When we opened First Ascent, we had one simple mission: to serve and grow Chicago’s vibrant climbing community. My partners and I are longtime climbers, and we joined forces to create a space for climbers of all experience and ability levels to enjoy the sport they love, develop their skills, and connect with other climbers.
At launch, we thought of yoga as a complement to climbing, something that climbers would enjoy doing occasionally to rejuvenate and restore their achy climbing muscles. Over the last year and a half, we’ve come to see yoga not as a nice addition to our climbing gym but as an essential part of what we do. We’ve excitedly watched the climbing and yoga communities learn so much from each other at First Ascent. And we’ve gathered an incredibly talented group of yoga instructors that have taught us a thing or two about proper shoulder alignment, “flying” (see: AcroYoga), and taking time out for self care.
In fact, we’ve enjoyed being the connection point for climbers, yogis, and fitness enthusiasts so much, we had to expand our mission. Moving forward, First Ascent exists to serve and grow Chicago’s vibrant climbing, yoga, and fitness communities.
Improving Yoga at FA
And so I’m excited to announce that we’re revamping the yoga program at First Ascent. Starting April 1st, we’re launching a new, improved yoga schedule at both our Avondale and Uptown facilities. Our goals for re-launching the schedule are simple:
Add and adjust yoga class times around the schedules of people in our community. We’re especially excited to launch our 7:30 am and 12:00 pm classes, as well as more classes on the weekends.
Update class names and descriptions to better suit each class. For example, you’ll now see Yoga For Climbers: Power and Yoga For Climbers: Restorative on the schedule.
Add 75 minute classes to serve the maturing yoga community at First Ascent. That extra 15 minutes allows instructors to teach more challenging poses that just don’t fit into an already jam-packed 60-minute class.
I hope you’re as excited about these changes as we are. If you feel at all disappointed that your favorite class has been changed, I encourage you to explore the new schedule with an open mind. We have the same great instructors and new class times to meet your needs – I’ll bet you’ll find a new favorite in no time.
If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Otherwise, we’ll see you in a yoga class soon!
Dan Bartz is co-founder and Director of Marketing & Adult Programming at First Ascent.
Jamie Mann is the latest setter to join the FA Setting Crew. She is a former gymnast, longtime yoga instructor, and a smile personified. Look out for “JM” on boulder tags to climb some of Jamie’s vertical flows, as well as yoga classes led by Jamie weekday evenings at FA Uptown.
Hello, dear readers. Whether you know me as a yoga teacher, the newest route setter, or just a familiar face around First Ascent, I’d like to tell you a little bit about myself and the journey that brought me here.
My love for movement and body awareness started when I was 3 years old. My mom was a gymnast through high school, so when I was old enough to enroll in a “Mommy and Me” gymnastics class, we were in. It turned out that gymnastics was as much mine as it was my mom’s. I was enamored.
In the 3rd grade, I was asked by the team coach at Northbrook Gymnastics Training Center to consider doing gymnastics at the competitive level. Overnight, my schedule jumped to 4 hours of training everyday after school at the gym, then going home to do my homework, eat, sleep, and do it all again the following day. Even Saturdays were spent drilling routines. The gymnastics gym was my home, the team was my family, and nothing made more sense to me than being in the air and having complete control over my body in space. So, bring on the long sleeved leotards, body glitter, and buns so tight you could actually feel your eyelids being pulled towards your scalp.
I remember competing on the balance beam and knowing that there was another team’s floor music, the buzzing of the crowd, and the cheers of my team happening all at once, but all I could hear was radio fuzz. It was my breath and the knowledge of exactly what I had to do to stick my next trick on a 4 inch wide block of wood, 4 feet off the ground. And the uneven parallel bars were perfect physics understood in the most physical of forms, gliding fluidly around and between the bars. It all felt like music that my body made intrinsically. I was Jamie the gymnast, and this was my flow state.
That flow didn’t come for free, though. By the end of junior high, my body, specifically my spine, started to feel it. I had to quit the sport for two years and undergo my first couple rounds of physical therapy. I was young and able to bounce back, so when high school came around, I joined the Highland Park High School team. Even though I competed at the varsity level, I could no longer compete in vault or floor exercise by my junior year.The high impact nature of those events aggravated and worsened my already significant back injury. Fast forward to college days, my last meet long behind me at regionals senior year of high school. I was left with nothing but longing for the flips, the leaps, (yes, even the sparkly leotards) and a constant ache in my low back and around my hips.
The physical therapy journey I took was extensive and long. Do a Google search for different therapy options for a lumbar spinal injury, and I’ve probably gone through everything on the first three pages: chiropractics, acupuncture, massage therapy, epidural and cortisone injections, and the list goes on. We threw everything but the kitchen sink at the problem over such a length of time that I have trouble recalling the details.
