Nick Foster grew up in Portland, Maine, where he learned to surf, climb, properly destroy lobster, and speak sarcasm fluently. When asked what he considers his spirit animal to be, he replied, “a cast iron skillet.” We spoke with this skillet about his life as a climber and setter. Read on with a handful of salty humor:
Hello, Nick, thank you for meeting with me today.
Oh, my pleasure! Interviews are my favorite, climbing comes close—but something about interviews just really gets me going…
Right. Can you tell me about your history with climbing and setting?
Climbing and setting feel as if they started at the same time for me. Truthfully, I bumbled around just as much as anyone, but about the time I started to become aware of my movement as a climber, I wanted to know how it was created.
As a young (yelling) grasshopper
Where? When? Give me details, please. This is an interview.
Ah, yes. Well, it started by sitting at the picnic tables of the Maine Rock Gym (MRG) in Portland, ME. There was this steep, dark, dusty cave and if you were able to deal with a good bit of trash talk, and be ok with laughing at yourself, you would sit on one side of the bench, and go back and forth with other climbers. It was a super small community and a place that I’m thankful to get my ego checked at right off the bat.
I still have my first member card from the MRG; it was December of 2010 when I first pulled on plastic. I have to thank a “sewper” rad, really good guy and crusher, Chuck Curry for handing me a T-wrench and telling me to set something. Looking back, it wasn’t that big of a deal, but at the time it was probably the equivalent of having your first child or receiving your Ph.D. Or both. At the same time.
Anyways, I took some yellow crimps, (from Etch, I think), and set this gigantic drop-knee out the roof. It was a mind-blowing experience for me and set a hook that I still haven’t cut loose from; I love it.
the first week at evo lou
Were you immediately drawn to bouldering?
Well, yeah, if you were top roping at the MRG, you were making a mistake. ‘Friends don’t let friends top rope’ was a common saying at the MRG. I think the simplicity of bouldering is what draws me to it. No ropes, no gear, and the freedom of movement are appealing to me.
I love a good aesthetic boulder. There’s without a doubt a certain art to climbing, and its movement that I think is unique to each and every climber. I’ve always associated it with handwriting; it’s like someone’s signature. You can see a bit of their personality in the way they climb.
An excellent and profound analogy, sir. Tell me more about your passion for setting.
The creativity of setting and drawing movement out of climbers is a satisfaction that I’ve yet to find anywhere else. It’s functional art. It’s movement in design. It’s a real trip to witness the world of setting develop and change from what it was, to what it is.
What would you say your climbing style is?
Powerful. I’ve always been drawn to pushing my limit as a climber. For me, that has been through power. The simplicity and strength of powerful moves, compression, control, and raw, all-out-effort have always drawn me in. If there’s an aesthetic, proud and powerful boulder outdoors…it’s perfect for me.
Can you set things that are not powerful?
Yes. Thanks to Chuck Curry and many other talented setters I’ve been lucky enough to work alongside. I would punt all over slightly overhanging or vert terrain and then sit back with a full serving of humble pie, and watch Chuck move through the same boulder with grace and control. I think he instilled this urge to focus on a weakness of mine and work, work, work, work, work, until I felt my weakness turn into a strength. (I’m still working on it…)
Did you just quote the Rihanna song? Can I call Chuck “Technical Chuck?”
Maybe. And yes.
Good ol’ Rihanna and Technical Chuck. How long were you setting with Chuck at MRG?
I set there intermittently for about a year until I moved to Virginia.
Exciting! What happened there?
I Googled the closest climbing facility, which happened to be Sportrock in Sterling, Virginia, just outside of DC. The Director of Setting there was Jeremy Hardin. Hardin is one setter that will always stand out to me. He is very good at his craft in a way that few are.
He gave me the freedom and opportunity to sharpen my teeth. He exposed me to the world of competition setting, and, unbeknownst to me at the time, was one of the best in the country in that discipline. I’m super grateful to have gotten to work with him, and he really forced me to look at this craft as a career; I owe him a lot.
Technical Chuck Dresses Like This All the Time
That’s quite serendipitous.
Indeed. Serendipitous everywhere.
That doesn’t make sense. Whatever. Tell me more about Jeremy.
We got along well. Jeremy is a professional, and he’s a hard worker. I still remember the first day working for Jeremy. An opener of the gym was just a few minutes late, and Jeremy said ‘That’s the biggest issue with climbing; no one takes it seriously. We need to be more professional.’ After that, I made sure to always show up for work on time.
How long did you set with him?
I set part-time with him for about a year, but it felt like longer.
What’s the number one lesson in setting you walked away with after working with him?
Jeremy taught me about efficiency in setting, which provides for a more productive workflow, with more intuition and less calculation.
Does that leave room for creativity?
