Behind the Wrench…is an ongoing series that interviews the “rock stars” of the climbing industry, the routesetters at the gyms. This time Jackie Hueftle―a rock star herself―sits down with Tony Agnelli to discuss adapting and balancing life, climbing, work and art.
Name: Tony Agnelli
Home Gym: Of Rock and Chalk
Location: Newmarket, Ontario
By Jackie Hueftle
Anthony James “Tony” Agnelli is sitting at our dining table in Boulder, Colorado.
He bought a ticket down from Canada to visit friends and came by to see Kilter and try shaping holds. I was in the middle of cooking breakfast when he arrived and promptly sat him down with a plate of eggs and potatoes. He’s a unique dude, a tattoo covered artist who started climbing sometime between 6 and 8 years ago (his memory is foggy on that) and setting 2 or 3 years ago (it’s a bit foggy on that as well). He describes himself as an open book and was happy to answer many questions, which was good because when I found out he was a setter I had a bunch of them.
Though he has not been setting very long, it was clear from the moment we shook hands that Tony’s experience as a routesetter had been especially unique. Tony shakes with his left hand. It’s his good hand, the left side of his body his stronger side, as it has been since he was a young child. He’s able enough with his right that you don’t necessarily notice when you first look at him, but his right side does not work as well as his left, and for setting and climbing, like many other things in life, he’s had to figure out his own way of doing things. He learns quickly, and as Head Setter at Of Rock & Chalk in Newmarket, Ontario, Canada, he’s paving the way for people with unique challenges in the climbing industry.
You can’t tell from every picture here, but Tony’s right hand and arm tend to tense up and curl, and he said lately it’s been a bit worse. He periodically uses his left to straighten his fingers and pull his arm down a bit so he’s more comfortable. For climbing he says it’s a huge challenge, as he can really only use jugs with his right hand and even then it sometimes loses strength without warning. This has helped him learn a lot about footwork and body technique to make up for his less reliable appendage.
Our breakfast conversation was vast so I sent him a follow up email to make sure I got his answers right. He was happy to oblige, and he really is an open book. He likes hashtags and doesn’t seem to like the word ‘and’, preferring the & symbol. He’s an artist, so we’ll allow it. Without further ado, meet Tony Agnelli.
JPH: You prefer to be called Tony?
AGNELLI: I answer to a lot of names: Tone, Toe, AJ, Anth, Tone Loc, Tony Montana, ToTo, Tony! Toni! Tone!, ToneStar, Scranthony; my friends all call me by a different pet name, I find it to be endearing. But I tend to introduce myself as Tony.
JPH: Ok, and what’s your Instagram handle?
Author’s note: Tony is anything but a “Hella Mean Bro.” He’s a super nice, mellow guy.
JPH: Job Title?
AGNELLI: Head Setter @ Of Rock & Chalk #lovinit #bestjob
JPH: You are differently-abled, and so far the only setter I’ve heard of with a challenge like yours. Can you tell us how that happened and how it affected your life when you were young?
AGNELLI: First off, I don’t know if honoured is the best word for this, but I am honoured that I may be paving the way or inspiring others to push themselves, to believe in themselves, to challenge the status quo. Sorry I’m still trying to wrap my head around the idea that I might be the first #wrinklingmybrain
Okay so this is where it might get a little windy, I was diagnosed as a ‘Hemiplegic’ or in layman’s terms I had a stroke when I was 6 months old. A stroke limits movement & feeling in one’s entire left or right side of their body.
I’ve lived my entire life with this condition, so when it comes to adapting to any given situation it’s second nature; I don’t really think about it. The average person seems to doubt me by default, often telling me I can’t do things, & when I do they act amazed. I guess I’ve spent most of my life proving people wrong which is a pretty great feeling, but it’s also exhausting mentally always having to prove yourself.
I could go on & on about the ups & downs of being a disabled person; it’s almost endless.
JPH: What sports and other activities did you do growing up?
AGNELLI: I loved ripping up the neighbourhood on my bicycle when I was young. I played baseball, I was in a bowling league, I played pick-up football at recess. The biggest thing though was playing video games.
JPH: You are also an artist?
AGNELLI: Yes, I spent 5 years studying the Arts & graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Art. I’m still practicing my craft as a painter & I always will; it’s like a form of meditation. It’s a release of all the things weighing on you & the same time an energy fuel source. It might always be my main focus, nothing will compare.
My work falls into the abstract genre & it’s an attempt at illustrating how I’m thinking or feeling at any given moment. It can be challenging, because how do you explain something to someone else that doesn’t really exist? How do you visualize a feeling? You have to see it to believe it, right? So one way to look at it is, my artistic vision is the moon landing & my art is the video footage.
JPH: Tell me about your tattoos?
AGNELLI: A little back story, my father was big into motorcycles when I was young. He would take me on these day long trips to all kinds of different motorcycle related events: Swap-Meets, Poker Rides, Toy Runs, Hot-Rod Shows. Every weekend we’d ride off to a different part of Ontario; I became part of this ‘low-brow’ subculture. Everyone looked kinda dirty or weathered, they have ripped & tattered clothing & lots of tattoos.
At this point I am almost completely covered [in tattoos] excluding my hands, neck & head. I like most genres of tattoos but I love American Traditional. Some of my tattoos have meaning but for the most part it’s more like an overall theme the ‘fragility of life’. Roses or flowers in general are a great example of this. You can see a rose budding, blooming, wilting, decaying. We can relate this cycle to our own life cycle. And is why roses are used to mark many different occasions: a birth, a graduation, an anniversary & even death. This ‘fragility of life’ is something I have had to understand & come to terms with because of my disability.
