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

FA Member Spotlight: Sarah Landon

This month, we’re shining the spotlight on artist and FA Member Sarah Landon! Sarah is currently showcasing her artwork in the first ever community art installation at FA Block 37! Make sure to stop by FA Block 37 to see her beautiful work (all pieces are for sale and prints are also available), follow Sarah on Instagram @arcanum.inheritance to see more of her artwork, and say hi next time you see her around FA!

How did you get into climbing?

Ever since a friend in grad school took me to an indoor rock climbing gym, I have been addicted!

What do you love about climbing?

Climbing is mentally, physically and emotionally challenging. There is always an area of the sport that I can improve in.

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

Bouldering. I climb harder when I boulder and I get more of an adrenaline rush!

Does climbing inspire your art? If so, how?

My art is inspired by my personal experiences and what is currently challenging me. Movement, flow and tranquility are the core inspirations of my art and, in many ways, my climbing style mirrors how I paint. I’m also more creative after a good climbing session!

What do you want to share about the pieces on display at FA Block 37?

The pieces I am showcasing at FA Block 37 are paintings that either portray power and force or peace and balance. This captures a lot of what climbing means to me and I believe it’s fitting for this setting.

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

Jackson Falls in southern Illinois is my favorite place to climb. When I’m not climbing, I enjoy ultimate frisbee, especially this time of year.

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

I am currently playing in an ultimate frisbee league and my goal is to have more sprinting power and endurance by the end of the season!

What do you love about Chicago?

I love the art community and culture in Chicago. It’s expressed in various ways depending on what neighborhood you are in.

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

I love Big Star in Wicker Park. They have the best tacos and I love the energy in that neighborhood.

Anything else you want to say to the FA Community?

I couldn’t be more thankful for the opportunity to share one of my favorite creative outlets with this community. Thank you, First Ascent!

If you or someone you know would be interested in showcasing artwork at a First Ascent location, please email

How to Navigate the Crag, Part 1: Leave No Trace

Climbing outside is not as easy as grabbing your new rope and quickdraws, piling into your buddy’s Outback and parking it outside Miguel’s at the Red. If you do that without preparation, you’ll have earned dreaded “gumby” status. The culture around climbing began in places like Yosemite Valley, where intricate ethics and schools of thought emerged dictating best practices that have survived and been refined until today. Luckily, it’s never been easier to get outside and have great fun, while remaining safe and considerate of the environment, others, local ethics, and yourself – you just need to do the research first. That’s where we come in.

This is the first piece in a five part series called How To Navigate The Crag. We’ll cover everything from Leave No Trace ethics, to local style, to logistics. Today we’re starting with Leave No Trace.

What’s Leave No Trace? It’s a seven principle manifesto, codified in 1994 through the the Leave No Trace center for outdoor ethics, that equips adventurers with the skills to always use the outdoors ethically and responsibly. Adopting the Leave No Trace Seven Principles makes it possible for others after you to enjoy the spaces we travel to in order to pursue our sport. The principles are simple, but not always easy – so we’ve outlined them below with climbing specific examples:

1. Plan Ahead and Prepare

The first principle outlines the need to be aware of the logistics and time you’ll be visiting a place and whether or not it makes sense for your personal intentions. You should only plan to visit crags when you’re fairly certain that you won’t be adding to a crush ofpeople during popular times: for example, trying to spend a bit of time work the most popular 5.10s at Roadside Crag in the Red River Gorge during Rocktoberfest weekend. It’s just not going to work without overcrowding and the environmental impacts that come with that, especially at a spot like Roadside Crag.

2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

Next is to make sure you’re traveling and camping on durable surfaces.  The Buttermilks in Bishop, CA, are a great example of this: much of this area is ecologically sensitive, with off-trail traveling discouraged by the many signs along the trails from boulder to boulder. When we “go our own way” and create our own trails and campsites, we harm and cheapen the place for the next climbers – and just as critically, threaten climbing access. As LNT says, it’s always better to find a trail or campsite than to make one.

3. Dispose of Waste Properly

The next principle is straightforward: pack it in, pack it out. This goes for heavily trafficked areas, like Muir Valley in the RRG, as well. This isn’t just your granola bar wrappers: If you use toilet paper in the woods, you need to bring it back out with you. Gross, we know, but even grosser to find it when it’s not yours. And this principle goes even further: your business should be done in a dug out hole at least 200 feet from water, camp, and trails. At the Red? What this really means is to do your heavy-duty business before you even get to the crag. Otherwise, be prepared to do it the right way for everyone, including the environment.

