Ain’t No Mountain High Enough: How Sleigh Bells’ Alexis Krauss Balances a Life on the Road and a Life in the Wilderness
When she’s not making music, Krauss is climbing crags around the world.
The first time I talked to Alexis Krauss, she had recently conquered a rock climbing route at the Shawangunk Ridge that had shut her down numerous times in the past. When we get back on the phone just days later, overcoming the route—known as the Something Interesting ascent—is old news. She had already beaten her personal best by climbing the harder version—known as Easter Time Too—as an on-sight, which means she’d never attempted it before.
This has been the New Yorker’s life since 2013, when her friend introduced her to climbing on the West Coast—but before becoming an avid rock climber, Krauss was one half of the noise pop duo Sleigh Bells. Now, she balances a musician’s life with a climber’s life.
“My trajectory as a performer in the band is certainly self-contained. I’ve grown tremendously as a songwriter, as a musician, as a performer, and I can’t say climbing has been responsible for that,” Krauss admits. “[But] I think there’s an intersect between climbing and performing where your body is in this heightened state. You’re in this do-or-die mode.”
The parallels don’t end there. Krauss credits climbing with gifting her grit, resilience, and an insight into her own abilities that translate into all aspects of her life, including music. Her stage presence is fearless and radiant—it always has been—but keeping her body and mind strong allows her to be that much more confident on stage. She also doesn’t think she’d be able to survive touring without going out on excursions.
“I love the experience of touring. But I compare being on a tour bus to sleeping in a coffin that’s on a skateboard being pushed down a hill,” Krauss says with a laugh. “After I spend days on the bus and in a venue, I get to go outside and spread my wings. Take deep breaths of beautiful air. Put my body to work in a different way. Because our shows are so physical, climbing is very complementary to that.”
“I’m not a sex, drugs, and rock and roll type person,” she continues. “People have this idea of me based on our music and based on how I am onstage, but I’m drinking tea after shows and going to bed by 11 p.m. I’d much rather wake up at 7 a.m., drive out to a crag, and climb than party and be hungover.”
“I think there’s an intersect between climbing and performing where your body is in this heightened state. You’re in this do-or-die mode.”
Though unfortunately the band can’t route tours based on rock climbing areas, Krauss has recruited several crew members to take out on climbing adventures whenever they have a day off. In fact, while on the road with Weezer and Pixies, she led the route she had top-roped the first time she ever climbed outside.
That first climb was at Mount Diablo in the Bay Area. “It was such an empowering, emotional experience. There’s something about getting to the top of a route that seems completely inconceivable from the ground. It’s this total testament to your willpower, tenacity, perseverance,” Krauss recalls. “Feeling that connected to Earth—you’re actually touching rock; you’re observing things in a new way; you’re engaging all your senses in a really different way. You just develop this mental dialogue of ‘I can’t do this—no, I can do this.’ Where you take one more step, one more handhold, and then you start surmounting things that felt insurmountable. I got to the top—I didn’t think I was going to make it—and I just cried genuinely happy tears of accomplishment.”
Those emotions haven’t subsided in the years that passed. There are still routes and moves that intimidate the now-experienced climber. She’s been on climbs that have scared her, but when she gets shut down she doesn’t see it as failure. It just wasn’t the right time—but that doesn’t mean she won’t try it again (like Something Interesting). She’s also begun to visualize a quote she read in Robert L. Spencer’s The Craft of the Warrior about letting yourself feel fear.
“I think the idea of letting fear hit you, pass through you, and move out of you is something I’ve started to internalize,” Krauss says. “I think at first I was just expecting I’d reach this point where it just wouldn’t be scary anymore; but it’s like, no it’s always scary. You just have to learn how to feel it and not let it paralyze you.”
She compares the idea of not giving up to recording vocals. Sometimes you’ll record the same thing over and over, but if you’re not in the right headspace it’s not going to come out the way you want it to. You have to know when to step away and trust that when you come back—whether it be in ten minutes or ten months—you’ll get it. “Climbing is the same way,” she explains. “There’s days where you have every reason for everything to be right, but everything’s wrong, and you just have to trust yourself and be kind to yourself.”
“I was expecting I’d reach this point where it just wouldn’t be scary anymore; but it’s like, no it’s always scary. You just have to learn how to feel it and not let it paralyze you.”
Krauss now shares her insights and experiences with a group of girls called Young Women Who Crush (YWWC). She started the leadership and development program in 2017 with Emily Varisco and Eva Kalea, as a partnership between The Cliffs climbing gym and the Discover Outdoors Foundation, where Krauss works as a licensed hiking and camping guide. Throughout the course of a school year, a team of hand-selected female high school students from a variety of New York boroughs not only build climbing technique and rope skills, but also learn how to work toward personal goals, use mindfulness and breath while climbing, and overcome fear. In YWWC’s second year, Krauss is in complete awe of her students.
“It’s just climbing, and yet it has such a profound impact on these girls’ lives,” she says. “They’re learning so much more than how to move up a wall. They’re learning how to have faith in themselves; they’re learning how to have self-confidence; they’re learning how to redefine these societal definitions of what it means to be a woman, and certainly what it means to be an urban woman, or a woman of color, or a Muslim woman, or what it means to wear a hijab, or to live in a homeless shelter, or to have just come here from Ecuador and barely speak English. We have such a diverse group of girls, and climbing is so universal. It has the ability to cut through all the stress and the pressure of being a young woman in New York City. It allows them to just have fun while pushing themselves.”
Though Sleigh Bells is still near and dear to her heart, Krauss is embracing her wild side now more than ever. She moved out of the city and into the Hudson Valley, so she could be closer to the Shawangunk Ridge (which she and other climbers lovingly call “The Gunks”). She’s studying to be a licensed climbing guide and wilderness EMT. She hikes; she camps; she ice climbs (“That’s reserved for the especially insane rock climbers”); she’s outside as much as she can be.
“Nature is my church,” Krauss says simply. “It’s my multivitamin—I don’t do well without it.” FL
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