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

Hashtag BestNine2016

Like all years do, 2016 comes to a close. At the end of every year everyone loves a good “best-of” list, like the 10 best recipes from Lucky Peach or the 10 best surfing vids from Surfing Magazine or the top 10 albums of 2016 according to NPR’s Tiny Desk.

Instagram, however, is unique in that – in it’s squared format – it allows for users to post their top nine images with the hashtag #bestnine2016 to give others a quick recap of their year in photos. 

Here’s First Ascent Climbing’s contribution to this popular hashtag: 


FA’s #BestNine2016

We’ve had a busy year capturing moments, posting about the goings-on at the gyms and sharing posts from our lovely members. This blog gives a little context and background to the nine images in the collage above, in what we thought was our BestNine2016; links to original Insta-posts are underlined above their respective images below. (note: strictly still images were chosen, no videos)

#9 Santa on a portaledge


On what turned out to be one of our busiest days of the year, Santa took time from his busy schedule to “hang out” on the portaledge, and those who were brave enough climbed up to ole St. Nick to put in their order for presents. Even T-Rex got into the mix (more on him later). Outdoor retailers from all over the city were on hand and members got to participate in a gear swap. Great warm-up for the holidays!


#8 Bobbing for apples action shot


One of the hardest working climbers at First Ascent (Myung) shows of his apple bobbing skills. This was from the Uptown Hoedown community climbing comp. Fall was in full swing with staff dressed in ranching attire and competition was friendly and fierce. 

#7 Getting dynamic at the Uptown Throwdown


In our second community competition at the Uptown gym, Dan Bartz (FA founder) was in the right place at the right time to capture Adin get airborne. Conrad Anker (also more on him later) was on hand to witness the community that’s been growing ever since. Here’s the full recap.

#6 FAoutside Instagram comp winner


In the Fall, when “sending temps” were upon us, we wanted to see all of the FA community’s outdoor climbing pics. So we had a contest on Instagram using the hashtag #FAoutside for bouldering and sport climbing. FA Youth Climbing Team crusher, Estelle Park, submitted this winning image in the bouldering category, which won her some sweet bouldering swag. This is her topping out Plumbers Crack (V1/2) at Red Rock Canyon just outside Las Vegas, NV. 

#5 First Ascent goes international


Former FA member Ryan Thompson travels the world for work and pleasure. This iconic shot was taken during one of his excursions in Japan. Even when members move on, they continue to be FAmily!

#4 Michaela Kiersch sends Golden Ticket


Until FA’s resident pro-climber Michaela Kiersch came along, no woman had completed Golden Ticket, a 5.14c rated sport climbing route in the Red River Gorge in Kentucky. Kiersch, with this and many other sends, continues to establish herself as one of the best climbers in the world. Photographer Andy Wickstrom was on hand to capture the send in still images and on video. Expect big things from this mighty lady in 2017 and beyond. 

#3 Living legend Conrad Anker climbs at Uptown


When talking about Conrad Anker’s accomplishments, it’s hard not to sound hyperbolic. This man has summited the tallest peaks in the world and done death defying climbs on the most technical mountain faces nature has conjured. While in Chicago, he stopped by the Uptown Throwdown climbing comp in March, spent time with FAmily members and threw down, crushing some boulders. 

#2 T-rex goes full dyno


First Ascent Avondale turned 1 and everyone came out to the party, including T-rex. He tried and tried and tried to nail some dynos in the dyno-comp. Here’s one of his valiant attempts to score points. The video of this has over 300,000 views.

#1 Hello, FA Humboldt Park


Projected to open in Spring 2017, this bouldering-only gym will be the latest addition to the First Ascent family of climbing and fitness gyms. We are beyond excited to end the year with a new project like this, which will bring even more joy to the vertically minded Chicago climbing community. 

Thanks for Instagramming with us in 2016 and #letsclimbingchicago!!!

By: Gabriel Skvor


Climbers Guide to Yoga: Vol. 1

In what will be a series of essays, Julia “Jules” McGuire breaks down how climbers benefit from a consistent yoga practice. Jules is both a seasoned yoga practitioner and a well travelled climber. She teaches two popular yoga classes on Saturdays (1230pm and 2pm) at the Avondale gym and can be spotted gracefully making her way up lead routes and boulder problems when class is over.

