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

How to Navigate the Crag Series

To help support your gym to crag transition, we’ve created a set of 5 guides for newer gym climbers interested in starting to climb outdoors for the first time: How to Navigate the Crag. Though it came in five parts, each with their own sets of details, the information contained in these guides is really pretty simple.

Those who’ve spent time in the outdoors, whether hiking or pursuing other sports, may have heard some of this before – particularly part one. For others, it might all be new. Take a look through the series below for the need-to-know topics about climbing outdoors for the first time.

Click the heading name to view that entry in the series. Enjoy!

Part 1: Leave No Trace

What’s Leave No Trace? It’s a seven-principle manifesto, codified in 1994 by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, that equips adventurers with the skills to 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, and helps us maintain access to the beautiful spaces in which we climb.

Part 2: Crag Etiquette

When you first start to climb outside, you’ll realize there are no instructors hanging out, ready to correct your etiquette or skills – so to stay safe and conscientious, you need to show up educated and attentive. The new climber who shows up at a crag ready to watch, listen, and learn from more experienced climbers, but already well-versed and educated in the basic etiquette for being good climbing citizens, are the people who grow as athletes more quickly, integrate more deeply into the community, and have the most fun.

Part 3: Learning Local Style

The safety and local practices you should know when you go to a new crag are often referred to as the local “ethics.” Without knowing local ethics, you could still have a great time, but you’d likely end up violating some local access rules, making crag maintenance more difficult, or possibly endangering yourself or others. Plus, a huge part of growth in climbing is about building up your repertoire of skills to become more adaptable as an adventurer and athlete. Be sure to know local ethics for the crag your visiting, or go on your first trip to that climbing area with someone who does.

Part 4: Choosing Routes

Knowing how to choose the right routes to try on your first trip can be tricky. The simple, first answer is this: If you’re a new climber, thumb through the back of the guidebook, where you’ll likely find an index of routes sorted by grade. Pick a grade perhaps one below your gym level (gym routes rarely feel as difficult as the equivalent grade outdoors for a number of reasons), and look up the best-rated routes of that grade. But it goes even deeper than that – check out the article for more guidance on projects.

Part 5: Planning Your Trip

Plan carefully: If you show up unprepared, without enough gear, or even without a partner on the same page as you, it’ll be tough to climb what you want to climb. If you’re not using the right vehicle, it might be difficult even to access the routes you want to try. Beyond the basic camping gear (or whatever you need for your lodgings), here’s how to plan your first trip to a new crag.

Remember: climbing outdoors is a privilege that it’s up to the climbing community to responsibly enjoy. If you’re ever unsure about proper safety protocol, etiquette, ethics, or logistics, talk to other climbers, or contact the climbing coalition or club closest to the area you’re visiting. We wish you all the best as you enjoy the exceptional beauty and raw adventure of outdoor climbing. Climb on!

By Chris Rooney, FA member and writer.

Transitioning to an Assisted Braking Belay Device

Looking to make the switch to an assisted braking belay device for lead belaying, but not sure what device to choose or how to make the transition? 

The most important thing as you consider making the switch is technique – there’s no replacement for good technique and attentive belaying, and there’s always a slight learning curve when switching to a device that’s new to you. It takes a little bit of practice and sensitivity to feed slack quickly with good technique, so you’ll want to account for that for a session or two.

We dug up videos on the proper usage of the most popular assisted braking belay devices on the market, and we’ve included them below to help you decide which device is best for you. If you’re making a switch, look closely at the instructional video for the device you’re considering and ask yourself: will I feel comfortable with the technique required for this device?


Petzl GriGri


ATC Pilot


Edelrid Jul


Mammut Smart


Click UP


Wild Country Revo


Mad Rock Lifeguard


CAMP Matik


Trango Vergo


You can also check out the reviews below as you consider the device that might work best for you:

As far as our preferences go, the Petzl GriGri is the device we teach with at First Ascent. The GriGri is a great choice, and probably the most widely used assisted braking belay device around. If you’re used to belaying with an ATC, and still will outdoors, then the Edelrid Jul or the Black Diamond ATC Pilot offer the most similar slack feeding technique, but use assisted braking tech.

