Indoor climbing gyms offer all sorts of routes, ranging from “ladder difficulty” for novice climbers to scant trails of nubs requiring an expert’s strength, skill, and focus.

Professional route setters build these sequences of moves by securing holds of varying sizes and shapes to vertical or overhanging walls – a craft that is more art than science. New research by Caleb Phillips, a student of SFI External Professor Liz Bradley, has applied chaos theory to route setting, with surprising results.

Bradley teaches a course at University of Boulder on nonlinear dynamics, where she encourages students to create projects “that can engage a community outside the ivory tower,” she says, citing previous research that applied chaos theory to choreographing dance routines and composing music.

Phillips chose to use a chaos approach to mix up climbing routes. He devised a system that can chaotically vary routes set by expert setters using a mathematical model from atmospheric convection. He then worked with a local gym to set four test routes, each of about 30 moves.

Two routes were set at each of two difficulty levels: one created entirely by a professional setter and the other based on Phillips’s algorithm. Then climbers (who weren’t aware of the experiment) climbed them all and offered their feedback in a questionnaire. The results, published in the journal Chaos in June 2012, showed that climbers preferred the chaos-assisted routes at both difficulty levels.

“Climbing is almost an artistic expression of movement and physical difficulty – totally different from the part of the brain that deals with sequences and numbers”, says Phillips. “It’s exciting to apply skills to a different domain and see how they can work together and do something cool.”