I was nearly immobile for a few years there, living with 8’s and 9’s out of 10 on a pain scale day to day. Unable to sit through a lecture, I eventually had to drop out of school, losing all social and physical outlets in the process. I was isolated and missing a huge part of my identity. If you’ve ever met me, you’ll know that I’m a consummately expressive person. I communicate with my whole body. Feeling cooped up inside my fragile frame did brutal damage to my mental state. I was no longer Jamie The Gymnast. I became someone I didn’t know or particularly like, and I could not relate to the body that I was now being held hostage in.
I’ll bet you’re sensing a downward spiral. Well, you’re right. The bottom of the spiral landed me in a partial hospitalization program for depression where, you might’ve guess, the turning point in this story lies.
I took my first yoga class during that time, and was introduced to Eastern philosophy,the combination of which took me to mental states that are an unthinkably blissful counterpoint to legitimate depression. It was (pardon my French), frickin’ wonderful. My first class was the first hour in so many years that I could not only turn down the volume on my obsessively negative self talk but also see a glimpse of some kind of connection with myself and my body that I had thought was long gone. It was a handshake with myself that desperately needed to happen.
About a year into devoted daily practice, I could feel that yoga was helping with pain management and alignment of my spine, but it was still very obvious that there was something very, very wrong with my back. My last ditch effort was to speak with one last surgeon who agreed to take me on. Turns out I had a very badly herniated disc that got a bit tangled up in some nerves. That micro discectomy operation paired with a daily yoga practice helped me achieve a virtually pain free life (minus the occasional flare up).
Eventually the spiritual and physical practice of yoga became so important to me that sharing the gift of yoga through teaching felt like a responsibility I was more than happy to take on. To be entirely present in your body, to focus on nothing but your breath, alignment and joint organization, and to allow everything else to slip away into background noise is quite possibly the most healing thing I have ever experienced. The idea of creating and holding that space for others to experience the same gave my injury and years of angst deep meaning.
To make a long story very short, when I found First Ascent and the sport of climbing, I couldn’t get enough. I nearly begged for a yoga teaching gig so I could afford being a regular member of the community and fuel my new found addiction to pushing my physical limits and comfort zone. I found my new self in the sequencing of yoga asanas, and I continued to develop this new self in climbing. Having nothing but your breath and control over your body is a sure way to make all the other nonsense in your head disappear.
There was one small problem: everything I climbed seemed to be designed with bigger humans than myself in mind. Being a relatively new climber and 4’10” (on a good day) was definitely a challenge coming to First Ascent. I felt that there was a population in the gym that was not being represented: adults and children under the height of 5’. I knew there was more to sequencing a boulder problem than jumping and cutting feet at each crux. I felt strongly that there could be routes and boulder problems that are challenging for climbers of all sizes. I even felt it would be beneficial to have climbs that favored the shorties, and gave the taller people something to sweat over. I think that variety is important to keep everyone motivated in the truly spectacular sport of rock climbing.When I asked Cheech and Mike (FA’s Head Setter and Foreman, respectively) if I could join the setting team and bring these beliefs to bear on my setting style, they welcomed me with open arms.
Learning a new art where body positioning is everything has been an absolute pleasure. The parallels that can be drawn between creating a flow on the wall and creating a flow on the mat are almost poetic. I’ll spare you the balladry, but I will say this: helping people understand and experience their bodies as a means of personal growth is what I feel I was put on this earth to do. I hope to set things that inspire, educate, and strengthen all body types and sensibilities. And I hope my setting and my yoga instruction at FA create space for you to breathe, flow, and tune out all of the noise in your own life so you can reconnect with the one and only you.
In the Climber’s Guide To Yoga series, 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.
Before any climber’s feet transfer from floor to wall a list of safety checks must be met: harnesses are double-backed, figure-eight knot is secured, belay device is locked and properly loaded, climbing area is clear, etc. Ropes should be thoroughly inspected to rule out any frays and/or weak spots (i.e. the rope should not fold completely on itself when a section is pinched.) With climbing shoes on, chalk bag filled, and safety checks complete, the climber is totally ready to crush, right? Not quite.
In addition to securing equipment and checking the surrounding area, it is also crucial that a climber assesses and understands their physical limits. Aside from the inherent danger of venturing into great heights, a climber’s biggest threat may lie within their own bodies. Rock climbing serves up many physical demands on the body – demands that necessitate absolute dedication and follow through. In some cases, failure to commit to the next move, clip, or top out could results in severe consequences. To best deter injury, supplementing a climbing routine with yoga could be the answer to lengthening the life of a climber’s tallest endeavors.
