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

We Climb, We Fall, We Climb Again

Unlike Chicago seasons, the “fall” season in bouldering stretches throughout the entire year and has zero to do with Pumpkin Spiced Lattes – though we all can agree that PSL’s are a divine treat between September and November. In fact, falling is an inevitable part of a sport that seeks to defy gravity. Knowing how to fall properly is paramount, whether you just started climbing or you’ve been climbing for decades.

Hello Gravity, My Old Friend…

During every orientation for first time visitors, a First Ascent staffer shares a few insights on how to fall and how not to fall when climbing in the bouldering area. The curse of gravity makes it so every failed attempt or controlled descent might involve spending a split-second moving quickly through space toward the ground. The only safe way to come down is to down-climb. Falling “safely” can mean the difference between walking away from a bouldering session completely intact or, God-forbid, a session-ending injury.


What I personally tell climbers (and what’s shown in the image above) is to land with bent knees/hips (no straight/locked legs) to minimize impact on the spine. If the momentum carries you down and back, let it, and crumple right onto your glutes. If you’re still moving, roll out with your chin tucked into your chest and bring your arms into your chest (never bring your arms back to “catch” the fall). I mention that it’s important to spot your landing zone, find the mat with the bottoms your feet, and relax into the crumple-n-roll to redistribute the energy into the mat. And if falling from the top of a boulder problem isn’t comfortable, its good to practice falls from lower heights and inch up higher and higher as falling skills and comfort levels progress.

Cat Mode: engaged!

The video below produced by Futurist – the makers of our climbing floors and mats/pads – reinforces those points as it instructs boulderers to be in “Cat Mode” more so than climbing-mode. It also touches on advanced falling positions and techniques – like falling sideways or forwards – to minimize injury. 

The NYT chimes in on falling

Even the mainstream media is getting in on the falling action. The New York Times recently published The Right Way to Fall online and in-print, giving the beta from “paratroopers, stunt professionals, physical therapists and martial arts instructors” on proper falling technique. While the NYT piece might not have been intended for climbers, it is very relevant for those who boulder. Falling is an essential and sometimes dangerous part of bouldering. As climbers, we should constantly be exploring ways to minimize risks inherent to the sport we love.

Please read the NYT’s piece, watch the video embedded above, and above all else, be safe and practice good falling techniques. 

By: Gabriel Skvor

Images in collage: Brendan Hehir

The Road to Time Wave Zero, Part 1

Branden Lacour is a self-described climbing fanatic and a new addition to the First Ascent team. He is currently developing a climbing training program called Redpoint Training with other First Ascent instructors that he is excited to unleash shortly. In this two-part series, Branden tells the tale of his preparation for an intense multi-pitch project, and all of the heart-breaking setbacks and eventual triumphs along the way. Enjoy!

I’ve always been the type to get excited about over-the-top projects. When my climbing partner Ilya proposed a trip to El Potrero Chico, Mexico back in 2015, I immediately began searching for an epic project we could to train for.


Time Wave Zero standing tall and proud.

Low and behold, Time Wave Zero stared me in the face from the Mountain Project main page, a stunning 23 pitch 5.12a with a beautiful view at the top. The climbing is all easy to moderate for most of the pitches, with a 5.12a to greet you at the 21st pitch. The pictures sold me alone.

We went ahead and trained hard, practiced our rope skills, then headed to Potrero that winter. After some chatting with local climbers, we decided it was best to do a shorter multi-pitch climb before attempting Time Wave Zero.  We jumped on Yankee Clipper, a 13 pitch 5.12a. Though it was fun and we learned a lot, I got sketched out at the last pitch, the 12a pitch on the climb. When we were back on solid ground, I was glad we attempted the climb, but I was bummed that I couldn’t do the 12a pitch. We ended the night with some Tecate and Mezcal with plans of Time Wave Zero in the future.


My partner Ilya (left) and I (right) at the Summit of Yankee Clipper

The next year was like a dreamlike trance. I constantly followed the latest news on the Facebook group for El Potrero, as well as Frank Madden’s work on the brand new guidebook for the area. I continued to train, focusing on improving my onsight grade so that when I encounter that 12a after 7 hours of multi-pitch climbing, I can read the route and free climb it in short order. I definitely had my work cut out for me!

I trained hard, working through a few injuries and other setbacks along the way. I finally got my first 5.12a onsight last June – granted it was in the gym – so I felt like I was making good progress toward my goal. With two weeks out until a proper 4 day trip planned to the Red River Gorge, I decided to do some hard bouldering to get my explosiveness back.

I headed over to a small bouldering gym that I used frequent a lot back in the day and warmed up, worked my way up in grades, and got ready to project some hard problems. As I was working one problem in particular, I attempted a very hard cross move on crimpy holds, and – POP – just like that, there goes my finger. I knew I had ruptured a pulley immediately.


Announcing my injury on Facebook…

With tears in my eyes I instantly realized that the Red season was shot, and Time Wave Zero was practically impossible. I sent out some feelers to see if I could arrange a replacement partner for Ilya so he could still go on our long-awaited trip. Despite my efforts, he continued to believe I could make a full recovery in time to join him, even though I didn’t think I had a chance at the time.

In pain and heartbroken, I moped about my place, sad and frustrated, doing the best I could to rehab my finger with ice, heat, stress balls, and rice. After mourning for two weeks, I got my mind dead set on healing in time to make the trip to Potrero. And that’s exactly what I did.

For the next month I worked through my rehab every day, after which I had recovered enough to climb. Being the climbing training nerd that I am, I built a training plan for myself and my climbing partner Ilya, then bought my ticket to Mexico. At this point, I was all in. 

