On a mission to serve and grow Chicago's vibrant climbing community.

Welcome to First Ascent Uptown

One warm winter morning in mid-December, I arrived at First Ascent Uptown ready for a day’s work. Instead of teaching a Learning the Ropes class for Avondale’s tall walls or checking customers in at the front desk, this day was going to be different. Uptown was still under construction – little did I know the amount of construction left to be done. The climbing walls were only just going up. Our fitness equipment was still in California. Our sound system was just speakers in boxes and wire on spools. Our foam mats were still three weeks away. And the flooring in the yoga room was only a quarter of the way done.


Joe Zentmyer, one of the First Ascent founders, and I met for an “alpine start” at 6 am, and we immediately began laying the bamboo floorboard that, in less than a month, would be supporting downward facing dogs, warrior poses and sun salutations.The sun wasn’t even up as we hammered and pried the first row into place. But the work became easier as we progressed. Eventually, we fell into a rhythm. Joe spread the glue while I slotted the floorboards into each other. Eight hours, ten gallons of glue, and a couple sore backs later, the yoga floor was approaching completion. A few days later it would be finished. In the next couple weeks, Walltopia would screw in the last wall, Futurist would install the flooring, I’d savagely break down the wooden crates that held the treadmills and I would even have the eleven speakers hung and wired and playing Rage Against the Machine.

All the while I was clocking in and clocking out, working a job – my job. And if you asked me then what I was doing I would have said, “I’m pulling speaker wire through the ceiling at Uptown.” But as I’ve finished those projects, and as I write this blog, I realize there was something more to that work. There is something more to all the work we do.



For a summer, a few years back, I worked for the Appalachian Mountain Club as a Backcountry Caretaker. My campsite was Speck Pond: Maine’s highest body of water, and a five-mile hike from the nearest road. My first trip in, I was crushed under a seventy-pound pack (provisions for an eleven-day stint). Fog swirled through the valley as I descended into the campsite, and I was overcome by a vague sense of foreboding. That first night at Speck I was wet, cold and scared. The next day, a couple Appalachian Trail hikers passed through and, knowing more than me, they told me about the area. I listened and tried in vain to keep my down jacket dry. Later on in the stint, when the sun finally did shine, black flies swarmed. One even had the courtesy of flying into my ear and dying there. My job was as a caretaker, but how could I take care of a place that left me on the verge of hypothermia, bleeding out of my ear?

I decided that somehow, I needed to make Speck Pond my home, and I worked to make it so. I built a rock step on the small trail leading to the shore. I learned the names of the trees and birds. I tended the trails. And I composted the privy’s human waste (please ask me about this; I’d love to share).

Because of that work, I could tell hikers that that bird calling was a Junco. That the next resupply is in another twenty miles, but watch out for those bog bridges in the alpine; they’re completely submerged. Doing that work transformed my perception of Speck Pond from an ominous place into an outdoor playground. And most importantly, that work allowed me to welcome visitors to my home.

At Uptown, we’ve done the work. The routes are up. The yoga floor is finally finished. The fitness equipment has been un-boxed and put into place. And as I write this, Sam Cooke is crooning over the sound system. Now, all that’s left is to fill it with climbers, yogis and fitness enthusiasts like you.

Welcome to First Ascent: Uptown!

A Very Grand Opening


It’s been a 4-month sprint – since we opened – getting Chicago climbers introduced to First Ascent in Avondale. On the cusp of opening our second location in Uptown – the bouldering-only spot – we decided it was time to party.

Over the weekend of December 11-13th we celebrated the creation of our Avondale location, which was built from the ground up, and the opening of our location in Uptown with a Grand Opening weekend featuring contests, food, drink and celebrity.

Chris Sharma encouraging our team kids to stay psyched on climbing as they prepare for Regionals.


Chris Sharma – an author of much of this generation’s climbing history – was gracious enough to come and climb with everyone, sign posters for hours and simply hang out and talk to our members and guests. Every time Sharma tied-in crowds gathered with smartphones at the ready to post pictures and videos as fast as possible to Facebook and Instagram. Not surprisingly, he fluidly breezed up routes, but showed he was human when he fell off a few moves. All in all, just having one of the best climbers in the world energized the gym.

To have that energy, however, the gym needed to be filled with lovely people psyched to climb. Our pre-members, members, pass-holders and guests mean the world and without them the building would be just empty space. With these enthusiastic people, the building has become meeting place for a vibrant community where climbing accents the social benefits of being surrounded by like-minded people.

First Ascent community handprint mural.
So our family came out Friday evening for music, food trucks and to watch Sharma do his thing in what would be a warm-up for Saturday. That next morning our pre-members were greeted with an art project that they were able to help make. Each had the option of dipping their hands in paint and adding a colored handprint into what is now a large First Ascent logo on the wall across from the retail space. This symbol is a tangible expression that our climbing gym would not be standing without the people filling it.

Contests also filled Saturday where men and women competed in a pull-up contest, speed climbing comp, a dyno comp and the “enduro challenge” to see who could climb the most routes in the gym during our operating hours that day. The level of participation was impressive, but also showed the strength, skill and stamina of the climbers who frequent our gym: the enduro winner climbed 81 routes (!!!) and the pull-up winners did 35 (guys) and 16 (gals) pull-ups respectively.

As the festivities wound down at the Avondale spot, everyone was invited over to our new Uptown gym for light snacks and refreshments. Seeing the new space was jaw-dropping for some; the classic Uptown neighborhood views with the Riviera Theatre and the passing trains of the El’s Red Line were external window dressing to the interior filled with thousands of square feet of bouldering walls.

Over the several hours people hung out at Uptown music blasted, laughter could be heard throughout the building and reports of a spontaneous dance party that erupted – and singing Happy Birthday to our dear Michaela – was what everyone was talking about the next morning.

The CPS All-City Orchestra performed for Family Day, led by First Ascent member Rachel Atlas.


And on that next morning – with sleep filled eyes and big grins – we opened First Ascent Avondale for family day. Parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles brought in their little ones (and not-so-little) to climb and have some pint-sized fun. One highlight was the crate stacking competition where one little lady was able to stack 21 crates for the win… from ground level the stack was as tall as the bouldering area.

The future holds great things for the Chicago climbing community. Our grand opening weekend showed how the community has grown in the few short months we’ve been open and the heartfelt response of our members, friends and guests alike.

Thank you!

xoxo #letsclimbchicago