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

Your Guide To Climbing Outside

The city is thawing, the birds are singing, and spring is on its way, which can only mean one thing – it’s time to get outside! Nothing quite compares to the feeling of real rock under your fingertips, but climbing outside presents its own set  of challenges. Whether you’ve been climbing for years or for just a few weeks, making the switch from plastic to rock can be tricky – outdoor climbing presents additional dangers and logistical challenges that don’t exist in the gym. 

As the outdoor season gets closer, check out these tips to make your gym-to-crag transition as seamless as possible.

1. Find your Crew 

Before getting on real rock, you need to connect with someone who has the technical knowledge and expertise to help you climb safely outside and who knows the local crag logistics and ethics (i.e. where to camp, where to park, where to go when nature calls, etc.).One of the best things about climbing is the community, so seek yours out! There are plenty of ways to meet fellow climbers and organize that big trip you’ve been dreaming of in a safe and responsible way.

Meet the FAmily!

There are always lots of events happening at the gym, from the Bouldering League to Community Sessions like Women Crush Wednesday to the Climbathon. Check out our calendar to find one that speaks to you, and make some new friends in the process.

Post on our Bulletin Boards

Looking for a belay partner to hit up the Red River Gorge with you? Our bulletin boards are the perfect space to find community. Leave a note with your name and contact information, and get ready to make some great climbing connections.

Join a Group

The Chicago climbing community is growing, and local groups are a great way to connect with other climbers and hone your skills.The Chicago Mountaineering Club is a membership organization open to climbers looking to improve their mountaineering skills and attend group trips both locally and in annual western outings. On Facebook, check out the Greater Chicago Rock Climbing Community group, where local climbers can post about tips, tricks, and upcoming trips open for joining!

Find a Guiding Service

Hiring a certified guide who knows the approaches, anchor systems, and local ethics at a climbing area is the most tried and true way to get started outside. For Chicago’s “local” crags, check out the list of guiding services for the Red River Gorge, Kentucky on the RRG Climbing Coalition website, the Devil’s Lake Climbing Guides for guiding in Wisconsin, or the Vertical Heartland Climbing School for some climbing right here in Illinois.

2. Prepare for the Transition

Do Your Research

Make sure to research the local ethics and logistics of the climbing area you’re traveling to. Most well established crags have official guidebooks, so pick one of those up – a portion of the proceeds from sales of many of these books typically go to maintaining the local climbing areas.

Some judicious Googling can also help you find resources, and there’s always Mountain Project, an open source online guidebook with a handy smartphone app.  Also, make sure you understand the key differences between climbing in the gym and climbing at the crag. Check out this great list of tips from Climbing Magazine to helped educate yourself on the issues.

Take a Class

If you’re looking to hone your technical skills and head into the outdoor season with confidence, First Ascent classes offer the guidance and expertise to leave you feeling prepared. There’s no better way to learn the ropes, meet new people, and prepare to reach your next goal.

Our Gym to Crag program will get you ready to take your gym skills to real rock, covering the technical essentials for single-pitch sport climbing. You’ll learn the basics and best practices of managing and setting up sport climbing gear and get a refresher course on crag etiquette so you can help keep your favorite routes in good condition. If you’re new to climbing outside or just looking for a good way to dust off your knowledge, taking a class can get you ready to rise to any challenge.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Nothing compares to putting in some quality gym time. Outdoor climbing can test your strength and endurance in new ways, pushing you to spend more time on even taller routes.With that in mind, spend some time working on your endurance at the gym. Climb slowly and deliberately, and create circuits for yourself to increase your stamina. If you’re looking to get some solid advice on how to train for your climbing projects, check out our Redpoint Assessment with one of our expert coaches.

3. Hit the Crag!

With your crew and your skills in tow, you’re ready to head outside and test yourself on new routes. Remember to have fun, be safe, know the local crag ethics, and keep your routes clean and free of litter, so they can be enjoyed by climbers for generations to come.



Written by Ali Cassity. Photos courtesy of Ed Yu.

Climbing Comes To The Loop

Back in 2015, we opened First Ascent Avondale with a lot of hard work, some good fortune, and the collective energy of Chicago climbers. The video below tells the story well:

Now, less than 3 years later, we are thrilled to open our fourth location right in the iconic center of Chicago: the Loop. We love all the neighborhoods that are home to First Ascent locations, but this location feels particularly special to us. The FA Founders (Jon, Joe, Dave, and I) all call Chicago our home. It’s a milestone for us to open a climbing gym in the heart of Chicago, surrounded by skyscrapers, bustling crowds, theaters, company headquarters, city offices, and the architecture that makes Chicago so unique.