Julia getting ready for some trad

Julia getting ready for some trad

Pranayama: A Deeper Look

Before scaling up a wall, it is imperative that climbers understand their immediate atmosphere. How long is the climb, and what gear does the route call for? Is it a balance-dependent vertical climb or a powerful, sustained overhang? Assessing the climb helps to prepare a climber’s mental state and sets the expectation of how the climber’s body will need to perform and maneuver. Developing a keen awareness of one’s movement on a wall allows a climber to expand on their technicality, achieving deeper connectivity between their body and the wall itself as their stems crimp and pinch and tiptoe across the rock face.

Training on hangboards, maintaining cardiovascular health, and keeping a fit core all serve a clinging climber well. But how can climbers train their mental game to confront heady moves that could result in a big fall – leaving them dangling in midair from a rope with a diameter the size of their thumb?

Enter yogic breathing

FA Yoga instructor Carrie Pokorney

FA Yoga instructor Carrie Pokorney

A discussion on yoga can be approached from a multitude of angles: flexibility, fitness, meditation, even religion. There are also numerous yoga styles and forms, from static Hatha to dynamic Vinyasa, powerful Ashtanga to restorative Yin. But no matter how broad the scope, all sectors can agree on one very key factor: Pranayama.

Pranayama is the Sanskrit terminology used to describe yogic breathing exercises (in simple terms, prana means life force; yama / ayama means to restrain / to draw out.) Among many benefits, the practice of slow, disciplined breathing has been proven to have a direct effect on the body’s nervous system, specifically the parasympathetic nervous system commonly recognized as the “rest and digest” mode. This system allows for lowered blood pressure, increased circulation, and relaxation. Whenever the body is outside this realm of restoration, whether experiencing healthy, physical exertion or less desirable stressors like worrying and rushing, then the body is using the sympathetic nervous system, also known as the “fight or flight” system.

Through devoted efforts to harmonize both mind and body, yoga practitioners can begin to develop a heightened awareness of their internal atmosphere, and thus better recognize the impact of external stressors and the reactions they impose inside one’s body.

Attain focus, climb better

Savannah Buik on Contorted (V4) Mt. Lemmon, AZ (img: c/o @TC.Bukowski

Savannah Buik on Contorted (V4) Mt. Lemmon, AZ (img: c/o @TC.Bukowski)

There are many different approaches to Pranayama with different goals.

Ujjayi breathing, translated as “victorious” breath is the most commonly known breathing technique. This practice is done by creating a pulling sensation of air in through the nose, almost as if you snore in air to the back of the throat. This audible, ocean-like breath not only sounds pleasant and soothing, but it allows the yogi to formulate a connection to their inner state.

Breathing through pursed lips (or even a “taco tongue”) helps cool the body down and relax nerves. Quick, forceful “ha” sounding exhales stoke heat in the core to build energy as well as detoxify.

Alternate nostril breathing, or nodi shodhana, translated as “energy channel cleansing,” allows for the hemispheres of the brain to balance differing functions such as rationality and creativity.


Breathing and meditation works. Try it out!

Whatever form you practice, climbers armed with the knowledge of Pranayama can attain a calm, focused state through learned breath work. This state more adequately prepares the climber to concentrate on the task at hand – namely, leading a tall, overhanging route that demands the entirety of the climber’s mind and body. Long exhales can be especially useful when assessing a long run out to the next clip, deterring anxieties and reservations of one’s true abilities. If you’re stepping into a crux, shaking on “Elvis legs,” or slipping off a hold just in time to catch the next one, just breathe.


Yoga: anytime, anywhere

Perhaps the best aspect of Pranayama is that it can be done anywhere, at any time. Whether you are in a tranquil yoga studio or clinging to a micro-crimper for dear life, tuning into the breath will give way to an understanding of the internal physical and mental state. When you better understand and control your mental state, you are more equipped to move forward. Breathe better. Stick the crux. Send your project!

By: Julia McGuire

PS the Meditation for Climbers Workshop drops on 1/8/17 at the First Ascent Avondale gym

Be Patient: Bouldering Is Hard for Everyone

To boulder, check your ego at the door

A V1 boulder problem is NOT easy. It’s just not.

