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

Recap: Red River Gorge Beta with Dru Mack

If you’ve been climbing in the gym for a while, it’s a pretty safe bet you’ve caught the outdoor climbing bug—after all, outdoor adventure is the root of our sport. But it’s not quite as easy as throwing your stuff in the car and driving to the Red River Gorge. Every climber should know some basic etiquette and ethics to enjoy all that the Red has to offer in a sustainable and safe way. That’s why we had the Red River Gorge Climbing Coalition come out to Avondale on May 11 with pro climber Dru Mack to help us learn more about the do’s and don’t’s of climbing at the Red, whether it’s your first time or your 50th.

After the event, we had the chance to catch up with Dru to get his pro tips on how to navigate RRG crags. Here’s a bit of what he had to say:

Keep an Open Mind

Sometimes, it can be easy for more experienced climbers to negatively throw the word “gumby” around when new outdoor climbers make mistakes in etiquette. But new climbers are usually not making mistakes on purpose: “A lot of times more local climbers or people who have been climbing longer think people are messing up and they know better,” Dru says. “If you offer advice or help they’re usually more than willing to hear you out and make their process easier, as long as you don’t come across as a jerk.”

Manage Your Group Size

The Red is growing rapidly in popularity—and overcrowding can easily become an issue at a crag, especially with large groups who lock down routes for hours. “I’ve been to a crag where someone told me ‘there are 13 people in line for this route,’” Dru says, “but there weren’t even 13 people at the crag.” What’s the solution? “If you have a big group, spread out—go to different crags,” Dru says, “but if you’re all at one crag, make sure to let other people hop onto the route in between your whole group.” At the end of the day, communicating with other climbers is key to making sure your large group isn’t putting off negative vibes to the rest of the crag’s climbers.

Stay Within Bounds

In many areas at the Red (and in other crags around the world), climbing’s slotted into very predetermined areas. Outside of those areas, if a person or dog wanders around, erosion and damage to the landscape can threaten our access to those spaces. But that’s not just for out-of-bounds: Dru says keeping your pets and gear corralled is important for safety reasons: “It’s easy to be distracted, especially as a belayer,” Dru says, “and if someone’s dog is going through your bag, it’s really easy to look away and not give what you’re doing enough thought.” Keeping your gear and person within bounds leads into the next point covered: leaving the Red how you found it.

Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace means exactly what it sounds like: leave it how you found it. “Our impact [as climbers] is one thing,” Dru says, “but leaving gear or trash or things out there has a negative effect on the area.” Most people aren’t intentionally littering, but it’s easy when you’re dealing with a lot of gear to drop some tape here, a wrapper there, especially with everything going on at the crag. But that stuff adds up whether you meant it or not—in both physical impact to the land, but also its beauty and the landowners’ willingness to tolerate climbers. It helps to pick things up even when it wasn’t yours. All climbers should make a point to pack out whatever they can to help keep the Red in great condition.

Get Involved Locally and Stay Educated

The RRGCC, who sponsored the event, is a great organization for climbers to get involved with if they want to integrate with the local scene and meet other climbers—on top of learning good etiquette and ethics. The best way is to contribute and stay up to date on new info: “Donating money goes a long way to maintaining the Red’s areas or buying new land, which can help spread people out,” Dru says. “But if you can’t donate your money, then donate your time,” like at trail days, where volunteers can maintain trails to the Red’s amazing crags.

It was a great event, and we’re so glad the RRGCC and Dru came out to talk to us. Follow them both on Instagram to stay up to date and learn more about outdoor climbing!

Red River Gorge Climbing Coalition: @RRGCC
Dru Mack: @drumack5

Climbing photos by John Wesley @lightningsnaps

Share Your Climbing Photos for Make-A-Wish

There’s something about the sport of climbing that allows us to show what we’re really made of. Are we prepared to face the challenges the sport—and life— presents us head-on, or do we give up and put down our agency, our striving for life? Ian Vallejo was an example of taking life on full steam, and we’re excited to help honor him alongside the Make-A-Wish Foundation – but we need your help.

