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

How to Give Back to the Climbing Community

We talk about it all the time at First Ascent: at the heart of it all, we’re helping to build a community. That’s not just an FA thing, either. Since the 1960s, rock climbing has had a community focus—after all, we need partners, but we also share a love of the sport and the spaces in which we climb. The community does so much for its members, from introducing lifelong climbing friends to protecting and maintaining the landscapes and individual routes we love. Often, this work happens through nonprofit organizations who focus on local and national climbing access, as well as furthering the sport and keeping people geared up, knowledgable, and prepared.

One thing a community does: ask its members for support. So if you’re an avid climber, you can earn yourself good karma (and good friends) through taking the time to give back. But which organizations should you support? Here are some suggestions for you:

1. Local Climbing Organizations

Start local: your local climbing organizations are a great place to start. The Illinois Climbers’ Association, the Wisconsin Climbers’ Association, and the Red River Gorge Climber’s Coalition all do work to help us hold onto access to our favorite areas.These organizations can always use monetary donations: The ICA, for example, bought Holy Boulders to maintain access to climbers, and host the Holy Boulders Competition every year to help raise money. They’re hosting a campaign now called Written In Stone to make a final push to pay off the loan for the Holy Boulders and secure access permanently.

Other local organizations often host trail days, too,where you can meet up and maintain the trails up to our favorite crags, like at the Red River Gorge, which can have long forest approaches for many of the farthest crags from the road. Check out your local org first and get involved!

2. American Alpine Club

The American Alpine Club is probably the oldest climbing organization in the United States. Founded in 1902, the AAC focuses on maintaining a strong US climbing community, as well as preserving the beautiful landscapes in which we climb.It’s a fantastic organization, which hosts climbing festivals (the Craggin’ Classics) and workshops, has chapters all over the United States, and even runs climber’s lodging for easier access to areas like Hueco Tanks. Plus, membership gets you all sorts of perks: from discounts on climbing gear, to discounted lodge stays, to trip grants, to rescues, to publications like the American Alpine Journal. They’re worth joining for all the good work they do for us as a community.

We’re supporting the American Alpine Club in this year’s Climbathon from March 24-30th. We’re especially excited to raise funds and support for the Chicago Chapter of the AAC as they work to create a climbing mentorship program that helps newer climbers connect with more experienced climbers to build the skills and knowledge they need to take their climbing to the next level, whether that’s breaking through to the next grade or going on their first outdoor climbing trip. 

We need your help as we work to climb 500,000 feet as a community – learn more on the Climbathon site here and be sure register to enter the raffle and the competition for the most mileage logged throughout the week!

3. Fixed Gear Initiative

Ever wonder who maintains the bolts and gear at your favorite sport crags (such as, say, the Red River Gorge)? Well, it’s organizations like the Red River Gorge Fixed Gear Initiative, who rely on climber donations to purchase top quality bolts and replace aging and deteriorating fixed gear in partnership with ClimbTech, who manufactures new fixed climbing gear. Without this type of maintenance, our favorite sport routes are straight up dangerous to climb—you just can’t tell the condition of a bolt inside a rock face from a visual inspection alone. They need to buy thousands of new bolts and fixed gear, not to mention do the hard work-at-height to replace old gear. All regular outdoor sport climbers in the Red, to the best of their ability, should throw a few dollars their way.

4. Access Fund

You’ve probably heard of the Access Fund before. They exist because one out of every five climbing areas is threatened, at risk of closing to climbers because of access issues. The Access Fund works to protect these areas for us all. They work to acquire land for local climbing communities (such as, with the ICA, the Holy Boulders), mobilize local support, lobby and inform lawmakers on policy issues that protect climbing, work with the National Park Service, US Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management, and educate the climbing community. Climbers who want to support the mission can join the Access Fund on a yearly basis as members, and join the fight to protect rock climbing in the U.S.

All of the organizations above are worthy of your support – and they need it. You don’t have to give big to make a difference. We encourage you to choose one to support, and we hope you help us support the AAC Chicago Chapter by climbing with us in the Climbathon!

Photo Credits:

Member Spotlight: Diane Wee

We’re spotlighting FA member Diane Wee, who logged 279 visits to FA in 2018. That’s incredible!! Read on to learn more about her love for climbing, food, design, and more climbing, and make sure to say hi to her if you see her around the gym!

