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

Climbing is for Every Body

Last week, the New York Times featured First Ascent in a full-page Style section article discussing the rise of climbing in the US over the last 5 years. 

That was an exciting moment for us at First Ascent. All of the photos from the piece were taken at First Ascent Avondale, and I was quoted discussing our role in fostering community, connecting people, and helping bridge the culture gap between new and experienced climbers. Other FA climbers (Zack Woodruff and Megan Novotney) told stories about traveling to the Red River Gorge and climbing with their kids.

We were stoked to see First Ascent featured in this climbing “moment”, as Jimmy Chin describes it in the article. We opened our first location just over 4 years ago, and it’s rewarding to see the work we’ve put into our gyms be recognized on a national scale. But more importantly, we consider serving this growing community of climbers an enormous privilege – one we don’t take lightly.

That’s why I’m writing here in response to a part of the article that struck me and many climbers as fundamentally untrue of the sport of climbing and the climbing community as a whole:

“Keeping in mind the average American is significantly overweight, I would talk everyone I could out of rock climbing unless you are incredibly light, agile, fit and functional,” said Harley Pasternak, 45. “There is a very small minority of this country that should be rock climbing.”

I respect Harley Pasternak’s experience and expertise in fitness and nutrition, but we need to set the record straight. 

Climbing is for everybody. Every. Body.

I don’t just say this as an industry idealist. I say it because I’m part of an extremely diverse, inclusive community of climbers inhabiting our gyms every day. 

Come observe a First Ascent gym any night of the week, and you’ll find climbers of all ages, body types, sizes, ability levels, and backgrounds pursuing adventure, fitness, and community through climbing. What’s more, that community of climbers is incredibly welcoming and encouraging to new climbers, no matter their fitness level. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been climbing or how hard you can climb – we’re all pushing our own limits, so we’re all on the same team when it comes to sending

To say that climbing is only for the fit elite is a complete mischaracterization of the climbing community I know and love.

For some people, modifications are necessary to climb, but that’s no different than any other sport or activity. Our routesetting team works hard to set climbs for all ages, body sizes, and ability levels so everyone can enjoy a first ascent on their first visit, then challenge themselves with more difficult climbs as they progress. We partner with Adaptive Adventures to lead adaptive climbing meetups where climbers use special prostheses or rigging to climb despite physical or neurological disabilities. We recommend that folks with previous ankle or knee injuries, osteoporosis, and other conditions that leave them susceptible to limb injuries stick to roped climbing and avoid bouldering, since that style of climbing involves ground falls down to a pad instead of a harness and rope to protect falls. Sure, certain styles of climbing are reserved for advanced climbers (lead climbing, for instance), but with the correct modifications and equipment in place, the inherent challenge and joy of climbing is available to everyone.

Of course, climbing involves inherent risks – gravity works, as the saying goes – and we’re clear with everyone who walks through our doors about the risks associated with climbing. With proper equipment and training, however, there’s something about defying gravity in community that is life changing.

I’ve watched countless people become more alive and more themselves through climbing: taking back control of their health and fitness, battling their sedentary work lives, disconnecting from devices and reconnecting with people in the present moment, enjoying being active with their kids and families, overcoming a fear of heights or feelings of self doubt – and the list goes on. I know these stories well, partly because I’ve experienced a similar transformation myself. I discovered climbing as an out-of-shape college student who never quite fit into the sports or fitness worlds, and needless to say, it altered the course of my life in ways I never would have imagined that first day at the climbing gym. Climbing has the ability to change lives, and that opportunity is available to anyone and everyone – particularly those who might not fit into more traditional sports or fitness activities.

I’m glad to see the climbing community stand up and respond to the article. Countless climbers commented on the New York Times Instagram post to stand up for climbers of all body types and ability levels. Sasha Digiulian posted a call to action via Instagram yesterday, with thousands of likes and hundreds of comments. This is the community I know and love standing up for what we believe in.

We at First Ascent will continue to do our part to give everyone – every body – a chance to discover climbing in a positive, supportive, judgment-free environment. We are grateful to the climbing community we serve for helping us uphold a warm, welcoming vibe in our gyms. And we encourage everyone who is curious about climbing to prove the naysayers wrong and come give it a go. We’d be happy to show you the ropes.

Climb on, y’all!

Dan Bartz
Co-founder, First Ascent Climbing & Fitness

2019 Humboldt Rumble Recap

This past Saturday, November 16th, we held the second annual Humboldt Rumble Bouldering Competition at our Humboldt Park location. Climbers of all ages climbed comp-style problems custom set for the Rumble, and fun was had all around.

