By Justin Alarcon.
It is with a mixture of melancholy and great pride we announce that our dedicated routesetter, former Head Routesetter and Head of Construction, and dear friend Craig McClenahan is retiring after 25 years of working with Touchstone.
Craig has been climbing for over 40 years. He got his start in the ’70s at Yosemite and Lovers Leap, back when he says, “It was easy to find someone with a rack but no nerve.” For his first decade of climbing, he climbed infrequently in the summer and skied a lot in the winter. That all changed in the mid-’80s when Craig visited Sierra Nevada Adventure Company to purchase a rope for ski descents that required rappel access or exit. “The owner asked me if I had been to The Grotto,” Craig said, “and I went and checked it out. I started climbing in earnest after that.”
Craig has been climbing for over 40 years. He got his start in the ’70s at Yosemite and Lovers Leap, back when he says, “It was easy to find someone with a rack but no nerve.”
When Craig was hired as the Head Routesetter for Mission Cliffs in February 1996, the company was in its infancy, and the name Touchstone wouldn’t be used for several more years. In fact, the climbing gym industry was so young that insurance companies didn’t know what to make of us.
Touchstone co-founders Mark and Debra Melvin remember the first time they met Craig quite vividly. Debra recalls, “Craig came into Mission Cliffs in 1995 for the first time to climb. We’d been open maybe a month, and he got into a fight with Mark about belaying with a Gri Gri. Our insurance wouldn’t allow it. Mark told him to use an ATC since the insurance company didn’t know a Gri Gri from a spanner wrench…The two argued for a while and eventually Mark gave in. A few months later, we decided we needed someone to head up routesetting, and surprise of surprises, that pain in the ass Craig put in a resume.”
“That pain in the ass” got the job and went on to shape modern routesetting as we know it. “I had some prior setting experience but really made it up as I went,” Craig said. “Many of the procedures and protocols that I established are still in use today not only nationally but internationally as well.”
This is no hollow boast—multiple rotating crews, gym foremen and many of the techniques and tools taken for granted today at climbing gyms around the world were ideas developed under Craig’s leadership. Creative & Business Development Director, Jeffery Bowling, credits Craig for the evolution of Touchstone routesetting.
“We were the undisputed leaders of the industry for over a decade. I’m proud of that and my contribution to it.”
Looking back, Mark Melvin can see how even his first encounter with Craig demonstrated his stoke and vision. “I think he was caught up in the excitement of seeing the best of the best indoor climbing terrain, and wanted to ensure the quality of the rest to make our gym a place of excellence.”
Mark goes on to say that Craig, “not only ran and shaped the craft of modern routesetting, but was involved in almost every one of Touchstone’s strategic decisions over the next decade or so. If I’ll never see the first clip on one of Craig’s 5.14’s, he did suffer the Harding Slot with me (I have proof), and a run up Iron Hawk. Thanks so much to Craig for shaping Touchstone.”
“[Craig] not only ran and shaped the craft of modern routesetting, but was involved in almost every one of Touchstone’s strategic decisions over the next decade or so.”
In 2002, Craig took on the additional job leading the construction team, building Sacramento Pipeworks and Diablo Rock Gym. After a few years of managing both departments, Craig returned to running the routesetting team through 2010. Of his time heading up the Routesetting Department at Touchstone, Craig said, “We were the undisputed leaders of the industry for over a decade. I’m proud of that and my contribution to it.”
During his time with Touchstone, Craig also served as the Head Setter for numerous national competitions and distinguished himself by climbing his first 5.14 at 61 years old. Sitting at 6,200′ elevation in Sonora at the Columns of the Giants, the original route is a four-route link-up called Megatron (5.13c) and is typically climbed with knee bars, but Craig developed beta without them and gave it the name Axis of Evil (5.14a) for anyone daring to climb it in the same style.
During his time with Touchstone, Craig also served as the Head Setter for numerous national competitions and distinguished himself by climbing his first 5.14 at 61 years old.
Craig had initially done Megatron in 2007, but said, “I was getting bored as it all seemed pretty easy with the use of knee bars, and that’s why I created all the link-ups.” In typical Craig style, he wasn’t satisfied until he found ways to make the route as difficult as possible. “Then that became easy so I decided to eliminate all knee bars, which was a total game changer. Megatron became pretty desperate with difficult moves and minimal rests. I’m drawn to difficulty. I want to accomplish what seems impossible at first.”
While Craig’s penchant for steep sport climbing is as legendary as the “Craigpoint,” don’t confuse him for a one-trick pony. Craig loves climbing, whether he’s touring the boulders on the Eastside of the Sierra, jamming up the slick granite cracks of Yosemite, or crawling up the columnar basalt of the Sonora Pass. For most of the past 15 years, Craig would sleep in his truck 3-4 days per week to set, lift and train in the evenings, then head home to the crags over the weekend. On his rigorous training schedule, Craig once said, “There is no secret for getting stronger, it’s all hard work. Age doesn’t matter. Your youth is not taken away from you, it’s relinquished.” Now, at 65 years old, Craig says, “I’m way more experienced, way stronger, and way more dedicated.”