1. How did you get into climbing?

My very first climb (roughly 4 years ago) was in an underground bouldering gym in Korea. I was mainly just curious to try out the colorful, weird-looking holds. I T-rexed the whole time, then had trouble picking up the spoon to eat later that day—had to lower my head to eat.

How I got into avidly climbing in Chicago is a different story. I was asked out by a person with the line “would you like to catch a movie with me?” Rarely would watching movies be my preferred activity for any first date, plus I wasn’t very interested. With a sarcastic tone I threw a comment: Can we do something more dynamic, like rock climbing? He took it quite literally and looked up indoor climbing gyms in the area. I was intrigued and that’s how I made my first visit to FA Avondale.

Of course I was not at all a graceful climber, glued to the top of a 5.7 route unable to trust the auto belay. But I kept going back. There was something very different about climbing from any other sport I had been exposed to: the cognitive challenge, like solving puzzles or logic problems, made climbing quite special.

I have absolutely no idea what the guy has been up to since our couple of climbing hangouts, but he clearly made an impact on my life by introducing me to the gym.

2. What do you love about climbing?

It makes my back so ripped that my climbing friends call me Lady Schwarzenegger! I’m joking. My real answer is pretty standard and boring, but I can’t be funny all the time so here goes:

Seeing myself make progress is the biggest reason I keep coming back to the gym. Seldom do you get to see rapid improvement in things once you reach adulthood. I started as the usual newbee (May 2018 was when I started to boulder) and these days I project V4s. Of course there is plenty of (well, infinite) room for improvement, but being able to do moves that seemed nearly impossible a while ago makes me feel happy. At the same time, always having something to work hard on and staying motivated (like sending my first V5) are amazing as well.

Climber friends is a very close second. I would not enjoy climbing as much had I not made such many friends at the gym. They give me such a hard time for not climbing harder, being timid at times, being short, giving up, just about anything — which always pushes me to work harder. Honestly, I love the support (sometimes in the form of friendly verbal abuse) I get from my friends. Much of the friendship extends outside the gym as well which makes my life in Chicago so much richer (oh, I came to Chicago about 2 years ago from Korea, so pretty much all ties were left there). These days I have really strong climber friends that I train with and I hope to see some fruition soon.

3. Bouldering or sport climbing? Make sure to tell us why.

I much preferred sport climbing for a while. Not having a rope to catch me terrified me a bit, so I refused to boulder at all. Also, my strength when it comes to physical fitness has always been endurance—never power, agility, coordination, any of that sort.

Then Block 37 opened and became the easiest location for me to get to. Convenience got the best of me and I caved. “Ugh, I guess I’ll start bouldering,” was the general sentiment I had.

At first it was pretty frustrating as I would not be able to successfully climb even V1s. At one point I did get my very first V2, which made me pretty happy. I went into this phase of going through all the V2s at the gym and I was adamant in my approach that I will not touch a V3 before I get ALL the 2s, which obviously didn’t happen before some of the routes were reset. I hesitantly made attempts on some V3s, and my first V3 exhilarated me.

When I made a visit to Avondale for a rope climb after having done all of that, I was surprised by how much better I was on rope walls than before bouldering. I could not deny that it was all the bouldering that took my sport climbing to another level (although that level is still relatively pretty lame, sad). It helped with power, technique, working with different types of holds and so on.

I’m still pretty sure my physique and strengths are better suited for sport climbing. But these days I genuinely enjoy working on boulder problems. I try to keep a routine of climbing at Block 37 most days of the week, then rope climbs once at Avondale, usually on Saturdays. If anyone forced me to choose between the two, I’d just cry and walk away. I love them both, don’t take any of then away from me.

4. What is your favorite place to climb outdoors? What other outdoor activities do you participate in?

I HAVE NEVER CLIMBED OUTDOORS YET (lame Diane, lame). I plan to visit Peter’s Branch (MO) or Devil’s Lake (WI) or maybe some other place over spring break, and that’ll be the first time ever for me. Obviously I am excited, but I’m sorry I don’t have much now to tell you about my outdoor experience. I started climbing a structure above a public hot tub while I was visiting Korea this winter (because I was so so tremendously bored — having a pool of water too warm to swim in) and that’s as far as my non-gym climbing goes.