Yoga teachings refer to three areas of the body that are most prone to injury: the cervical spine (neck), lumber spine (lower back), and knees. Many yoga postures and exercises help stretch stiffened and overworked climbing muscles as well as strengthen and develop balance in underemphasized muscles.
A brief breakdown on some high priority “yoga for injury prevention” is as follows:
Cervical spine: Begin with a tall spine. Drop your chin to chest while relaxing your shoulders down away from your ears. Keeping your chin connected to your chest, drag your chin over to your right shoulder. Hold here for several counts, then slowly move back through center and repeat to the left shoulder.
Tip: Belay glasses also help take a tremendous load off a belayer’s neck as they keep close watch on their partner.
Lumbar spine: This area serves as a major junction for muscles and nerves descending to the lower body. For optimal lumbar health, a focus on 3 areas is key: hamstrings, psoas, and sacral joint.
Hamstrings: Keeping a vertical spine, sit in dandasana (staff pose) with legs stretched out in front of you. Flex all 10 toes back towards your face, and slightly tilt your pelvis forward. If you’re still looking to go deeper into the hamstrings, fold into paschimottanasana by pulling your feet towards your face with your hands. As you fold, imagine that your spinal column is a rigid rod that cannot bend. This will help you lead with your chest as you soften your upper body on top of your thighs.
Tip: use a strap placed just below your toes to help flex your feet back towards your face if you cannot reach your feet with your hands.
Psoas: Step into a low lunge with your right knee bent directly over the right ankle. Kick the top of your left foot into the floor beneath you to intensify the stretch deep within the hips. Repeat on the opposite side.
Sacral Joint: supported bridge pose is a great restorative posture to alleviate tightness incurred from clinging to overhangs and aggressive bouldering sessions. With a yoga block on hand, lie on your back, bend your knees, and walk your feet close enough to your body that your fingertips can touch your heels. Firm down into your heels as you lift your hips towards the sky. Place the block at the tallest height underneath the lowest part of your spine and completely relax onto the block.
Knees: step into low lunge, right knee forward, then bend your left knee to lift your foot off the ground.Grab the inside of your left foot with your left hand and gently pull your left foot directly towards your body. Repeat on the opposite side.
Tip: If your bent knee is sensitive, use two yoga mats or simply fold the edge of your mat over to double up the cushion.
Just as a climbers progress through the Yosemite Decimal System of 5.10s, 11s, 12s, it is imperative to balance such progression in the body with equalized muscle development and maintained (better yet, increased) flexibility. Practicing yoga will unfold a plethora of benefits to any climber’s repertoire and most importantly, help avoid injury. Check out First Ascent’s diverse lineup of yoga classes available at all locations. Classes are included in your membership or day pass. With several yoga styles to choose from, you’ll be sure to find a class that harmonizes your yogic inclinations to your climbing ambitions. Intro classes are the perfect setting for beginners, and the Yoga for Climbers class is specifically tailored to the inherent needs of a climber’s body. Be well, climb well, and stay safe both on the rock and inside your rock hard body!
Ryan Smith is a member of the First Ascent routesetting crew. Not only does he create moveable art for the FAmily to climb on, but he gets outside regularly to pull hard on natural rock. This is his story about finally breaking through to a new grade. Learn more about Ryan and the FA Setting Crew here.
Image: Kane Lorh
Lucky number thirteen
In mid February I achieved a major goal in my climbing career, sending my first 5.13a, ‘Resistor’ at Red River Gorge. I’ve wanted to send 13a for a while, but the actual push was achieved surprisingly quickly. Just believing that I could climb something that difficult was the biggest secret to my success.
Image: Anne Culbertson
Before the big weekend, I had never attempted a route at that grade. Trying to break into thirteens seemed like a daunting task to me. I stood there looking at the climb, asking myself, “Can I get to the top? Am I holding up the rest of my group? Will I be too tired to climb anything else today if I try it? Will I be able to get all my gear back?” I had a million excuses for not trying hard, but in the end, I remembered to trust my abilities. I knew I could get to the top. I knew I could figure out a way to get my gear back. I knew I’d be happier if I pushed myself to try something harder than anything I had done before, even if I wasn’t ultimately successful. I had already known for a while that I could pull all the moves on a route at this grade, but I made excuses not to try. No more excuses, I told myself. Let’s do this.
Preparation is key
My preparation for this route wasn’t too different from how I prepare for any other rope climbing trips. Early on, I trained using the campus and hang boards to improve power and finger strength for more success on boulder or crux sequences. The week before my trip, I dialed the angle of the scatter board (left side of the system wall) at First Ascent Avondale to seventeen degrees and tried to climb a bit below my limit.
I climbed on smaller and more sloping holds to a point close to failure, and then shook out on a jug to recover. I did three five-minute sets, resting five minutes between each set. This was pretty much all the endurance training I did – except forerunning routes at the gym during our setting cycle.