Building in the Loop is not only special for us Chicagoans, it’s also a leap forward in our mission to serve and grow Chicago’s vibrant climbing community. First Ascent Block 37 will serve climbers that work or live in the city’s center, and with access to the Red and Blue Line trains in the building, the location couldn’t be better for our downtown commuting members. We also hope FA Block 37 introduces more of Chicago to the sport we love. The Loop is filled with people who spend their days strapped to their desk. First Ascent will give them access to fun, convenient exercise and a great way to meet new people and connect with old friends.

First Ascent Block 37 opens in just a few short days, and we hope you can join us for the Grand Opening Party on March 3rd! In the meantime, I’d like to show you around the facility. Pardon our dust on this virtual tour – we’re still putting the finishing touches on the space. We put everything we’ve learned from our first three locations into this design, and we can’t wait to share what we’ve built with you!


When you enter First Ascent Block 37, you’ll be greeted by our friendly staff along with this custom-designed feature wall that mimics the contour of real rock.


Lake Shore Drive

The first boulder you’ll encounter features a generous amount of slab, vert, and slightly overhanging terrain. We’ll teach classes and set climbs for new climbers on this wall, but we’ll also have a number of harder technical slab problems mixed in.


Yoga & Fitness Studios

The facility features two yoga and fitness studios, where our top-notch team of instructors will lead yoga and group fitness classes to help you supplement your climbing and explore different styles of movement.



Neighborhood Boulder

We named this boulder the “Neighborhood Boulder” because it’s diverse, like the neighborhoods in Chicago, and there’s something for everyone on it. Visit the South Side, West Side, North Side, and Lakefront for everything from delicate slab to aggressive overhangs.

Inception Boulder

“Inception”? Allow me to explain. This boulder features blocs (a French word for boulder problem) on a block-shaped boulder in Block 37. So blocs on a block in Block. If you don’t get the name, that’s okay – you can re-watch the movie Inception, or forget all about the name and enjoy the gentle angle changes that make this block so unique.


World Cup Boulder

This boulder first appeared at the 2012 IFSC World Bouldering Championships, and Entre-Prises rebuilt it for us here. We will do our best to set world-class boulders here that live up to its namesake.


The Bean Boulder

We always wondered – could we build a climb-able version of the famous Cloud Gate sculpture (aka The Bean)? Entre-Prises took on the challenge, and we can’t be more psyched with the outcome. This boulder is a nod to the geometry of the famous Millennium Park sculpture, with colors that reflect the boulders around it as the Bean reflect its surroundings. Most importantly, it will make for some epic setting possibilities.


Training Area

Featuring a two-lane campus board, scatter board, Moonboard with Bluetooth app connectivity, and hangboard stations, you’ll have everything you need to develop climbing-specific strength, endurance, and power, all with downtown Chicago views to enjoy between sets.


Fitness Area

Any long-time climber knows that you need to add key lifts and oppositional training to your regimen to sustain your climbing and overall health. And for many people, having two memberships – one to the climbing gym and one to a fitness gym – is unsustainable. So we’re dedicating 1500 sf to state-of-the-art cardio equipment, free weights, and functional training equipment to help our members maintain full body wellness. 

Locker Rooms

You’ll find about 200 code-lock lockers around FA Block 37, including a number of larger lockers in each locker room. You’ll also find showers and other amenities to help you prep for work after a morning or lunchtime climbing session, including something new for First Ascent: towel service.


We will have 15 powered workstations overlooking Randolph St. so you can send some emails in between sends or “work from home” with other members of the FAmily.

We can’t wait for you to experience this climbing gym with us. Hop on the Blue or Red Line and meet us downtown for a session soon. Let’s climb, Chicago!

Dan Bartz is co-founder and Marketing Director for First Ascent Climbing & Fitness.

FA Member Spotlight: Mara & Brad

As Valentine’s Day approaches, we’re shining the spotlight on the recently engaged Mara Jacobucci and Brad Sackfield! Brad popped the question right here at FA Avondale a few feet away from where he first met Mara. What can we say – it was love at first ascent (their words, not ours)! Read below to learn more about this fantastic couple, and make sure to say “congratulations!” to these two Valen-climbs if you see them around the gym!