I love surfing (well, I guess I like most water sports for that matter, but it’s hard to match surfing). I’m not that good of a surfer because I only started in my mid-twenties and I never lived close to a beach, but there is nothing on earth like sitting on a board waiting for a decent wave then catching a perfect green wave and feeling it under your toes. If only Lake Michigan would swell… I did body surf twice last summer though. I had to go early enough so the lifeguards would not deter me and my friend from getting in the water.

5. Do you have any particular climbing projects or fitness goals for this year?

A climbing goal would be sending one V5, hopefully in the first half of the year (initially it was within the first quarter, but I don’t have that much time left now).

Fitness goal would be just getting strong enough everywhere so I can send a V5. And maybe doing ten pull ups. I honestly do want to lose a bit of fat so I am more efficient in climbing (because my ass is always weighing me down!), but I’ve been told that I sound ridiculous when I say that. Once a friend said “I’d rather become stronger everywhere else so I can climb with a good looking ass,” which sounded very convincing. So I am on the fence on dropping weight.

If I were to speak in detail, there are so many things I could work on. The list will never end. At the end of the day, I want to become a stronger climber in general and not get injured.

6. What keeps you busy when you’re not climbing?

I eat. I eat like a monster. If I’m not eating, then I’m buying food. I’m pretty sure to those who know/recognize me at the gym, I’m that Asian girl who’s literally always at the gym and always eating. It’s true, I got no excuses.

If I am neither climbing nor eating, then I will be occupied with school projects. I am a full-time graduate student at Institute of Design, IIT. I get to study and work on projects related to service systems design, business innovation, design planning etc. Being a naturally hyper-analytical, nerdy person with a history of having worked in structured finance, my interest lies on data and model driven service design. I know the stuff sounds pretty foreign to a lot of people, but I like what I’m learning and getting my hands on. Not all the time though, because it often messes with my climbing schedule.

7. What do you love about Chicago?

Lake. River. Summer. Friends. Climbing, duh. I’m sure many people will pick food variety, but as long as I have what are written above, food can be whatever.


I have trouble with prolonged overcast weather over the winter, which is almost half a year, but the rest of the year is beautiful enough to make it worthwhile to live here. In fact I feel very blessed and lucky to be living in Chicago and have the life that I have right now.

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

I recently started exploring the Lincoln Park area and the food is pretty damn good there. Today I checked out Del Seoul, a fusion Korean food place, with skepticism but was more than happy with the food. I would definitely recommend checking it out.

Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams is one of the really good sweet treats. The first time I walked into their store, I saw “lavender wildberry” as a flavor and thought it’d taste like facial cream. I ordered it so I can prove myself right, which I never did. They make the weirdest flavors taste amazing. It’s a shame there isn’t a location in the Loop.

Art, music, and culture spots are yet to be explored — if you have some good recommendations and run into me at the gym, please let me know 😉

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

(“We can’t even write that you are weird, because people know that,” says my dear climbing friend Chiara, as I read the question out loud)

I am weird. But like my friend said, that’s pretty apparent. I wear fifteen gazillion layers of clothes to make me look like an Eskimo at the gym. I work on school projects a lot at the back side of the Block 37 location, and the gym is super cold when you’re not climbing. My friend took a sneak photo of me hopping on a treadmill to warm myself up in a down jacket and sent a text saying “check out this gym weirdo.” Again, it’s true, I got no excuses.

I spend so much time at the gym some FA staff members say my membership fee is basically rent. Yes, my rent is super cheap and the membership fee I pay to an apartment for hanging briefly at nights is just ridiculously expensive.

Oh I carry a lot of food and snacks with me all the time, and I often share them with climber friends and FA staff. Secret to being liked by staff members: Give them food. Honestly, I can’t think of one person who would reject food/snacks I offer. The most recent snack I shared was monster cookies I personally baked, and because I followed the recipe to a T, it tasted really nice.

10. Anything else you want to say to the FA Community?

Thanks for being a part of this awesome community which I clearly can’t stay away from. I wanted my answers to be somewhat funny, interesting, and a pleasurable read for all of you, I intentionally sound a little sarcastic and sassy above — a bit more than my actual personality. I will generally be friendly, so please come say hi if you see me at the gym, especially if you always saw me and wondered who that weirdo living at the gym was. I’d love to get know more of you and chat about climbing and/or dumb stuff.