Climber + route-setter extraordinaire: Amanda Maze
This extraordinary interview with Birmingham’s Amanda Maze has been a long time coming. When we finally had a chance to talk, we explored her love of climbing, the challenges and rewards of route setting, and so much more. Plus, she shared some incredible pictures taken by some of her multitalented climber / photographer friends. Enjoy!
How’d you get into climbing?
I got into climbing with one of my grade school best friends when I was 19 or 20. We lived together freshman year in college, and we’re still best friends. The first time I ever went out to Horse Pens 40 with her, I fell off a boulder, sprained my ankle and said “this was dumb - I’m never doing this again.”
It wasn’t until I started going to UAB and they had their little gym that I started climbing again to have a positive hobby in my life. When I heard about First Avenue Rocks, I started climbing there. It’s going on 9 years that I’ve been climbing now.
At First Avenue Rocks, I realized that route-setting was a thing. I really liked the creative aspect behind route-setting. I continued to climb and started to set routes, and continued to do so over time.
What is a route setter?
A route setter is someone who arranges holds on the wall in a climbing gym to force certain types of movement on the wall. They are all different grades, and different styles.
I got into it because I really liked the aspect of getting people to do certain movements on the wall. It was mostly a bunch of guys who did it. I wanted to do it not to be one of the guys, but to show that females could also do it.
There was another female route setter at the gym named Sarah Ambers, and she set my most favorite routes. I thought it was really cool that another female set climbing routes.
So, I got a job at First Ave, showed interest, and they brought me on to try it out. It worked well for me, and I was able to get a spot on the team. Now I’m the head setter of First Ave. and Birmingham Boulders, which I’m psyched about.
There are not that many female setters in the industry. One female vs. every 10 males are route setters. I like being part of that small percentage to represent the female community in the climbing world.
What did you do to become part of the team?
I showed interest, and at the time we had maybe six or seven other setters. While it was a pretty large crowd, they needed more females to forerun (test out the problems). Having different body sizes essential to having routes that work for all types of people of all heights. I tried not to be too creative, and stuck to things I knew at the time and could have confidence behind. It worked in my favor.
Also, with my ability level at the time, I was able to test problems that were harder. Not as many females or smaller-sized people could test those problems, so I had an advantage with that. Because I was a little stronger, I could try more problems.
How do you build strength, especially in your fingers and upper body?
Just keep practicing. The best way to get better and to be stronger is to continue to climb. During certain times of the year, like the Summer, will focus on different types of training than in winter, which is when outdoor season is.
We work with hang boards. There are different size holds on the board to hang from with different positions - with a lock-off, or straight-armed. Also, trying problems that you know are harder than you can do develops strength.
Eventually, once you try things that are hard enough for long enough, you’ll be able to do it if you set your mind to it.
All of this helps with finger strength and overall upper body strength.
When I first started, I could barely do pull ups. But, just ‘cause that’s where I was at the beginning doesn’t mean I can’t do harder grades now than when I started.
Doing oppositional training is also very beneficial to get a balanced body and prevent injuries. If you constantly climb and don’t do oppositional training, your body can’t develop more without being injured. The chest, triceps, biceps, back muscles and forearms all benefit from oppositional training.
What lights you up - about climbing, route setting, teaching?
I really like the creativity behind it all. I like the aesthetics of climbing. I find it to be a beautiful sport, like dancing on a wall. To watch people climb is very graceful and beautiful, and to be able to do that as well. . .
You just get in this mind space where when you climb, it’s almost like you forget about any other problems in every day life, because all that really matters is that next move in front of you.
Instead of seeing the big picture, you can look at the whole boulder, but when you get up close, it’s a simple movement on a wall to get to the next point. I like that it’s literally one move at a time.
In a lot of other sports, it’s timed, or there’s a certain pressure. I almost enjoy the individual selfishness of the sport. It doesn’t matter to anyone else what you do - you just get to focus on what you want to do.
What are you good at incorporating into your routes?
I do very well at setting technical routes, ones that require a lot of footwork or technique. Also, crimps - smaller edges, I set problems like that very well. A lot of people consider crimp lines to be more of a female thing, and a lot more technical to be a little bit more of a female thing that route setters bring.
