Monday, June 2, 2008

Louie Anderson, Man, Myth... Living Legend

Just who is Louie Anderson? What does he do? Actually more to the point, what doesn't he do?

Chances are if you've climbed inside over the last ten years you've hauled on plastic / resin or urethane holds that have been shaped by him! No seriously, he's done it all. He's the author of THE book to read if you're a setter or own a home wall and need some ideas for making your climbing more interesting. A shaper of more holds for more company's than you realize, setter of numerous competitions, a builder of walls and he has a family at the same time!

I've been lucky enough to talk to Louie on the phone and via email since I started running this site. Let's get to know this busy man a little...

41 years old.

How long have you been climbing?
33 years

What grade are you currently climbing at?
Currently low-end 5.13 and V8 or so, but hoping to regain some lost ground.

You're probably one of the or the busiest man in the industry right now, how do you keep a balance between shaping, building and having a family
This isn’t easy
and seems to be a constant struggle. I like to be very busy and I think I’ve realized that a lot of my feelings of self-worth come from being productive. I’m also a bit of a perfectionist and a completely Type A personality. Throw those together and I probably suffer from some sort of personality disorder that drives me to do all of this.

My wife doesn’t climb, but has been a witness to my dementia over the years, so she’s pretty understanding of my whole lifestyle. That’s not to say that there aren’t struggles now and again though. I’ve been lucky enough to parlay my interest in shaping, writing and wall building into things that I can make money from though and the income helps to justify the time spent doing them.

My kids are getting older and I’m definitely feeling the need to spend time with them before they leave the nest. They both have different interests and are completely different people, so our family activities cover a pretty broad range of activities.

What came first setting or shaping?
I guess setting came first, but not in the way that you’re probably thinking. Before there were any climbing gyms in California, a few of my friends and I used to glue rocks onto concrete bridge supports and culvert walls to make training areas for our climbing. There was a lot of thought put into the placement of the rocks before gluing them on and that was probably my first forays into setting. This was in the early 80’s.

That’s actually funny because I’ve done this all over Montreal, weren’t you worried about running into trouble with the authorities?
We were pretty stealth about our activities and only had one confrontation, where we were able to bluff our way through it. Some of those old glue-ups are still around and in use today while others were removed within weeks of installation.

Let's talk shaping for a while...

What made you begin shaping holds?
The first holds I shaped were made from clay and then fired to be used on our glue-up training w
alls. I also did some sand casting with resin for the same use.

Real shaping didn’t start until the beginning of the 90’s when I started working with Climb It. I got to know the owners through climbing with them and I expressed an interest in working with them and they gave me some foam.

How many companies have you actually shaped for? (Yes name them all!!)
Oh boy, this will be a challenge. Some of these companies never really made it and have been off the industry radar for a long time.

In no particular order:
Monkey grips, Kokopelli Holds. Atomic Holds, Tendon, Climb It, Crater, Cheap Holds, ETCH, Gecko Grips, Stone Age, Rock Candy, Project, So iLL, Crank, VooDoo, Halo, Straight Up, Rad Holds, Plastic Master, Cutthroat, Conspiracy

I think that's it. There might be some other small ones from back in the day though.

Did you have any formal training (sculpting etc) when you first started shaping, or was it trial and error?
Took a ceramics course in middle school where I made some ashtrays and things for my parents. May have thrown a vase or two back then too, but nothing that really compares to shaping.

Did you approach them to shape holds for them or did they come to you?
A little of both usually.

Is there any one outdoor climb that stands out in your mind that you've modeled a set of holds upon?
While I'm sure that this has happened on numerous occasions, it's usually an individual hold on a climb rather than the whole climb. Maybe the way a certain poocket has a sweet spot that makes it slightly better, a sloper with a certain type of ripple that changes the way it’s used. Things like that.

Do you find it a challenge to find new creative shapes for your holds?
Sometimes I do, especially if I’m trying to shape things that are more abstract. The boys at So iLL are always pushing me to “get crazy” and that’s a challenge for me.

Sometimes an idea or inspiration will come to me and a whole new set is born though. I find inspiration for shapes in a bunch of odd places, most of them not really climbing related at all.

So what’s your method for shaping something? I’ve seen lots of things and have touched lots of things that I think “man if I could just get this radii into a shape it’d be cool”, or do you have a particular methodology when you pick up your foam?
I’ve been working with foam for quite a while and experimented with lots of different tools. There are certainly some shapes that are more difficult to replicate, but if you get inventive there is usually a solution to be found. I’ll usually do some rough shaping to get the foam blank to a close representation of what I’m envisioning and then I’ll let it sit for a while before I finish it off. Sometimes it’s better not to rush all the way to completion and to think about the possible final touches before doing them.

Any advice for someone that would like to start shaping?
Just get some foam and start playing with it. The more you do it the easier it gets, but at some point you need to just go for it and see what you come up with. Just remember to try and keep a bolt hole location in mind while shaping.

