“[I call him up] Mark, what are you doing? Mark replies ‘Setting’. What are you doing tomorrow? ‘Setting, duh’. Mark Mercer sets so much that he probably has his wrench under his pillow and a climbing hold or two on his night stand...”
Mark Allen Mercer was born February 25, 1987 in Apopka, FL. He grew up playing soccer and lacrosse until he was a sophomore in high school. Without ever having stepped foot inside of a rock climbing gym, Mark received a pair of climbing shoes, harness and a day pass to Aiguille, for Christmas 2000, after mentioning his interest of the sport to his parents. On Martin Luther King Day the following year (He keeps track of his climbing anniversary each year, by this date) Mark visited Aiguille for the first time, toting his father as belayer.
“Wall 16 was my favorite wall. I did it about 5 times that day. Only, it was mostly my dad pulling me up the whole way.” He instantly became torn over his new found passion and his longtime love for lacrosse. After a grueling ten minutes, Mark had made up his mind that climbing was the sport for him. The fact that he would be able to continue it well after high school, made the decision a little easier. Since then Mark has been coming to Aiguille at least 3 times a week, with the only exception being when he goes out of town.
“Climbing [is a great sport because it] has taught me to push myself, especially with training. It’s such a personal sport. You learn team work with other sports, but with rock climbing it’s just you and the route. The outcome does not depend on anyone except for you, training and how far you’re willing to push yourself.”
Over the years, Mark has become the possessor of a very impressive climbing resume. Besides the unaccountable number of rock climbing gyms that he has visited and set at, he has climbed in Rocktown, Horsepens 40, LRC, Foster Falls, New River Gorge, Red River Gorge, Bishop, Rocky National Park and Clear Creek Canyon in Colorado (to name a few), Fontainebleau in France, and most recently in the bouldering Mecca of the world, Heuco Tanks, Texas. With friends Charlie Garcia and Tommy Terrell, he climbed for a little over a week in Hueco, sending many hard problems including Diaphanous Sea (V11). “It was amazing. So much climbing that you could be a local there and live there for years and still climb new stuff every day. It’s a ton of climbing, it’s huge. And real, good people.”
Dream rock climbing trip: Rocklands, South Africa.
Although he loves the atmosphere of climbing outdoors Mark actually prefers indoor because of what you can gain from it.
“Everyone thinks [indoor climbing] is supposed simulations of what’s outdoors, but I think it’s a completely different sport ‘cause you can do so many things with it… Like with what you can put on the wall. You can do anything. There are thousands of different types of holds that you can set pretty much anything that you can find outside. And I like that you can make it your own. Like if the move is a little bit too easy or a little bit too hard you can move that one hold a little bit closer or farther to make it what you want. It makes it easier to push yourself. “
As far as pre-climbing rituals go, Mark keeps it pretty simple but he unknowingly admitted to a little OCD in his habits.
“I think like anyone would do, I do things that make you feel your best when you get on a wall for an attempt. You want everything to have come together. Like if you pull on the wall and something doesn’t feel right, you feel a little heavy or you don’t have your foot situated correctly, that may be in your mind the whole rest of the time that you’re climbing, and you most likely won’t do it. So everything has to feel right. But it’s also a cool game to try and have that feeling, but to get over it because really, those little things are nothing. It’s just mental.”
Within a year Mark started setting under the supervision of former General Manager Scott Hasson. “[My first route] was red, in the old bouldering cave when it used to have the arch; [the route] went up and traversed across it. Mark was first introduced to Kynan Waggoner, formerly the GM of X-treme Rock Climbing Gym in Miami, when he would come to Aiguille as our head setter for competitions.