Ian spent the last three years of his life battling osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer that forced him to face intense radiation and chemotherapy, as well as the loss of his right leg to amputation, before he passed away in July 2018. But Ian was a climber, and kept climbing throughout his cancer, starting an adaptive climbing group at Brooklyn Boulders Chicago. And he always wanted to climb in the French Alps. Even facing a debilitating cancer diagnosis. That’s where the Make-a-Wish Foundation came in.

They made his wish a reality, helping Ian to live his life on the edge—his personal mantra— and choose life, even when his illness stared back at him. Many of us knew Ian, and we’ll never forget the lessons he taught us about strength and perseverance.

This Saturday, May 18th, the Illinois chapter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation will be hosting their annual Wish Ball. At the ball, Ian’s mother will be sharing her family’s story, to try to raise funds and awareness of the possibilities life offers even those suffering from debilitating diseases.

That’s where the climbing community comes in. We’re putting out a call to climbers and to members of the Make-A-Wish community to hear Ian’s story and to dedicate an upcoming climb (either indoors or outdoors) in his memory. We’re asking FA members to post a picture or video on social using #lifeontheedge and to tag @wishillinois with a short message saying something like, “This climb is for Ian”, or “I’ll climb until I can’t”, or “After hearing Ian’s story, I dedicate this climb to him”.

Let’s remind the whole Make-A-Wish community what being a climber is all about—living life to the fullest in honor of our lost friends and loved ones, the people who showed personal strength and taught us lessons our community holds dear.

Climb till I Can’t Climb from Medill Reports on Vimeo.

Trip Report: Pete’s Lead, Jackson Falls

In this month’s trip report, Sydney Bock, FA Youth Climbing Team member, tells us about a trip to Jackson Falls back when she was only 9. She is now 11, and felt it was important to mention that 5.7 is no longer a difficult grade for her thanks to all the training she does as part of the Team. That is, unless there are frogs. Take it away, Sydney!

It was 2017, the same year our family took a trip to Jackson Falls. The same year I sent the climb “Pete’s Lead.”

My breath came in short ragged gasps, and the hot sun relentlessly beat down on my back. Which, fortunately, wasn’t as tired or cramped up as my arms and legs. The heat burned, almost as much as the aggravating itch from the mosquitoes that continued to hover around my face, even after my pitiful attempts to try and swat them away with my one free hand. Struggling so badly at only about two thirds of the way up this climb, didn’t make the possibility of me sending it a very likely outcome. I kept persisting however, and soon reached about where the three fourths mark would be, if there was one. After a quick thought, I decided to take a rest on a pretty big pocket just a little ways higher than I was at the moment. That way, I could get some much needed shaking out and chalk. Which was critical in my condition. Mind you, I was shaking with each movement and ninety-five percent sure I was going to fall at any moment now, so a rest sounded pretty nice.

One more move, just another move, you can do it; one move and you’re practically done. The words that continually coursed through my thoughts as I made my slow, and not-so-steady ascent towards my resting pocket. Now that I think about it, I kinda feel bad for my belayer. I must have taken a bajillion years getting up that rock. Just a few more holds…. finally! I stuck my hand into the pocket as a mixture of triumph and relief washed over me, but just as quickly recoiling my hand when I feel something soft and slimy at the back of the hold. I peek in and am caught by surprise when I see the form of what looks to be a frog, but whether it’s dead or just sleeping, I can’t tell. I don’t want to startle it, but what else is there to do? I can’t use the hold if the frog stays in there, and I can’t continue on the climb if I don’t rest on that hold. Finally after a few minutes of contemplation, I come to the conclusion that the best course of action is to – or at least attempt to – awaken the frog, hopefully without scaring it too much. So, I slowly stick my index finger into the hold and lightly touch the frog again. Its response was not what I was expecting. As soon as my finger came in contact with its body, immediately it jumped out so fast that I didn’t even realize what had happened until it had almost reached my shirt. It never got the chance to land on me though, only because I was able to move out of the way fast enough to where it landed on the rock instead. This action almost made me fly off the climb because of a mixture of my surprise, reflex, and tiredness, but by some miracle I managed to stay on, clinging onto the rock for dear life.