1. How did you get into climbing?

Mara: ​I got into climbing (and heard about FA) through my amazing sister, Miranda. 

She moved to Chicago from California for a brief period of time, and “coincidentally” planned her move the same month that FA was scheduled to open…it was not a coincidence. I decided to give it a try, since she clearly seemed to into it and excited by this new gym. She introduced me to the FAmily, including the amazing crushers of Women Crush Wednesdays. I’ve been hooked ever since! 

Brad: I got into climbing in high school, when I took an Outdoor Education course. We did some indoor climbing a couple times, then did an outdoor climbing trip. I seemed to be OK at it, so I kept going. 13 years later, I still seem to be OK at it, although it wanes a little each year. 

2. What do you love about climbing?

Brad: ​I like rocks. ​

Mara: Me too.

Brad: I think the best part about climbing is that you can climb with people of any skill level at the same time—you can have a hard route next to an easy route, and everyone can work together and hang out. You get to be chatty on your breaks, and I can’t stop talking.

Mara: It’s true. He can’t. My favorite part about climbing, besides getting to hang out with my favorite people (including this guy) is that I get to find all kinds of new ways to move and challenge my body. And solve problems!

Brad: Oh ya! That too. I love problem solving, and I love figuring out how to make something work for my style of climbing and my inflexible, broken body.

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

​Brad: Trad. *laughs* But really, I climb in all three disciplines—trad, sport, bouldering—but indoors, I prefer bouldering, because it’s more fun to be close to people and to get to chat. 

​Mara: He really likes to chat. 

​​Brad: ​Also, I prefer harder movements in shorter sequences. 

Mara:​ I​’m​​ currently ​focusing more on bouldering to work on power and strength, but I love sport climbing, too! It’s such a different mental game, so it’s fun to mix it up. 

4. What is your favorite place to climb outdoors?

​Brad: Red Rock Canyon.  Or possibly the Adirondacks…I think it’s Red Rock Canyon, though. OK, I got it! For trad: the Adirondacks, for sport: Red Rock Canyon, for bouldering: ​the Halfway Log Dump.

​Mara:​ ​I’ve only been to a handful of outdoor climbing spots, but I really enjoyed bouldering in Little Rock City/Stone Fort.For sport climbing, I have to go with the Red River Gorge. For our honeymoon, we’re hoping to make it to Kalymnos, so I imagine that will be our new favorite spot.

Brad: Definitely.


5. What other outdoor activities do you enjoy?

Brad: I really enjoy kayaking, standup paddle boarding, downhill skiing, cross country skiing, all the skiings, skating (on ice, because I’m Canadian)…

Mara: I love beach activities, though living in Chicago makes that pretty difficult. I also enjoying running outside when the ground is not frozen!

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

​Brad: Medical School and Mara.

Mara: Work, taking classes for fun (currently, Anatomy), and Brad. 

7. What do you love about Chicago?

​Mara: I love the people…specifically of the climbing variety. It’s very unifying to have a community of people who want nothing more than to climb outside, but are stuck in the midwest, where the closest decent climbing is hours and hours away. It takes a special kind of person to endure that struggle, and I really like them. ​

​Brad: First Ascent and the food! 

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

​Mara: We love exploring new restaurants in Chicago. Also, all the phenomenal live music and performing arts options, like Kingston Mines, free summer concerts in Millennium Park, theater, dance, and opera shows, etc. 

​Brad: ​We recently saw Hamilton, and it was spectacular. 

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

​Mara: How about that we’re obsessed with Hamilton?

​Brad: But most people get that idea after a few minutes…

Mara:​ I have six toes.

​Brad: That’d be pretty hard to fit your feet into climbing shoes. How about that between the two of us, we share the trifecta of European travel languages?​

Mara: And North America, for that matter. We intend to use these languages to travel the world! 

​Brad:​ To conquer the world! 

​Really though, rocks don’t speak, so we won’t really need them…

9.5. Okay, we have to ask… Why did you choose First Ascent as the venue for your engagement?

Brad: It’s where we met, and it’s where we spend most of our time together. Our first date started ​here, but neither of us knew it was a date…

Mara: …until we fell in love (it was quite literally love at first ascent). The engagement timing and venue was 100% a complete surprise to me, but I couldn’t imagine a better place​. Like Brad said, FA is where we first met—Brad proposed about 10 feet from the exact spot—had our first dates, and have met our closest friend​s​ in Chicago. 