Which sets are you most proud of, or would recommend to people that are looking for holds?
All diplomacy aside, I’ve got certain sets from many of the different companies that I’m proud of, but not really a single set of favorites. By the time I send a shape off to be molded I’ve gotten to the point
with it that I think it has something to add to the industry. I try not to release anything that I would look at as “filler” if (as a setter) I was to be given the hold to set with. I’m sure that some of the more basic, training-type shapes could maybe be looked at like that though.

Back to the original question though. Some favorites:

  • Limestone shapes and Huecos from Climb It
  • Kreases and Shellshocked sets from Project (plus several HUGE features not yet released by them)
  • Sloping pinchesand the Zit from So iLL
  • Long screw-on rails from Crater (may not be available anymore?)
  • Runnels and Wrinkles from VooDoo, along with some of the clean dual-tex stuff I did for them.
  • GiantHueco hold for Halo
  • Lots of the sloper and other features for Stone Age

I’ve also got some new things in the works that I think will be very nice…

What do you think of the current state of the hold industry?
While the market is probably getting a bit diluted with all of the newer companies starting up, I’m excited about it. Probably bad for the business of some of the companies I shape for, but as a climber and setter I’m always happy to have more choices when it comes to handholds. Some of the newer companies and shapers are doing some pretty cool things and I’m curious to see which direction things head in from this point on.

I agree that it’s a great thing to have more hold companies than none at all, but what’s the limit of what’s being done now? Is it the materials that are being used? Because from what I’ve seen over the last 20 years of climbing it’s not imagination!
I’d like to think that there are no limitations, but in reality weight and strength start coming into play with the larger features and volumes. It seems as though setters are psyched on the bigger holds, but there is always the problem of having to deal with their weight and manhandle them into position. Nicros and Project have done well in addressing this with their bigger shapes, as have the companies producing the giant fiberglass volumes, so there may not be limitations there either. I guess keeping those big things attainable cost-wise would be a consideration though.

Do you think that holds that mimic the real qualities of outside stone have a place in the market?
Definitely, but I think that they need to be complemented with clean and simple training shapes as well as some really wild, abstract and more visual shapes. I think also that there needs to be caution on the side of the shaper to provide some realism, while not making the shapes too dangerous or sharp to use. This is always the challenge when producing rock-realistic shapes.

Different climbers are motivated by different shapes and I see shaping and the hold market as having the task of motivating setters and indoor climbers, while at the same time providing them with the tools they need to create and enjoy a wide variety of gripping and usage options.

Ok, you've been setting for a long time, wrote the book and probably own the t-shirt :) So let's talk setting!

How long have you been setting?
Since the first gyms came to town and on the glue ups prior to that. Mid 80’s maybe.

What made you start setting?
The desire and need to have routes on which to train for outdoor goals.

Are you inspired by a particular style of climbing when setting, or is it the moves?
I like the type of climbing where the movement and momentum is generated more with the feet than necessarily by just pulling on hand holds and going for the next hold. I probably tend to appreciate a little more technical and complex movement as opposed to more “thuggish” climbing styles.

My personal strengths tend to run towards harder indivdual moves, and so longer resistance or stamina-based climbs challenge me more. As a result I tend to appreciate them more for the challenge they offer me.

How do you approach setting for a competition?
How can eight little words be such a complex question? It really depends on the format of the comp and the level of the climbers scheduled to attend.
There are a variety of different comp formats being used these days and they all bring their own, individual concerns and considerations. In general I try to ensure that there is a wide variety of hold and movement styles found in the climbs being offered to the competitors. It’
s always best if the most well-rounded climber stands on the podium, rather than the one who excelled at the type of climbs that were offered exclusively at a particular comp.

If I’m the Chief Setter then I try to really use my team well to take advantage of their individual setting strengths. It’s beyond important too to have a really good forerunning team to assist the setters.

What's the biggest challenge when setting for beginners or kids?
Well, the easy answer here is to make sure that you aren’t shutting them down with height-dependency issues. But it’s also important to make sure that the movement being set and the holds being used do not require a level of expertise that the climbers have not yet been exposed to or mastered. With kids (and sometimes women) it’s also key to remember the radius (or with pinches finger-to-thumb span) of the holds being used. With their smaller hands, some of these holds are much more difficult to use than they are for us setters that have big hands.

When someone finds a "cheat" around the crux of a difficult sequence, how tempted are you to reset that part of the route?
If it’s in a comp, I’ll change it. The whole reason to have forerunners is to hopefully find and address all of these prior to the actual comp.

If it’s in a normal gym environment and it doesn’t drastically affect the flow or difficulty of the climb, I’ll leave it. There are often alternate ways of doing moves on outdoor routes and I don’t think it’s feasible to eliminate this completely from indoor climbing. I do try to make sure that I’ve thought through all of the options while setting though.

