It was late in the afternoon when Josh Jimenez finally looked up from his work. He’d been routesetting at Tennessee climbing gym Memphis Rox all day and hadn’t yet noticed how busy it had gotten.
“I started to look around—we have three different yoga rooms on the second floor overlooking the rope area, which was already starting to fill up,” he recalls. “I saw the first yoga room was having a dance class for little girls, the middle one had a barber class teaching people how to cut hair, and the third one was getting ready for a yoga class later that evening,” he says. “How many gyms can you go into where you have all that?”
The answer: Not many. That’s because Memphis Rox, where Jimenez works as the director of routesetting, is unlike any other climbing gym in the country. For one thing, it’s a nonprofit that operates on a pay-as-you-can model, meaning no one is turned away regardless of their ability to pay. For another, it’s more than just a gym—it’s a community hub, free event space, and safe haven for one of the most underserved areas of Memphis. And it was designed that way, Jimenez says.
“The main mission of the founder, Tom Shadyac, was to build a community center first,” he explains. “If people wanted to come hang out, they could hang out. If they wanted to climb, that’s cool too. And if they wanted to do something else, we could provide people a way to learn another trade.” (Hence, the barber class.)
It’s that community-driven mission that drew Jimenez to Memphis Rox in the first place. When he first heard about the project, he was working at what he calls a “mega-gym” in North Carolina. It was his first job as a full-time setter, but the facility was a far cry from Aiguille, the small bouldering gym in Longwood, Florida, where he’d first fallen in love with climbing.
“I just remember a feeling of being welcome [at Aiguille],” Jiminez says. “The first time I walked in, I felt like, ‘Wow, these people are super psyched that I’m here even though I can’t get up this V0,’” he says. The Florida climbing community was small and well-connected. For him, Aiguille became a refuge where he could try hard, have fun, and feel supported no matter what.
About a year after buying his first membership at Aiguille, he started working there, which is where he first tried his hand at routesetting. He quickly fell in love with the creativity required to design novel problems out of the same holds week after week, and the fulfilment he got from watching climbers work together to solve those problems. “That’s what drew me in at first,” he says. “and it’s what’s kept me here so far."
When he moved to the big North Carolina gym, though, he found his role had changed. He was no longer interacting with the community on such an intimate level. Instead, he was putting up routes that members would usually try by themselves, with headphones in, as part of a workout routine—not as part of a community.
So, in 2018, when Jon Hawk, the director of operations at Memphis Rox, asked him to come to Tennessee to help open up a brand-new gym—one that would put community above all else—Jimenez jumped at the chance.