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

How to Navigate the Crag, Part 4: What to Climb

This is part 4 in our 5-part series How To Navigate The Crag. If you missed them, be sure to read Part 1: Leave No TracePart 2: Crag Etiquette, and Part 3: Learning Local Issues, so you’re up to speed.

Before you go to the climbing gym, you don’t plan your routes. Outside, you have to.

One of the first things you’ll think about when you first start planning to climb outside in a new area is what routes you’ll do. You have limited time, after all – maybe a couple days, at most, before you pile back into the car to make it back in time for work the next day. Maybe you’re paging through a fresh new guidebook, combing through hundreds of routes based on a couple of lines of description and rating alone. How do you pick what to climb when you’re new to climbing outdoors? Nothing’s labeled, of course, but routes are often far apart enough to merit careful choice in selecting where to go for a day.

The simple, first answer is this: If you’re a new climber, thumb through the back of the guidebook, where you’ll likely find an index of routes sorted by grade. Pick a grade perhaps one below your gym level (gym routes rarely feel as difficult as the equivalent grade outdoors for a number of reasons), and look up the best rated routes of that grade. In many cases, because difficulty occurs naturally outside based on the rock itself, you’ll find a number of similarly graded routes near each other, with a couple routes considered high quality “classics.” Head there. Keep in mind, though, that these crags are likely to be the most popular areas around, so plan (and time) your visit accordingly. They’re well-trafficked for a reason – fun movement, non-chossy routes – so there will be tons of beta for new outdoor climbers getting used to movement on real rock.

Once you’ve knocked out some classics over a few trips, though, you might feel the urge to pick an exciting and challenging project to work over the course of a weekend. That creates some strategic necessities you’ll want to consider before you head out:

1: Avoid burnout and injury: have more than one project at first

Here’s a personal anecdote: A few years ago, I was climbing at Smith Rock in Bend, Oregon, and found myself fixated on a 5.12a with one move that required pulling on a one finger pocket – maybe two fingers at most. With few breaks between attempts, I tried and tried on that route, for probably 90 minutes. I never sent it. Want to guess what stopped me?

I strained a tendon from that pocket. I could have prevented that in part by taking my time, trying other routes with different, complementary movements periodically, and just generally being more strategic about my approach to sending a route I really wanted to finish. My point is this: Keep a few different routes in mind, in case your “single project” turns out to be too much, too fast for your skill level. You’ll get your project done eventually – probably much faster if you try a few different routes than if you single-mindedly punish yourself on a single climb. That leads to the next point:

2: Don’t stretch yourself too far in one push

Ultimately, it’s no fun to throw yourself repeatedly at a route that spits you off over and over. Plus, like I did at Smith Rock, you run the risk of injury. Stay modest if you’re new to outdoor climbing. It’s more fun in the long run to grow in wisdom, experience, and great stories, rather than pure strength and a steady uptick in redpoint grades (i.e. the grade you can typically complete not on the first try but after multiple attempts working the moves). This sport is a lifelong journey anyway, where youthful strength is only going to be an arrow in your quiver for a few years. Choosing the right routes for your body and skill will keep you in the game for longer.

Remember that gym grades are not equal to outdoor grades. You might have heard the term “sandbagging” – grading a climb with a lower, easier grade than what it actually deserves. Well, compared to indoor climbing, a lot of outdoor grades feel sandbagged, at least from a gym climber’s perspective. One reason outside routes feel harder: you will spend a significant amount of time route finding outside. Because the holds aren’t marked for you, you’ll need to search for the holds and the best way to hold them, figure out whether the route goes left or right, etc. Route finding takes time and energy, so your on-sight grade (i.e. the grade you can typically complete the first time you try it) will inevitably be lower.

3: Seek fun climbing, not fun sending

Especially in the beginning, as you’re getting used to outdoor climbing, it’s important to pay attention to the routes that are the most fun to climb in the moment, rather than fun to talk about later when you’re telling your friends. There’s a place in the world for Type II fun – after all, those kinds of experiences often enrich the soul most – but in the beginning of your climbing career, climb for fun in the moment rather than fun talking about the achievement. It’s okay to decide at a certain point that you really want to push your skills even if it takes difficult and concerted effort, but for now, make sure you’re having enough fun on your projects to come back out and do more! After all, the more partners we can find at First Ascent, the better.

