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

Climbing, School and Life

You’ve seen Savannah at both First Ascent gyms crushing on lead and bouldering like a beast. She’s also one of our valued employees who works the desk and teaches climbing. Navigating adult life on any spectrum is a challenge, and here she muses on how she’s balanced and juggled her need/want to climb with school and transition over the past few years. Check her out on Instagram and the blog she keeps “Crimpin’ and Biscuits” for some more Savvy-stoke.

I lived the simple climbing lifestyle during my time down south. My only classes freshman year of college were Tuesdays/Thursdays, so my free time was mostly spent taking whips and punting off boulders outdoors. Chattanooga was only a two hour drive from Atlanta, so weekday trips became the norm. The lifestyle was exhausting, but I felt free because I had the ability to climb outside so often. savblog8Unfortunately, my mental health began to decline during the same year, and I found myself in need of an escape and a fresh start. I never would have guessed that would land me in Chicago.

The pile of Ale-8 bottles in my car grew every week 

Last year as a sophomore at Chicago’s DePaul University, my schedule during fall quarter granted me the opportunity to take trips to the Red River Gorge every weekend. With a light course load and little extracurricular responsibility, the pile of Ale-8 bottles in my car grew every week.

Early this past summer I traveled with friends all across the country in search of quality rock and good people. The first stop was Ten Sleep, Wyoming: a town of 250 of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. We spent a little over two weeks pulling pockets and dry-firing on crimps until my my skin was worn down to nothing. savblog6Then we fled to southern Wyoming to snag some trad climbing on lead (my first go on trad lead) in Vedauwoo. Spending three weeks in Wyoming – the least populated state in the US – made me want to climb outside even more when I got back to Chicago.

I got to stand in the shadow of El Capitan

And so I did. I spent the weekends of July soaked in sweat, getting eaten alive by mosquitoes while climbing at the Red. But I wanted one last adventure to capitalize on my hard work during my time off. A couple weeks after my last trip to the Red this summer, I got to stand in the shadow of El Capitan, the most impressive chunk of exposed granite I’ve ever seen. My final stop of the summer was Yosemite with my boyfriend, James. Although our original plans went south and we didn’t send anything, I don’t think we will ever forget that trip.

savblog3As I now approach the second quarter of my junior year at DePaul, the weekend trips to the Red have diminished. I also feel I have officially transitioned from the Atlanta climbing lifestyle, where rock is super accessible, to the Chicago climbing lifestyle ,where gym climbing is the norm and good rock is hours away. Although I would rather live somewhere convenient for climbing outside, I’ve finally figured out a way to live in the flattest part of the country and still feel fulfilled as a climber.

I find myself more motivated to train

So how do I feel so fulfilled if I don’t get to climb outside during the school year? I focus on school, work hard, and save money. My reward is the opportunity to take advantage of my time when school is out. It motivates me to climb more in the gym to plan trips to far-away destinations. By planning these trips and not going to the Red every weekend, I find myself more motivated train. I look forward to creating lasting memories and gaining more knowledge and experience from traveling. Moving to Chicago for school and a fresh start wasn’t ideal for climbing, but I don’t regret the decision. Life’s all about learning how to take what you have and turning it into the best possible scenario. If I’ve learned one thing from the Chicago climbing community, it’s that. 


Pics c/o and writing by: Savannah Buik

Ethan Pringle Sends Friendsgiving

Last Tuesday, Ethan Pringle sent a sport route at First Ascent Avondale with a proposed rating of 5.14a. Let that sink in. 

Pringle, a 30 year old Californian with a big smile and lithe build, is a pro climber who has been at it for two decades. He was an ultra-successful competitor on the indoor climbing circuit, both nationally and internationally. His resume of outdoor ascents puts him in good company with the best climbers in the world. Pringle’s hardest boulder project sent is The Wheel of Life (V15) and his hardest sport route sent is Jumbo Love (5.15b)

Ethan Pringle trailerCome meet pro climber Ethan Pringle and see him climb his 5.14a project on the comp wall this Tuesday 11/15 at 7:00 pm! While you’re at it, bring your favorite Thanksgiving dish and some canned or non-perishable food for FA Friendsgiving. See you there!

Posted by First Ascent Avondale on Sunday, November 13, 2016

The 5.14a he set for himself on FA Avondale’s Beast Wall was no “gimme”, and his first send of the route came in front of a sizable crowd of on-lookers who were either taking a climbing break or a break from the food-filled plates at FA’s Friendsgiving feast – conveniently scheduled on the same evening. 

