Abbey Lee Leroux: musician, Beatle fanatic, bananagram champion, crusher, and all-around BAMF. Oh yeah, and the new assistant manager at Planet Granite San Francisco. Abbey was generous enough to squeeze me into her increasingly busy schedule so I could get the scoop on her new gig. Amidst much cackling and the deafening crunch of vegan cheezy poofs being masticated by the handful, we managed to produce some material suitable for public consumption. Here goes.
SM: So congratulations on the job!
Bouldering in Bishop. Photo by Eliot Carlsen
SM: A little birdy told me that you were recently in attendance at the SF Opera, rubbing silk-clad elbows with the San Francisco aristocracy. How was the experience, and more importantly, what is a woman of such obvious refinement and taste doing around a bunch of chalk-smeared dirtbags?
AL: I mostly am a dirty climber with filth under my cracking nails and cuticles, but occasionally, I like to dress up and put a little bit of lipstick on. It’s like playing! It’s like pretend. And also I love music. So, yeah. A night of refinement and Mozart is in order occasionally.
SM: Well that leads me to another question. Among your natural talents is a very simple and lovely musicality. Can you talk little bit about the instruments you play and what inspires you to play music?
AL: Sure! I started playing music when I was a child. I never had any instruction; I just always picked up what was in my house. It started out with piano and then became guitar and bass and drums and ukulele - none of which I’m particularly good at, as you know.
SM: I beg to differ…
AL: Every once in a while, something will consume me, and suddenly one week I’ll be like, “holy crap, I’m pretty good at ukulele! I know a lot of chords!”
I also love to sing. It’s funny, but my passion for athletic pursuits, specifically climbing, kind of takes away from my inspiration to play music. It’s physically very painful on hands to be contorted into weird positions for climbing and guitar playing or ukulele. But I think I have struck a balance, and music inspiration is something that’s constantly floating around me. I don’t have to look for it; I just always wanna play. Not a day goes by that I’m not playing my ukulele for at least a few minutes, or my guitar, or just whistling some random song that I’m making up, and definitely singing really loudly to myself in the car, like most normal people.
SM: So can we expect a PG-inspired ditty to come along in the second installment of the Abbey interview series?
AL: I would maybe like to keep my work and music life separate. BUT, that said, have you ever seen NPR’s tiny desk concert series? It’s so good! Go to YouTube and search ‘tiny desk concert’. It’s in an NPR office in New York and they’ve had famous or semi-famous musical artists and bands come in and perform a little mini-concert at the desks of the NPR staff. Wilco [for instance] will just set up something rudimentary – they’ll have guitars, but the drummer (because it’s a tiny office) will sit at a desk and use a bunch of staplers and paperclip things. Wilco’s a really good one. Lucius, that little New York band that I like, has a really good one too. I am hoping to have a tiny desk concert maybe occasionally at my desk. I’ve never had a desk before! The first thing I thought about having a desk was, “oh! Tiny desk concert!”
SM: So you spent a year and a half or so working the desk at Planet Granite starting back in 2010 and then disappeared for a year before returning to re-join the current crew. Lots of rumors floated around about where you went in between PG stints. Care to clear some of them up?
AL: I was in Truckee. I thought that was obvious … we had a going away party! I felt a little bit of wanderlust, and thought, I wanna try living in the mountains. I didn’t expect to stay there forever, but also I was open to that possibility. It was really, really hard to leave Planet Granite at that time. I remember all of the very mixed emotions at that going away party.
But Tahoe was great. I feel like I really got to know a specific climbing area and it became like home turf to me, [especially] since I didn’t grow up actually climbing at a home crag. Being in Tahoe for the winter also led me to Bishop a lot, which was great because I had never been there before. And it only took me three and a half hours to get there as opposed to the 10 hours it took you guys from the Bay. But I definitely missed the city, and every time I’d come back here to visit I’d remember how much I missed everybody! I knew that if I moved back to San Francisco I would absolutely want to work at Planet Granite again because it’s full of so many awesome people.
SM: And here you are, in July 2013. Everything’s come full circle.
AL: Here I am, livin the dream!
Getting friendly with some rock in Joshua Tree. Photo by Joanna Rasmussen
SM: You mentioned that you didn’t grow up climbing at a home crag, or at all. One of the things I really appreciate about you is that you love all kinds of climbing. You sport climb, boulder, trad climb; you’ve also been known to hang out at the top of a multi-pitch classic with Steph Davis on occasion.
Tell me a little bit about some of your most memorable climbing experiences? Everybody’s had an epic.
AL: Well, like I said before, being in Truckee for a whole year definitely made that place very sentimental to me. I do really enjoy all different styles of climbing. I feel like I just kinda go with the ebb and flow of what my gut is telling me that I should be pursuing.
When I first started climbing, I hated bouldering and just wanted to get as high off the ground as possible. But then last winter I went to Bishop for the 1st time and was like, “wait a second. This is so rad!” With bouldering, I feel like if you have a community of people to climb with, you’re golden. It’s so fun. You get to really see what kind of power you have in you.
Hmmm, particular climbing experiences that stand out … besides getting stranded on top of a dome in a Tuolumne thunderstorm? Well, I don’t wanna name drop, BUT … climbing with Steph Davis was a huge influence. I read her book before I even started climbing. I just saw it in a Patagonia store and bought it. I was super curious. I had always wanted to rock climb and I just had no way into it. I read her book when I lived in New York City, and then I moved to San Francisco and started climbing. Probably less than a year later, I was in Moab climbing Castleton with Steph Davis.
SM: Talk about living the dream!
