Routesetting for Community

Photo: Josh Jiminez

Josh Jimenez helped build a climbing community in an underserved South Memphis neighborhood using one crucial tool.

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.

Josh Jiminez looks at the wall while routesetting Photo: Josh Jiminez

“It was built here [in South Memphis] because the area needed a community center,” Jimenez says. “We knew this could be a place where people could come in and do something aside from getting into gang-affiliated situations or things that might not lead them to a better life down the road.”

But even though it was a noble idea, Jimenez says the first few months were plagued by doubts: Would there be enough members to support the gym? Would the local community members, many of whom had never been interested in climbing, buy into the idea? And if they did come to check it out, would they stay?

That’s where Jimenez came in. After all, a climbing gym is only as good as its routesetting.

“The biggest challenge for me was not just opening a large gym but creating climbs that were accessible to anyone of any skill level,” he explains. “My goal was to create a combination of what you see in large-scale commercial routesetting—routes that are simple and accessible—and routes that people would be mentally challenged by, not just physically.”

In fact, Jimenez tries not to set too many physically demanding boulders. After all, being naturally strong or lightweight (or having hours free every day to train to get stronger) is a privilege not everyone has. Instead, he focuses on setting moderate problems that stump climbers, leaving them chatting and trying new solutions together. 

“Those kinds of routes force people to talk to each other—‘Hey, what did you do? How did you do this differently?’” he explains. The result? Conversation. The sparks of new friendships. Community. 

Today, in part due to Jimenez’s guidance, Memphis Rox lives up to its promise. In addition to regular climbing clinics and yoga classes, the gym hosts a youth mountaineering program and an after-school program, and has a community closet where members can stock up on food, clothes or homegoods on a pay-as-you-can basis. Memphis Rox has also built a greenhouse where members can learn to grow food that’s served at the gym’s café. As well as a woodshop, where Jimenez builds volumes and teaches others the basics of woodworking.

In the future, Jimenez would like to see similar outreach programs at other gyms, whether that’s financial support, day-pass programs, or affordable guided days to introduce members to outdoor climbing.

“I want people to feel welcome from the moment they walk in the door to the time they send whatever their project is,” he says. “I want you to feel accepted regardless of how hard you climb or whatever it is you do in life or whatever troubles you have—that’s definitely been the biggest thing climbing has given me.”

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All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.