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

Uptown Throwdown Recap

The Uptown Throwdown community comp featured 50 fresh boulder problems set on all of the best features in the house. We had fantastic prizes lined up from fantastic sponsors, including crash pads and bags from Organic Climbing, apparel and gift cards from The North Face, shoes from Butora, and chalk from Friction Labs. And we welcomed mountaineering legend Conrad Anker, who not only spoke with climbers and signed posters but joined the competition and worked problems shoulder to shoulder with other competitors.

All of these things made the Throwdown great.  What made this comp AWESOME was the energy and passion everyone brought.  The place was teaming with excitement.

Competitors cheered one another on as they worked the same problems, vying for the top spot in the same category.  Everyone was trying hard, and as the adrenaline pumped and the stoke amplified, many competitors climbed harder problems than they ever have before. That kind of energy is what gets the First Ascent team up in the morning and what keeps us motivated throughout the day.


Over 120 competitors came out for the Uptown Throwdown.  The rules: redpoint style, 4 categories, top 5 scores count.

Once the scores were tabulated, the winners in each category were crowned – although in our book, you’re all winners for making this comp such a fun way to spend a Saturday!

Want to know how you did? Click to view the Women’s Final Results and the Men’s Final Results.

Thanks to our amazing sponsors for schwagging out our top competitors.  Thanks to Conrad Anker for the inspiration.  And thanks to everyone for being a part of the FA community!

The Gear Geek: Cam-Style Belay Devices



The modern belay device comes in two basic styles: tube & camming. When used correctly, they will both allow for a belayer to catch a fall, and the climber to be caught and lowered. Both require a hand on the brake side of the rope AT ALL TIMES, and all climbers (excluding you bouldering pebble wrestlers) know how to use at least one of these types of belay devices.

But not all climbers know why belay devices work. Let’s take a look at the more complex of the 2 styles, the cam-style, and break down how this style of belay device works.

One of the most ubiquitous cam-style belay devices is the Petzl Grigri. First Ascent has a Grigri 2 on every top rope in the gym, and this author believes it is among the easiest and safest belay devices on the market. (Follow this link for some historical context behind the name Grigri)

What is a cam?


A cam is any device that translates linear motion into rotational motion. In climbing, linear motion is the motion of ascending or falling, and consequently is the motion of the rope. Rotational motion in climbing is hopefully limited to the motion of certain devices, like SLCDs (cams), pulleys, and the action of a Grigri braking.

Why does a cam work?

Most cams in climbing use a logarithmic spiral shape to ensure that the contact point between the cam and the other thing (rock, friction plate, etc.) remains constant. The shape of this spiral – also a component of the golden ratio used insacred geometry that helped ancient cultures create monumental structures (see also: Fibonacci) – has been optimized such that the force of a fall is always translated to a greater force by the cam. The Grigri uses this action to compress the rope between the cam and friction plate to generate friction to arrest a fall.


Like math? Read about the finer details of cams (SLCDs) in Phillip Anuta’s thesis for his Applied Physics degree.

Why would a Grigri fail?

There are a few reasons why a Grigri might fail to secure a climber who is depending on the rope.

Reason #1: Without a cam, your Grigri would just be a US$100 rope ‘redirector,’ and you or your belayer would be left to catch a fall with just your grip strength. Have you seen that video of a belayer locking out his Grigri with his left hand? The results are not pretty.

The cam in the Grigri must be allowed to rotate, or it can not create a force on the rope to arrest a fall. A Grigri will not act like a tube style belay device – at least not a very good one.

Reason #2: One of the design features that make Grigris user-friendly is the spring that holds the cam in the open position (see above image). The small amount of force applied by this spring allows the rope to slide through the device when you want it to, like when you’re paying out slack for your lead-climber.

Ultimately, that force must be overcome for the cam to engage. A light climber may not always generate that force due to rope drag. A hanging climber may start a slow descent that becomes uncontrolled.

Reason #3: All cam-style belay devices are rated for a certain range of rope diameters. If the rope is too thin, the cam cannot generate appropriate force on the rope to arrest its movement through the device.

What can I do with this knowledge?

You can do two things to significantly narrow the margin for error with a Grigri:

#1: Keep your hand on the brake side of the rope at all times when belaying. Maintaining control of the brake end of the rope means you have control the motion of the rope at all times, whether that means no motion, ascending or descending.

#2: When lead belaying, always use the Petzl recommended technique for paying out slack.  You should only override the Grigri’s cam when paying out slack, and you should use the recommended technique at all times to avoid inadvertently dropping your climber if a fall were to occur while you are paying out slack.

Ultimately, climbing is about making informed decisions to manage the risks you are taking by evaluating whether they increase the risk to you, your partner’s, or another’s safety.

Now that you know both more about Grigri mechanics, you can better assess the condition of your own belay device, the preparedness of your belayer, the potential for loss of belay control, and the necessity to use proper technique when belaying, such as maintaining a hand on the brake side of the rope at all times while belaying.

Climb safe, climb more, and climb happy!

Get Your Belay On!

The importance of a good belay can’t be overstated. The severity of a bad belay could come with grave consequences.


At First Ascent, we want everyone to give a good belay. We have a Learning the Ropes classthat teaches proper knot tying and belay technique when top-roping, and our Learning to Lead class gives climbers who want to climb “on the sharp end” the nuanced skill set to climb, fall and belay with confidence. Even after those classes, visitors and members who would like to belay have to test their skills (and pass the test) to become certified.

At times, even the longest tenured belayers can get comfortable and complacent, which leads to bad habits. Habits like opening the hand holding the brake-end of the rope; not using the non-brake-hand to secure the rope between the belay device and the brake hand to negotiate the excess slack; and keeping the brake hand above the belay device for an extended period of time. All of these things could place a climber in a compromising position or create a situation where equipment fails.

The thing about belay devices and “safety” equipment is that they are NOT fool-proof. No matter what device you are using, it’s crucial to remember that although these devices have features to arrest falls by using friction and simple mechanics, they should be considered assisted braking devices and NOT safety devices.

Climbing is dangerous, and a climber is only as safe as the quality of their equipment, their attention to detail, and the trust they place in their belayer. A belayer unsure of themselves should ask questions and practice prior to having someone on the other end of their rope. A distracted belayer is as bad as one who doesn’t know what they’re doing. Belayers must stay focused: no talking, no watching other climbers, no activity that would otherwise take attention off the climber. A belayer oblivious or ignorant to their poor technique should be corrected.

Luckily, most of the time when First Ascent staff walk the sport climbing area, we see good belay technique. We are not shy, however, if we see questionable technique or practices. We are also not shy about stopping a belay check if a person does not exhibit proper technique. And we won’t be shy about telling someone who has already passed a belay check that they cannot continue to belay until the get re-checked if they consistently use unsafe technique.

It’s not that we want to say “gotcha!” We want to keep everyone safe, and we encourage you not to be shy when you see a friend or neighbor using poor belay technique. After all, this is a community, and we’re only as strong as our weakest link.

Belay skills are just that: skills. It takes time to learn and sometimes in the process of doing something over and over again, important things are unlearned. While no one will ever be perfect, practice can help get us close. We will continue to be vigilant to help ensure the safety of all and are always happy to help coach technique or advise on good belay technique. Let us know if you need any belay beta!

xoxo #letsclimbchicago

Text: Gabriel Skvor        Images: Andrew St. John