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Emily Harrington Interview: Global Climbing Day 2019

In this pursuit [of climbing], we found a community — strengthened by different stories, experiences and perspectives. This community has shown us that the only way forward is together. We believe in a world that is united by difference, bound by empathy and strengthened by understanding.

— The North Face

Inclusivity isn’t just a catchphrase. It’s part of the essence of climbing — it makes up the community and drives the sport forward. Bringing other voices into this pursuit makes us all better, so this Saturday, August 24, in partnership with the North Face, we’re recognizing our diverse and amazing community for Global Climbing Day 2019

  • At all of FA locations, first time visitors can climb for FREE from 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm. Return visitors can enjoy free rental gear with purchase of a Day Pass.
  • At First Ascent Block 37, Sending In Color will be hosting a POC meetup from 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm.
  • At First Ascent Avondale, we’ll have a special guest: The North Face climber Emily Harrington will be joining us from 2 pm to 10 pm! Here’s the schedule:
    • 3:00-4:00 pm: Meet & Greet
    • 4:30-5:30 pm: Women’s climbing session with the Women’s Climbing Collective
    • 6:00-7:00 pm: Storytelling and Slideshow
    • 8:00-10:00 pm: Screening of her film Golden Gate with a food truck, beer from Off Color Brewing, and a DJ to spin some tunes after the film

We are so excited for Emily’s visit, we reached out to see if she’d be willing to answer some questions beforehand and she graciously obliged. Here’s a snippet of what you’ll hear about when you come meet her on Saturday:

1. Why did you choose Golden Gate to screen on Global Climbing Day?

I’m really proud of Golden Gate and the film/story that was created out of it. I think it tells a great story of imperfection & failure as well as determination. In addition, I am currently trying to climb Golden Gate in a day so it seems relevant and timely 🙂

2. What’s driven you to accomplish all the hard climbs you have?

I think as humans we are driven to be challenged. To discover things about ourselves through our struggles and failures. Everyone has their own way of expressing themselves and learning about themselves in this way. Mine happens to be through climbing. That may change in the future but for the last 20 something years, I’ve found it to be the most inspiring, engaging, and interesting way to find out about myself. 

3. Why do you think climbing has become so popular over the past few years?

It’s definitely a combination of everything: big films, the Olympics, and just the interconnectedness of the world. I think a huge part has been because of climbing gyms. Climbing is no longer an activity reserved for a certain demographic, age group, ethnicity, gender, etc. It is as diverse and vibrant as the cities that house dozens of climbing gyms. It’s becoming more approachable, accessible, and cultural. And that’s a really cool thing. 

4. What are some of the skills as a climber that you think have been most helpful to adapt to all the different styles you’ve participated in?

Mainly humility. The awareness that climbing is incredibly versatile and requires vast skills and experience in order to master all the disciplines. I just do my best and try and remember that being a beginner again is often the most productive and growth-inducing phase.

5. If you could talk to yourself when you were a new climber, what advice would you give yourself?

I’d probably tell myself to have more fun. Sometimes I think I take it far too seriously. Even still. It’s important to remember that it’s just a form of expression and experience.

That’s it for now. Join us this Saturday, August 24th at First Ascent Avondale to meet Emily and learn more about her climbing pursuits! And if you can’t make it to Avondale, grab a friend and go to your FA home gym for free climbing from 2-5 pm to help us spread the love of climbing.


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Global Climbing Day is officially one week away! We’re stoked to partner with @TheNorthFace and climbing gyms all over the world to foster inclusivity in the climbing community. A quote from The North Face that rings true in our community: “In this pursuit [of climbing], we found a community – strengthened by different stories, experiences and perspectives. This community has shown us that the only way forward is together. We believe in a world that is united by difference, bound by empathy and strengthened by understanding.” There will be FREE climbing for first time visitors at all FA locations from 2:00-5:00 pm and free rental gear for all return visitors. At FA Avondale, @EmilyaHarrington will be joining us from 2-10 pm for meet and greets, a women’s climbing session, storytelling and slideshow, and a screening of her film Golden Gate with a food truck, beer from @offcolorbrewing, and a DJ to spin some tunes after the film. At FA Block37, @SendingInColor will be hosting a POC meetup from 2-5 pm! Check your location’s Facebook page for more details. Avondale: Block 37: Uptown: Humboldt Park: Peoria: Grab a friend or family member and join us to spread the love of climbing and connect with this awesome community! . . . @thenorthface_chi @thenorthfaceclimb #WallsAreMeantForClimbing #climbingcommunity #climbinggym #globalclimbingday #letsclimbchicago #northface #climbon