In the next (and final) installment of the series, we’re covering climbing trip logistics: How To Navigate The Crag, Part 5: Planning A Climbing Trip.

By Chris Rooney, FA member and writer.

Photos courtesy of Ed Yu and Chris Rooney.

Shawn Sturges: What The Paradox Mile Means To Me

For the month of November, First Ascent is hosting the Paradox Mile, an opportunity to raise awareness and funds for Paradox Sports, an organization that supports adaptive climbers in their pursuit of outdoor climbing. Blind climber and FA member Shawn Sturges is a sponsored Paradox Athlete, so here’s his take on what the Paradox Mile means to him. It’s not too late to get started climbing your own 5,280 ft (106 routes or 352 boulder problems), and great prizes are up for grabs for the top fundraisers. Click here to register for your mile, grab a score card at any FA location next time you’re in, and start climbing!

Rock climbing did not become a part of my life until I moved to Chicago almost four years ago. I was introduced to the sport by another adaptive climber and instantly fell in love on my very first trip up the wall. What I soon found out was that climbing offered me an escape from my everyday struggles as a blind man in our world. While on the wall, nothing else matters, especially not my lack of vision, because vision is not the “end all be all” in climbing.

I quickly found myself wanting to be at the gym as much as possible, so I obtained a membership to a climbing gym in order to climb four to five days per week.Soon I found myself at my first U.S. Adaptive National Competition in 2016, where I finished second in the visually impaired category.This earned me a spot to compete at the 2016 IFSC World Adaptive competition in Paris, France. However, upon my return I found myself wanting more out of climbing than competition.

What I truly wanted was to begin climbing outdoors. I ran into many road blocks along the way. Climbing peers would tell me that they did not want the responsibility of taking me outside. But I was not going to let that deter me from accomplishing my goal of climbing outside.

I began asking fellow adaptive climbers who I had met at competitions how they were able to get outside. That’s when I found out about Paradox Sports and contacted them.  I found out they would be my best bet to reach my goal at least in the beginning of my outdoor climbing adventures. My first trip with Paradox was to Joshua Tree National Park, in a skills-based camp aimed at teaching methods and skills for climbing outside. I learned anchor building, traditional climbing, various knots, risk management, and rappelling. I felt that I had found a group of people who did not use my blindness as a reason to not take me outside.

Paradox is an organization that focuses on showing adaptive athletes what you can do and not what you can’t. Paradox agrees with me: although my disability is a part of me, it does not define who I am. These days, I spread the mission and vision of Paradox not only to adaptive climbers who want to experience the outdoors, but also to those who want to be more involved with adaptive climbing. Recently, I joined the Paradox family as an ambassador athlete, where I can use my own experiences and adventures to hopefully inspire others to reach their own goals.

Since that time in Joshua Tree I have been on several trips with Paradox across the country including the Rockies, Eldorado Canyon, the Red River Gorge, and the Gunks. These trips allowed me to start building connections with climbers and to begin planning trips of my own. Last fall, I planned a trip to Devil’s Tower and Vedauwoo with climbers I met through Paradox.

Over the past several months I have worked with both Paradox Sports and First Ascent in order to bring The Paradox Mile to our gym. This is a month-long fundraiser in which climbers aim to climb a vertical mile and raise money at the same time. Even more, it’s a campaign to bring awareness to the community, to show what people with disabilities can accomplish despite their disability. Since I joined the climbing community years ago, I have seen how climbers from all walks of life come together to support others in the community. I have witnessed this first hand since the launch of “The Paradox Mile” – I have had the opportunity to talk to more people at the gym than I ever had before. The overwhelming support of First Ascent and the community around “The Mile” is amazing;  I couldn’t ask for a better gym to host this fundraiser.

A person’s disability should not be a deterrent on whether or not to take them outside. Paradox provides an outlet for adaptive climbers to experience the outdoors across the country, and I know the FA family is onboard.I strive to bring both non-adaptive and adaptive climbers together, because at the end of the day we all identify as climbers. If I can accomplish one thing through this month-long event, it is to inspire those not to fear taking someone with a disability on a climbing trip. But if this is still a concern, just know that there are organizations that can help you learn how you can help take an adaptive climber outside.

My final words of wisdom: the next time you see an adaptive climber at the gym, stop by and say “hi!” You never know what you can learn: in adaptive climbing, creativity is the name of the game.