Dimi projecting; Feghali in a beanie

Dimi projecting; Feghali in a beanie

When you walk into FA Uptown or FA Avondale and see climbers sending V1’s left and right, that seems normal because that’s what we expect to see at at the climbing gym. But it’s not something the average person can just walk up and do. 

A V1 can be compared to the most difficult movement in a 5.10c sport climbing route – a subjective but telling comparison. Think back to the time you first walked into a climbing gym. Were you able to climb a 5.10c with ease? I wasn’t!

Gabe falling and falling and falling...

Gabe falling and falling and falling…

I have the privilege of talking to hundreds of climbers every week, and I’ve noticed a pattern in newer climbers. I’m talking about those who haven’t been climbing for more than two or three years.

“I’m just not good at bouldering,” or “Anything beyond V2 is impossible for me,” or “I’ll never be as strong as those guys/gals,” or “This one problem looked cool, but I fell off after one try and moved on,” are all things I’ve heard more than once from those who fall into that 0-3 years range of climbing experience.

FA founder Jon Shepard sporting his try-hard face.

Bouldering is a great way to keep your ego in-check. Failure and bouldering go hand-in-hand. When climbing at your grade or trying to climb above it, most attempts find you peeling off the wall, seeing a foot slip, getting too compressed or overextended, and eventually falling to a pad below.

Here’s the thing: failure when bouldering should not be discouraging! Why? Because failure is an inherent part of learning how to climb. Your body actually needs to fail in order to learn because of how your muscles create power in movement.

To boulder well, a well-balanced marriage of technique, body awareness, and power is required (also, no T-rex arms!). Usually, better technique and a more acute understanding of where a body is in space comes with time and lots of practice. Power, however, can compensate in the time it takes to become a better all-around climber, and this muscular force can develop quickly if you give it a chance. 

Now, bear with some technical fitness jargon here

When a muscle is engaged as a force is applied against it, the muscle must contract to generate enough power against that force. If the force is greater than the muscle’s ability to produce a counter-force under contraction, the object applying the force won’t move.

In weightlifting, depending on how heavy a weight is and how many reps a lifter is doing, the lifter will eventually reach a point of failure – a point when s/he won’t be able to lift past a certain weight or a certain rep. Two things come into play when lifting a weight until failure: 1. Depletion of the energy source for the muscle (ATP) via anaerobic glycolysis and 2. Lack of Motor Unit recruitment. For a lifter to get stronger and do more weight or reps, s/he has to overload the muscle over time until the muscle learns to lift a heavier weight and the body makes adaptations to allow the muscle to use more ATP at heavier loads.

This same process is at work when bouldering. Let’s say a climber is trying to make a move s/he has never made before; let’s also assume the muscle has sufficient ATP stores to allow for repeated attempts. The climber’s muscles must adapt to that movement through the recruitment of motor units that are activated by a motor neuron that needs to “learn” how to fire (turn on) when the movement is made. When a muscle begins to adapt to a movement, it starts recruiting more motor unit fibers until the contractile force is such that the move can successfully be made. Rudy in the spotlight

That’s why when weightlifters go for their one-rep-max (the heaviest load they can lift once), they warm-up by performing that same lift with a progression of lighter-to-heavier weight. That’s also why measureable progress can be made between the start and finish of a boulder problem when a climber continues to work a problem – what climbers call “projecting”. Moves that seemed impossible at first become easier, sometimes in just a few short minutes.

Be patient; don’t walk away from that boulder

Give your muscles’ motor unit recruitment a chance. Don’t walk away from a V1 or 2 or 3 just because you fell off that first or second move. The vast majority of bouldering is failing, but each little failure is like a door that opens in a labyrinth. After many attempts, enough of these “doors” open and the path to the finish is clear.

In the flow at Uptown

Remember that climbing – like life – is a journey, not a race. Be patient with bouldering. Take time to allow your body to catch up to what you believe you can accomplish.

Also, work projects with other climbers to get encouragement and “beta” – technique pointers specific to the boulder problem you are working on. Failure is hard, but it is significantly softened when experienced in community.

