Tonde Katiyo is a world-class routesetter and a member of the Flathold team. In this exclusive interview to SKALOLAZ.PRO team Tonde is sharing his vision of routesetting and remembering some climbing stories of his life.
Photo by Ryusuke Fujieda
You were born in Paris but grew up in Zimbabwe. Please tell us about those days in Africa. How did you start climbing there? My father was from Zimbabwe, it was a British colony called Rhodesia before independence in 1980. Before that date, my father was a political exile because he was a writer, and black intellectuals were not well seen. But when he could he took his family back there and I had all my childhood in a beautiful country climbing trees and playing outside a lot.
My introduction to climbing came from a teacher in middle school, he was a climber and we were talking about it and he asked me if I wanted to try. My first climbing gym was a granite quarry outside of Harare, the capital city. A small group of climbers mostly foreigners from England, France, Germany and Eastern Europe would do topping or soloing there. After a few years I moved to France and discovered Fontainbleau Buoux and Ceuse, and of course many climbing gyms. Tell a few words about your climbing career. What was your best result in the competition?
I never think about it as a career, I have never been a very high performing climber, my progression was slow. I was passionate about climbing, I was very good at finding my own way to do things, I think because I began as a kid climbing with adults.
I qualified for French Nationals twice but never made it past qualifiers even if my performance in training or on rock was much better. I was and am still am a bad competitor, I don’t care enough about winning. Now that I have become a route setter and a coach I understand the mindset for competition much better: I am a better competitor because I know how to pretend the right things. But in my heart what is important and motivating about climbing is very different from the competition experience. I am happy to participate as a routesetter and support climber for who the competition is important.
How and where did you start setting?
For the first 10 years of my career route setting was only a way to get free climbing and maybe a special role in the gym and the community. It started as an accident. A legendary French climber of the 1980s called Fabrice Guillot was working for the French federation teaching a regional route setting course. The summer before, I had done a job for him rigging ropes, so when I arrived at the new big gym in Paris in 1996 and accidentally walked into the room where he was teaching a route setting class he told me to sit down. I didn’t even know what I was going to learn about. How did you get into Flathold?
I met with Manu when he came to set for training camps for the French team maybe around 2010. We have never worked together but our conversations were always very interesting. We met again a few years later when I was traveling in Switzerland with my family and they asked me to be a part of the team. I like this connection a lot because it is about sharing vision even if our ideas can be different. The impact of Flathold is very deep on modern climbing movement and the visuals of boulders. It is great to be able to share with some of the great minds in my field.
What is your role in the company?
I am just a kind of consultant, I give feedback on the products when I use them, and we talk about the industry from our different perspectives. I travel a lot so at some times my vision of the climbing industry or trends in the world can be quite detailed. We have projects and collaborations planned but we are all too busy to make them happen, soon I hope.
Tell us about your work with IFSC?
I am not an IFSC setter, the international competitions I set I was always hired by the national federations. Also at the time when I set many world cups the rules about who could set were a bit different so it was more possible. To add to the confusion I did some side projects for the IFSC developing setter training courses for the IFSC but they are pause until the Olympics are over.
What is your favorite World Cup event to set? Why?
I think I have no favorite, I love the process of setting a big competition. Arriving in a new country, meeting a new team to create something together. I love the challenge and creative pressure. To be honest I love World Cups because almost every climber there is taking it very seriously, every result matters, a lot. And I want to make the conditions where they can each feel like they have a chance to try their best, this is also very serious for me, as an important mission. If I mess up, it has serious consequences for other people, their place in a team, their budget, their training, sometimes their life. It’s a big responsibility that maybe needs a bit more conversation now that climbing is getting more professional and because it is in the Olympics.
Do you have a story when a climber used another beta and hack (cheat) your boulder problem on IFSC competition? If so, who and when?