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Photos courtesy of Keith Ladzinksi and The North Face.

Journey to Multi-Pitch: Part 1

Twelve years ago I was introduced to rock climbing by a friend from work. It became the number one hobby that I never had time for. Even after twelve years, I wasn’t an especially advanced climber. Living in Peoria, almost an hour away from the gym and three hours from the closest outdoor crag, made it difficult to commit to more than a couple times a month at best. In my climbing group, I was the one lagging behind. Even though I’d been lead certified for eight years, I could only manage 5.10a lead and not cleanly. Yet, I was happy with where I was. While I desired the ability to climb harder routes, I enjoyed climbing what I could and cheering for my friends who I would belay on tougher climbs. Then late last fall, one of my friends floated the idea of taking a trip to Boulder, Colorado.

At first, it just sounded exciting, as he talked about doing multi-pitch trade and getting guides, but it quickly occurred to me that I was in no way prepared. Could I get ready in time? What if on this multi-pitch route, I was the slowest one? What if I couldn’t make it? How embarrassing would it be to hold back the group? A five or six pitch route is a commitment. Getting stuck on some pitch in the middle would prevent my partner from advancing to the top. I needed to prepare myself so that I wasn’t a drag, and so that I could make the most of a great opportunity.

The plan was set. Drive out on Wednesday, June 5th. Climb Flatiron 1 with our guides on Thursday. Do more multi-pitch trad in El Dorado Canyon with guides on Friday. Then finish up Saturday with some sport climbing on our own in one of the many surrounding climbing areas. It was November and I had resolved to climb more. Over the next two months, I managed seven trips to the gym in Bloomington. My first hurdle was my own mind. Getting past the third bolt felt like reason to celebrate and take a break. I needed to rest. What if the next hold wasn’t good? I wasn’t comfortable clipping from anything but the biggest jugs with full finger strength. Not because I couldn’t do it, I just didn’t want to. Who wants to fall 10 or 15 feet? Well, some of us are more daring than others. So I’d get halfway and start chickening out. I also suffered from addiction to high clipping. I knew better, but it was always so tempting to try and clip from as low as possible, stretching my hand way above my head. The danger of high clipping is multifaceted. High clipping takes longer, so you are wasting extra energy which could lead to a fall. It carries the risk of the dreaded z-clip since you are usually so close to the last clip that you can grab the rope under the quickdraw instead of the rope coming off your harness. Also, a fall while high clipping will be farther than if you were clipping at chest height. 

Fear was a big part of what was holding me back. Well, there’s only one way to deal with fear, and that’s to face it. I had a goal and a new mantra: no takes. It was easy on some routes that I had climbed before. I was close to making those anyway and just a bit of motivation got me to clean a few. But then I pushed into 10b and there came the falls.

My main weakness was finger strength. While balance and technique are what make excellent climbers, grip strength and brute force aren’t bad companions. One climbing friend had loaned me his 40lb Grip Pro Trainer months before. I had used it here and there but now it became like a hobby in itself. Whenever I was on the phone or reading some technical document at work, I was squeezing my way to more hang time. I worked my way up to using a 50lb trainer.  There’s nothing worse than getting ready to clip and feeling like your grasp is quickly peeling away. Soon that feeling came less and less often. I started to feel like with a good perch, I could hang on one arm forever. 