This is another topic that I could go on & on about.
JPH: How did you get into climbing and setting?
AGNELLI: A couple of my friends got a membership at the gym & they would invite me to go with them. They must have invited me like 3 different times–I thought it was out of my comfort zone, I thought it would be too hard. I mean, when people are always doubting you it’s hard not to do the same sometimes. Eventually they wore me down, & when I finally went I fell in love immediately & have continued to climb ever since.
As I got more involved I began watching & helping the setters wherever possible; it was a creative & interesting job that I didn’t know existed. I paid my dues & worked my way up the proverbial ladder but was grounded for at least the first 6 months of setting as it was deemed unsafe for me, & my handicap, to set top rope; the gym never had to tackle something like this before. This was a challenging time as I felt I wasn’t getting enough setting experience, but something changed that allowed me to move up. I’ll address that in the next question.
JPH: How did you figure out a good set up for you to set routes on a rope (i.e. your rope rig, anchors, ascending set up, hauling, etc…)?
AGNELLI: I have my arborist friend, Mike Berdine, to thank for getting me route setting; talking with him, he quickly knew what tools would be helpful & proceeded to work with me until we got everything dialed in. I can never thank him enough for going out of his way to help me in that fashion. I use a hand ascender with a pulley attached & a foot ascender. This set-up allows me to work my way up the rope without holding onto the wall; there have even been fully able-bodied setters that are looking into this set-up for themselves. #forevergrateful
JPH: Tell me about your gym?
AGNELLI: Of Rock & Chalk is located in Newmarket Ontario, Canada. It is one of the oldest gyms in Ontario & has produced many notable people in the industry–Sonnie Trotter is atop the list. There is a strong sense of community within our walls, free from judgement. That is a great feeling for everyone & an even greater feeling for those of us with different physical & mental challenges. I look forward to going to work everyday & I am honoured to be working at a gym steeped in history.
JPH: What are your favorite types of routes to set?
AGNELLI: I like to set stuff that makes you work for the top; if you skip a rock or mess up the sequence I like to think that you pay big for that in exhaustion trying to correct your way out.
At my gym its 35-40ft from start hold to finish so I look at it as a battle of attrition regardless of difficulty; I want the climber to feel like its pedal to the metal, razor small windows for error. I’m not doing this because I’m a monster; I want people to have a true feeling of accomplishment when they send a route initialed A.A.
Not everyone gets to do something they love for a living, I feel that routesetting is a creative/ artistic outlet that helps me bridge multiple gaps.
JPH: How do you think your physical limitations change how you set?
AGNELLI: It changes just about everything, even, as mentioned, requiring extra tools & equipment to allow me to do the job I love. I work hard to overcome expectation; I work hard to be considered equal. But equal isn’t enough for me! I want to blow everybody out of the water.
But it’s a challenging question at the same time because I don’t feel disabled in my mind when I’m setting. I’m just proud to be in the position I am amongst the setting community.
JPH: Have you ever considered joining Canada’s paralympic team?
AGNELLI: I would love to be any part of Canada’s Paralympic Team. As I have gotten older I’ve understood that I can be a source of inspiration. I would like to educate the world both with & without disabilities that there are no limitations on one’s own goals.
JPH: What about becoming a paralympic setter? It makes sense to have setters who can truly understand the challenges climbers with different abilities and physical limitations may be facing.
AGNELLI: Yes, I would be honoured if I had an opportunity such as that. I think I could offer great insight into the strengths & weakness that differently-abled climbers can face.
JPH: Have you ever set a route specifically for you, with jugs for your right hand and much harder hands for your left? If not, would you consider trying a route like that in your gym? You could label the holds with a tag for the right hand only, and give your customers the chance to try climbing in a different way. Alternatively you could set a route terrible right hand holds and regular lefts, so they can experience having one side be more useful than the other.
AGNELLI: I have not set a single boulder or top rope route specifically for myself; not to say that I haven’t thought about it & I honestly don’t know why I haven’t given it a try yet. You’re giving me idea here though! My main focus is setting stuff for our competitive climbing team; in hopes that they are ready for whatever comes their way.
JPH: What would you like to do in the future in climbing and setting?
AGNELLI: To be honest, I haven’t really thought too much about it. I feel like I’ve just begun to set, I’m soaking all that in & trying to gain more experience.
Of course I’d love to set on large stages, you know, world level. Who wouldn’t jump at that opportunity? I am confident in my ability to grasp whatever comes my way & feel things will unfold naturally.
As for climbing, I don’t know what my future looks like. I will always climb in one form or another, but it’s challenging sometimes to balance life, climbing & my art career. Something always seems to get neglected & lately it’s been my climbing.
JPH: Words of wisdom for other climbers who might want to set but might not think they will be able to?
AGNELLI: Talk to the setters you know, watch them set, ask questions, help them out. You have to really want to do it; it’s physically demanding. But with that said I feel with the right setup just about anybody can do it; it does take time to develop & nurture these skills but if you are realistic & willing to work hard it’s more possible than you think.
JPH: Anything else you’d like to say?
AGNELLI: Figure out what you are passionate about & figure out how to do that for a living. When you love what you do for work, it doesn’t feel like work. Don’t let other people’s opinions get in the way of you doing what you love.
I am 35 years old & am meandering my way through life, I want to enjoy my time here & never feel like I’m in a rush. #roadworriors #tellemhawk #whatarush
JPH: Thanks so much Tony!
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Do you know a routesetter in the climbing industry who would be good to profile in a Behind the Wrench segment? Or, are you a routesetter and have a personal background that you think others would enjoy learning about? If so, please contact us and tell us about it!