Photos of Climbers by Jon Dang.

It’s All About the Climb

Rock climbers in Florida are a unique bunch. Without natural rock formations to practice their craft locally, climbers travel hours to get to real rock—or a few minutes to a man-made version.

Indoor climbing gyms are the main gateway for introduction of new Florida climbers, as well as being the centerpiece for the Florida community as a whole. Rock climbing’s introduction into the 2021 Tokyo Olympics has created unparalleled interest in the sport, and gyms are experiencing a boom in new climbers in stark contrast to the lull that plagued gyms during COVID lockdowns.

If gyms are the heart of the climbing community, then routesetters are the brain. Although gyms are the vessel in which climbers can get their fix of movement, routesetters are the ones who put the sport in their hands, literally. Routesetting combines physical movement with aesthetic and intentional placement of holds creating a unique product; an interactive installation meant to challenge climbers both physically and mentally. A route in climbing is a complex sequence of movements that take a climber from the bottom of the wall to the top using a variety of different holds. In a gym setting, these holds are often molded plastic meant to imitate holds found on real rock outdoors and the potential for shapes are endless.

If you’ve never been to a rock climbing gym before, let me set the scene for you. 

The oldest and most established rock climbing gym in Jacksonville, The Edge Rock Gym has made quite a name for itself since transforming an old YMCA into a climbers’ paradise. Colored pieces of plastic cover the realistic rock wall, masked people covered in a white chalk greet you upon arrival and a thick haze fills the air. The Edge is one of two rock climbing gyms in Jacksonville, the other being Beaches Rock Gym, so it stays packed to the gills. The opening of a new gym in St. Augustine, Stone Climbing, is a testament to the growth of this community. 

An employee at The Edge Rock Gym assembles pieces of a route / Vincent Dalessio

The Edge Rock Gym boasts 35-foot walls for roped climbing and smaller walls for bouldering. Bouldering is a form of climbing where no rope is involved and walls are much shorter, but just because the walls are smaller doesn’t mean it’s easier, as these movements tend to be more physically and mentally demanding. I had the opportunity to hang out with the setting team as they prepared their first wall for their annual Boulder League, an 8-week competition where teams test their skills and strength on different terrain. Although climbing movements find origin on real rock, indoor climbing has endless potential. 

The head route setter at the Edge Rock Gym, Evan Fullford, explained it like this, “Outdoor climbing is a great source of inspiration for routesetting, and it’s really where all this started, but indoor climbing has evolved into its own sport. This has allowed routesetters to get more creative and experimental with their climbs, and not limit themselves to just copying real rock. If you can set climbs in your gym that are fun, challenging and help people progress as climbers, then you can build a culture of positivity, encouragement and try hard.”

Climbing is not the easiest to get started on one’s own, so it takes community stewards to spread their wings and take new climbers under them. The Edge is a great representation of this and is a safe space for people from all walks of life to come together. The gym is working to create a more inclusive environment through the routes they set and the setters they employ. The setting team is a mix of men and women varying in strengths and creating a group that covers the spectrum of climbers. 

Fullford said, “Route setters are here to serve the climbing community which is rapidly diversifying, and this means to best serve our community we have to do the same. A diverse routesetting team means more diverse climbing, which makes the sport accessible to more people and creates a better overall climbing experience.”

Photo by Jon Dang

Each route set goes through a difficult grading process where setters climb their creations and give them a numerical rating based on level of difficulty. In bouldering, problems are graded on the Hueco scale which is an open-ended system that currently ranges from V0 all the way up to V17 (boulders at The Edge usually range from V0-V10+). 

“I wish I could eliminate grades in the climbing gym, and I know this is a shared thought among many in the routesetting community nationwide,” Fullford explained. “Grades are a great tool for tracking progress, but every climber has fallen victim to the ego trap of disliking a climb because they didn’t agree with the grade, no matter how good the climb actually was, or avoiding a higher grade climb because they didn’t want to fail. Grades are subjective and you can almost never get a consensus because everyone has different strengths and weaknesses,”

There’s a quote posted in the gym by the founder of the American V-Grade system, John Sherman, “with hard work and honest effort, any problem is within reach. Learn to mistrust ratings, and pity those who are a slave to them.” 

“At The Edge we’ve really tried to promote the idea that you should try anything you feel drawn too, regardless of whether you think you should or shouldn’t be able to do it.”

About Vincent Dalessio

Vincent Dalessio is Folio Weekly’s Head Photographer and Writer. Originally from St. Petersburg, Florida, he takes pride in resetting his roots in Duval County. Active in the skateboarding, surfing, rock climbing and outdoor recreation communities, he takes what he’s learned in his personal life and applies it to current issues facing these groups. His writing focuses on the environment, socio-demographic issues, biopics on community figureheads and stories on the communities he spends the most time in.