Pringle was in town for non-climbing reasons, but FA’s resident pro Michaela Kiersch extended him an invite to climb at FA. After passing his belay test (yes, pros have to get belay tested, too!) and connecting with Cheech Lin, FA’s head routesetter, he generously gave his time: he guest-set the 5.14a route, was the star of the (successful) climbing demo, took pics with members/guests, joined everyone for Friendsgiving, and spent a few minutes with me to talk about climbing. Check out what he had to say below.

“It’s great to see how a community… can thrive so much…”

Me: How have you liked your time in Chicago? 

Ethan: It’s been fun. Hmm, how much do I divulge for the blog? [laughs] We went to the art museum, the Field Museum and I’ve done a few yoga classes and climbed here. And been eating tons of fancy food; pigging out, which is probably why it took me ten tries to do my route. 

Me: What do you think of a climbing community that lives in such a flat place?

The FA community gathers to watch Ethan’s send attempt.

Ethan: It’s amazing that there is such a community. It seems like there’s a lot of people who are really close and well connected. It’s great to see how a community in a place like Chicago can thrive so much and that people can maintain the psych. 

Me: Who are your sponsors? 

Ethan: Mountain Hardware, Touchstone Climbing, Tenaya and Trango

Me: Where are they sending you next to climb? 

Ethan: My sponsors don’t really send me places that often. I’ll go places for them if there’s an event involved, but if it’s just a rock climbing trip it’s pretty rare that it’s something that they’re organizing for me. I have done a couple expeditions where they were heavily involved and they were supporting the whole thing, but mostly I get to choose where I go. I’ll probably go to Yosemite or Bishop when I get home. 

Me: Do you have any projects in Bishop? 

Ethan: I do, yeah. Actually, I have a bolted thing in Pine Creek that I came almost as close as I could possibly come to sending last winter, and then never went back. So I gotta go do that. 

Me: What’s that one? 

Ethan: 14c sport route.

Me: Wow!

Ethan: It’s really short, but amazing rock and really good moves. And then there’s also harder stuff to do at the Buttermilks, but I’ve done a lot of the stuff that I can do in a few days; everything else is like V15; I need to train hard and diet hard to do that stuff, which I am psyched to do. 

“I didn’t think it was going to be that hard…”

Me: What can you say about the route that you set for yourself here? 

Ethan: I didn’t have that many specific ideas, but had a few ideas of moves I wanted to set for. I was thinking about the 360 move, but didn’t have a concrete plan.


Ethan pulling the 360 move on the roof.

It was more about what holds I chose for my hold bag and how they’d work on the angle of the wall, and how can I force someone to climb as many moves in as short of section of wall as possible, hence the convoluted, round-about sequences. I like setting that stuff. It’s fun to force people to do sustained bouldery moves with a variety of holds and movements where you can’t skip sequences very easily. It definitely turned out a bit harder than I thought it was going to be; I didn’t think it was going to be that hard after I set it. When I set it, came down and went up, I was like ‘these holds are way worse than I thought they’d be, and these moves are harder than I thought they’d be.’ Greg* did it second try, and he said, ‘oh, I think it may be a 13c or d,’ and I thought that sounded about right.

Me: So you said you didn’t think you’d send it today? 

Ethan: I didn’t think so, no. I felt like after that first try today, I felt a little better than I did on it yesterday, but not very much. I think eventually you just get better on the moves; eventually if you do the moves enough they end up getting easier. I also made some smarter choices about not clipping too high, you know, clipping by my waist, so that helped. I was able to cop a rest on that big ball right before those big pinches, so that helped. I felt really good on that ball, like I could take some deep breaths and know that I’d be able to do the next sequence if I’m not too pumped. 

Me: Is there a difference in the way you approach a project that you set for yourself or someone sets for you indoors, as opposed to something outdoors? 

Ethan: Not really. It’s pretty much the same. A route that I set for myself, I hopefully know all the beta and it takes less figuring out. Although in here you have so many choices about where to clip; you can choose one line or the other; and that takes the most figuring out. This route, choosing to use that rest right before those big pinches was key. It was smarter to match and shake out, and I’m glad that worked. 

“Eventually you perfect what you can do…”

Me: Do you have a mental process or game when you’re approaching rock outdoors that you’re projecting? 