I was pushing my way through 10b into 10c and then it happened, the glorious day that First Ascent opened in Peoria. My clipping had improved, but in the first few months, I would have to switch to bouldering while waiting for the rope area to be built. I hate bouldering. I should say I hated bouldering. Something about the routes I had tried just hadn’t interested me. But with the wide variety and excellent setting at FA, I soon found a lot to like. My problem was taking adequate rests. It’s easy when you have to take turns with your partner. But with nothing holding you back, you can burn out fast. That’s where my poor technique and inflexibility started to emerge.

I have never been able to bend down touch my toes. While I would have liked to take advantage of First Ascent’s yoga studio, my schedule only allowed for one visit a week. So I went online and found a great seven-part series on yoga for climbers. This made for a good stretching session that I could do at home in just half an hour. My daughters were excited to join me in the exercise. They would be contorted in the position the instructor was demonstrating, then they’d look back at me and say, “Dad, why aren’t you doing it?” I had to laugh at myself. But, within weeks I was able to touch my toes with my knees locked. I noticed that I could also lift my legs up higher when struggling to find good footholds. 

I started thinking about my gear as well. Generally, I’m a thrifty person. I’ve had the same harness since the day I started climbing. It was the Vision model from Wild Country, which was a good beginner harness.  I knew it should probably have been retired a while ago, so I asked around and got a few recommendations for the Adjama harness made by Petzl. It’s comfortable and has extra gear loops, which I thought would come in handy on multi-pitch. My shoes were pretty worn, so I decided to get them resoled. They are a pair of Red Chilis I got for free from a friend, but they were $150 new. I knew it would be well worth it to get a second life out of them. Then my friend pointed out that they were fairly aggressive and probably too uncomfortable for a full day of climbing.  I like the stability that really tight shoes provide when climbing, but they are very painful to walk around or belay someone in. That’s why I always bring sandals to change into. I ended up going with the La Sportiva Tarantula and ordered an EU 44 since my Red Chilis are 42. I like the way the Tarantulas go on. They have tongue loop that makes it easy to cinch down. They proved to be a very comfortable shoe with only a little loss in stability. As soon as they arrived, I sent my old ones to Rock and Resole. It took a couple of months to get them back and the cost was around $60. I was very pleased with the quality. 

With still over a month to go, I felt very optimistic. I was really pushing myself and trying to do all the lead-only routes I could on the pillar. I really enjoy all of the different features on that part of the gym. I had climbed really hard one day and after I felt mostly burned out, my friend wanted me to top rope a very crimpy 11.b that was slightly overhung. I knew it was an area I needed to work on. I would struggle to get up, but I went for it. My fingers were very sore, and I would make only a few moves before I felt like my hands just gave out. Although I did finish it, my fingers had paid the price. Their soreness continued longer than usual and was mostly located in the middle finger of my left hand. The next week I tried to climb easier routes. After the first, the soreness was back to full strength. I pushed one more climb and gave up. Describing my situation to my friends led them to the conclusion that I had a #3 pulley injury. The odd part was that I didn’t feel a pop, which most had experienced with theirs. For those few climbers unfamiliar with the injury, the tendons in the finger run through bands of tissue that wrap around the bones called pulleys. This prevents the skin from being pulled down. Too much load on the tendons will cause it to tear through the band. It can be very painful and take a long time to heal. Luckily mine was not as severe as it could have been. It did stop me from climbing though. 

I definitely didn’t want to jeopardize the trip by making it worse, but I also felt that I wasn’t yet where I needed to be. Not climbing for a month could cause me to backslide. I was talking with my wife about the situation and she suggested that maybe trying to lose weight before the trip would help. She was worried that the suggestion would hurt my feelings, but I really appreciated it. It made perfect sense, I just hadn’t thought of it before. I didn’t end up doing any serious calorie counting, but I cut out all snacks and sweets. I avoided treats that were brought in to work. I stopped drinking alcohol. My wife already cooks very healthy meals and I don’t drink much with sugar in it. I continued doing some weight lifting, step-ups, and weighted lunges. When the day of the trip arrived, I had lost almost ten pounds. I still had some pain in my finger, but it was much improved. I still had the same doubts and worries, but I felt that I had done all I could to prepare myself. I was ready to see if it had paid off.