The plan was focused on stamina and finger strength: stamina for tons of easy to moderate pitches, and finger strength for hard vertical face climbing at the end of Time Wave.


The first few weeks were excruciating mentally. I was getting pumped on 5.10s and had little to no strength. I couldn’t stay out of my head. My gains were much slower than in the past, and not being able to do what I once could was haunting me and making me doubt that I could get my fitness back in time for Time Wave Zero.

It’s times like these when you need people good people in your life, and I’m lucky to have a damn good partner to keep my head on straight. Thanks Ilya! After taking stock, I decided to focus on training as hard as I could safely and let the results present themselves as my body was ready.


Hangboarding at FA.

Hangboard session after hangboard session, I pushed through. Believing in what is possible and knowing the results that training provides kept me going. That, and lots and lots of rap music. Holding on with up to 35 pounds starts to get painful, but blasting aggressive music helps fuel that fire to hold on.

Eventually, I went from body weight to about 40 lbs added on most holds on the hangboard, so I moved on to the next phase of training: limit bouldering. I had originally planned to campus, but limit bouldering gave me the explosive work I needed without the risk of injury from feet-less climbing. 

The first day on, I felt like I couldn’t really boulder anymore. I was falling off well below my onsight level, and struggling to bring the beast out like I used to be able too. Then I thought to myself: “Branden, give yourself a break. You haven’t bouldered in two months! Let the power come back naturally. Its more in your head right now than your body. You just have to boulder a bit more and get back into the mindset of pulling really hard.”


Crushing V7s, much to my surprise.

So I relaxed a little and just put the work in. After 3 sessions, I was back to bouldering at my normal level. Pumping up the jams in my ears and staying focused, I pushed even harder. By session number 4 I had it all back and more. My limit bouldering level is usually v7, and I sent two v7s in one day! The first v7 was actually a dynamic move to a good crimp with my bad finger, and guess what? No problems. That finger is healed. I’ve been able to climb all the v6’s and 7’s with open hand crimping and have never felt stronger.

At this point, three days away from hopping on a plane to Mexico, I can’t be more ready to take on Time Wave Zero. I am unbelievably happy and surprised with the results of my training plan. Training is worth it. The 4-5 weeks of hangboarding sucked, yes, but they were well, well worth it.

As I write this, I’m laying out my things, making final climbing plans, and getting ready to crush. I’m planning to hit a ton of moderate routes before my projects out at El Potrero to get used to real rock and all the smearing that Mexican Limestone demands. Time Wave Zero, here I come!

I hope my story helps inspire others not to lose hope during tough times in their climbing career. You CAN come back stronger from huge setbacks. Whether you have plateaued or you’re dealing with an injury, keep your head up, be diligent about your rehab/training, and don’t lose the fire!!

I’ll be posting a recap of my trip once I’m back. Stay tuned!



Coaching FA Youth Climbing

As the FA climbing team preps for the USA Climbing Bouldering Divisionals competition, Cooper Johnson, FA’s mild mannered youth climbing coach, shares his thoughts and ruminations on coaching our kids to be their best on and off the wall. When he’s not coaching or climbing, he likes to play video games, watch lots of good movies and compete at life with his two older brothers. The USAC Divisionals will be held at VE in Glendale Heights on 1/14 and 1/15

Teach the children well

Coaching youth rock climbing has been a rewarding experience in so many ways. I’ve met great friends, I’m able to share the sport I love with others, and I have the privilege of meeting and getting to know the wonderful and dedicated families that bring their kids to practice day after day.

I first started coaching at the Chicago Athletic Clubs three years ago. img_6239As a fairly new climber at the time, my interest in my own improvement quickly took a back seat as my focus shifted towards the kids on the team and their growth. Instead of planning out ways I could improve myself, I began collaborating with the other coaches on what exercises and activities we could prescribe to the kids to push them to the next level.

I came on as a coach at First Ascent when the Avondale facility first opened, and the facility itself drastically changed my coaching style. Coaching at FA has given our coaching staff so many more tools to work with in developing the climbing curriculum.  But whether we’re doing basic conditioning or climbing games, the coaches are doing more than just working the kids as hard as possible; we’re inventing fun, creative, and challenging ways to keep their attention focused on working toward their goals. My goal is simple: get our kids excited to come back to practice week after week.

One of the things I enjoy most about of coaching is the opportunity to meet and build relationships with so many wonderful kids.img_5888Apart from the satisfaction that comes with watching them succeed in climbing, getting to hear the crazy and hilarious things they say makes everyday different and fun.

For all the goofing around, we work them hard

The kids never fail to put a smile on my face. Whether it’s them telling me about some trouble they got into over the weekend, watching them continuously try to harmlessly prank their teammates and coaches, or their grand ideas – like bringing a confetti cannon to practice and firing it off in the gym – they never miss a beat.

But for all the goofing around, we work them just as hard, and coaching has proven to be much moreimg_6070 than just managing the physical abilities of each little athlete.

Understanding each of our climbers personally and managing their complex personalities is just as important as making sure they’re aware of their own physical limits. For the team to be able to get the most out of practice, it’s up to us coaches to be able to balance the energy and emotions of the team.

Nothing gets me as excited as being a coach

Beyond improving my own climbing, beyond sending that long standing project, beyond anything in my short climbing career, nothing gets me as excited as coaching at climbing competitions and watching our kids exceed all the expectations they’ve set for themselves. Having the opportunity to be part of helping each of our kids develop confidence and happiness with themselves is worth more than any personal climbing accomplishment I can think of.img_6145

Even for the kids who have less of a competitive spark or desire to push themselves to their utmost limits, I hope to encourage all of our kids to work hard towards any goal they might have in life – on or off the wall.

By: Cooper Johnson

Photos by: Halie Saferstein