Literally yes. It allows the setter to take their mind out of the equation. Some of my favorite boulders have come together because I was able to turn my mind off and let my creativity happen. The mind can confuse things if you let it.
Sneaky Jedi mind tricks. After Virginia, you moved back to Portland, Maine?
That’s right. I caught wind that the MRG would finally be closing its doors and a new facility would be just down the street from where I grew up. I decided I would head home with the hopes of acquiring the head setting position.
Heel Hooking it in Pawtuckaway State Park
Which you got.
Correct. But just before leaving VA, Jeremy took me to my first Bouldering Divisional event, which was a real eye-opener into the world of competition setting. It set the scene for an an exciting transition from VA to EVO Portland.
How long did you set at EVO Portland for, and what brought you to EVO Louisville?
After nearly two years at EVO Portland, Hilary Harris, Founder of EVO, invited me to fly out to Louisville and do the initial set. After coming out here and working on the initial set I was really impressed with the level of quality that the facility (and more importantly, the community) demanded.
Now that you’re here, what’s your favorite aspect so far?
My favorite thing is the unknown; the climbing, the people, the challenge. I look forward to being tested in ways I didn’t foresee. In some ways it’s overwhelming and full of new and daunting challenges. It reminds me of the feeling I get when I’m on a trad climb, actually. The feet can be bad, some moves feel insecure, but if you just keep climbing the feeling at the top is all worth it.
What area do you think you have the most room to grow in?
Managing other setters, working with a crew in a facility this size, and working with a customer base with this level of experience. Colorado is a much different place than Maine. The level of other setters and climbers in the area sets the bar high; a bar I’m looking to push a little higher with my roots from back East.
Don't forget to hug your boulder
The alleged east
What are some of the questions you’ve received, that you’d like to address in this interview?
Some people have asked about top outs, about finish holds, about turnover rates, and about setting schedules. It’s all a work in progress, and we as a crew will listen to our customers and come to a group decision. We are looking to raise the bar with our setting. We want you to be immediately drawn in with our setting.
When someone visits from out of town and asks ‘which gym should I go to?’ the goal is to have anyone who has climbed here say ‘you can go to this gym, or that gym, but whatever you do…make sure you stop at EVO.’
Some people have been asking for tape in the bouldering area; what’s the deal?
I believe that tape is unaesthetic and a thing of the past. I would like to get away from that. I’m hoping this facility will be a testing ground for new methods; a place where we can experiment and interact with our customers to find out the best solution.
Let’s say someone is on a problem, and they reach the last color hold of the boulder. Should they assume that’s the last move? Or that the lip is the last move?
The top (or lip) of the wall is currently the finish. We’re going to be trying out a few different methods in the coming weeks and seeing how climbers respond.
Thank you for clarifying. This has been the initial set, how much more density should people expect?
Currently, we have 109 routes in the downstairs top rope and lead area. With projections as of now, the total will be closer to 150. We will move towards that number, but if we feel we are moving to a point where the density is hindering the quality of climbing and setting, we will ratchet it back accordingly.
And how many boulders?
Currently, we have 84, and the projected number is 100. Again, much like the ropes, we will head towards that number, but if it is too much (or too little), we will adjust accordingly.
Collaboration Station - Justen Sjong on left, Nick on right
Anything else you’d like to communicate?
My mission as Head Setter is to create a platform that allows the setters and climbers to experience different styles. I want people to be challenged at this facility in ways they wouldn’t be somewhere else. I want to impact the setting and the climbing community through functional art.
No pressure. What’s on the upcoming calendar?
Setting four days a week, a dyno competition at Grand Opening, and Youth Sport Divisionals here this June. We will also be hosting a healthy amount of community-based events. If we get out way, there will be some unique events that the community can really benefit from and try some new and different things.
There are a good amount of newbies to climbing. What’s your advice to the new climber?
There will always be an unlimited supply of excuses. Set aside the excuses that are coming to your mind and try everything. Find out what works for you. Maybe a move feels too scrunchy, or reachy, or crimpy; there will always be an excuse if you look for one. The greatest lie in the world is that our lives are being controlled. I may or may not be quoting The Alchemist…
I feel like that’s plagiarism. Let’s move on. Do you welcome criticism?
Yes. I appreciate any and all criticism and feedback. We have implemented a message board where you can leave a comment, question, or concern. I will personally address it, so others can read the response. We want to hear your thoughts and ideas.
I’ll try and wrap this up. What do to think makes EVO LOU unique?
I think EVO LOU is welcoming in a way that is hard to find in a gym this size. The employees and the owners work tirelessly to make sure that every customer, whether brand new to climbing or a Colorado-crusher for decades, feels welcome here.
Based on the increased popularity of climbing, are you worried about its future? Are we part of the problem?
Worried isn’t the right word. I’m looking forward to the challenges it will face as it continues to enter the main stage.
Me too. Thanks, Nicholas “Cast Iron” Foster.