To be continued…

James Dunn is a member at First Ascent Peoria.

Mindfulness on the wall

Last summer, I went bouldering for the first time. It was my partner’s birthday, and he wanted me to try it out since he’d started earlier that year and really enjoyed it. We went to First Ascent Humboldt Park, which is in our neighborhood. I was skeptical. After all, I wasn’t particularly strong and didn’t like heights. I could see a glimmer of appeal after our first session together, but it took me a few more visits before I had this eureka moment. 

Even though the heights continued (and still continue!) to challenge me, getting on the wall helped to get me out of my head. This is a big deal for me, as I struggle from generalized anxiety disorder (and comorbid depression) and can at times be paralyzed by what’s going on in my mind. Finding out that climbing was an opportunity for reprieve felt pretty revolutionary once I recognized what was happening.

Anxiety is something I’ve dealt with for as long as I can remember, and it impacts just about every experience in my life. I’m not alone either, as it’s estimated roughly 18% of the U.S. population experiences anxiety disorders. In my experience, it has made simple things like interacting with other people or even going outside difficult and sometimes straight-up impossible. For a long time growing up, I just assumed that this was how everyone felt. Thanks so the support of friends over the years  (shout-out to my roommate Ben who walked me to my first counseling session in college!), I’ve learned that there are other ways of experiencing life and that I can work to calm my mind. For me, this work comes in the form of cognitive-behavioral therapy, mindfulness meditation, and learning to be kinder and more patient with myself. It’s meant retraining my inner dialogue and challenging long-held belief systems.

One component that’s been absent – and which many folks cite as being helpful with mental illnesses like anxiety and depression – is exercise. Since adolescence, I haven’t had the most healthy relationship with physical activity. The inner perfectionist made activities exhausting and turned everything into a chore. A product of my environment, it also often functioned in tandem with less-than-healthy behaviors and attitudes surrounding food and body image. Climbing has been the first physical activity that I’ve done since I was a kid that I really enjoyed, and which hasn’t triggered an unhealthy mindset. 

Bouldering has provided the healthy and fun exercise outlet I never knew I could have! It surprised me when I first started how social it is, which was a little intimidating at first. Now, this is a huge appeal to me. It’s a great opportunity to hang out with friends and meet some new folks. It’s fun discussing strategy and taking turns trying tricky sections of problems. The sense of community at First Ascent is so refreshing.

It also necessitates that I focus on the task at hand. Planning my path up the wall forces me to slow down, be patient, and reflect on what I’m about to attempt. I have to be fully present and engage my body in ways I never have before. When I don’t finish a problem, I have an opportunity to reframe the natural “you failed” inner dialogue with “what can I try next?” I’ve learned to embrace incremental progress. The first time I topped out I was so pumped! The same happened with my first V2, V3, and V4. And each one of these successes was based on trying, learning, and growing. 

Climbing has made me so much stronger, both physically and mentally. I’m trying problems now that I never would have imagined attempting a few months ago. Sessions are now often limited by raw hands (or hunger!) rather than tired muscles. I feel different, and I know that confidence has come from this. I still have many moments of doubt and anxiety, but these are tempered with feelings of pride. I’m actually able to do some physical things that are a challenge! It’s even prompted me to share in a public way my experiences with mental illness, something for which I’ve often felt shame. Stigma be damned!

This spring, I struggled to effectively manage my anxiety in the face of grad school, full-time work, and an unexpected move. A predictable and prolonged period of depression followed. Even in the midst of this, I found the motivation to go to the gym and climb, and I never regretted it. It was such a welcome break, spending some time with friends even if it was hard to be social, getting my body moving, and shifting my focus away from me and to the wall. And it helped me to keep pushing forward until the fog finally lifted.

I’m thankful to have been introduced to this sport, and I honestly never expected it to have the impact that it has. It hasn’t cured me of my anxiety and depression, nor do I expect it to. Rather, it’s one more tool in my toolkit to help me manage symptoms and learn new ways of experiencing the world.

