Monday thru Thursday, you’ll find Head Setter Alexandra Fox inside, bolting plastic holds onto the wall with an impact driver. But, outside of her career, gym climbing isn’t really her thing. Her climbing soul lives in the outdoors. While she creates routes indoors for others, the climbs she selects outside are done for herself.
Tell me about intention in route setting.
When I set out, I have a section of wall, a hold color and a target grade. I pick holds and have a general idea of what I’ll do, and then I get on the wall and some of that will translate and the rest is just improv, sort of feeling through it. I set from the top of the wall down. So it’s all in reverse from how you’ll climb it.
When we set, generally we’re setting skeleton. We spend a lot of time forerunning and tweaking it. We say, everything can be fixed with forerunning. But it’s really fun when you don’t have to fix it.
Have you ever had you ever set the perfect route?
There is no such thing as a perfect route.
Have you ever gotten close?
I’ve set routes I’m very, very proud of. I wouldn’t change any part of them, but that’s my interaction with the route. Another person could walk up and think it’s complete garbage. There’s a subjectivity [to it]. But I feel like if something could be perfect, everyone would have to be able to enjoy it. I hate leaving people out.
So is it art or is it a product?
It is a commercial gym. Ultimately it’s a product…
…that demands an artfulness to create?
That’s probably fair.
But it appears you’re also designing in the same way an architect designs a building.
I do think the line starts to blur a little bit because, in theory, anyone could pick up a drill and put holds on the wall and say, “Oh look, I set a route.” People actually want a climb. I think that puts intention into what you’re doing and pulls it a little out of the pure construction world.
Do you think a route has to answer to only one creative vision or does it have to accommodate many?
I think it has to accommodate many. Unless you’re setting for yourself on your home wall and you’re the only person who’s going to touch it, you have to account for everyone who will interact with it. Every opinion is valuable.
How does this inform your gym setting?
One of the best things you can do with commercial setting is provide options. The great thing is I am not putting all the climbs up. I am not the sole creator in a bubble trying to please everyone. I am a part of a team.
How important is your crew?
Nothing can happen without them. Just as there are so many variables in routes, there are a huge number of personalities. We are all sort of temperamental weirdos and with very strong opinions. So there’s always going to be this push and pull on a setting crew. You need it.
Which do you prefer, climbing indoors or outdoors?
I consider myself much more of a rock climber than a gym climber, even though my entire professional life revolves around the gym. If the weather is beautiful and I have the day off, I am not setting foot inside, even if the local climbing isn’t a style I prefer. Even now that I’m in Colorado and surrounded by so many [rocks], I’m the crazy person who will drive 10 hours to Hueco for a weekend or 12 hours to Northern Arizona for three days.
Tell us about a favorite climb outside.
One of my favorite moments was several years ago. It showed me why I climb.
I had just started climbing in Northern Arizona, at Priest Draw. There’s a V6 roof called Anorexic Nerve Dance. I’d climbed V6 in the Southern California, and I was like, okay, I should be fine. I got my butt kicked. It couldn’t do any of it. It was humbling. I didn’t realize how big the style difference actually was.
So I became obsessed with roof climbing. It would shut me down, but I really want to do it. Priest Draw was a six-hour drive from where I was living, but I made many, many trips back there. Slowly I learned the moves.
One weekend, I drove down, I walked out [to the boulder], put my shoes on, and climbed it. I don’t actually remember climbing it. I think I cursed a bit as I was topping out because I always do.
What if there was a single problem out there that only you could do? Would you wish that to exist?
No. I’d feel like so proud of myself for doing it, and I’d want to share it with people, and they’d just be upset or disappointed. That would destroy it for me.
What should people look for when they climb at EVO?
They should look for climbs that people set for them. We’re not setting for ourselves; we’re trying to give you something. We don’t always succeed, but it is for you.
Missed Part 1 of this interview? Read it here.
Interview by Boulder-based professional climber, mountaineer and writer Pete Takeda. Pete’s pretty neat.
Featured Image: Alexandra climbs The Girl at Priest Draw, AZ.