For those looking to get their new device through First Ascent, we’re building in the following initiatives through January 31st, 2019 to help you make the transition:

  • 30% off all belay devices we carry in the FA Pro Shop (GriGri, Jul, and ATC Pilot)
  • Free belay device rentals (GriGri, Jul, and ATC Pilot)
  • Clincis to introduce you to your options for assisted braking belay device options: click here to view the clinic schedule on Facebook.

Let us know which one you’re looking into – we’re here to help you get used to it. And if you have any questions or feedback, feel free to reach out to us at

How to Navigate the Crag, Part 5: Planning A Climbing Trip

This is part 5 in our 5-part series How To Navigate The Crag. If you missed them, be sure to read Part 1: Leave No TracePart 2: Crag EtiquettePart 3: Learning Local Issues, and Part 4: Choosing Routes, so you’re up to speed.

If you’ve read this far in our How to Navigate the Crag series, you’re now up to speed on how to play outdoors ethically, how to follow the local style effectively, how to be a good climbing citizen, and how to pick a few routes you want to try. The final step is to plan your trip and, most importantly, go! Plan carefully: If you show up unprepared, or with a partner who in unprepared, it’ll be tough to climb what you want to climb. If you’re not using the right vehicle, it might be difficult even to access the routes you want to try. Beyond the basic camping gear (or whatever you need for your lodgings), here’s how to plan your first trips to a new crag:

1: Gear

Pro tip: create and follow a checklist of gear while packing for your next trip. You can even create a different checklist for each destination you frequent. When you decide to go to the Red, you can pull your list out of your phone or wherever you keep it, and run through that list to pack.

This is also your opportunity for a classic Instagram post: the ubiquitous overhead gear shot we see all our heroes post. This is the perfect moment to both ensure you’ve got all your climbing gear, and make your debut as a social media influencer.

One common mistake newer sport climbers often make: showing up to the crag with too few quickdraws. You’ll want to make sure to scope out the beta for the projects you want to climb so you can bring at least enough draws for your longest route’s bolts, plus the anchors.

2: Transportation

Make sure to think through the means of transportation available to you on your climbing trip. Certain areas can be too hard to access in low-clearance cars – think of Bald Rock or PMRP at the Red. Without four wheel drive or AWD and a touch of ground clearance, those trailheads can be very difficult to access – especially if the area’s seen any recent precipitation. A Civic probably isn’t going to cut it.

The best solution for low ground clearance: set up a carpool or finding a new partner (perhaps with a Jeep or SUV) in the Greater Chicago Rock Climbing Community on Facebook, or make appropriate vehicle plans with friends at FA. If you’re really lucky, a friend or family member might be convinced to lend you a capable vehicle – just make sure to fill it up the tank and run it through a car wash afterwards. There’s no worse way to say thank you than to return a car that needs to have mud cracked off the door handle and scrubbed out of the carpets.

3. Weather

Unchecked weather can completely shut down an otherwise great trip. Heat and humidity can kill your excitement for a climb, particularly if you’re in the sun the entire route. Colder is often better for climbing, as humidity is decreased, which will improve skin and shoe rubber friction and make it easier to stick to the holds.

If it rained recently, it’s ill advised to try to climb at some climbing areas, even if you drove all the way out. It can even be destructive. On certain types of sandstone, for example, rain weakens the rock such that climbing on it can accelerate its erosion. Don’t be the person who ignores those ethics. In other places, like the Red, it’s possible to climb in the rain, on certain overhanging routes. You’ll find no shortage of climbable routes in Kentucky during a light rain, but don’t forget to consider whether or not the muddy road is passable.

4: Food

Sometimes, planning food is easy – Miguel’s Pizza at the Red will set you up with everything you need, and at least for this writer, eating anything but pizza at the Red is not easy to accomplish. For weekend warriors, food is critical – you won’t generally climb enough to not be fairly sore and tired after your first day, so eating right plays an outsized role in making sure you last longer than a day working your projects or ticking off classics. Climbing Magazine put out a great, simple guide to cragging food for most climbers.

