Beer & Gear: Abby Tran of Circuit Climbing Gym at Level Brewing

Welcome to Beer & Gear, a series where we get to know individuals making big moves in Portland’s Athletic and Outdoor industries at well-loved breweries around town. In this edition, author Ellee Thalheimer meets Abby Tran, Assistant Head Route Setter of Circuit Climbing Gym at Level Brewing.

A 4’ 11’’ slip of a woman strolls into Level Brewing on Northeast Sandy and grabs a Juice Lee Hazy IPA from the bar. Sitting down with me, she makes self-deprecating jokes and laughs easily. Don’t get the wrong idea though. This is Abby Tran, assistant head route setter and competitive climbing coach for the Circuit Bouldering Gym. On a climbing wall, she will crush you. She might not characterize it that way, but take my word for it. 

Born and raised by an outdoorsy family in Farmville, Virginia, she stepped into the climbing world the day she set foot in Zion Climbing Gym, a dingy little space with weird faux rock walls in Searcy, Arkansas. Within two years, while attending college, she was setting routes and managing the whole gym. 

“When I’m climbing outside, sometimes I look at a rock and think this was meant to be climbed.”

-Abby Tran

As a route setter, she places the holds on the climbing wall to create routes designed to mirror the experience of climbing outside. “Setting is an art form,” says Tran, 30, an avid indoor and outdoor climber who moved to Portland in 2020. “I set engaging, flowy routes that make you think. And aesthetics are important to me. My climbs look pretty.”

Being a woman, she is in a tiny minority within the setting community. “The majority of route setters are tall white men,” she says. “My favorite thing is to set a route with angles that work for me, the shortest person on the setting team, and for Sawyer, the tallest person. I love making climbing in gyms accessible to all body types.” 

Tran goes a step further than just setting accessible routes. She uses her widely followed Instagram page to dish “shorty beta” (#shortybeta), which means climbing tips and strategies specifically for short people, including posts that show her and much taller men climbing the same route. 

In addition, in March, Tran organized–and was the head setter for–the second annual Ostara Crux Fest, a bouldering competition at the Circuit for women and non-binary people. The event was staffed entirely by women and non-binary folks. During the competition, participants cheered each other on, and men in the audience hollered encouragement or tallied scores. Everyone was all smiles, celebrating, punch-drunk on being together. 

It’s clear that Tran’s work and effort is pivotal in shaping Portland’s climbing culture. Yet, at the end of the day, her passion for climbing is what drives her: “When I’m climbing outside, sometimes I look at a rock and think this was meant to be climbed. On the rock, I think, ‘This movement is perfect. This hand hold is perfect. It’s a miracle.’”

Level Beer

Level Beer was the perfect spot to drink beers and chat about rock climbing. Level’s three co-founders are committed to giving back to their community, specifically the climbing community and environmental causes. They offer a dollar off pints to members of the Circuit Climbing Gym and Portland Rock Gym, and they sponsor Circuit’s community BBQs and Pumpathon fundraisers. Active with the Columbia Slough Watershed Council, Level participates in beer events that promote environmental consciousness, like Earth to Beer and Cheers to the Land. For extra A+O industry good juju, they sponsor the United PDX Soccer Club, donate their space to the Rose City Relay running event, and offer monthly outdoor yoga in their location on NE 148th Avenue. 

Ellee Thalheimer is a Portland-based freelance writer and guidebook author. When she can’t get to the trails, she’s writing fiction, relishing local IPAs, falling off bouldering walls, and obsessively scheming the next adventure. Find her on Instagram: @pnw_hedonism.