4. Leave What You Find

Hueco Tanks State Park is one of the best places in the country to boulder. It can be difficult to get access: the permit system requires planning far in advance, and day-of spots to get in are competitive. One of the reasons is that the site is full of prehistoric rock paintings and pictographs. They’re as beautiful as they are fragile, and this is what the fourth principle is all about: leave behind what you find. That means don’t touch or modify or remove or damage the environment you’re in, within and beyond the bounds of local regulations (like the ability to bolt in areas like the Red; but if you’re that far along, you don’t need this article).

6. Minimize Campfire Impacts

Minimizing the impact of fires is all about what you learned from Smokey the Bear: be careful with your campfires, keep them as small as possible, and put them out completely, using water. We’ve seen rampant forest fires in the American West due to increasing drought and drying out of potential fire fuel resulting from a changing climate. It’s more critical than ever to keep personal fire usage under control in dry places. If you’re not overly careful, you could unintentionally cause a whole lot of damage.

7. Respect Wildlife

While visiting the Buttermilks at the right time of year, you could run almost right into a rattlesnake. You might not even see it until it starts rattling. And if it’s in the way of your next problem, you have a few options, only one of which is the right one. You could walk off the marked trail, around the snake, and onto your destination. But that wouldn’t hold to LNT ethics.  You could also (if you’re both unethical and overly gutsy) try to goad the snake off the trail and out of your way. But that wouldn’t be right in light of the sixth principle: to not pester wildlife and keep your distance. Ultimately, the right move is to back away and climb something else. The snake won’t always be in your way, but the boulder will always be there.

8. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

The last principle of Leave No Trace is fundamentally about community, and that’s the core of outdoor climbing culture – that we’re in it together, pursuing this daring sport in the world’s wild and beautiful places. To “be considerate of other visitors” means to yield to others on the trail (especially while carrying a crash pad), to tone down the crag music, and generally avoid obnoxious behavior. If it’d bother you if someone else did it, then don’t do it yourself. Make it fun for everyone. Simple.

The seven principles of Leave No Trace ethics aren’t easy to follow – that’s the point. They offer a better alternative to behaving outdoors in a way that threatens access to beautiful public lands all over the world. This article is just the start: learn more at the Leave No Trace website linked below.

Climbers are some of the most avid users of the outdoors, and it’s up to us to maintain the beauty of – and our own access to – these spaces.

Thanks for reading – and keep an eye out for How To Navigate The Crag, Part 2: Crag Etiquette, coming soon!

This article cites heavily from the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics:

© 1999 by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics:

Red River Gorge and Red Rocks photos courtesy of Ed Yu

Roadside Crag photo courtesy of Laurel F

Rattlesnake photo courtesy of David~O

By Chris Rooney, a Chicago-based climber and writer. 


FA Member Spotlight: Dr. James Lee

This month, we’re shining the spotlight on FA Member Dr. James Lee! Starting this month, James will be using his expertise to offer physical therapy services at all First Ascent locations. Follow James on Instagram @leephysicaltherapy, connect with him via email ( if you’re looking for physical therapy or need a quick tip, and say hi to him next time you see him around FA!

How did you get into climbing?

As a little kid, I would love to climb trees all the time. My cousins would make fun of me and call me jungle boy, but it wasn’t until I started physical therapy school in 2006 when one of my classmates introduced me to indoor climbing… game changer.

What do you love about climbing?

I’m biased for sure, but I think climbing has to be one of the most all-encompassing, full-bodied, high-tension, peaceful, physical, social, frustrating, encouraging and spiritual activities out there. It’s rare to find people from all walks of life come together like this.You learn not to give up, to press on. The moment when everything finally comes together for the send, it’s a great feeling. Being out in nature and, literally, on top of the world looking down, you’re awestruck. It can’t get better than that.

Why are you excited to start the physical therapy program at First Ascent?

Physical therapy is still a very young branch of medicine. Not many people really know what we do, so I’m excited to educate people more about their own bodies and show how they can optimize their physical health with movement. It’s important to distinguish when to be alarmed about certain pains versus when it’s okay to work through other pains without the fear of causing more damage to yourself. Learning good habits is a lot easier than breaking old ones, especially when it comes to a strenuous activity like climbing.