5: Take care of yourself

If you really want to stay fresh, you’ll have to lay off the campfire whiskey. But let’s be realistic – something about sleeping outside after a hard day of climbing makes a person want to sit around a fire or picnic table and pass around a flask a couple of times. We’re not here to judge, since that can be fun –  and for some, that’s just how you unwind at a campsite or in the outdoors generally. Just make sure you’re smart about it, drink plenty of water, and try to get at least 7 hours of unbroken sleep before a big climbing day. That goes doubly for weekend climbers – who wants to feel hungover in a tent? Take care of yourself before you climb and you’ll notice the difference.

By Chris Rooney, FA member and writer.

2018 Holiday Gift Guide for Climbers

The outdoor climbing season here in the Midwest has wrapped up for most people, and almost instantly the holidays have arrived. We asked ourselves what we’d want to receive or give as climbing-related gifts and came up with this list. If you’re the climber in question, share this with your loved ones with a little *wink wink*. If you’re gift-shopping for the climbers (or aspiring climbers) in your life, we have a few suggestions to get you started. Let us know if you receive any of these as a gift, or purchase them for your own friends and family:

Climbing Gear

Our top pick for give-able climbing gear is the Petzl GriGri 2.  As the belay device of choice at First Ascent, it’s very effective if used correctly, and it’s a popular device for a reason. While it takes some practice to learn to lead belay with it, it makes a great stocking stuffer. The GriGri is one size fits all, unlike climbing shoes and harnesses that require a good fit, and it’s the most straightforward and relevant gift for new climbers looking to climb outdoors soon (maybe in the spring…). Some alternatives here are a set of quickdraws or maybe a new rope – but for non-climbers buying gifts, those are more difficult to choose if you don’t know what exactly you’re buying.

Access Fund or American Alpine Club Memberships

It’s hard to know the ratio of rock climbers who have donated in some form to either one of theseorganizations during their climbing careers. But we’d bet it’s high, for good reason: the Access Fund is the primary US organization pushing for the protection of many of our beloved climbing areas, and the American Alpine Club is the main association for the rock climbing community. Gifting memberships to these organizations not only gets your climber great swag and discounts, it also helps protect and support the sport of climbing itself. How could a climber not love that?

Travel/Guide Gift Cards

Most climbers have this in common: they love to travel to new places. Who hasn’t dreamt of looking up at limestone crags in Siurana, or the oceans of granite slab in Yosemite after watching their climbing heroes put up new and exciting lines? The privilege of travel is a great gift to give in general, but doubly so for climbers, who often dream of remote routes and boulders they hope to climb someday. We’d love to get a gift card from Southwest Airlines to get us to new crags – or a Red River Gorgeous cabin rental gift certificate (call to inquire) to book a weekend at the Red.


Guiding Services or Guidebooks

One of the best ways to get immersed in a new climbing area, especially for newer climbers, is to hire a guide. Devil’s Lake Climbing Guidesa guiding service in Baraboo, Wisconsin, offers guiding services and courses at Devil’s Lake State Park. Check out their Adventure Gift Certificates for specific classes, like Anchors or Rope courses for two, as well as general gift certificates for custom amounts if you don’t know which course to buy. You could also buy guidebooks for a safer bet, like the Devil’s Lake Climbing Guidebook by Wolverine Publishing or the combined Minnesota & Wisconsin Bouldering Guidebook by Rock & Snow.

First Ascent Schwag & Gift Cards

Lastly, of course, is our in-house schwag . We offer gift cards to First Ascent for everything from Intro To Climbing classes to 10-Passes, or any amount you’re looking to give. Also, walk into any of our gyms: we offer First Ascent t-shirts, trucker hats, pom beanies (these are new, and turning out to be popular), coffee mugs, and even pint glasses to buy for friends and climbing partners to enjoy a post-send beer. We even just picked up Red River Gorge-themed vegan, hypoallergenic soy candles – perfect for relaxing after a training session (available only at First Ascent Avondale). Come by anytime and take a look!

We hope this list helps you with your holiday shopping. In the midst of all this hustle and bustle, remember: the greatest gifts we have are the people in our lives – friends, family, and loved ones. Keep them close this holiday season. Happy holidays to all!



How to Navigate the Crag, Part 4: What to Climb

This is part 4 in our 5-part series How To Navigate The Crag. If you missed them, be sure to read Part 1: Leave No TracePart 2: Crag Etiquette, and Part 3: Learning Local Issues, so you’re up to speed.

Before you go to the climbing gym, you don’t plan your routes. Outside, you have to.