Shawn Sturges is an adaptive climber and First Ascent member. Follow him on Instagram @theblindascent.

Photos courtesy of Shawn Sturges and Daria Taylor.

How to Navigate the Crag, Part 3: Learning Local Issues

This is part 3 in our 5-part series How To Navigate The Crag. If you missed them, be sure to read Part 1: Leave No Trace and Part 2: Crag Etiquette so you’re up to speed.

Last time in “How to Navigate the Crag,” we covered general crag etiquette: how to maximize your safety and the safety of others while having fun, as well as how to be an informed outdoor climber wherever you climb. Now we’re looking into how to get specific access information for the crag you’re visiting, whether that’s Devil’s Lake, the Red River Gorge, the Holy Boulders, or wherever you end up going to climb outdoors.

The safety and local practices you should know when you go to a new crag are often referred to as the local “ethics.” Without knowing these, you could still have a great time, but you’d likely end up violating some local access rules, making crag maintenance more difficult, or possibly endangering yourself or others. Plus, a huge part of growth in climbing is about building up your repertoire of skills to become more adaptable as an adventurer and athlete – figuring out new beta, reading a route from the ground, knowing what to look for at a new anchor, etc.

We don’t mean to intimidate you here – learning how to be a conscientious climber wherever you go really just comes down to doing an hour or two of research, asking some questions, and making friends, all stuff you’ll hopefully do anyway before you pile into the car for the weekend. This way, you’ll immerse yourself more deeply into the local climbing community, which will often net you valuable beta you wouldn’t find in a guidebook, and you’ll learn more about rock climbing as a pursuit than you could learn in a gym setting. Follow these three steps to get up to speed on local issues for your destination:

1. Understand Access Issues and Logistics

If you’re looking into climbing outdoors for the first time, invariably you’ll come across the word “access.” Consider this: 60% of U.S. climbing areas lie on public land. While huge political battles often play out in the public sphere over climber access on public lands, keep in mind that 40% of climbing areas are on private lands in which climbers have earned – and need to maintain – the right to climb.

Your job is to find out the critical issues for where you’re climbing. A great example is Roadside Crag at the Red River Gorge, a very popular crag that sits on private land. Climbers have lost access to Roadside in the past for violating landowner rules, so it’s important to know how to act before you go. For the Red, you can find relevant access info at Red River Climbing, and of course Mountain Project for access beta for spots all over the world. We of course can’t forget the Access Fund, either, for all the work they do in fighting for climbers’ access to land all over the country – we recommend a yearly donation if you can swing it.

2. Research local practices and conversations

Many local climbing areas will be served by several organizations. The Red River Gorge has the RRG Climbers’ Coalition, Wisconsin has the Wisconsin Climbers’ Association, and Illinois has the Illinois Climbers’ Association. These organizations (as well as sites like Mountain Project, including the messages boards) will usually share critical information around climbing ethically in that specific area, such as whether or not you should climb on certain boulders after rain in Devil’s Lake, for example.

Some areas will even have issue-specific groups relevant to local practices, such as the RRG Fixed Gear Initiative, which works to re-bolt the Red with higher quality equipment, replacing lower quality and dangerous fixed gear used in the past. To get up to speed on the local issues and practices, search around for local organizations, message boards, and Facebook groups, and read up on what questions people are asking, and the types of issues that come up repeatedly. There won’t always be clear answers, but the more you’re tuned into the issues, the more you’ll understand when you start to talk to people at the crag.

3. Go to events, meet people, and get involved

A time-honored (but sometimes overlooked) way to get the most up-to-date information and advice is to talk to other climbers, particularly those who’ve climbed where you’re going and go there often. Getting in touch with other climbers outside your crew is more than a great way to make new climbing friends – it gets you a first-hand look at how locals and more experienced climbers are handling situations or access issues. One way to connect with locals is to give back to the community, like volunteering for events such as trail maintenance days or clean-ups. You not only meeting new people at these events, but you also take part in a climbing community effort to maintain access for the future. If climbers leave everywhere they go in a better state than they how they found it, we’re more likely to have years and years more access to the beautiful places we love going to climb.

Now that you’re up-to-speed on the issues related to your destination, you’ll need to figure out what you want to climb. Up next: How To Navigate The Crag, Part 4: What To Climb.

By Chris Rooney, a writer and climber based in Chicago, IL.

Photos courtesy of Daria Taylor. Follow her @dariaxtaylor.