Why is physical therapy important for climbers? What’s your best tip for preventing injury with climbers?

How many times have you heard someone going to see their doctor because of a climbing injury and the doctor tells them to stop climbing? At the end of the appointment both parties are frustrated and don’t understand each other. Physical therapists are movement experts and can teach you when it’s okay to push yourself and when it’s time to listen to your body and rest. Climbing motion is also pulling specific. When you’re constantly working your body in one direction, inevitably the opposing muscle groups tend to get neglected. It’s important to know how to fix those muscle imbalances because they may end up leading to chronic issues down the road. The best tip I can give beginner climbers is to practice OPEN HAND CRIMPING!

Bouldering or sport climbing? 

Sport takes you to greater heights. I love finishing a climb and being able to soak in the view. Bouldering gives you a different high. I feel accomplished when I’m on top. I did it. Short and sweet. But when you’re hundreds of feet off of the ground, you feel small and almost insignificant like a tiny blip on the radar screen.    You get a sense of something greater, something beyond you, something truly awesome.

What is your favorite place to climb outdoors?

I’ve been going to Devil’s Lake more and I love it. There are new boulder routes being set up as more people explore the talus fields. I’m more confident in my anchor building skills and I’m starting to climb simple trad routes. The rock is slick and it’s the perfect place to build a strong foundation.


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

I’d love to go to the Red and get back on Easy Rider 5.13a or Orange Juice 5.12c. Those were my two most memorable fails, and I’d be happy if I can red point them one day. Jesus Wept 12d looks like a really fun climb too and I’d love to give that one a go. I feel accomplished leading and flashing the Upper Diagonal 5.9 trad at Devil’s Lake. There’s no need to go any harder than that. A personal fitness goal I’ve always wanted to sort of (not really) meet is to get a six pack, but I love sweets much more than the thought of shredded abs. Key lime pie at First Slice is my favorite. 

What keeps you busy when you’re not climbing?

When I’m not climbing, I’m treating patients or I’m busy making videos on instagram to help people with climbing. I volunteer with the Adaptive Climbing Group (@adaptclimbgroup) where we help people with disabilities to climb. And I love spending time with my wonderful girlfriend who just said yes to marrying me! We enjoy cooking together and also going out to eat. If you ever see us in the gym training together, it’s probably the only time you won’t see her smiling… my fault. 

I’m also currently training my pet Sophie to become a great crag dog one day! She has her own Instagram @crag_dog_sophie.

What do you love about Chicago?

I love calling Chicago my home. We have the most beautiful skyline, the city streets are clean and we have a lake the size of an ocean. It’s easy to find a peaceful corner to get work done or get caught up in a big crowd at a music festival. The diversity of cuisines is never ending too. I just discovered this Venezuelan restaurant on the very north side of Lake View. The cheese sticks alone are so delicious.

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

I’ve been playing the drums almost every week at my church for the past 20 years. I was self-taught starting my freshmen year in high school because our youth group needed a drummer.I now play for our adult service. I’m actually really surprised it’s been 20 years, maybe because I learned at such a young age and it was built into my routine for so long that you just lose track of time. It’s so much fun. I still feel like a kid whenever I play.

Anything else you want to say to the FA Community?
I’m excited to be on the front lines of injury prevention at FA. Climbing is my passion and I’m fortunate that I can use my profession to help people climb better. I can’t wait to meet you!

5 Ways To Manage Fear While Climbing

Fear is basically impossible to get rid of, and it’s completely natural. When you’re climbing at your limit, about to make a big move, you will feel fear on some level. It’s instinctual, embedded deep in your animal brain, to fear falling from height. Fear of falling has its uses, to be sure – but for climbers, it can hold us back from what we want to achieve.

First, let’s clarify what kind of climbing we’re talking about: definitely not free soloing. You probably shouldn’t do that (we definitely don’t recommend that you do), and unless you’re Alex Honnold, you’re right to be afraid if you’re unroped, hundreds of feet off the deck.

