new holds, were evenly spaced along the lengths of the walls. It was reset time.
Intrigued by the process, and hoping to find out a little bit more about route setting, we spoke to Evan Campbell, a volunteer at Burnley, about the tremendous amount of work that goes into this unique public space.
Evan, how did you become a volunteer at Burnley?
My friends and I decided to help reset Burnley about a year and a half ago. We recently started planning this reset, but this time we wanted new holds. There wasn’t any grant money going, so we ran a Pozible.com campaign to raise money for new holds based on the number of people that climb at Burnley.
What got you into climbing in the first place?
I used to work in a camping and outdoor goods store...at the time I was really into mountain biking which is why I ended up there. A colleague suggested we go rock climbing, so we went to Arapiles and did a bunch of multi-pitch routes, and I was pretty much hooked — I got a bit obsessed from there. I’ve been climbing for about 9 years now.
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Can you tell us a bit about how Burnley got started as a free bouldering space?
Yeah, so Burnley was originally just a series of glue-up walls where climbers had come down, and had tacked a bunch of actual rocks on to the walls beneath the freeway overpass. The company that owned the overpass were…not so stoked on this idea… So it was negotiated between the Victorian Climbing Club and Parks Victoria that this space be built to facilitate urban bouldering in a safer and a more manageable fashion.
Where does most of your support come from? The club? The public?
There was probably more support from Burnley users this time round. A lot of travellers coming through Melbourne who don’t necessarily have the money to climb at gyms come and climb at Burnley, so we get a lot of support from the community of people that are moving through; the people that just happen to be climbing at Burnley at the time.
How do you determine how often you need to reset? Is there a scheduled maintenance period, or is it more of a feel thing?
There’s no schedule for resetting Burnley, it all depends on people’s enthusiasm, and who’s willing to do it, when.
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Being a free, volunteer-managed space, there must be a strong sense of community here…
There is quite a community down here at Burnley. It might also be built up of people who are loathe to pay gym entry three days a week…ha-ha. But it’s a great facility: it lets you train; it lets you play around and learn a bit more…yeah…you can do it at your leisure. If you want to come down and have a session for an hour, you don’t feel as if you have to get your money’s worth, or shatter yourself trying to do big sessions.
How to reset a bouldering wall
Can you run us through the process of resetting the wall?
The process here at Burnley is a little bit more complicated than resetting in a regular gym because the holds are actually locked on from behind the walls.
So first, you need to unlock the holds, and then strip them off for cleaning. We just went to the local wash-your-own-car station and pressure hosed the lot down. Once they are clean, you put them all back up and secure them to the wall.
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So you’ve managed to recycle a lot of holds?
Most of the holds here were recycled, yeah. There are a decent amount of new ones from our Pozible campaign, but the vast majority of routes that will be set here are made of preexisting holds.
What determines whether a hold needs to be replaced versus cleaned and reused?
The amount of texture that remains on the hold. When they become really polished, they get incredibly difficult to hang on to. A lot of the holds are purposefully textured so you can maintain the more difficult / less positive angles on them. When they run out of texture, they need to be retired. It’s a natural process that happens over time; it’s a little bit more exaggerated at Burnley because things are exposed to the elements and holds don’t get cleaned as frequently. When the chalk and the dirt builds up on them, they tend to polish a little bit more quickly than they would if they were in a gym, getting washed every month or so.
Setting new routes
So then it’s back on with the holds. How do you guys go about creating routes / new problems here at Burnley?
Whenever you are resetting you want to know who it is that you are resetting for – if you know your audience then you can kind of guess the grade range that you need in your problems. We’re pretty familiar with the community that climbs here at Burnley, so we can say for example, there might be a lot of beginners that climb at Burnley, so we need lots of easy V0 problems and easy traverses. And there is a bunch of people that climb really hard down here, so we have taken our traverse grades up to about a V8, which is quite difficult.
Once you know you’ve catered for everybody, you make a list of what you want to set, and you make sure that you’ve filled in all the gaps in between. Rather than creating five V0 problems and then five V3s, and no V1s or V2s, you’ve got an even spread that covers your grade range, and hopefully makes it a usable facility for everyone.
Can you step us through the colours / grading system used at Burnley?
The colours don’t equate to grades down here, so if you want to check for grades you have to look at the ends of the walls: we’ve got charts that show which colours relate to which grades. We’ll update those once the new problems have been set.
Grading is always subjective, different people have different styles — at best, it’s our best guess at how hard that route is going to be for you. While we sometimes refer to V grades, we don’t actually grade boulder problems in terms of V grades. To make things simpler, we just tape the start holds on the problems with one of five different colours of tape which indicate: 'very easy', 'easy', 'moderate', 'hard', or 'very hard'. The hardest thing that we are likely to set down here would be no harder than about a V8 / V9.
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Get involved at Burnley!
How experienced does someone have to be if they want to help reset Burnley next time?
If you’d like to volunteer to help out doing menial tasks…
...Like taking off locking nuts…
…Exactly! Then by all means come on down, ha-ha. You don’t exactly need route setting experience to set routes, but you probably do need a bit of climbing experience. And I know based on the way that I set routes that the more you have climbed outdoors on real rock, the more ideas you are likely to have when planning your problems.
Do you try and replicate real rock features here at the wall?
It’s almost impossible to replicate lines that you climb outdoors because they are extremely nuanced, and they rely on rock architecture that, as much as I would love to recreate here, I just can’t. It’s more likely that you will try and recreate a single move that you’ve attempted outdoors; you’ll find something really cool and categorise it in your mind. You’ll say, ‘well I did a big heel hook, and then I hit a gaston, and then I crossed over myself to a sloping hold’… You might recreate that small sequence of one, or maybe two moves, but it’s very, very difficult to recreate a problem in full with artificial holds…they never quite behave exactly the way you want them to.
If someone wants to get more involved or find out more about resetting, where should they be going?
The Victorian Climbing Club is the primary contact if you are desperate to reset Burnley. There are people from VCC that help to manage this space and make sure it’s safe: they clean it, make sure the walls are structurally sound etc. Get in contact with VCC and they’ll tell you where to go from there.