Rome was not built in a day, and those who climb V4-V17 boulder problems all started with V0 jug-hauls, too. The sweetness of giving yourself the time to fail, to one day send your goal grade or boulder problem, is priceless. For many, it’s what gets them hooked on climbing. And for any climber who sticks around long enough to see that progress, the tenacity and dedication developed while projecting boulders in the gym can be taken along for the challenging but rewarding journey we call life.

xoxo #letsclimbchicago

By: Gabriel Skvor 



PS full disclosure: I have yet to send an outdoor V4… I’m a move away from these four: 1. 2. 3. 4. I know all y’all’s pain!


Climbing With Friends or Guides

This blog by FAmily member Mila Ugryn talks about climbing with friends and with guides. Both are valuable assets in a climber’s life. Mila can be found, mostly at FA Avondale, several nights a week sport climbing with friends, and dipping her toes into bouldering. Like so many of us, she’s eagerly gaining knowledge to climb safely, and in the meantime that means hiring guides so she can enjoy climbing outdoors, learn and be safe at the same time. 

Pandora’s Box to Climbing15218281_10154738312789383_1121958738_n

My first climbing experience was outdoors with friends Zoran and Sasha at Devil’s Lake in Wisconsin. Several years ago a big group of friends came out for hiking and camping, and most of us had zero climbing experience. For me, Zoran and Sasha opened Pandora’s Box to climbing by inviting each one of us to do a route or two. They were welcoming, kind and patient; lending their shoes, teaching about safety and belaying for hours before climbing themselves. Rock climbing didn’t seem as intimidating anymore, when it was two friends teaching us and welcoming us with open arms into the sport.


After that first climb, I was hooked. Back then, however, I didn’t know how committed I could become with only outdoor climbing opportunities available.  First Ascent opened a year or two after, which solved the problem of having a consistent place to climb in the city and I was sucked into the climbing community and its culture.

Turkey Day 2016

This year our generous boss at Italian Expo gave us a few days off for Thanksgiving, which meant an opportunity to take a trip and stuff ourselves with turkey in a new place. We chose Boulder, which was the most affordable and interesting place to us, and my heart was overcome with joy when I thought about all the climbing opportunities in Colorado. The night before, we booked our flight, an Airbnb, car and a climbing guide since we didn’t know anyone in Boulder who could take us.

Boulder is a special place, home to some of the most famous climbing stars of United States, and according to some one of the most athletic cities in US. With so many people climbing and doing outdoor activities, competition from climbing companies to get business is intense. After calling several places (the day before Thanksgiving) and trying to book a guide, Jeremiah of Colorado Climbing called back and agreed to take us climbing. 15218485_10154738296939383_1723500898_n

One of the other companies returned my call later, and inquired about who we’d hired. They didn’t recognize Jeremiah’s company, and mentioned they’ve been in the industry for over 40 years, suggesting perhaps, that their company is more experienced. Their approach made it clear that during the off season every client counts, but it made it for an awkward conversation since I wasn’t about to break my promise to Colorado Climbing.

Classes with Sandy Morris at FA made me feel more comfortable

We were all set for Saturday, and I couldn’t have been more excited. My guide Bob offered to do some rappelling, trad, multi-pitch climbing and anything else my heart desired. Having taken the Gym to Crag classes with Sandy Morris at First Ascent, which teach rappelling made me feel more comfortable when attempting it for the first time outdoors. 15224763_10154740521684383_1943744672_o

In my opinion and with my experience level, going climbing with a guide in a place where you don’t have rock climbing friends is a must. With this being said, hiring Bob wasn’t the first time I used a guide to climb. While living for a couple of months in Rio de Janeiro last year, without any gear or shoes, I hired a guide who took me on a wonderful climb with a beautiful view of Urca. While my broken Portuguese at the time may have helped me make rock climbing friends who may have taken me for free, I have to say, both experiences with a guide have been very educating.

Guides know the routes, how to keep people safe and intimate knowledge of the rock. This eliminates anxiety and takes away hours of research. Bob took us up a couple of routes at the East Slab and a few at East of the Sun; the hardest route we climbed was a 5.9.

Bob genuinely encouraged me at the crux of each route, taught about trad and multi pitch climbing in between pitches, rappelled me from the last route and encouraged supporting and joining the Access Fund. To top it all off we had scenic view of Boulder through the entire experience.

By: Mila Ugryn