​Brad: …so needless to say, FA is very special to us.

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

​Mara: Why don’t you give the FA community your secret, infallible beta?

Brad: Climb harder…and don’t fall.

Mara: Also, thank you for being the amazing, welcoming, supportive people you are. 

Brad: Yes, what she said.​


FA Member Spotlight: Rachel Van Loon

This month we’re shining the FA Member Spotlight on Rachel Van Loon! She brings passion, positivity and hard work to the FA community, and we can’t with to share her story with you. When she’s not traveling, you’ll find her conquering a new route at FA Uptown, studying to be a Physical Therapist, or planning her next trip. Read on, and say hi to Rachel if you see her around the gym!

How did you get into climbing?

There were a couple of sudden, unexpected changes in my life that lead to me to some pretty intense soul searching. Someone in my life recommended that I learn to be more disciplined in mindfulness, especially being in the present.The need for increased mindfulness and physically pushing myself in a different way led me to climbing.

What do you love about climbing?

The community, the way I can express and challenge myself physically, and the way I’ve learned to be patient with the learning process.

Do you prefer bouldering or sport climbing? Why?

Bouldering. It’s powerful, technical and primal feeling, yet disciplined and frustrating in the right ways. I enjoy sport climbing, but my first love is bouldering.

Since you’ve traveled so much, where has it taken you and what are your favorite places to climb outdoors?

I’ve bouldered in:

  •      Bishop, CA
  •      Berkley, CA
  •      Lake Tahoe, CA
  •      Jackson Falls and Holy Boulders in Southern Illinois
  •      Smuggler’s Notch State Park in Vermont
  •      Governor Dodge State Park and Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin

Bishop is currently my favorite spot to boulder, but Lake Tahoe and Smuggler’s Notch are close runners up. Bishop’s beauty is unmatched and it has changed my life and climbing perspective.

I’ve spent time sport climbing and deep water soloing in Thailand and have trad climbed and bouldered in Korea. I think about going back pretty frequently because I don’t feel I was able to see enough! Both countries offer so much and I’ve seen so little.

What other activities do you participate in?

Olympic weightlifting, surfing (very poorly and infrequently), camping, hiking, backpacking, fishing and cycling.

Do you have any specific climbing projects or fitness goals for the year?

I’m beginning the year at a pretty significant physical deficit because of a very slowly healing stress fracture on my spinal column, but my indoor climbing goal is to send a V7 and my outdoor climbing goal is to go back out east and do some sea cliff sport climbing.

Not climbing related, I would like to take at least one surfing trip and learn how to snowboard.

What keeps you busy when you’re not climbing?

School. There is nothing else. It’s almost completely consuming. I’m a kinesiology student at UIC and intending to pursue physical therapy. I’m graduating this year and beginning to prep for grad school applications.

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

Honestly, I like to fish and sit by the lake, especially when there’s a gnarly storm. When there’s not a gnarly storm, there are a lot of great food and beer things happening in Pilsen and Chinatown that I’ve found myself at more recently.

If social justice is your passion, there are a few organizations doing good work in Chicago. I’m involved with Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) and two organizations I respect are Asian Americans Advancing Justice and Black Lives Matter Chicago. FA also has a good group for POC called Sending in Color. They’re doing amazing, exciting things.

What do you love about the Chicago climbing community?

The Chicago climbing community has changed my life in an all-encompassing way. They’re my family. It’s not always easy to love and understand them, but I think that’s what family is. They’ve pushed me more, called me out more, and loved me more than most people in my life. The past two years were a difficult period in my life, but climbing helped get me through it. The lessons I’ve learned from climbing have continued to teach me in my everyday life. I’m eager to continue learning, though it is not always easy.


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

I have multiple sclerosis (MS) and epilepsy. I also have two children. The oldest is almost 15 years and the youngest is almost 10.

Multiple sclerosis is a neurodegenerative, autoimmune disease that doesn’t yet have a cure and leads to physical disability. The body attacks itself in the brain and spine, which is why physical impairments on some level are inevitable. The electrical signals from the brain and spine are interrupted because the nerves get scarred and don’t heal.

Epilepsy is a seizure disorder.