The rest of the climb, luckily, was straightforward and easy so I was able move up much more quickly and efficiently than before. Soon enough I was matching both hands on top of the ledge and looking out across the vast and rocky landscape. A view that had taken so much effort to see, made me appreciate it only ten times more. As I gave the signal to lower, and passed by the frog who was still hanging out on the rock, I realized that I wouldn’t remember this climb because it was fun or had a weird name. I would remember it because of my encounter with this very frog. This little guy had startled me so much that I almost fell off the climb, yes, but the uniqueness in meeting it had made this trip so much more fun and special. I watched on as the little frog hopped up the rock back to its pocket, and I sent it my well wishes.

I would like to dedicate this story to a few special people. Firstly to my mom for being so kind and generous, and making sure that I always feel supported. I love her so much—thanks, Mom! To my brother Austin, for making me laugh and teaching me that no matter what, I should always play LEGOS with him. Though he can be pretty annoying at times, he is still my brother and I love him infinitely nonetheless. To the frog for pushing me to finally reach the top and for making Jackson Falls so much more memorable. Finally, to my dad, for introducing me to climbing in the first place, and being so supportive of my passion. Thank you guys so much, it really means a lot to me.

Member Spotlight: Cristina Anichini

In today’s Member Spotlight, we’re highlighting Cristina Anichini, who checked into FA more than 280 times last year! Read on to learn about her all-girl band, her Chicago vegan food recos, and how bouldering sets her free, then make sure to say hi to her next time you seen her around FA!

1. How did you get into climbing?

I’d always been curious about climbing, but was intimidated and didn’t think I was strong enough. Three years ago, I finally asked a friend if I could join him at FA Uptown to try it out and instantly fell in love with bouldering.

2. What do you love about climbing?

I love how it involves both physical and mental aspects. The combination of strength, technique, and problem-solving helps my mind feel connected to my body. I think it’s cool how people of various heights and fitness levels can climb a problem in different ways. Most importantly, I love introducing new climbers to the sport and helping them feel as comfortable with it as I’ve become.

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

Bouldering! I like the freedom it allows me to climb alone or with friends, and I prefer power over endurance. Heights are not really my thing, so I also appreciate being as low to the ground as possible.

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

I’ve never actually been climbing outdoors yet, though It’s a goal of mine to go someday. I’ve been an “indoor kid” most of my life, but I’m trying to change that by going on nature walks, hiking, and attending outdoor yoga festivals.

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

I have so many goals this year…hopefully I can accomplish them all! First off, I’d love to get a V4 under my belt. Been close a few of times, but no dice yet. Secondly, I’m aiming to beat my PR of 30:15 in the Hot Chocolate 5k. I’d also like to improve my strength-to-weight ratio, get better at AcroYoga, hold a controlled handstand for more than 2 seconds, improve my flexibility and coordination skills, and master some of the hand balancing poses in yoga.

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

During the day, I work as a photo retoucher at a graphic design company. Fitness is a pretty big hobby of mine, so I love attending the variety of classes that FA offers. Personal favorites are Movement & Coordination with Niko, Sunrise Yoga with Tatiana, AcroYoga with Paula, and Core for Climbers with Jen. When I’m not at the gym, I enjoy drawing & painting, photography, dancing, playing music, and designing websites.

7. What do you love about Chicago?

I grew up in Chicago and am constantly finding new things to love about this city. I love how the Siberian-esque winters build character and provide contrast to the beautiful summers. I love the hard-working, down-to-earth people, the variety of food, and how each neighborhood has it’s own culture and personality. Most of all, I love how there’s always a new corner of the city to explore, no matter how many times I think I’ve seen and done everything.

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

Upton’s Breakroom has some of the best vegan food in the city. Highly recommended after a climbing session at FA Humboldt (their breakfast tacos are top-notch).

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

I used play the keyboards in an all-girl band.

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

I love you guys! I’ve made some really wonderful friends at FA. And the staff – teachers, trainers, front desk, etc. – you guys are the best! Everyone is so positive and welcoming, I instantly feel at home whenever I’m at the gym. Thank you for always being so supportive!