I also enjoy powerful lines (a particular style of climbing). A lot of guys tend to set big moves on walls and you’re constantly jumping and throwing your body around. While I don’t love to set them, I like to occasionally set them because they’re not my style. It is beneficial to set a variety of styles for customers in the gym, and for personal development. It’s good sometimes to set your weaknesses, but I do very well setting crimpy and technical problems.
Do you have women and men climb for feedback?
Mostly there are three other guys I set with, and myself, so there’s four of us. Even if all the guys have tried a problem and they know the grade, I will try, because I’m a shorter climber, to make sure all heights can do it.
A problem that I couldn’t do because of my height would be considered morpho (morpho is if I set something super-bunchy, and I can fit in these by making movements, fitting myself into a little box, or a spread out box . . . it’s basically getting your body in certain shapes - making sure that the problems that are being set are for all heights - and all body types - not just tall or short people). We don’t want our customers to face that.
For an indoor climb where you can help that, it is beneficial for very tall and very short heights to be able to do the same difficulty of problem, not necessarily in the same ways.
We have one guy who’s 6’2” or 6’3”, and I’m 5’2”. He has a plus ape index (which is what we call the wingspan: if you stand and you’re 5’2”, and your wingspan is 5’1”, that’s a negative 1 ape index. Sometimes it’s very unfortunate, because physically you can’t reach a certain hold. Sometimes you have to adjust with a bump hold, so you can do the problem without it being completely changed, or you have to bring the hold into a certain hole where you can reach it).
Since I’m one of the shorter ones in the gym, I know there are a handful of other females who feel the same way, so I will change the problem in forerunning to make it accessible to all those heights. We don’t want people to feel excluded from certain problems in the gym. The guy who’s 6’2” can reach 6’5”, and I can reach 5’1” across. We intentionally make climbs where both of these heights can reach, which is a good product for the gym to have.
What is the most challenging part?
It depends on the wall angle, depends on which holds are available, and depends on the grade of the problem. For climbs to not be breakable by taller climbers - so I can set certain sequences on the wall - if you’re a climber of my height, you would never think about skipping 1 or 2 holds on a route. But, if someone is a foot and a half taller, they can bypass part of the route, or skip whole sequence of the problem. Forcing movements where you can’t break the problem is the most challenging.
In forerunning, too, we will intentionally try to break the routes, because chances are, if we think about it when we are forerunning, or if we can do it in some way, at least one of our customers will try and do it in a different way than we intended to set it. We want to force the sequence to be the same for everyone.
We can get tunnel visioned when forerunning, and then a member will come in and get on a route and will do something completely different that we didn’t see, and we think “gosh, we should have changed this, or taken this foot off so they can’t just reach through the sequence and get through these holds.” Afterwards, we’ll turn a hold a different angle so they do the movements we intended on the wall. Slight angle changes can completely change the problem.
The mental gymnastics of climbing translate into everyday life. I notice more details - it could be my personality. I definitely pay attention to more details, especially outside and in nature. When I’m climbing outside for example, I’ll look at a rock. Even if it’s not something that’s supposed to be climbed, like a brick wall, I’ll automatically look on the side of buildings and urban landscapes, and ask “if this were a boulder, how would you get to the top of it?”
It’s almost an obsession. I’m glad I have a hobby that’s taken over my life in such a way, and also brainwashed me to constantly see things like that. There are times where it’s very handy to be able to climb things. Like when I need to get things down and don’t have ladder, I can get on top of this and this to reach it. If I didn’t climb, I wouldn’t have the same upper body strength I have, which would make even working simple jobs harder. If I had the same build I had in high school, everyday life would be harder.
What would you say to a little girl who thinks climbing is cool?
If you want to do it, just never stop doing it.
I think it’s a sport where you can’t get frustrated with yourself. You have to have a positive attitude: “I may not be able to do it now, but eventually I will be able to do that.”
That shift in attitude is very important for individuals’ mental health. Climbing teaches you that you can do things you never thought would be possible.
When I started, I never thought I’d be doing climbs I’ve already done now. I never though I’d get to that point.
If you set your mind to it, a lot of things are possible.
Youth is a very important time to start. The younger you are, the more beneficial it is, because you are growing with your body, growing to do techniques, building muscle memory. Your bone development changes when you climb as a kid.
I wish I’d started when I was younger. Climbing gyms weren’t a thing when I was a kid. Occasionally there was a wall at an amusement park, but it was never though something I wanted to pursue.
I would tell that little girl to do it and don’t look back.