I experience new, progressive symptoms of MS somewhat regularly. This is one reason I try to remain as active as possible. I don’t know when doing these activities will no longer be an option for me. It’s a sobering reality.

I’m not sharing this to gain pity or attention, but rather to encourage people. I’ve learned to listen to my body and communicate bad days or bad feelings with those I’m close to. Sometimes I need more help than I can get, but in these times, I find I’m more resilient and stronger than I think. If you find yourself struggling with something that feels scary or overwhelming, I’m here to listen. I’ll cry with you. I’ll laugh with you. I’ll help you in any way I can. You’re not alone, especially in the Chicago climbing community.

4 Dos and Don’ts of New Year’s Resolutions

It’s finally 2018 and you know what that means – time for New Year’s Resolutions! Did you follow through on your 2017 resolutions? Most of us make it through the first few weeks or even months going strong, but there always comes a day when we lose sight of our goals and why we set them in the first place. Health and fitness goals can be especially tricky because we want to see results, but those results take time. It might even be tempting not to make any resolutions at all to avoid the potential for failure.

That’s why we’re sharing 4 Dos and Don’ts of New Years Resolutions with you. Hopefully you find these tips empowering and inspiring, allowing you to set some big ambitious goals for 2018 and follow through on them – without beating yourself down in the process.

#1: Allow Yourself To Make Mistakes

Adding an extra cheat day to your week or skipping an early morning at the gym is not going to derail your goals. You can’t be too hard on yourself when you don’t follow your schedule to a T. You are a human being who is allowed to make mistakes every once in a while. Learn and grow from your mistakes and let them make you a better person. Adjust your plan if it’s not working for you. You don’t need to give up on your goal because of one or two slip ups. Don’t be disappointed in your failures – use them as fuel to improve.

#2: Let Your Mental Health Come First

Some days you are not going to be 100%. Let’s face it: balancing work, social life, taking care of your family or even just making it to Friday can be a tall order.Letting yourself go a little slower in the mornings or cutting your gym time in half is absolutely okay. Taking your journey one day at a time in order to keep yourself sane and happy is more important than forcing yourself to meet a weekly goal weight or pant size. Loving yourself as you are is the greatest revolution!

#3: Find a Goal Partner

Having somebody to talk to, set goals with, and mutually motivate is a very important part of reaching goals and seeing results. Showing yourself compassion can be difficult if you’re going at it alone. Having a climbing partner/running buddy/workout group to help you celebrate your successes and analyze your failures helps you be kinder to yourself when you are off on your own. Self criticism can lead you to a downward spiral, but not if you have a friend or small group to support and raise you up.

And last but not least…

#4: Don’t Compare

Every person is different. Body types, metabolisms, routines, lifestyles, responsibilities – everyone’s path is their own. Comparing yourself to someone on the cover of a magazine or the person you run next to everyday on the treadmill isn’t going to get you anywhere.You may not even realize you’re doing it. What may take one person to do in a week might take you a month, but that’s okay – you don’t know what challenges that person is facing in other areas of life, so there’s no sense comparing yourself to them on this particular point. Getting to your goal the healthy way is much more liberating than forcing yourself into fad diets or unattainable workout routines to look a certain way. Just because you aren’t achieving the same results as the person next to you in the gym doesn’t mean you aren’t strong, smart, capable, and valuable. Celebrate your own strengths and see your true value.

Let’s make 2018 the year of working toward ambitious goals with self compassion. Now go start your journey!

Looking for some tools or programs at First Ascent to help you achieving a fitness or climbing goal? Check out the following:

BASECAMP Group Training – daily morning small group workouts at FA Avondale designed to help you build full-body conditioning that prepares you for life’s adventures. Book a free trial session to experience the workout first hand!

Redpoint Climbing Training – get a customized climbing training plan and expert advice on how execute that plan with Redpoint Climbing Training. Redpoint begins with an Assessment guided by a Redpoint Coach to diagnose your climbing strengths and opportunities for growth. Your Coach will provide you with a training plan after your assessment that you can execute on your own, or you can book additional Private Sessions or Redpoint Team Training, a small-group training program, to get continued guidance and train with others. Available at all FA locations. Assessments are just $49 through January 31st – book yours now!

Personal Training – get 1-on-1 or 2-on-1 training from an expert trainer who will help you set goals and guide you on the path to attaining them. A free 30-minute fitness consultation is available at all FA locations – schedule yours today!

By Tommie Hill