My training really paid off on ‘Resistor’. The climb starts out with a pretty difficult V5/6 sequence on two shallow sloped pockets. From the pockets, I stabbed out to another sloping hold and then reached for a sloping rail with a good jug. That’s where I fell the first time: from the second clip and past the first clip. I knew I had to put that fall behind me, so I took my shoes off, refocused, and reevaluated my beta moving out to the ledge. I got back onto the route, climbed to the same move as the previous attempt, found a better foot hold and hit the sweet spot on the rail. I continued up the rail to a no-hands resting ledge.
And, the send
The route plays to my strengths, since I’m more of a boulderer and was able to get a full recovery at the ledge. Once I was back at 100%, I pulled through some more decent pockets up to a good edge, where I got a decent shake and could evaluate the upcoming moves. On the final sequence, I had to pull through a two-finger pocket and lock-off to secure the final clipping hold. When I got that final clip, a brief moment of euphoria came over me. Before I knew it, I was back on the ground and ready to begin the process all over again.
Ryan on Resistor, working on the send! Image: Billy Simek
This upcoming year, I hope to achieve a few more goals. I’m hoping to send a V10 boulder problem, and now that I’ve climbed a 5.13a, my eye is on another RRG classic: ‘Paradise Lost’ 13a/b at Purgatory. My best advice for pushing through to achieving your goals is just to get outside and be willing to try hard. No excuses.
Want to learn how to use the scatter board, campus board, and hang boards at First Ascent? Check out Redpoint Training, a coached climbing training program that provides you with a personalized training plan to reach your climbing goals.
This winter’s unprecedented absence of snow and cold in Chicago did not deter a First Ascent climbers from venturing north to the south shore of Lake Superior for the 2017 Michigan Ice Fest. A newbie to ice climbing, Mila Ugryn recounts her experience on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula several weekends ago. Say hi to her when you see her climbing at FA, and if you have your own experiences you’d like to share via the FA Blog, please email email@example.com. To sweeten the deal, we’ll add 2000 FA Bonus points to your account if we publish the content you submit on our blog!
Dreaming of Ice
Eleanor Roosevelt is famously quoted: “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”
Ice climbing was one of the things on my “Would love to, but don’t need to” list. Still, for me, I knew the experience would be a beautiful dream. When I saw a post on a on a Facebook group for Chicago climbers asking for a ride-share to the Michigan Ice Fest several months ago, I saw it as a sign. After some quick research and a couple of conversations with festival staff, I knew deep in my heart I had to go. I asked myself, “how hard can it be?” With Roosevelt’s quote resonating, another one of my dreams would soon be coming true.
The “icing” on this weekend: Friends
Wonderful things are meant to be shared, and with my enthusiastic boyfriend and friends from First Ascent, we headed to Munising, Michigan for the weekend to climb on ice.Although the festival lasts a whole week, our group decided to spend only a weekend there. This was our first year, and we wanted to just get a taste. After a six-hour drive on a Friday, we checked-in at the headquarters and caught a movie about Jeff Lowe’s famous climb of Metanoia on the Eiger mountain in the Bernese Alps. Our whole group got inspired, and afterwards we shared several stories and expectations for the experiences we were hoping for in the morning. One of our squad members had the pleasure of seeing Conrad Anker in a restaurant before dinner. We all knew this was going to be a great weekend.
The Intro to Ice session with Mark Wilford gave us an excellent overview and a chance to climb multiple routes on a nice frozen waterfall. James Loveridge taught Sunday’s Ice Screw and Anchor Placement class, and we all made our own V-thread for the first time.
The weekend kept getting better and better. In his presentation, William Gadd inspired everyone with an array of unique experiences. The highlight: he’s the only person in the world to get a permit to climb frozen Niagara Falls. His enthusiasm about living life could only be equaled by listening to Conrad Anker talk about Meru, life, and climbing in the Himalayas.
Climbing on Thin Ice
Ironically, while we were busy ice climbing, Chicago was experiencing summer weather in the middle of February. We got to climb plenty of ice-covered routes, but the Michigan Ice Fest organizers closed off many routes due to unsafe conditions caused by warmer than average weather. Both Conrad Anker and William Gadd mentioned in shift in weather during their presentations later that weekend. With our climate changing this noticeably, who knows what the future holds for the Michigan Ice Fest.
All in all, the weekend was incredible. The organizers of the Michigan Ice Fest are some of the kindest, most hard working people, and they really made this experience an unforgettable one for me. Though ice climbing was on my “Maybe” list, I can now say that doing it was a dream come true. Thanks to everyone who made that weekend such a blast for me and my crew!