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

A Climbing Gym and Then Some



We cater to the discerning Midwest climber, but First Ascent is no one-trick pony. Climbers may come in and see groups getting together for fitness classes (on the climbing floor and in the fitness/weight room), slackliners setting up several styles of lines under the lead-climbing arch and lots of bending happening in the yoga room. Impromptu meet-up groups from around Chicagoland – whether all-inclusive or more specialized – also come not just to climb, but to be social and to strengthen community bonds.


A fitness routine with good cross-pollination between athletic disciplines is an effective way to prevent burn-out and over-training. Climbers can become better climbers at First Ascent by tackling weaknesses in their body by attending daily yoga classes to train flexibility and mindfulness, attempting the moving meditation of slacklining with the Chicago Slackliners Association to train balance or find the edge of their body-weight training strength in the TRXclass. As a climber, if you’re feeling the symptoms of over-training (poor sleep, change in mood, loss of appetite, diminishing returns in regular climbing routine/training, excess fatigue and/or soreness, etc), the many other offerings at FA can not only make you a better athlete, but a better climber in the long run.

Some of the yoga classes have become quite popular, especially the Yoga for Climbers classes that are offered throughout the week and are taught by our awesome crew of instructors. The versatility of the yoga instructors should not go unnoticed; First Ascent has teachers who can teach not only budding first-timer but also advanced practitioners looking to twist themselves into knots. If you’re curious, flow-based classes are great for fostering connection between breath and movement; the “yoga for” classes address shoulder strength and mobility through the entire spine; a sculpt or groove class incorporates more of a cardio element; acro yoga is partner based and a great way to meet new climbing partners; the energizing class is designed to perk you up while the cool-down classes are perfect for before bedtime.



For the climber interested in learning how to access their “beastmode,” several fitness classes can help encourage that unstoppable monster in all of us. Need to increase your resting metabolic rate (RMR)? Take Speed and Strength, which incorporates high intensity interval training (HIIT) to boost your calorie burning factory that’ll keep working hours after class. Feel like using the force of gravity to your advantage to train for greater flexibility, strength and functional mobility? Our TRX instructor uses a system of straps to create a full body workout that is as fun as it is non-traditional. Want a creative workout that incorporates theMoveStrong rack? The Urban Playground class uses improvisation on that jungle-gym to net not only a killer workout, but an understanding that a fitness routine can take place anywhere there’s room to move. Want to work the core in its entirety (not just those six-pack muscles)? Core Conditioning works those muscle groups responsible for keeping lower back-pain at bay and ultimately making you a better climber. How about rediscovering the innate strength everyone is born with, but may have been lost due to our day-to-day grind, sitting too much and repetitive motions? Original Strength Training gets back to the basics with functional movements patterns in a workout designed to facilitate better balance and coordination.

Seems overwhelming, huh? Lots to choose from day to day, but there’s more. In the future – as we’ve done in the past with specialty workshops like theIndoBoard and advanced yoga classes – we’ll offer one-off classes from a community of instructors who are experts in their respective athletic endeavors.



But the gym’s offerings go far beyond the pursuit of bettering one’s physical self. We’ll be “Rocking Out” on the Top-Out in the bouldering area from time to time with local bands. Every Monday people can meet new belay partners and enter themselves in a raffle during our “Hang-Outs.” From time to time charitable organizations and non-profits will raise awareness to their causes with our full support. Food trucks will sling delicious foods during Food-Truck-Fridays.Moksha Yoga is offering a free community class on the first Saturday morning of every month.

There’s so much that it’s hard to keep up, so be sure to follow FA on Facebook,Instagram and Twitter. We just want you to “do” you,  and if you ever feel like mixing up your climbing routine, there are plenty of ways we can help facilitate.

xoxo #letsclimbchicago

All image credit (unless otherwise noted): Gabriel Skvor

Head(y) Games

For the first two months of Fall my project was the yellow 11b that took the proudest,most central line through the competition wall. On my first attempt, I clipped every draw far above myself and grew more and more pumped as I reached the roof. I felt the full force of gravity pulling me off the wall. My mind became cluttered. What if I fall? Can I trust my belayer to catch me? Is my harness on tight enough so that I won’t fall out? In a panic, I yelled “take” and my belayer tightened the rope and then gently lowered me to the ground.

Come November my fear and doubt ebbed. I wanted to send this route. Every burn, every attempt gave me new experience from which to draw confidence. Where at first my hands trembled while tying in, on later attempts I learned to calm them by focusing my breath. I made clips mostly at my waist, and instead of yelling “take” mid-route, I climbed until I fell. And though I fell multiple times before climbing to the top, I believe that I conquered something greater than this route alone. As I was being lowered, I believed I conquered my fear and doubt.


On my last attempt on the route—before it was stripped earlier this month—I climbed confidently through the first twenty feet. Clipping at my waist. Breathing slowly and consistently. Chalking up at rests. Everything felt right. I came to the headwall and the climb looked different. There was an under-cling that looked impossible to use. Surely it hadnʼt been this way my last five attempts? I was convinced the hold had spun out of position. And though my body tried the move, my mind had already been defeated. I lowered, convinced that the faulty hold made the route unclimbable. When I returned with a hex wrench to fix the spinner, I realized my error. It was not the hold that had spun; it was my head.