AL: Meeting her after having read her book, and then just spending a chill day climbing with her was just so rad. You know, it’s funny; people stand out to me in climbing more than anything else. When I’m trying to wrap my brain around what experiences really stand out in my climbing life, I think of people – like climbing with Steph Davis and climbing with Fernando [Motta] and being in Bishop with the PG crew, and having so many great days with my best friend Joanna climbing some multi-pitch thing that we’re curious about in the middle of nowhere. It’s really the people that stand out in my memory, not any sick sends. I can barely remember the names of anything I’ve ever climbed and I’m always hazy on what the grade is. But always, the people stand out.
Summit of Castleton Tower, Moab. Photo by Steph Davis
SM: Well, that really speaks to the core of Abbey li’l Lerouxski.
AL: I didn’t really think about it before, but all I see [when I think about my favorite experiences] are the faces and warm feelings of basking on a rock after a climb or drinking summit beers. Those things make me think, “oh, that was a successful trip.”
SM: Your brilliant current and former co-workers have come up with all kinds of clever nicknames for you, including Fumbleroux-ski, Yabbadabbadoodleroux-ski, Abu, the Hip Hoperatic Chickurkey, and Crabby Abbey. OOPS! Just kidding, nobody calls you that last one.
AL: That’s my childhood nickname.
SM: No way!
AL: I mean, that’s what I was called when I was a toddler.
SM: You’re part of a big mob of PG folks who have all gotten really psyched on surfing at the same time.
AL: The surf safari!
Skydiving over Lodi.
SM: I saw yer new ripstick, brah! Where have you headed recently to seek out waves, and can you hang ten?
AL: I cannot hang ten, unfortunately. I wish I could. I’ve been going to the Hook in Santa Cruz a LOT. It’s summer, so it’s not the greatest anywhere up here, but I really like the Hook and I like Santa Cruz. I like going super early in the morning to beat some locals out and get some practice in when there aren’t a ton of people around, and meet the nice locals who are there. It’s been awesome!
SM: That’s the reason your hands are tan. Just your hands.
AL: Just my hands! And my plethora of freckles. They’re just merging into one giant unit. Ugh! I just love the outdoors. And outdoorsiness. This morning – not unusually – we were just sitting there waiting for a set to roll in, and a little dolphin comes swimming by, and an otter … every time I’m out there, I see at least an otter or a seal, or just a pod of dolphins.
SM: Is the break pretty far out at the Hook?
AL: No, but there are some major kelp beds out there so a lot of critters hang around to find their food.
Bouldering in North Lake Tahoe, photo by James Adamson
SM: Maybe one day I’ll get out there too.
AL: Yeah! It’s too hot to climb anywhere right now so it’s been fun to try something new. I’m still kind of new to climbing in a lot of ways, since I discovered it as an adult, but I feel like I’ve been at it long enough to know that if I want to keep doing it forever I occasionally need to take a break and mix up my training. I had my worst injury ever this year, and being super stoked about surfing has eased the break from climbing and has kept me from pushing through recovery too fast.
SM: You and I are both gluten-free vegans. The difference is that you cook sometimes and, like … eat a vegetable once in a while, whereas I subsist on a steady diet of things that come out of packages, such as potato chips and sugar cubes. Your homemade gluten free bread is ridiculous and your vegan nutella is famous among Planet Graniteers. What outlandish concoctions have you been whipping up recently, and where in the city do you go out to eat when you feel like treating yourself?
AL: Ugh, I’ve felt like treating myself way too often lately!
When I do cook at home, I’m cookin two heads of broccoli and some rice with vegetable broth. I’m going macrobiotic at home because of all the burritos I eat, and all the falafel, and whatnot. So I haven’t been very creative in the kitchen lately. When I lived by myself a few months ago … those were the glory days.
Tuolumne, photo by James Adamson
SM: So, how are you feeling overall [about the new job]? How are you feeling transitioning into the role, what do you envision as your job, and what are some projects you’re excited to take on?
As we touched on before, I’m loving the enthusiasm from the staff here. I’m really enjoying getting to know the other managers and the owners. I‘m realizing the incredibly cohesive team needed to run all the gyms. (Former project manager) Brett McIntosh always used to joke that the gym basically runs itself. That joke is WAY funnier to me now than it ever has been because it really does take so many people on a daily basis – from front desk to event staff, routesetters, and management – just to keeping things running smoothly. Implementing fresh ideas is really important but really time-consuming. It takes a lot of innovative thinking and people who know how to implement it. So it’s been really fun to see that side of things more and be involved in it.
One thing that I am excited about is working on curriculum to fill the gap in our intermediate classes. As an instructor at Planet Granite I’ve felt that hole in our curriculum for a long time. I taught BRC (Beginning Rock Climbing) and Balance&Technique, belay lessons, the lead class; I’ve taken Power&Endurance twice. But the gap between where Balance & Technique leaves off and the branch that goes to Lead or the branch that goes to Power&Endurance is a huge stretch. That’s probably the biggest thing that I’m most excited about, because as an instructor I really feel the need for it, [especially] having met so many awesome people who are there and looking for it. You’re not forgotten; we’re thinking of ways to help you become a better climber.
SM: I can’t wait to see what you guys unveil. It definitely is something that applies to a huge percentage of the folks here. So is there anything else you wanna share?
AL: … I feel like we kinda covered it!
SM: Okay! I’m gonna go wash [the cheezy poofs off] my hands now.
AL: I think we’re done then.
Bouldering in Bishop with the interviewer. Photo by Jeremy Spitz
Stephanie never leaves any food on her plate, always makes wishes at 11:11, and laughs at approximately 120 dB. Ask her about high-fiving trees.