One of the first things you’ll think about when you first start planning to climb outside in a new area is what routes you’ll do. You have limited time, after all – maybe a couple days, at most, before you pile back into the car to make it back in time for work the next day. Maybe you’re paging through a fresh new guidebook, combing through hundreds of routes based on a couple of lines of description and rating alone. How do you pick what to climb when you’re new to climbing outdoors? Nothing’s labeled, of course, but routes are often far apart enough to merit careful choice in selecting where to go for a day.

The simple, first answer is this: If you’re a new climber, thumb through the back of the guidebook, where you’ll likely find an index of routes sorted by grade. Pick a grade perhaps one below your gym level (gym routes rarely feel as difficult as the equivalent grade outdoors for a number of reasons), and look up the best rated routes of that grade. In many cases, because difficulty occurs naturally outside based on the rock itself, you’ll find a number of similarly graded routes near each other, with a couple routes considered high quality “classics.” Head there. Keep in mind, though, that these crags are likely to be the most popular areas around, so plan (and time) your visit accordingly. They’re well-trafficked for a reason – fun movement, non-chossy routes – so there will be tons of beta for new outdoor climbers getting used to movement on real rock.

Once you’ve knocked out some classics over a few trips, though, you might feel the urge to pick an exciting and challenging project to work over the course of a weekend. That creates some strategic necessities you’ll want to consider before you head out:

1: Avoid burnout and injury: have more than one project at first

Here’s a personal anecdote: A few years ago, I was climbing at Smith Rock in Bend, Oregon, and found myself fixated on a 5.12a with one move that required pulling on a one finger pocket – maybe two fingers at most. With few breaks between attempts, I tried and tried on that route, for probably 90 minutes. I never sent it. Want to guess what stopped me?

I strained a tendon from that pocket. I could have prevented that in part by taking my time, trying other routes with different, complementary movements periodically, and just generally being more strategic about my approach to sending a route I really wanted to finish. My point is this: Keep a few different routes in mind, in case your “single project” turns out to be too much, too fast for your skill level. You’ll get your project done eventually – probably much faster if you try a few different routes than if you single-mindedly punish yourself on a single climb. That leads to the next point:

2: Don’t stretch yourself too far in one push

Ultimately, it’s no fun to throw yourself repeatedly at a route that spits you off over and over. Plus, like I did at Smith Rock, you run the risk of injury. Stay modest if you’re new to outdoor climbing. It’s more fun in the long run to grow in wisdom, experience, and great stories, rather than pure strength and a steady uptick in redpoint grades (i.e. the grade you can typically complete not on the first try but after multiple attempts working the moves). This sport is a lifelong journey anyway, where youthful strength is only going to be an arrow in your quiver for a few years. Choosing the right routes for your body and skill will keep you in the game for longer.

Remember that gym grades are not equal to outdoor grades. You might have heard the term “sandbagging” – grading a climb with a lower, easier grade than what it actually deserves. Well, compared to indoor climbing, a lot of outdoor grades feel sandbagged, at least from a gym climber’s perspective. One reason outside routes feel harder: you will spend a significant amount of time route finding outside. Because the holds aren’t marked for you, you’ll need to search for the holds and the best way to hold them, figure out whether the route goes left or right, etc. Route finding takes time and energy, so your on-sight grade (i.e. the grade you can typically complete the first time you try it) will inevitably be lower.

3: Seek fun climbing, not fun sending

Especially in the beginning, as you’re getting used to outdoor climbing, it’s important to pay attention to the routes that are the most fun to climb in the moment, rather than fun to talk about later when you’re telling your friends. There’s a place in the world for Type II fun – after all, those kinds of experiences often enrich the soul most – but in the beginning of your climbing career, climb for fun in the moment rather than fun talking about the achievement. It’s okay to decide at a certain point that you really want to push your skills even if it takes difficult and concerted effort, but for now, make sure you’re having enough fun on your projects to come back out and do more! After all, the more partners we can find at First Ascent, the better.

In the next (and final) installment of the series, we’re covering climbing trip logistics: How To Navigate The Crag, Part 5: Planning A Climbing Trip.

By Chris Rooney, FA member and writer.

Photos courtesy of Ed Yu and Chris Rooney.