Ethan: Yeah, it’s all about the beta. First its figuring out the easiest way to do the difficult sections, and the easy sections. Because people limit themselves with, ‘oh, I’m not strong enough to do this route or this boulder problem.’ But probably they are [that strong] if they’re getting on it in the first place, they just need to take time to figure out nuances and which holds to grab and how to grab them. After 20 years of doing this, I’ve learned that it’s all about the beta. Then once you have the beta, you commit the moves to muscle memory and just do them over and over. Eventually you perfect what you can do and go a little bit beyond it and keep doing that until you send the route. 

Me: Thanks for your time. Is there anything you’d like to shout out to the community?


Ethan with Josh and Rachel, who belayed him for the send.

Ethan: Everyone’s been super nice and it’s been great to hang out here. I feel welcomed. Thank you. 

By: Gabriel Skvor

*Greg Wingate is one of FA’s route setters

Confessions of a Trad Climber

By Sandy Morris:

What I’ve learned from Trad Climbing:
-Know how to get down
-Sandstone is weak
-Bailing is not an option
-Your life is more valuable than your gear
-If you can lead on Devil’s Lake slippery rock you can lead anywhere
-Know how to climb (ascend) a rope
-Be very selective who your partners are

Instructor Sandy on trad in Seneca

Trad (or traditional) climbing is very different from sport climbing.  There are no bolts or fixed gear in the rock.  That’s the exciting part of trad climbing: you can climb anywhere your trad gear (cams, nuts, hexes, etc) can fit into the rock.  Even more exciting is that there is plenty of route finding involved.  Once you find the start of the route you still need to know which way the route goes (many trad routes do not go straight up like sport routes); where the best place is to build an anchor based on how far you’ve gone (and how much rope you’ve used) and where the good stance is for that anchor; and how to descend from the top.  All of this information on following routes can hopefully be found in a guidebook – or sometimes on Mountain Project which can also offer topos describing each pitch.

Expect the unexpected

Even with the best beta, something unexpected can still happen. For example, I was recently leading a multi-pitch route, and because the route was difficult for me, I put a lot of gear in (that’s called ‘sewing it up’). As a result, I ran out of gear before the suggested anchor-building area.  I was then forced to build a hanging belay in a very uncomfortable position, which added an additional pitch to our climb.  You must stay flexible and go with whatever the rock, your ability, or your surroundings throw at you.

Another time, I was climbing the Original route (10 pitches) on Whitesides in NC on what began as a beautiful day.  Out of nowhere, a storm came in when we were only halfway up.  It started hailing/sleeting. Luckily, no lightning followed this bad storm, but I lost feeling in my hands and feet.  My feet slipped off of everything, and the climb became treacherous.  I said to my partner, “I’m OK with bailing.”  I’d never been on Whitesides before, but I figured there had to be rap rings somewhere.  He said, “Not an option,” because there was nothing to rappel from. While I have no idea how he finished that route, thankfully he was strong climber who knew the route well.

Lesson learned: definitely check the weather before embarking on any multi-pitch route.

Choose your partner(s) wisely

Speaking of partners, pick them well.  Trad climbing is not for the faint of heart.  I went on a very easy multi-pitch route with a longtime friend and sport climbing partner who totally freaked out on me at the top of the first pitch.  I belayed him to the top and as he got to the anchor he looked at my gear and said, “How do you know that its strong/safe enough for both of us?  OMG Sandy we are going to die!”  The anchor was perfectly fine, but he was not.  I never climbed multi-pitch with him again.  Sometimes you never know until you are on rock with a person. Choose wisely.  Don’t partner with anyone that is not safe in any way or does not have a clear head.  I once was teaching someone to lead and let her lead an easy pitch of a long route in Red Rocks.  I stood there belaying her while I watched my gear fly by me that she had dropped.  Again: choose wisely!

Sandy teaching tricks of the "trad"

Getting Started

The best way to get into trad climbing is to learn from and literally follow a strong experienced leader up outdoor trad routes, which is what I did.  By watching a good leader and cleaning their gear you can learn a lot.  Analyze what gear they used during their ascent, and more specifically, how it is placed in the rock and if they extend the sling or not.  Ask questions if you don’t understand why they did something.  Watch how they manage the rope.  Look at the decisions they make, and if they stay calm.  All good lessons to learn.

Like all types of climbing, trad can be super fun and rewarding.  Knowing what you are getting into, staying safe, calm, and in control can keep you alive.  Have fun out there! – Sandy

Sandy Morris is a professional photographer and has been climbing for over 17 years and teaching the people how to climb for over 7 years. Morris takes her nearly two decades of climbing experience from all over the world into teaching the Gym to Crag series at First Ascent Avondale, which covers the basics of outdoor climbing including cleaning/building anchors, rappelling and choosing/knowing your gear. 