My unconscious mind tricked me, it manufactured an excuse for failure long before mybody had given up. Iʼd often heard climbers say that a moment was “heady”, but Ialways shied away from using that word. It seemed a drastic oversimplification of thehuman psyche: a way to avoid real analysis and keep the sheen of nonchalant bravadothat accompanies many an accomplished climber. But once again on the mat, I wasconvinced something “heady” had gotten in the way.

Since then, Iʼve thought a lot about why the word is useful to climbers. A “heady route”can result from the route itself: bolt spacing, exposure, or an outdoor climb on traditional gear that maybe youʼre not sure about as it relates to placement of protection or where the rope is crossing. But a route can also become “heady” from what the mind contributes. The “head” contains warrens of memory and personality and behavior all messily interwoven. If you reduce this complex, you get something like Alex Honhold playing psychiatrist to grief-stricken patient.

“My wife just died in an accident,” the patient says, “and the court took away mychildren, because—with my paralysis—I can no longer take care of them.”

“Woh, heady,” Doctor Honhold replies.

But of course, thereʼs a usefulness to the term. Climbers use it because it sets up a binary. Under this framework, failure on a route is either due to 1. body OR 2. head.Where I will dwell on the myriad aspects of a climb that inspire fear and doubt, a more experienced climber will just distill the feelings into “heady.”


Joe, one of the owners of First Ascent, ascribes to this binary way of looking at climbs. On a route he will 1. make it to the top OR 2. fall. And while this attitude seems like a no brainer, it’s a very difficult attitude to put into practice (remember all the head games I played with myself on the yellow 11b). Where I have to decide whether or not I can push through or should I ask my belayer for a take, Joe just climbs until he falls. In this wayJoe can focus in a way that I cannot—yet. While his mind is completely attentive to the movement, mine is dealing with that and much more.

And it should be dealing with a lot, because that is what living in contemporary society has trained my mind to do. For most mental tasks: strive to appreciate subtleties, understand contexts, and make connections. This is why Dr. Honhold failed as a psychologist. He didnʼt probe his client, reference past visits or explain prior expertise.

Honnold could only take his client’s words on the most surface level. Instead of offering insight into his patientʼs trauma he could only recite the platitude “thatʼs heady man.”


When I read a book or an article, my mind is working to apply that writing to my own life. The words on the page trigger my thoughts, memories and ideas, tangents which are integral to the experience of reading. Going quickly and efficiently from word to word is only the goal of the most elementary readers. Because the object of reading is rarely to just to memorize and recite what is being read. The object of reading is understanding.

But the ultimate goal of climbing a route is more like memorizing and reciting. Climbers must figure out the moves and perform them quickly and efficiently. For the sake of this efficiency, climbers must subdue their mind, reign in divergent thought and focus strictly on the movement which gets them from one hold to the next.

Of course, analysis is helpful once youʼre on the ground. In the time that has passedsince I hallucinated that spinner, Iʼve done some fruitful digging. Down in the annals ofmy mind, I realized that I had a lot riding on that route. Iʼd been training harder than Ihad ever trained before, and I wanted something to show for it. But my mind was notready. I hadnʼt led enough routes. I hadnʼt taken enough falls. So instead of pushingmyself to my physical limit, I pushed myself to my psychological one. A psychological limit, which was embarrassingly low.

The setters took down the old yellow 11b in late November and then there was an 11a that didn’t speak to me. A week ago, the route was changed once again. I think it’ll “go.” On my next burn, Iʼm hopeful that my reflection on the ground, and work on the wall has lightened my head.


All image credit: Dan Bartz

Women Crush First Ascent

Nowadays, there isn’t an area of life where women don’t crush. Whether it’s work, life, sports, or media, we live in an age where women crush just about everything.

When the media first began to cover climbing, women like Lynn Hill were breaking world records and besting men at the sport. Today, women like Sasha Digiulian,Ashima Shiraishi and Megan Mascarenas (this year’s national bouldering champ) are helping define the sport of rock climbing by breaking world records and pushing the boundaries of what both women and men can accomplish. Even now, women are challenging gender and cultural norms in Iran through rock climbing.

 img_1150I was first introduced to the sport of rock climbing over 10 years ago, when my older sister and I signed up for a week-long adventure with Outward Bound. For 7 days, we camped in the Vedauwoo rock formations of Wyoming to learn all sorts of knots, how to belay, different climbing techniques and safety rules. Once we split up into groups, we top-roped a ton of routes, smeared on challenging inclines, climbed through chimneys (my favorite), and conquered 300+ feet multi pitches. By the time our trip ended, I was completing 5.10C’s. I didn’t know much about grades. I would just look at a route and think, I can do this. Then, I would plug and chug my way to the top.