“There is no secret for getting stronger, it’s all hard work. Age doesn’t matter. Your youth is not taken away from you, it’s relinquished.”
While Craig’s climbing and professional resume are impressive, the personal connections and mentorship he offered will prove most enduring. Stories from coworkers have a similar arc to them: Intimidating, gruff climber-dude turns out to be kind, honest, thoughtful person I really look up to and admire. A few current routesetters were kind enough to share their versions of this story.
When Nolan Pieper met Craig on his first day setting at Mission Cliffs, “he intimidated me completely sitting inside a fully lit gym with sunglasses and a ragged hoody on in the middle of summer,” Nolan said. “I was a new employee, and knowing Craig now, he gave me a look of skepticism as he sat in the corner eating spoonfuls of Laura Skutters Peanut Butter out of the jar. However, after he saw I stuck around and cared about the job he opened up to me and became nothing less than an amazing mentor and friend. He was blunt, cynical, and honest. Craig is a living legend to me and an amazing friend.”
“Craig is a living legend to me and an amazing friend.”
Ryan Rougeux remembers an early day in his routesetting life: “Craig had come to Sacramento to set and we were setting in the old Pipeworks bouldering area. I knew Craig was an old wise climber and I wanted to know how long he had been climbing so I asked. He paused for a moment and then answered with another question went something like, ‘Well what makes you a climber, bro? Do I consider myself a climber the first time I climbed outside? The first time I sent 5.12? Or is it the first time I climbed inside a gym? How do you define a climber?’ I just stood there, perplexed. He never answered my question either. And honestly, all these years later I still don’t know what really makes you a climber. I didn’t understand at the time why he answered like that but now, 18 years into my climbing journey, I get it a little bit more.”
The setters who had the privilege of working with Craig during his days as Head Routesetter appreciated his humanity and his willingness to take a chance on them. Former routesetter Jim Treggiari had just moved to the Bay and was trying to juggle paying the bills while going to school when Craig gave him a shot at routesetting. “At first, I thought Craig was very intimidating,” Jim said, “but as I got past the crusty exterior, he was kind, funny and honest. He would always ask about school and give me time for tests and studying. When I had kids, he always asked how my kids were doing. Although it has been a while since I worked for Craig, I still consider him a friend who I’m always happy to see. Whether it is about climbing, parenting or life in general, I always appreciate and value Craig’s perspective on things.”
He would always ask about school and give me time for tests and studying. When I had kids, he always asked how my kids were doing.
Another Touchstone alum, Ben Polanco, worked with Craig for about a third of his life, and learned many lessons about climbing and life. “Most importantly [he] taught me self-confidence. When I first started working for [Craig] I was a recovering addict and had very little self-worth,” Ben shared. Craig showed faith in Ben (and many others) and Ben says, “That confidence is what I needed to be able to grow, overcome my addiction, and be the person I am today.”
Hawk, a routesetter between 2005-10, summarizes, “When you work with Craig, you quickly find out that he always has a story to share, advice to give, and endless enthusiasm for the people and things that he loves […] On the crew, Craig gave you his trust. He trusted you to do what you said you could do, and he gave you the responsibility you wanted if you put in the effort to take it. Craig always had pride in his people, and pride in the work that we did.”
“[Craig] trusted you to do what you said you could do, and he gave you the responsibility you wanted if you put in the effort to take it.”
Donna, as a new manager at Mission Cliffs many years ago, thinks back on her time with Craig fondly: “To know Craig is to really love and appreciate him. When I first met Craig over 20 years ago, he scared the shit out of me. He was Head of Routesetting, and his interactions with staff were pretty much limited to walking past, occasionally gracing us with a skeptical side-eyed glance. Over the years, he became softer. He set the bar extremely high for everything he did: setting some of the best routes, running his crew with respect, hosting some of the most elite comps out there. He is a friend, and I always cherish our conversations about the days when Touchstone was much smaller, and we got things done by rolling up our sleeves and just diving in. Congratulations on your retirement, Craig. You are a true legend at Mission Cliffs, and will be missed.”
As for myself, being the current Director of Routesetting, I think for a lot of people it could be intimidating to serve in a position of management with someone of Craig’s experience, who had previously held the position, working under your supervision. Fortunately, Craig was never anything but professional and supportive of me in this role. He would offer his expertise, opinion or perspective with the honesty and candor we all expect of him, but he never passed judgement, and for that I’m exceedingly grateful.
While the Touchstone family will miss having Craig around the gyms, we know this is a celebratory occasion. Retirement will reward Craig with more time to do the things he loves most: spending time with his children Kaylee and Avery, being “Grand-Dude” to grandson Berkeley, skiing and coaching the Dodge Ridge Ski Team, running in the mountains near his home in Sonora, and, of course, plenty climbing.
“Never alter the rock. Follow your heart. Never stop trying, don’t listen to the haters.”
Craig, from everyone at Touchstone we want to extend our deepest gratitude for your 25 years of hard work, commitment, wisdom, and friendship. We look forward to seeing you around the crags and on your visits to the Bay so we can mine you for more pearls of wisdom, like this from 2010: “Never alter the rock. Follow your heart. Never stop trying, don’t listen to the haters.”