We had the Journey station on Pandora playing for the Youth comp because everyone sends when dad jams are playing. The Citizens Comp was completely FULL, and the sending energy in the space was off the hook. Then when 7:00 PM hit, we turned the lights down low, doled out BBQ from Feed and brews from Goose Island, and cranked up the tunes for Open Finals, with a $1,000 cash purse on the line for the top competitors. The crowd kept the hype high, the top climbers crushed, and the 2019 Humboldt Rumble wrapped with FA Humboldt Park claiming the title of CrossTown Bouldering League Champions for the second year running!

Thanks to our sponsors, Organic Climbing, Butora, Moosejaw, and Yeti for kicking some fantastic prizes for our competitors.

After all is said and done, we want to give a special shout-out to the setters. They set problems with a mix of comp-style and more accessible climbing that everybody could challenge themselves on, and it made the day what it was. Thank you, FA setting crew!

Click below to check out the full results and see how you did!

2019 Humboldt Rumble Comp Results

One final note: our Recreational Women’s 3rd place competitor, Kai Nemoto, posted an incredibly heartfelt story about competing in the Rumble. We’re embedding that post here. Please read, because it speaks to what we believe this community is all about. Take it away, Kai:

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Community bouldering competition!!🧗‍♀️ . Last year I had the lowest score in the competition of 300 points (at least I turned it in😂) but this year I was able to do a lot more and got 3rd place in women’s recreation category!! . I climb because it’s a fun strengthening exercise. I don’t like weights. Exercise is needed for better health so I had to pick something🤔 Finding what’s do-able (AKA fun) and convenient was the key for me. . I go to climbing gym “everyday” after school as long as I don’t have migraine or bad PMDD. My sick days are the no-exercise days which is half of the time so the schedule works out😆 . I loved that I got to see my improvement of the year!! . PS: watching finalists are inspiring. . #climbing #firstascent #humboldtrumble #stopsuicide #mentalhealth #mentalhealthadvocate #exerciseforhealth #mentalhealth #copinglife #copingskillpnddwarrior #achievementoftheyear #improvementoftheyear #highlightoftheday #suicideprevention @firstascentclimbing

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2019 Holiday Gift Guide for Climbers

Somehow, it’s already November and the holiday season’s right around the corner. If you have any climbers in your life, you might be wondering what gifts to buy for them.

But if you need ideas for what to buy, don’t stress. This world of rock climbing gear can feel complicated and obscure even to climbers. From gear to media to memberships, we’ve put together a list of suggestions. Pick up any of these to make your climbing loved ones completely stoked when they open their gifts:

1. Climbing gear

Help your climber do what they love to do: climb! Climbing gear is always a safe bet. They could use new climbing shoes to replace the pair they’ve worn out bouldering over the past year. A belay device like the Petzl GriGri+ will help them stay safe on the wall. Or buy them a new rope. With a Sterling Velocity 9.8mm, they can work on that new route they’ve been eyeing in our Avondale location.

2. Reel Rock films

Every year, the climbing community buzzes with energy around the Reel Rock Film Tour. Many Chicago climbers went to this year’s first official film festival tour stop in the city! Reel Rock, a collection of short films, hits at the heart of the climbing community every year. It’s full of laughs, heartfelt connections, and amazing climbs. So why not buy a copy of previous tours and give it to your climbing friends? Digital copies are available on the Reel Rock website.

3. First Ascent apparel

You can often spot First Ascent climbers in the wild: they’re wearing FA gear. We’ve got a couple of new designs launching early in December: a new beanie and a new hoodie. They’re super soft and warm — perfect for the early-appearing cold weather we’re having. Come by the Avondale location to pick up this and other FA swag in the pro shop!

4. Gift cards

If you’re still not sure what to buy, we offer gift cards too. Your climber friends and loved ones can use them to pick out the best gifts for them. Everything from apparel to equipment like ropes and belay devices is fair game. This Black Friday through Cyber Monday, we’re offering 10% off of all our gift cards (online or in person) so you can get FA dollars in your climber’s hands at a discount. Don’t sleep on it!

5. Holiday Market and Gear Swap

This upcoming December 7th, stop by our First Ascent Holiday Market at our Avondale location. Local and outdoor retailers will showcase their wares with special holiday deals, so you can pare down your shopping list. What’s more, we’ll have local non-profits with gift ideas that give big and give back. We’ll also host a gear swap, where you can buy, sell, and trade your new or gently used gear to acquire gifts for yourself and others.

This is a great opportunity to get hands-on guidance for the climbers and adventurers in your life gifts. And you can get your photo with Santa on his portaledge. See you there!

One last thought: the holidays can be stressful. If you think you’ll struggle to buy gifts for everyone in your life, don’t worry. Despite all the marketing, this time of year is about the people. Your presence and friendship are enough, and those are free to give. Happy holidays!

Staff Spotlight: Christine Antonio

We’re shining the staff spotlight on Christine Antonio, First Ascent’s Learning to Boulder class instructor at Humboldt Park! Read more about her journey through the world of climbing.