It would be years before I took up climbing again. My sleepy hometown had a good climbing gym, but whenever I walked into the facility, I felt alone. My sister didn’t pursue the sport after our trip, and I didn’t know anyone else who climbed. It seemed like most people who were into climbing in the Chicagoland area already knew each other, knew a lot about the sport, and had people to climb with. I didn’t know anyone, and I was super shy back then. So my love for climbing got shelved, and the rest of life took over.

Last year, I moved back to Chicago after a whirlwind of travel adventures with a non-profit, and I started bouldering at Hidden Peak, a small bouldering gym in Chicago. The problems were challenging and the holds were worn smooth, but the community was welcoming, encouraging, and diverse. Plus, the space is small… you kind of HAVE to talk to each other. Once I got back into groove of climbing again, I had a blast tackling problems with other people. On Wednesdays at the Peak, women began to gather to train together, climb hard, and cheer each other on, a session we affectionately called “Women Crush Wednesday”.


Once First Ascent Avondale opened, Women Crush Wednesday migrated to the space upstairs, and has since become a weekly thing. At 7PM every Wednesday, women of all abilities, ethnicities and climbing styles get together to work on bouldering problems together. We share beta, we laugh, we talk, and we train hard. At the end, we do a series of exercises, working our core, arms, backs, and legs. It sounds intense, but it’s really a ton of fun. Plus, it’s a fantastic way to meet people.

I don’t know where my climbing life would be without the women that I’ve met through the climbing community. I don’t think I’d be climbing nearly as well or be having nearly as much fun as I am now. While I don’t need to wait for Wednesdays to crush or climb, it’s been fun to have a dedicated time and space to do it with other ladies.

So if you see us upstairs and you’re a woman, no matter what your climbing ability is, come join us! Feel free to introduce yourself and work problems with us.

Are you ready to crush? We’ll see you at First Ascent Avondale at 7pm every Wednesday.


Photo Credits: Christie Batka, Pilar Amado, Nari Ho.

Climbing: The Progression

We crawl before we walk, we take baby steps to start walking and only then do we run. Same goes for swimming where we flail and splash before relaxing and moving the body in a coordinated manner through the water.

Climbing is no different. Perfect footwork and body control do not come over night. Even those of us who have been climbing for years and years will do well to remind ourselves of a few basic techniques.

I remember trying to muscle-up every 5.7 only to get gassed and not be able to climb any 5.8’s. Picturing the well-developed arms of professional climbers made me think that climbing was all upper-body strength. As a result, I found myself helplessly clutching holds with my arms in severe angles. I call this the T-Rex position, which locks your body on the wall until your only choice is to let go with little arm strength left. It took me a while to figure out that climbing – like life – is a journey, not a race.

Over time, I learned to relax and use my entire body – not just my arms – and that seasoned climbers rarely rely on his brute strength alone. There’s as much of a mental game as there is a physical one, and just as the physical aspect of climbing is nuanced – whether it’s balance, power, body positioning, endurance, etc. – the mental aspect manifests multiple hurdles to overcome that usually stem from fear and doubt. Yogi Berra’s famous and intentionally quirky quote about the game of baseball being 90% mental while the other 50% is physical, can be readily applied to climbing. 

Being around climbers, you see how others progress; watching more experienced climbers is also a great teacher. Much of the evolution of a climber comes via osmosis and soaking in all the information that surrounds a person during their first visits to the climbing gym. In time, those mental centers that involuntarily produce fear and doubt are quieted, but not after passing through a crucible – of sorts – into the climbing culture.

It can be intimidating. All of the lingo (so what the hell is a “redpoint” or “sidepulling into a Gaston” or “whipping at the crux” anyways???), tying knots, getting the belay technique down, or something as simple as properly putting on a harness is anxiety provoking. We all want to look and be cool AND stay safe at the same time. Don’t worry, rock climbers are cool by default and sticking with it nets not only that distinction, but also a sense of accomplishment.

Once a seemingly impossible route is completed (aka “sent”) there’s a tangible feeling that progress is being made. In climbing, that progress is easy to track. One day you’re climbing 5.8’s or V1’s and the next day something could click and you’re climbing harder 5.9’s and/or V2’s and so on.

Every time you push farther, gains are made. Even if those gains are barely noticeable, they accumulate. Sometimes the accumulation creates a watershed moment and it’s hard to imagine your climbing life those accomplishments.

With climbing the motivations are more or less extrinsic (looking cool, being part of a social gathering) and intrinsic (participating out of sheer enjoyment) and as we all progress – no matter our skill levels – the volume to life’s distractions and daily annoyances seem to get turned down: “If I just climbed that route, I can easily handle X,Y and Z at my job or at home if I put in the same amount of work.”

No matter how advanced or green a climber is, there is always a new threshold to cross and new goals to set and then reset. Climbing can open new doors like going from auto-belays to top-roping to lead climbing to crack climbing on natural rock. It’s up to the climber to set his/her expectations, goals and how finite or infinite they’d like to imagine their potential for progression.

All along that timeline – from that first pull up one of our walls to that trip in the future you’ll take to multi-pitch climb in some exotic destination – there’s a vibrant community of climbers in Chicago nurturing your love for climbing every “send” of the way.

xoxo #LetsClimbChicago


PS Namaste…