We’re talking about “run-of-the-mill” bouldering, sport, and trad climbing here. Fear can be restrictive in these situations, to the extent that many climbers find themselves held back not by physical ability, but by mental strength to push through difficult and exposed moves. Imagine being in the middle of a crux move (the hardest move on a route or boulder problem) and suddenly feeling a sense of gut-level panic. Your body might be perfectly prepared to do the move, but without the right mental preparation, you can’t seem to make the move happen.

So, here are 5 actions you can take that will help you move beyond restrictive fear and crush that crux next time around:

1: Breathe

In high-stress or “panic” situations, many people instinctively begin to breathe shallowly through their chests – if they manage to breathe at all. Think of a deer freezing when hit with car headlights – a state of mindless shock induced by an overwhelming moment. But a fight-or-flight response saps our brains of oxygen, which feeds right back into that stress response, creating a cycle that quickly leads to muscular exhaustion and a fall. It’s better to develop the habit of deep and diaphragmatic breathing in these types of situations.

When faced with an uncomfortable situation above the bolt, try to consciously breathe in through your stomach and diaphragm: 4 seconds in, 4 seconds out. This practice, instead of feeding the stress cycle, kicks off what Harvard researchers call the relaxation response: a state of (relative) rest that floods your brain and muscles with oxygen, lowering your heart rate and stress hormones. This breathing practice will help you perform across all sorts of areas of life, as you may have seen if you’ve taken a yoga class at First Ascent. Diaphragmatic breathing will also allow your brain a bit of extra “mental space,” otherwise known as presence – the next step for dealing with scary situations and moves.

2: Focus on the moment

What is it that’s freaking you out? What’s in your control, and what isn’t? All beings have an instinctual fear of serious injury and death. When you’re in the gym and about to pull a crux move above your last clip, those fears are probably overblown (unless you have an untrustworthy belayer – see the next section for more on that). When you’ve taken a second to breathe and rest, you’ll have the mental space and lack of stress hormones to be able to think through the realistic consequences of just going for it. The worst that’s likely to happen, at least in the context of most sport routes and boulder problems in the gym, is a bruised ego when you don’t stick the move because you were holding your breath and panicking.

When you allow yourself to breathe and create the mental space to parse these problems, you can remove the panicky emotions that hold you back from focusing on the only thing that matters in the situation at hand, and the only thing you can control: the next move.

3: Know your belayer

One of the most important ways you can increase your confidence when climbing difficult routes is to build trust with your belayer. You’re not going to want to risk a tough move if you aren’t entirely confident that, if you fall, your belayer will give you a catch appropriate for the situation. If there’s a risk you’ll get a hard catch and swing into a ledge, you’ll be that much less prepared mentally to make the move that might get you that kind of belay treatment. When finding a belayer or building a relationship with your current partners, look for these three qualities:

  1. Technical skill and experience: they know how and when to give you a soft catch, they manage the rope well, they know when you might be most at risk of a fall and can feed or take slack as necessary. This comes from practice and experience.
  2. Attentive and focused: they’re not distracted, looking around the gym, talking to friends. They’re focused on you, the climber, whose safety is in their hands, following your every move and acting accordingly with practiced technique.
  3. Communicative: the best belayers play their part in making sure the two-person team is on the same page throughout the entire climb. They know when to engage you verbally, when to encourage you, and when to keep it quiet. They communicate clearly what they’re doing on the ground using consistent language to boost the climber’s confidence and inform their actions.

4: Don’t avoid falls – practice them

The last piece of the puzzle of fear management in climbing is to practice the situations that scare you. It’s a tenant in modern psychology that to overcome fear, you must engage with it and habituate yourself to those consequences in a controlled setting, rather than avoid them. You’ll never get over the fear of being on the sharp end if you don’t practice it – and that means falls on difficult routes to build your “lead head.”

The first part of exposing yourself to falls is to make sure you’re up to snuff on your technical skills. Are you managing your position around the rope properly? Of course, falls aren’t fun or safe if you decide to let go with your foot behind the rope. Upside down is no place to be. There are plenty of guides out there to help you learn and stay updated on rope management and effective communication; Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills is a classic all climbers should own.

Once you’ve got your basic skills related to falls down, it’s time to practice. On September 24, we’re hosting a Whipper Clinic at FA Avondale with the American Alpine Club’s Chicago Chapter.We’ll cover essential skills for lead falls, including mental preparation, breathing, and fall mechanics, as well as skills for belayers, especially how and when to give a “soft catch.” We’ll also practice taking falls as well as catching them.

