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

How to Start Climbing, Part Two: Your First Visit

This is Part 2 of our “How to Start Climbing” series. If you haven’t yet, check out Part 1: Get Started at a Climbing Gym.

So you’ve been bitten by the climbing bug (no, not a radioactive spider). To kick off your journey to true Rock Climber Stardom, you found a rock climbing gym in your area that looks friendly to beginners, like we recommended in Part 1, grabbed a buddy, and planned a day to visit. You might even have signed up for a class, like Learning the Ropes or Learning to Boulder here at First Ascent Chicago.

But what can you expect once you get there? What should you bring? How will you pick routes (or were they called “problems?”). What do all the numbers mean? We’re here for you: we all had our first days climbing once. Here’s what your first visit to the gym will probably include:

1. Renting gear 

When you’re checking in, be sure to mention that you need to rent gear (unless of course you have your own). Climbing in the gym calls for three essential pieces of gear: climbing shoes, a harness, and a chalk bag. At First Ascent, we rent these pieces a la carte or in a package for $10 per visit. Not bad, considering all together these items would cost $150 or more to buy. We’ll talk more about how to start acquiring your own gear in a later installation of this series, but for now, here’s the rundown on renting gear:

  • Climbing shoes are tight-fitting shoes secured with laces or velcro, attached to sticky rubber on the soles that forces the foot into a slightly downturned position. They should fit tightly, but not painfully—climbing feels much easier when you can put force into the footholds without feeling pain! Gym staff will happily help you find the right size, so don’t be afraid to ask for help here. Also, normally you don’t wear socks with your own climbing shoes so you can get the best fit possible, but we recommend wearing socks with rental shoes.
  • A harness is an essential piece of gear if you’re planning to enjoy roped climbing—it’s what you’ll use to attach yourself to the rope or autobelay. If you’re just bouldering, you can skip the harness rental, since bouldering pads are your fall protection in the bouldering area.
  • Chalk may seem unnecessary, but it’s an essential tool for climbing at your best. Before and during your climbs, if you’re putting a lot of effort into the climb (which you should!), your palms will sweat and you’ll lose some grip on the holds. Chalk absorbs that moisture and dries the skin, making it easy to pull up those new climbs and focus on fun, not on keeping your hands dry!

2. Going on an Orientation

Most gyms will require first time visitors to undergo an orientation before you start climbing. During the orientation, you’ll hear about facility rules and guidelines, climbing risks, and other basic information new climbers should know.

Take advantage of this opportunity to ask any questions you have about where things are located, what areas are best for newer climbers to try, and any tips and tricks staff have for climbers that are just getting started.

2. Learning the grading systems

Once you rent your gear and walk over to the routes or problems to give one your first attempt, you’ll notice a bunch of numbers and tape next to the bottom of each route or problem. This info reflects the grade, or difficulty, of the climb. Most gyms (FA included) two different systems for grades: bouldering grades, or V-scale, and sport (roped) climbing grades, or the Yosemite Decimal System. Without getting too deep into the history of these scales, here’s what you need to know for your first days at the gym:

  • Boulder problems range from V0 or VB (for “beginners”), the easiest, to V16, which is elite, futuristic climbing, which as a new climber you won’t (yet!) approach.
  • For roped climbing, you’ll see grades like “5.7” and “5.10a.” This is the Yosemite Decimal System, the method by which the difficulty of roped climbing in the United States is measured. For our purposes, ignore the “5” in every grade; the lower the number after the decimal point, the easier the climb. Start low and have fun!

3. Practicing basic technique 

Finally, onto the climbing itself. Newer climbers tend to focus heavily on their upper body exertion, which is a wasteful way to climb from an energy point of view. Keep in mind a few tips to make climbing feel more natural and powerful right from the start. You’ll notice much of these relate to energy conservation and endurance, two huge components of climbing fitness and technique:

  • Your feet should carry you up the wall. Your hands mostly keep you on the wall. As much as possible, use your legs to carry your body weight, something they’re used to doing already—pulling with your arms is a sure way to tucker yourself out.
  • Focus on your core—by firming up your core muscles, and bringing your hips into the wall, you make it easier to hold on, stand on small footholds, and propel yourself vertically. You’ll save tons of energy following this tip.
  • Use the lightest grip possible to stay on. This helps conserve energy so you can hold on better when it gets sketchy or difficult.
  • Breathe. This goes without saying—it’s very common for people to find themselves not breathing through difficult sections of a climb. Getting oxygen into your blood helps your muscles get through the “crux” (the most difficult part) of a climb.

Let us know how your first time climbing with us is—talk to any FA staffer, or find us on Instagram or Facebook. See you in the gym!

The Outside Experience Proved Chicago is a Great Outdoor City

Chicago used to have a bad rep in the outdoor world. We’re too far from the mountains and the ocean, our vast expanses are at least part suburb, and our weather swings from balmy hot to Chiberian cold without much of a fall or spring anymore (thanks, climate change). But those are just the table stakes for carving out a life outdoors, and Chicagoans know it.

Yeah, we know you can drive nearly from one end of Illinois to another without hitting so much as a hill — Illinois is after all the second flattest state in the Union. But if you’re willing to explore a bit, pack some friends into a car, and hit the road, you can enjoy the largest lake system in the world, send your project at the best sandstone bouldering this side of Fontainebleau, trek through glacial plains, and rope up for world-class sport climbing at the Red.