I have a really good one about Dmitry Sharafudinov actually. It was a Boulder WC in Munich in 2011, I set a finals boulder with a huge sphere. It was designed to be an easy but very risky and spectacular boulder. You had to mantle on to the ball and once you were on it it was quite hard to move, with a lot of balance and discomfort and you had to jump or step on to a volume and a small jump for the finish. The finish hold was a Squadra hue and depending which way it was turned it could be a very good jug or kind of a slopey ring. We discussed a really long time if we should make it good or bad and finally decided to make it good, but it was a tough decision. I remembered I liked the bad version better, but I thought the boulder would take too long and slow down the show.
When Dmitry came out he got on the ball, but he couldn’t stand up like some others had, maybe because he was taller. He stayed a long time hesitating, but he had a little smile that showed that he had an idea… He decided to jump but without using the foothold and giving him the biggest swing I have ever seen in a climbing competition. He had so much momentum that his feet swung above the top of the wall. I was at the very back of the crowd to see what the competition looked like from afar when he stuck the jump the crowd went crazy, it was an amazing moment of climbing. But for me, it was terrifying because I knew that we almost made the decision to make that hold bad, and the fall could have been catastrophic. I realized in this moment that if I make bad decisions in this work it can be very serious for the climbers, and it is impossible to predict everything.
This powerful moment also some years later became the logo of the climbing gym Stuntwerk in Germany, which has had a lot of influence on the world of setting through the work of Udo Neumann and Niklas Wiechmann so I have a constant reminder of the moment where I feel, I could have dropped the World Champion of the time on his head.
You work as a routesetting consultant for climbing gyms worldwide. Tell us about that work, please.
I am passionate about climbing before anything else. Route setting is a powerful way to share some of the good experiences I had in climbing with many people. Because the climbing industry is still very young we don’t have many good standards for safety or education.
My job as a consultant is to help climbing gyms anywhere benefit from my experience in more advanced markets, maybe avoid some mistakes, but most importantly find good solutions where they are and with the team and community that they have. Climbing doesn’t have to be one way, but there are some good tricks to enjoy it more. I help gyms with wall design, hold buying and technical things like this, but I am more interested in helping gyms create an experience that is well designed to connect the vision of the gym to the community that they want to share their climbing within a way that they can understand. A lot of my ideas are around the setting of course so usually this happens during route setting courses, but the conversations are about everything.
Photo by Alvi Pakarinen
How do you train to stay in good shape? Do you have a fingerboard or other training equipment at home?
No, I hate pure training, I know I need it and should do more, but the best way for me is just focused on climbing, usually using circuits. I also try and organize my work early in the year to plan when I need to be in shape, and if I don’t I just relax, get a little fat and play with my kids.
It is a sacrifice in terms of performance but I have fewer injuries and I am happier in general. It is the best way I have found to find a balance between my life as a climber, as a father and as a professional, and not have (too many) frustrations in each.
Do you set both bouldering and lead? What is your favorite climbing discipline to set? Why?
I do set both. These last few years almost 95% of my work has been for bouldering but I love setting routes. For the first 10 years of my career I only set routes. Both are different but I love both: bouldering is more playful, with a lot of changes, experiments and accidents, setting routes is a slower process, more setting, less climbing and working on a bigger pictures. Like the difference between writing a poem and writing an essay or a book.
I hope to set more routes in the coming years.
The good routesetter – who is he or she? What advantages should he or she have?
This is such a hard question because so many great setters I know are so different. I think about this a lot because in my work instructing setters I have to consider how to teach the craft but also how to evaluate it. What I have found is that the most important skills for setters are safety, communication and teamwork. If you cannot do these three things it becomes very hard to have a good evolution in this job that is quite difficult. Other things like climbing ability, creativity, physical resistance, managing time or setting technique can be variable because there are different types of jobs, and in a team it is good to have a mix of people.
The good route setter is the most adaptable and can set boulders slow and meticulously at high level for a World Cup for example but who can understand how to change the way they work if they are in a small competition with a small budget or a gym for beginner climbers and still produce quality climbing. It is a very difficult exercise