If you’ve ever been afraid of falling, this clinic will leave you with a better lead head so you can feel more confident when working your projects. It’s free for members, but you’ll need your lead certification. Check out the FA Avondale Facebook page for event info.

Outside of the upcoming Whipper Clinic, the best way to get more practice in is to set aside an early-season trip to warm up for the upcoming outdoor season. Go to the Red, get on an overhung route, and take a few short, planned falls, with an aware and skilled belayer. Make sure the falls are short, the rope gets rest, alternate sides, and include regular safety checks. After not too long, with regular and mindful practice, you’ll desensitize yourself to panicky falls on your project, and start sticking the crux instead.

5: Smile!

It might sound silly, but smiling can help you overcome your stress response and remind you of something important: you actually enjoy climbing. You might be overwhelmed by negative emotions (fear of falling, fear of failing, or an “I can’t” attitude), but cracking a smile can put what you’re experiencing in perspective. Next time you’re feeling negativity creep in, smile, look around at your friends and the beautiful scenery, and remember why you love climbing in the first place. Because it’s fun!

Now get out there and crush that crux!

By Chris Rooney, an FA member and freelance writer specializing in rock climbing, fitness, and the outdoors.

FA Member Spotlight: Jun Yu Tan

This month, we’re shining the spotlight on FA Member Jun Yu Tan! We caught up with him to find out more about Jun’s Kickstarter campaign and why he loves climbing at FA. Follow Jun on Instagram at @ceramicsclimbingcatastrophe, and say hi to him next time you seen him around FA!

How did you get into climbing?

Two years ago, a friend working in Chicago for the summer brought me climbing. After that, I was instantly hooked on the sport. I looked up climbing gyms in Chicago, bought a pair of climbing shoes and signed up for a membership at First Ascent!

What do you love about climbing?

I love being on the wall, challenging myself and having fun laughing and falling with the climbing community here. I would hang out on the wall all day if my arms allowed. If I have time, a good session would be four to six hours. I don’t have to be climbing the hardest routes, I’m just glad to be on the wall!

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

Bouldering. The fear of falling in sport climbing makes me a nervous wreck on the wall, which ruins the mental fun since every move I only think about not falling. Once it happens, the fall itself isn’t all that scary, but I am a lot more confident working on boulder problems. However, I love the endurance challenge on ropes and wish I did it more often, despite my fears.

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

Honestly, I have never climbed outdoors and haven’t actively sought out outdoor trips. I would definitely love to go someday, but right now there are other priorities.

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

Overall, I’d like to get stronger on the wall and keep pushing myself. In terms of grades, my goals are to get to V7 on boulders and 5.12a in sport climbing. Additionally, with the amount of physical activity I do at work, preventing back injury and maintaining flexibility is important for me.

What keeps you busy when you’re not climbing?

I started my own pottery studio, C3 Ceramics! It was funded with the help of a lot of people at First Ascent on Kickstarter, with a campaign to produce “pinch mugs” for climbers. I am only a few days away from production. It’s been a whirl-wind the past three months working on the campaign, getting it funded and getting the studio up and running. My full-time job on the weekends also keeps me busy. There’s always something for me to do.

What do you love about Chicago?

I love the relaxed pace of the city and the quiet spots by the lake. There’s always somewhere to sit and have a nice conversation, even in the loop.

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

I’m always looking for good Japanese ramen and sushi, so probably Ramen Takeya and Cocoro are my favorite haunts. For music, there are so many cool bars and venues it’s hard to pick, but I love small concerts and after shows compared to the large festivals like Lollapalooza or Riot Fest.

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

I watch a lot of Anime and Korean Dramas in my free time, which hasn’t been much of late. However, over the past 10 years, I’ve seen hundreds of shows, so if anyone would like recommendations just ask!

Anything else you want to say to the FA Community? 

I am grateful for the support I received for my Kickstarter campaign and how friendly everyone in the community is. Climbing with everyone is always a blast, so thank you very much! I’d also like to give a shout-out to my awesome climbing buddy Tricia Chee who is leaving the city at the end of the week. I’m wishing her all the best in her future endeavors.

Want to be featured in an FA Member Spotlight? Know someone who should be featured? Email as at to nominate yourself or someone else!