Alexandra Fox, like the climbs she creates, is a bit of a puzzle. The more layers one pulls back, the more nuanced the picture.
In a world racing forward in the wake of Year of the Woman, Alexandra’s ascent to Head Route Setter is timely. She’s one of the few females in the country to occupy the position – one that depends on strong, steady leadership as well as craft. Her job requires a balance of strength, grace, talent and compassion. And if you ask Alexandra, there’s a certain inevitability about it all.
Alexandra also embodies her fair share of contradictions. Route setting blends the kinesthetics of movement, the sculpted choreography of a climbing wall, and the rigors of manual labor. In contrast, V10 climber Alexandra has also been described as “soft spoken” and a “classic beauty.” She double majored at CU Boulder in Poetry and Japanese. Appearance-wise she has the features and poise of a model, a field she’s also dabbled in, though one whose stage for the last six years more resembles a construction site than a set. Creating routes is a noisy, dusty routine, cluttered with ladders and buckets of plastic resin holds, and she crushes it.
Why route setting?
I like challenges. They keep me busy. I hate being bored, and I hate routines.
How did you get into setting?
It was totally on a whim. I knew the head setter in a gym in southern California. He asked me if I would be interested in setting a few boulders just as a volunteer to try it out, and the rest is history.
Why do you think he’d asked you?
He watched me climb and knew my foundation and movement was pretty solid, and I’m a short girl. We kind of have bounties on our heads right now. Every gym wants a short female route setter. Climbing has grown to a broader audience, and there are more women in your gym. If you can point to a female setter, then you’re giving another perspective.
Someone once told me they could tell where someone started climbing by watching their feet for three minutes.
Really? I like the idea, but I think people climb in too many different places and have too many different influences to just say, oh, this is the one place where you learned.
So maybe you can tell where they haven’t climbed.
Is the creative process bringing stuff together or is it a process of elimination?
Oh, that’s hard. I feel like it’s more a process of playing and not being afraid of either. I really like breathing and like feeling the things I’m creating. You have those deep breaths [when] you have more space [between good holds]. Then you maybe take some things away, make it minimal, and then you add stress and you add tension, and your breathing becomes heavier and more rapid.
Where did you start climbing?
The first time I ever climbed in was the Boulder Rock Club. And then shortly after that I started climbing at The Spot.
Were you able to pick out any specific route setters?
I kind of put them all on a pedestal. As a route setter now, I find this funny, but as a new climber I was like, ‘Oh, this is hard for me. They know what they’re doing and I need to figure it out.’
So was that a process of figuring out an objective like best solution? Or did you have to think like the setter?
I think a little bit of both. Setters have intentions, and they might have multiple intentions for the same sequence. Your success often depends on your ability to see what they intended. A good setter will have their intention be the easiest solution.
Does their personality comes across in the sequence?
Absolutely, [I’ll] give you an example. A setter I admire, Nick Foster, is kind of a large imposing man, fairly stoic, but oddly playful. His routes kicked my butt because he’d set these big powerful moves that I could do, but had to commit to. He really liked putting me on his routes because he’s a foot taller than me, so a move that didn’t feel that bad to him would feel completely different for me. But if I can could do the move and enjoy it the same way he did it and he enjoyed it, that’s a good route.
So the route is also a teacher.
Yes. Routes, especially in gym environments, are instructional. You have to cue the climber into what you want them to do. The other option is to throw a bunch of finger buckets up a gentle overhang. Call it 10-plus, and there’s nothing to it. You’re just getting difficulty out of the angle and the holds. But the best setting, no matter what environment you’re in, has intention behind it.
Theoretically, yes. There are only so many holes in the wall, and there are only so many holds you can put in them. But it’s still a very, very, very big number before you get to forced repetition.
That’s interesting. There are a number of variables. Just like if a number of personalities…
There are definitely a lot of personalities, and that’s why I love setting with my crew here. I also love traveling and setting with other people in other gyms to see what they are doing.
Are there other women doing this too?
There aren’t very many. There’s been a big push in the industry recently to have more female route setters. It’s intimidating, and it’s hard work, so I understand why there aren’t as many as people would like to see. And, as a female route setter, there is always a microscope on you.
So you feel like you are scrutinized more?
Absolutely. People expect more from you. They expect you to be working harder than anyone else.
Can you give me an example?
Moving big 12-foot A-frame ladders—they’re heavy and cumbersome, and it’s not unreasonable for anyone to ask for help. But, as a female route setter, I’ve been told that if I can’t move my own ladders, no one will want to work me. That was one person’s perspective. I know plenty of others who don’t share that, but that was said to me.
We’re trying to be progressive, but there are so many ingrained tendencies that I don’t think people even see them. [I’ve been told that] female route setters are ‘the Unicorns of the route setting world’…like I guess you mean that in a nice way, but I’m not some mythical creature. I’m a route setter.
I’m okay being held to a high standard, and I don’t want to be put on a pedestal. I want to carry my weight, and I want to work hard. I don’t want to be the token female route setter ever; I want to be part of the crew.
We’re in a time of profound social change. Will you see the types of changes that you wish to see like in your lifetime?
I really hope so. I want to believe that people are capable of wonderful and great things and that things are only getting better. [Hopefully] someday there will be just as many female route setters as there are men, and they will not be treated differently.
Part II of Alexandra’s interview, where we talk more with her about intention in route setting and her own climbing (hint, hint, it’s usually not inside), is now available here.
Interview by Boulder-based professional climber, mountaineer and writer Pete Takeda. Pete’s pretty neat.