The best part? You can do all of this, and still live in a major city, with everything that entails. The news is getting out: Chicago’s been overlooked. But no longer, and here’s why.

1. City resources, global access

Tired of weekend-warrior-accessible climbing in Kentucky, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, and just about every other state in the Midwest? With access to Amtrak and Metra trains, O’Hare International Airport, Midway Airport, the El train lines, and several of the major US interstates, outdoor enthusiasts and climbers based in Chicago can reach almost any outdoor destination in the world, probably by multiple ways of travel. Need a quicker escape, and lack a car? Jump on a train and head down to the newest U.S. National Park, the Indiana Dunes National Park, or carpool to the hundreds of places to participate in almost every outdoor sport there is, from trail running on the Ice Age trail to bouldering in the Holy Boulders to kayaking in the Chicago River.

One of the advantages of living in Chicago, for the outdoor enthusiast and climber, is the ability to maintain a specialized career in addition to your outdoor pursuits. It all requires balance, of course: if you’re living in a van in Bishop, you’ll probably reach your bouldering limit more easily than someone living in Wicker Park, but you’ll also have more problems finding a job in your specific career path.

2: The community is huge

Living in Chicago also gives you access to a larger field of potential outdoor friends. From the Greater Chicago Rock Climbing Community group on Facebook, to the new Chicago chapter of Mappy Hour, to Logan Square’s Three Run Two (and don’t forget hubs for your specific sport, like First Ascent for climbers), you’ll never lack for new friends to try your latest pursuit with. And that’s not to mention classic Chicago outdoor events, like the Chicago Marathon and North Avenue beach volleyball leagues. There’s something to find — and friends to meet — whatever you’re trying to pursue. 

3. Even Outside Magazine thinks we’re an Adventure Capital

Outside Magazine recently listed Chicago one of its 2019 Adventure Capitals. We’re inclined to agree. Outside recently put their money where their mouth is when they brought their inaugural Outside Experience to the McCormick Center last weekend (July 13-14, 2019). With more than 200 exhibitors, including adventure speakers, films, beer tastings, gear demos and giveaways, Outside Experience brought thousands of outdoor enthusiasts from all around the country to Chicago on a perfect weekend — you know, the kind of summer days we stick around through the winter for. The best part? We ran a booth allowing expo attendees to rappel off the side of the Lakeside Center.

Since we started First Ascent, we’ve been so proud of the way the community has formed and grown into a hub of friends who love to share their sport with others. So in a sense, we did what we’ve always done at Outside Experience. Made friends, took care of each other, and had a great time in Chicago. And that’s what it’s all about — only now, people outside Chicago are starting to get it.

By Chris Rooney, FA member, writer, and Chicago adventurer.

Trip Report: New River Gorge, July 2019

In this trip report, Danny Delanty tells us about his weekend trip to the New River Gorge in Fayetteville, WV. Thanks for the beta and the wisdom, Danny!

Over the past weekend, I was able to check out the South Side crags at the New River Gorge. Since the crag can be accessed only from one very small dirt road, the South Side crags typically do not get the traffic they deserve. We were able to go to the Mud Hueco Area, Area 51, Brilliant Pebble, and The Other Place. With 200+ sport routes at these crags alone, this forgotten area is a hidden gem within the NRG.

I met a friend, Craig, down at the NRG and we traded belays working on our goals for that weekend. Craig was working on an extremely aesthetic climb called Crossing The Line (5.13b) at the Area 51 Crag while I was going around trying to get up as many 12- and 11+ as my arms would let me! If you climb 5.13, Area 51 at the NRG is for you, almost all the routes have permadraws, and there are multiple highly rated 5.13’s in that area. I ended up one hanging two really fun and chill 12-‘s and sending another one that goes by the name of Hard, Pipe Hittin’ Tiggers (5.12b). This is a route that everyone should hop on; it is a little contrived since you can skip the crux and go around it to make the climb go at 5.11-, but the crux sequence is very exciting! You get a good kneebar for rest, then you come out to two half-pad crimps which set you up for a big throw to a sloping but good ledge. From there it is jugs to the anchors. Leading up to the crux, however, is a super fun, (slightly reachy for those like me with shorter stature) very techy slab climb for the first 3-4 bolts that would be fun enough to do on its own!

We camped at a campsite on the river and were lucky enough to be given some low tide which exposed some large dry rocks on the river that were the perfect spot to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner on. Anyone who is a fan of camping and climbing would simply find this spot to be a paradise! All four crags are within a 15-minute walking distance from your tent at the campsite, so once you drive in, you do not need the car until you drive out! There are no modern facilities at this campground though, so do remember to bring all the water, food and filtration necessary to support you as you go send hard!

Climbing with people that are working on routes four grades harder than yours is a very good experience. On one hand, if the rock doesn’t humble you, seeing someone crush a climb you’re constantly whipping on will humble you. On the other hand, when belaying you can not afford to look away too much, and through this, I have learned much better technique and resting strategies. Employing what I have learned just from one person has surely bumped me up a few grades on sport, which is what all climbers want and deserve!