1. How did you get into climbing?

Honestly, you could have found me climbing anything and everything as a child (trees, countertops, scaling the walls of the house – my very early debut into chimney climbing). I once got stuck at the top of a flag pole and had the fire dept called on me. When I was home from grad school for winter break, my friend took me to First Ascent Avondale. I decided then that I would join the gym when I moved back home after graduation later that year (September 2016)… Now here I am!

2. What do you love about climbing?

I love that it has helped me to love my body for how strong and resilient it is regardless of what it looks like. I love the supportive and goofy community I’ve found through climbing. I love the beautiful, obscure places it has brought me to. I love how alive I feel at the top of an outdoor lead or multi-pitch route. I love eating after climbing.

3. Bouldering or sport climbing?

I do both! Sport climbing will always be my first love and favorite – the serenity and fluidity needed for sport climbing has always resonated with me. But I also love the social aspect of bouldering and napping on crash pads. I do tend to use bouldering as a way to improve climbing style/technique that I can apply to the lead wall.

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

Bishop (Payahuunadü – Northern Paiute, Southern Mono/Monache, and Newe/Western Shoshone land) is an absolutely magical place. Climbing on beautiful rock with the snowcapped Sierra Nevada range in the background is an absolute dream. Locally, Shawnee National Park is a gem of southern IL.

5. What other outdoor activities do you participate in?

Snowboarding, ice climbing, surfing (trying to learn), backpacking (went on my first big trip to Mt. Olympus, WA earlier this year). I’ll play a pickup game soccer or football here and there. I’m trying to get back into running, but it’s getting cold now and I dread the treadmill (I have many excuses).

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

Rehab current injuries, prevent further injuries, be smarter and more strategic about getting stronger! Grade-wise, indoor 5.12, outdoor 5.11+/5.12-, V6 outdoor. I’m hoping to find some lead projects in So IL or the Red in 2020!

I also hope to continue doing solid work with Sending In Color, Women Crush Wednesday, and Brown Girls Climb to improve diversity, accessibility, and WOC (women of color) representation in the climbing world.

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

My full-time job is a Medical Speech-Language Pathologist at an acute care hospital. So most of the time I’m performing swallow studies and watching people eat. Other things that keep me busy are non-climbing related travels (they rarely are these days), trying new recipes, singing very loudly in my car, and my crazy cat.

8. What do you love about Chicago?

It’s home! I also “love” that sub 50 F is still sending temps for us because we got thick skin – STRENGTH, NO WEAKNESS (but really there’s still never enough skin).

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

Food: Ahhh I love food… can’t choose one place! Some favorites are Chicago Kalbi (Korean and Japanese barbecue), Mesaku (sushi), Cocoro (Japanese), Han Bat (Korean ox bone soup), Alegrias (Nayarit style seafood), Bonci (Roman-style pizza), Lina’s Frozen Treats (located in Niles – Mexican and Filipino/Asian froyo, drinks, and desserts), Chi Cafe (if you know you know), and of course, my mom’s house for some bomb Filipino food.

Music/art/culture: One of my dear friends started Luya Poetry, a monthly poetry/open mic night geared towards the Filipino American and POC (people of color) community. Luya, in Tagalog, translates to ‘ginger’ and, like poetry and community, ginger is healing. The topics always resonate and are refreshing in a way that cannot be described with words.

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

I used to choreograph Filipino folk dances in college and competed in Battle of the Bamboo (annual competition at the University of Illinois Chicago) throughout my 4 years. In my senior year, I held the lead role in our performance as a mythical, colorful chicken called the “Sarimanok”. I think this all came full circle when I climbed my first outdoor 5.11 in Cebu, Philippines and I could hear the loud, incessant, collective crowing of the town’s cock-fighting chickens cheering me on…

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

As climbing becomes more popularized, inevitably, outdoor spaces are gaining more traffic. Please be respectful of the land where you climb/recreate, and to the people who were there before us, are still there, and continue to do work to protect these natural resources. Take some time to learn about the history, preferred practices, and be proactive about doing your part – whether that is packing it in/out, picking up trash, staying on trails, not climbing on rock susceptible to damage, not making cairns for fun, participating in stewardship or service projects, listening to stories and struggles of indigenous people, lobbying, or donating. “Leave no trace” is the bare minimum that we can be doing.

With the passion, tenacity, and execution I have witnessed in this community when facing our climbing projects, I know that we can do more here!

#MyFAstory Recap: Your First Ascent Stories

Back in September, we celebrated our fourth anniversary of opening our first location, First Ascent Avondale. In the four (already four!) years we’ve existed, we’ve welcomed thousands of new climbers through our doors, and watched them fall in love with the sport we love. We’ve watched countless members get stronger, healthier, and more connected to those around them. We can’t get enough of this community, so we asked you to share your FA stories on Instagram using #MyFAstory. Some of them we’ve heard before (we’re grateful to have a tight-knit group!), and others we heard for the first time.