Shelby Silvernell is a Chicago-based imaging and museum specialist, photographer, and FA member.

Member Spotlight: Lester Arguelles

Meet Lester Arguelles, FA Member since the beginning and constant presence around all of the FA Chicago gyms! Lester climbed for the first time in Denali National Park, and he often ponders the paradox of wild places: places we love to be in but want to keep wild. Read more about his climbing journey below and say hi next time you see him around FA!

1. How did you get into climbing?

After teaching English for a year in Taiwan, I went to Alaska to make beds and clean toilets at the chalets in Denali National Park. There I met a mountaineer who set up a top-rope on what he decided was a 5.10, and he invited me to try it. True to every beginning rock climber, I tried to campus it — all 20 meters of it. I tried very hard.

2. What do you love about climbing?

Puzzling over how to move across vertical or overhanging terrain with my hands and feet, and learning how to enjoy a good long fall. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve taken long falls. It’s that I have yet to enjoy them.

3. Bouldering or sport climbing?

Sport climbing because I love long format storytelling, which allows for diversion and detours that set you up for the unpredictable plot twist. Similarly, a sport climb meanders between easy and impossible, and, if you’re reading it for the first time, you just don’t know when the crux is coming, or even if you do, you don’t know how difficult it will be relative to the state of fatigue you’re in. Much like a good story, it offers states of euphoria and despair and everything in between. Besides, the views from up high can be truly breathtaking.

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

The Red River Gorge in Kentucky—it’s the world-class crag that is closest to me, and its development has just been superb. Apart from climbing, I enjoy swimming, biking, and running.

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

Yup. My perennial goal is not to get hurt, either by climbing or running. I’m currently nursing an Achilles tendon injury, so my running goal of a sub-3 marathon is kaput for this year. But that does let me focus on my climbing goals for this fall, which is to break into the 13’s on sport, and perhaps even flash a 13a. I’ve got a couple of candidate routes picked out at the Red.

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

Home life, work, ceramics, and friendships.

7. What do you love about Chicago?

Deep down, I am a city person, and I love that Chicago is an affordable, world-class city with great food, music, arts, public transit, architecture, academic institutions, and ethnic diversity.

I love Millennium Park. The Frank Gehry designed bandshell is an architectural wonder with a first-rate sound system to convey the free Grant Park Orchestra concerts across a lawn sprawling with picnickers. On the south end of the park is the Lurie, which has been referred to as a “model of responsible horticulture.” Community gardens have become kind of a big thing in Chicago, and it has been shown that the floral diversity in cities make them places where bees can proliferate, unlike the monocultural wasteland of our industrial farms that use enormous swathes of land to grow 1 or 2 things. Big urban centers, such as Chicago, can be a powerful mechanism for environmental protection, and the Lurie Garden is indicative of that.

Finally, I love Lake Michigan, with its many moods. It is, without a doubt, one of the best swimming holes in the world.

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

I love Ethiopian food, and for that, I go to the Ethiopian Diamond in the Edgewater neighborhood. All the music venues in town are great, but if you’re a Jazz fan, the Green Mill is the best. I spend a lot of time making pottery, so I have to shout out to the Lill Street Art Center, which has a ceramics facility that is one of the best in the country, but when I want to veg-out in art in general, it’s the Art Institute all the way.

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

I tend to be solitary, and I play the piano. Very badly.

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

I have this belief that our wild places hold spiritual and aesthetic importance. There is a paradox in that our desire to experience wild places feeds a desire to make them less wild and more accessible. So I wonder where the proliferation of climbing as an outdoor activity will fall in the paradox. Falling in love with the outdoors puts one in the center of this paradox, and acquiring the skill of climbing more so because it brings the power to explore more and more remote places of the world — more of us in places that used to have none of us. So, I suppose what I’m saying to the FA community is that being in nature is not simply about being outside; it is about where you see us, humans, in relation to nature. What does wilderness mean? How do you define it? Why are wild places important, and how do we experience these places without removing the unbridled thing that drew us to them in the first place? What is our role?

Photos by FA staff member and photographer Sandy Morris. See her work at