Made Easier: Climbing Training With A Purpose

Climb enough, and you will get stronger. Longer climbing sessions become easier, shoulders and back muscles become toned, and those tiny crimps or slippery slopers become easier to use. 

Hmmm, now how would one train on this thing?

Hmmm, now how would one train on this thing?

But everyone plateaus. It’s inevitable. When a physical activity is done repetitively and with great regularity, the body adapts. Over time, gains start to come more slowly, and unless changes are made to your climbing/fitness routine, breaking through to the “next level” becomes increasingly more difficult.

So how do you break through that plateau?

Climbing training to the rescue!

Introducing Training Tuesdays, a new program at First Ascent designed to help you acquire the climbing-specific training tools you need to transform that plateau into a launch pad. Training Tuesdays meet weekly (on Tuesdays, as you might have guessed) and focus on four key climbing fitness disciplines on a four-week rotation: strength, endurance, power, and power endurance.

The Training Tuesday instructors – Jayme Novotney and Branden Lacour, two long-time climbing training enthusiasts, and Jake Dermer, a NASM certified personal trainer – will guide climbers in developing the skills to take their climbing training to the next level in DIY fashion. 

Tools for training are all around. Learn how to use them to get the most out of your climbing.

Tools for training are all around. Learn how to use them to get the most out of your climbing.

As experts in their respective fields, Jayme, Branden, and Jake will use their years of experience and knowledge to make you work more efficiently and effectively at achieving your climbing goals. There are, however, no short-cuts in climbing or fitness. Make no mistake – you’ll be putting in hard work, the kind of work that sees results.

To get strong involves suffering…

Even Chris Sharma is training these days, and he said it himself: “To get strong involves suffering, for sure. There is no easy way.” 

That said, he also admits that the climbing specific training he’s been doing, something completely new to him over his 20+ year climbing career, gives him a sense of satisfaction and has made him a better climber. Crazy to think one of the best climbers in the world is only getting better!

Remember, strength will only get you so far.

In the book Performance Rock ClimbingDale Goddard and Udo Neumann compare climbing gains to improving the performance of a car. In short, they say that you can put all the money into the nicest engine, but eventually the engine will reach its peak and the car will go no faster. 517fu4zzffl-_sx326_bo1204203200_At a certain point, improvements to tires, suspension, fuel used, etc. need to be made to complement the engine and enhance the overall performance of the car. The same holds true with the human body. You can be strong as a gorilla, but if your footwork, endurance, or route-reading skills aren’t up to par, that strength will only get you so far.

In other words, you need to develop yourself as a whole climber to make consistent progress. Training is only a part of what will help you progress. You need to work on your climbing technique and your mental game too.

Most of us don’t have the time to spend those magic 10,000 hours (author Malcolm Gladwell’s famous figure) to become rock climbing masters on our own. Can you imagine 5,000 two-hour sessions in the gym and how many years that would take? Hint: if you did it in daily sessions, it would take you 13.7 years. That why there’s no shame in getting some help to accelerate your progress.

And don’t forget to have fun!

Of course, most of us climb for the sheer intrinsic pleasure of the sport, a sense of community, and (at least for me personally) a chance to pretend we’re defying gravity. The climbing cliche that “the best climber in the world is the one having the most fun” still holds true. But no matter how much fun you’re having, it’s exciting and empowering to cross into unknown territory, and there’s nothing wrong with getting a little help from a friend or a friendly trainer along the way. Don’t they also say: “It takes a village to raise a climber.”

xoxo #letsclimbchicago

By: Gabriel Skvor

FA Member Spotlight: Olivia Sappenfield

We are super excited to shine the FA Member Spotlight on Olivia Sappenfield! She’s a perfect example of just how inspiring and talented the FA community is.

Prior to moving to Chicago two years ago, Olivia was doing her part to make the world a better place. While working in a neonatology ward in Peru she discovered that she could impact the lives of others through research and education to shed light on public health issues. Children and infants would come in regularly with preventable conditions, and educating parents and guardians became a large part of what she was tasked with.