So, we want to share some of the stories people told about their journey into climbing, and into the FA community. Check out the highlights below, and say hi if you see these crushers in the gym!

Climbing helps @kfuhrich to push her personal limits

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This week’s #MyFAStory feature comes from @kfuhrich: “I never considered myself athletic because I don’t excel at catching a flying ball. Climbing has encouraged me to physically push myself. I’ve sweated through, balanced atop and held on to things I never thought I could. Seeing a barrier and busting through it— or sometimes, barely inching over it— is empowering. What I imagined was merely a physical endeavor has turned out to have many mental and emotional benefits, too.” Friendly reminder for our members: if you post your #myFAstory by 9/30, you’ll receive 500 FA Bonus points! . . . #whyiclimb #❤️#letsclimbchicago #climbingcommunity #climbon #climbing #optoutside #climbingstory

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@chefbreadley has used climbing to help him face fear and adversity

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We’re closing out our birthday month with another #myfastory. Here’s @chefbreadley’s story: “My FA Story begins 3 years ago, when I was tired of the same old exercise routine and wanted something to challenge myself. Fast forward to now, and climbing has become not only a new way to stay active, but also a lifestyle and a community that’s helped foster my personal growth in other areas of life too. It’s taught me to be humble, face my fears, push through adversity and so much more. I love the adversity of it, and the feeling of accomplishment when everything lines up and I conquer a route or boulder problem.” We LOVE hearing stories like these. Thanks for sharing this Seth! FA members: if you haven’t posted your FA story yet, we’d still love to hear it. You have until midnight tonight to tag a post with #myFAstory to earn 500 FA Bonus points! . . . Photo: @sally.blood #whyiclimb #❤️#letsclimbchicago #climbingcommunity #climbon #climbing #climbingstory

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Climbing helped @betweenarock_ surprise himself with new skills

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This week’s #MyFAStory feature comes from @betweenarock_: “I took a learn the ropes class at Avondale as a surprise birthday present. I wasn’t so sure about top rope, but I was really intrigued by bouldering. So I took an intro to bouldering class at Uptown, and then I was hooked. I loved feeling so strong and being able to conquer the fear of heights. After about 6 months of climbing, I was able to do something I never thought I’d be about to do it my life: a pull-up! Not only has climbing been great for building strength and mental toughness, but the community is amazing! I love participating in as many First Ascent events as I can, and love all the new friends I’ve met!” Thanks for sharing your story with the whole community, Kim! The FAmily wouldn’t be the same without you. Reminder: We want to hear your FA story too, so tag your next post with #myFAstory and tell us more about how you got into climbing and the impact it’s had on your life. All FA members can earn 500 FA Bonus points this month for sharing. . . . #climbing #whyiclimb #❤️#letsclimbchicago #climbingcommunity #climbon #bouldering #Uptown #climbingstory

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Climbing’s helped @anne_catrone show strength — mind and body

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LOVE this #myFAstory from @anne_catrone: “The first time I went climbing, I couldn’t do a single pull up. I had zero upper body strength and I hated working out. Climbing changed all of that. I had so much fun and pushed myself so hard that the next day, I could barely hold a pen, my forearms hurt so much. There’s a lot I love about climbing. As an exercise, it’s versatile and challenging, building strength and confidence simultaneously. It’s one of the few sports that can be competitive individually or as a team, and as such fosters a community that’s genuinely interested in supporting others in their pursuit of success. It provides a place where failure is not just possible, but expected, since failure is the only way to test your limits and grow. Now that I’m pregnant, I find it even more important to continue climbing, and to keep climbing a part of mine and my husband’s lives, for as long as I can. I want to show other women that pregnancy doesn’t define you. Sure, certain things may have to change. Like me, you may have to clear it with your doctor, stick with beginner walls, and take more breaks. But it’s important to me to stay healthy and continue doing things I love. Besides, I want to introduce this kid to climbing early. I want my child to know their mom is unapologetically strong, and strong women should be celebrated. I want them to know their dad admits his weaknesses, and seeks guidance to improve upon them. That courage isn’t the absence of fear, but it’s doing something in spite of fear. That difficult things are worthwhile. That failure is how you learn. I want to remind myself that children fall, and some challenges they’ll have to face alone, and when they do, if we’ve done our job, they will have the courage and confidence to tackle them head on. That’s why I climb. That’s why I continue to climb.” Thanks for sharing this story, Anne – so inspiring!! We want to hear YOUR FA story! Tag a post #myFAstory to tell us how you got into climbing and the impact it’s had on your life! FA members can earn 500 FA Bonus points this month for sharing. #climbing #whyiclimb #❤️#letsclimbchicago #climbingcommunity

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Here’s to four more years and beyond with this amazing community!