“I was lucky that he lived so close, and because I knew someone so high up in the route setting community, he became my first reference for competition setting jobs. My first major competitive setting job was for SCS Youth Nationals in 2007, but I didn’t think I was ready for it, I hadn’t even applied. Kynan called me up and said Mark if you want to do it, you have it. I hadn’t even applied for it. I was going to, but didn’t think I would make it. I was nervous. I didn’t even think I was going to set, I thought I would have to be the guy that throws holds to the setters but I actually got to set routes. That first year I met a network of other national setters, now it’s easier to get jobs because I know other setters from all over.”
Mark now holds a National Certification which is the third level of certification for route setting in the United States. Next will be National Chief Certification, which will allow him to be the head route setter at a national competition. In addition to over 25 local through divisional events, he has set for 3 National Championship events, and has been chosen to set for the 2010 Bouldering World Cup held at the Teva Mountain Games in Vail, CO this summer as well as the 2010 SCS Youth National Championship. As far as International setting goes, Mark doesn’t feel that he is quite ready. “I don’t know if I can handle the pressure of setting in a comp that large, just yet.”
Sometimes just the pressure of traveling and setting in a new gym can get to him.
“I get really nervous when I go to other gyms [to set], I don’t know the employees. I’m young so I don’t know if they’ll think that I’m worthy of being a head setter and traveling to their gym and taking over a comp. Every single time it’s worked out. They’ve been super open and super cool about it, but every single time I think, what if.”
“Comp setting [at home] can be stressful as well. Finals problems have to be perfect, you don’t want ties, you don’t want spinning holds, you don’t want a reachy problem where little Bobby and Peter will get up there and not be able to reach a move. It can also be extremely difficult because I’ve set so many routes on each wall. It gets monotonous and becomes difficult to set new and creative movements.”
Mark's route setting procedure is fairly simple. After picking out where and what grade he wants to set, he picks out his holds for that grade and angle of the wall.
“If I’m setting 5.10, I’ll grab 5.10 holds and some for a 5.9 and 5.11 so that I have the option of putting bad feet and larger hand holds or good feet and 5.11 holds. And then you just make up creative moves that you think would be fun. Remember to challenge the climber. Think of moves that you haven’t done before. Sometimes I will watch a climbing video or picture with one particular move and I’ll want to replicate that in the gym. So then I’ll put that move on it first and work the route into and out of that move.”
One of the biggest downsides to setting rock climbing routes is having certain moves nit-picked, when they aren’t correctly understood. While Mark insists that climbers share their constructive criticism with him, he also asks them to keep in mind that most of the time if something feels too reachy or just wrong, you are probably doing the move wrong.
“If you’re a static climber, you might have to climb some dynamic routes. I might make you throw. I’m going to force you to throw. You’re going to have at least one big throw on a route. That doesn’t mean it’s reachy, it mean that you’re going to have to throw for it. There is a difference. And for super dynamic climbers that throw, sometimes I’m going to make you do a drop knee or use some extra technique. You won’t be able to just power through it. It’s not a bad route because it’s like that. You might not like it, which makes sense, but you want to get on stuff that you’re bad at or you won’t ever improve.”
For every specific grade, Mark has one particular person that he keeps in mind. How to make the route challenging enough to where the climber can eventually progress to the next grade is also taken into consideration.
In addition to setting for competitions across the nation, Mark has competed in over 25 competitions, including PCA, ABS, SCS and CCS. Most recently he traveled with the UCF Rock Climbing Team to Austin, Texas for the Collegiate Climbing Series National Championships where he placed 1st in Men’s difficulty, and 2nd in Men’s speed, carrying UCF to a second consecutive National Championship.
Mark is currently attending UCF and is set to graduate in 2011. With a major that is practically an invitation to exploring our diverse world, Multicultural Humanities, Marks future plans are "setting routes".
Side note: If you have ever climbed or talked with Mark, you probably know how humble and apprehensive he can be when it comes to discussing both his climbing and route setting. We literally had to tie this guy down to get him to agree to let us write a biography about him. When through reading this, please don’t mention anything to Mark about it. In fact, if you could avoid eye contact with him for about a month after, that would be best.