When route setting, what's the best advice you can give to a beginner/intermediate/advanced route setter?
Ask for feedback on your setting and more importantly – listen to it. NO ONE knows everything and you can learn something from EVERYONE.

Setters sometimes fall into a particular style of do you keep your routes fresh?
Set up challenges for myself. Grab holds that I wouldn’t normally set with and use them. Pick movement I’m not good at and incorporate it. Bolt a few random holds on the wall in random locations and build a climb around them. I’m constantly challenging myself creatively and I think anyone that’s been setting for a while should be encouraged to do so as well.

Route comps are rare in our area, what are your suggestions in holding a successful competition in an area that's used to boulder comps?
If your competitor base is going to remain the same, you will probably want to set more powerful climbs that feature shorter crux sequences, surrounded by slightly easier climbing. Basically your first one or two comps would be “bridges” between a bouldering comp and a traditional route comp where stamina and a building difficulty level are usually t
he goals for the setters. You want to basically build boulder problems into sections of your lead routes to reward the boulderers with what they’re used to. If you shut them down too hard in the first few comps, the comps will not be very popular. Over a series of two or three comps you could adjust the climbs to where they end up being normal route comp routes, but provide the boulderer competitors with a steady transition from one style to the other.


As a climber, what is you're best advice for other climbers?
Try to appreciate and take something from everything you climb and from everyone you climb with. Enjoy yourself and don’t get too caught up in grades.

What’s the best advice you've gotten from other climbers on you climbing/shaping/route setting?
Climbing – set realistic goals and do what it takes to achieve them.
Shaping – never be afraid to try something different. Setting – ask for and incorporate the advice of others.

Do you see rock climbing in the Olympics? (half jokingly)
Yes, but it will probably be a highly stylized form of bouldering. Giving the spectators a show and keeping them interested is going to be the challenge. I think that traditional route climbing could get there, given the continued success and support of the European World Cup comps, but it’s not very interesting usually for non-climbers to watch without a really good commentator.

You've been injured of late, what advice do you have for someone that is also injured (CHRIS!!)
Don’t rush the recovery – you will only delay the recovery.

Not many people know that you are a wall builder as well as a setter and shaper, do you have any advice for someone that's looking to build a home wall?
Again, a very involved question.

I guess the simplest answer is to look at the space you have available and be honest with the type of training and angles that are important to YOU. Often time’s people will fill a somewhat small space with lots of angles, without really having large enough expanses of those angles to benefit from them. If you have a tight space, you will generally be better off building large planes at one or two angles instead.

Also, don’t be afraid to go steeper than you might normally with the wall angles. You can always keep the difficulty lower by using larger or more positive holds, but the strength and core gains that come from climbing on steeper angles are worth the decision to build them.

Is there anyone out there that you look up to and why?
Everyone has their heroes (and I have a few), but I find inspiration from many of the people I climb with, regardless of how hard they’re climbing. Climbing (for me) is about having fun and pushing yourself to do better. I see people all around me doing this and sometimes I’ll draw on their psyche to kick my own into gear.

I’m also happy to see anyone that’s out there working with land managers to keep our climbing areas open and accessible, bolting or cleaning new climbs and boulder problems, building and opening new gyms or otherwise providing people with opportunities to be exposed to his great sport that I enjoy so much, and the other setters and comp organizers that have continued to push this industry further towards acceptance and professionalism.

What's your favorite place to climb?
Outdoors on a rope.

I’ve been to lots of areas and climbed on just about every type of stone there is and I can honestly say that I’ve enjoyed it all and taken something away from the experience.

Lately, I’ve been bolting and developing a newer area in SoCal called the Riverside Quarry. It’s an old blasted granite cliff that’s about 200 feet tall and about a quarter mile long. There are over 300 routes there now ranging from 5.7 to 5.14 and it’s starting to become pretty popular. It’s where I climb most these days, since it’s pretty close to home, and the rewards of having brought another local option to people and seeing so many people having fun thre has been very rewarding.

Any last words?
Thanks for putting together your blog and keeping it updated. There are a lot of hold companies out there and your site helps folks to wade through the industry offerings. Sites like yours and also provide a forum for setters to interact with other wrench turners and for a more cohesive community to be developed. Ultimately that’s great for our industry. Keep it up.

If you'd like to read more on setting then I recommend that you pick up a copy of Louie's book "The Art of Coursesetting", it's a very informative read and will help you set better at home or wherever you work! It's $14.95 plus shipping, which for what you're learning is cheap as hell (I made Chris read it, I'm also going to highlight some passages and leave it at my local gym :P) Drop Louie a mail at: and you're copy will be whipping it's way over!

I'd like to thank Louie for his time, not only for this interview but also for the times i've called him to shoot the breeze and to ask technical questions on a myriad of topics.

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