Happy at the crag

Happy at the crag

For two years prior to moving to Chicago, Olivia lived in West Africa where she worked on a variety of projects on community health and development. Not only was she teaching basic epidemiology at a local hospital and showing staff how to better use data to improve the hospital’s services, she gave monthly presentations on child/infant health, helped establish a library, got into beekeeping, worked in rice fields and helped establish a community garden. Other public health projects this Renaissance woman has been a part of include infant mortality, contraception, child-maltreatment and addressing institutionalized racism.

Today, First Ascent is lucky to have Olivia as part of the community. Since moving to Chicago and joining FA, she’s completed her PhD in Maternal and Child Health Epidemiology at the University of Chicago. Her unique background and education will help her to better affect communities through her research and its impact on health policies.

You can find Olivia at First Ascent Avondale gym crushing frequently on lead – and bouldering when coerced to do so by friends!

Olivia, how did you get into climbing?

I got into climbing accidentally. A really good friend and hero of mine, Radhika, is an avid climber. Just 5-foot-nothing, she was a gymnast early in life, and like most climbers who showed up at events, she would never stop talking about climbing.

One day, Radhika and another friend of mine, Heather, were at a shrimp boil I was hosting, and the topic of rock climbing came up. After much discussion, Heather really wanted to try it again, having done it once before, and I told her I would be her partner. We finally went climbing, and I fell in love with the sport.

What do you love about climbing?

I used to be a year-round swimmer for about 10 years, and one of the things I really loved about swimming is that when you’re in the pool, the water blocks the noise around you, allowing you to focus on how your body feels, your stroke, the rhythm of your pace, and your breathing. These are all similar things you focus on when you’re climbing. I also loved the feel of my muscles stretching, both in swimming and rock climbing. Rock climbing is the first activity since swimming that gives me the same grace, engagement, and completion I love. Just as important, it gets me outside, which gives me peace and grounds me.

Bouldering or sport climbing?

Sport. While I enjoy bouldering, bouldering requires power. Sport requires endurance strategy, and I am better at endurance than at power.

What is your favorite place to climb outdoors?

I’m very attached to places I have great memories, so it’s not just about the quality of the climb but the people I share experiences with.

One of my favorite places is Farley, which is located in western Massachusetts. I have such great memories there, including sending my first outdoor 11a and starting my first 12a project. It’s granite-like rock and is located on private property. You could talk about it, but you couldn’t publish or post pictures of it. It’s a place where everybody knows everyone, and when you arrive, people will show you where all the classic climbs are. It’s a place that has a little bit of everything; sport, multi-pitches, trad.

Getting on lead

Getting on lead

Do you have any particular climbing goals or projects for the year?

Last summer, I had gone down to the Red in June and saw Mosaic in the Gallery for the first time. In my eyes, it’s a beautiful climb, and a few people have mentioned to me that it’s my style. I would love to get on it this year and hopefully have a project send by next year.

Ultimately, like many rock climbers, I would love to get out to Yosemite and lead a multipitch climb. I don’t know if I’d ever have the courage to do a big wall climb; I don’t know if I’m comfortable sleeping in a bivy, but I’ll make it out there one day.

What keeps you busy when you’re not climbing?

Right now, it’s research. School has taken over my life.

Before grad school however, I had more of a balance. I really enjoy cooking, so I used to do foodie dinner clubs with friends in Boston, made conscious efforts to see plays, concerts, and other non-climbing activities to balance my life, since climbing was a huge part.

I do wish I was traveling more. I used to travel a lot domestically and internationally, but school has sort of stopped the traveling for now.

What do you love about Chicago?

Chicago has a great climbing community.

And the food. Having previously lived in Boston, which in my opinion does not have a great food scene, and before that Atlanta, which does, I’m really glad to find myself in a great food scene again.

What is your favorite Chicago spot for food, music, art, or culture?

Pilsen. While there’s not as much on cocktails, there’s Thailia Hall, great music, really good tacos, and I love the street art. I absolutely love the street art.

What is something about you most people don’t know?

This is an intimidating question. I’m actually intimidated to meet new people. I’d like tho think I fake it really well, but it’s nerve-wracking and scary talking to and getting to know new people or people I don’t know very well.

Anything else you want to say to the FA community?

To the staff: Thank you for creating a climber’s gym and for creating a space for experienced climbers to train and get prepared to go outside. Also, for creating a space for newcomers to come and be mentored by experienced climbers, and for creating a really friendly environment. It’s not overly competitive or overly clique-ish. It’s a great, welcoming place to be. And thank you for creating that space in Chicago, which for the longest time was a desert for climbers.


By: Nari Ho & Gabriel Skvor