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

Coronavirus Closure Announcement

Dear FAmily member, 

With heavy hearts, we have made the difficult but necessary decision to close all First Ascent locations from Tuesday, March 17th until Tuesday, March 31st to do our part to protect our community in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The health and wellness of our community is at the heart of our mission. We know that climbing and connecting with others is an enormous part of your well-being; the same is true of us and our staff. We wanted to stay open for our community during this crisis, but after carefully monitoring the spread of COVID-19, we believe that temporary closure is best for the community at large.

We are committed to continue paying our staff during the closure. FA Members: those of you who are financially able, please consider keeping your membership active during the crisis.  First Ascent is a locally owned business with limited resources, and your continued support will help us care for our staff and bounce back when the crisis is over. 

If you are unable to keep your membership, we understand. We will issue a credit for the time we are closed to any member who requests it via the Membership Change form at Credits can be issued immediately, applied to the next month’s membership dues, or added as a membership extension for One-month and Annual Members. Please be patient while we process your request.

We plan to re-open on Wednesday April 1st, but much is still uncertain, so we will update you as the situation unfolds. Starting Thursday March 19th, staff will be available at each FA location to answer questions or help you retrieve any items you left in the gym – keep an eye out for the schedule coming shortly. We will deep clean each facility before we re-open our doors so we can all have a fresh start when this crisis is over. If you have any questions or concerns in the meantime, please fill out our Contact Us form and we’ll be happy to answer them.

Lastly, we want to encourage you to take care of yourself and others in the midst of this challenging moment.  If you are able, look out for elderly neighbors or others who self-quarantine and need support with groceries or other items. Support other local businesses if you can; we know they feel the impact. And take time to express love, gratitude, and words of affirmation to those around you.

From the bottom of our hearts, thank you for your support, patience, and understanding during this trying time, and most of all, thank you for being a part of the First Ascent community.

Much feels uncertain right now, but one thing is certain: a rope of many strands is not easily broken. We will get through this – together. And we look forward to climbing with you again soon.

Be well.

~Dan, Joe, Jon, & Dave | The First Ascent founders

Journey to Multi-pitch: Part 2

This is Part 2 of FA member James Dunn’s story about preparing for his first multi-pitch climb outdoors. If you missed Part 1, read that first here: Journey to Multi-Pitch: Part 1. Then read on to see how all of James’ hard work and training paid off!

On June 5, 2019, three friends and I set out on a climbing trip to Boulder, Colorado. The trip had been planned over 8 months previously, and I’d spent that time training to be able to keep up with my group. As excited as I was about doing multi-pitch routes, I still feared slowing them down, or worse, finding a spot I couldn’t get past.

The drive out to Boulder from Peoria is as long as it is flat, but good company helps pass the miles. We talked about the world record for climbing Flat Iron 1, which, as it turns out, is 30 minutes and 19 seconds round-trip (car door to car door) set by Kyle Richardson. We arrived as the sun was setting and thunderstorms were rolling in. I was a bit worried about what the conditions would be like the next morning. We had agreed to get an early start because even with guides, you can’t reserve routes.

We arrived and met our guides Ian Fowler and Wes Fowler (no relation), two members of the Colorado Mountain School. We organized our packs, applied sunscreen, and made sure we had all the rope and locking carabiners we needed. It was pleasantly cool, and I was excited and nervous. We reached the base and donned our climbing shoes, helmets, and harnesses. I packed my hiking shoes in with the water bottles and snacks in my backpack (which would turn out to be my biggest regret of the day).

We split into two groups of three and four. After reviewing communication, which is very important to everyone’s safety when climbing multi-pitch, we both tied in, and I belayed Wes. As he climbed, he used cams and nuts to set up points of protection and to build an anchor at the top of the first pitch. Once he had secured himself to the anchor, I heard him call down, “Team Kitty, off belay,” to indicate he had set up the anchor point. I was amused that he had chosen my wife’s nickname for our team name. I undid my GriGri and shouted up, “Team Kitty, off belay.”

I stared at the rock looking for features and was dismayed to see absolutely nothing. Wes had told us we would need to rely on friction and to keep our center of gravity over our feet to provide the highest amount of traction. Our hands were just to steady ourselves. The slack in the rope tightened up and I heard, “Team Kitty, on belay.” I placed my foot against the blank face and started applying weight. I slipped. Then I noticed a small nub the size of a marble and put my toe against it. I pushed up and raised onto the wall. After finding a few more minuscule features, I got the hang of using pressure only and began making my way up at a good pace. Although F1 is a big slab, it does have some interesting features like large flakes to climb up and around. The last stretch features a downclimb followed by a vertical route up an arete to the peak, which was probably my favorite part of the climb.

The view from the top was, of course, amazing. We waited for the other group while we signed the logbook and took pictures. We had made it in just around four hours, and not once did I feel like I had slowed us down. It was an incredible feeling. The only thing giving me any discomfort was my shoulders, and that was from carrying the backpack (my one regret), not the climb itself. We rappelled down a hundred feet off the back of the peak and hiked back to our cars. This was the toughest part. By the end, my legs and shoulders were in a lot of pain. I was tired and very hot.

We drove to Central Park and dunked our feet in the refreshing waters of Boulder Creek. Even in June, the water was so cold I could keep them in for less than a minute each time. After cooling down a bit, we headed to Avery Brewing and went on their tour. It was a fantastic tour and a great way to unwind. The rest of the day is a blur. I remember my shoulders were in a lot of pain, and I was worried about the rest of the trip. When we went back to the hotel, I sat on the bed and passed out at around 4 p.m. and slept until the next morning when we set out to tackle Eldorado Canyon.

After some discussion the next morning, we decided to split up. One group would climb the Yellow Spur (5.9+) and the other would climb Rewritten (5.7). I elected to go with the latter. I also decided to lose the backpack. I jammed my pockets with protein bars, dried fruit, and sunflower seeds. Then I clipped my shoes to the back of my harness. The one thing I was missing was a good water bottle with a carabiner.

Rewritten was a much more vertical climb than F1 and much of my training actually helped. Again, the guides led the route and we top-roped up after them and collected the cams and nuts. At the top of pitch three, Ian informed us that we were in for a surprise as he brought our attention to a lateral crack off to the left. Below the crack was nothing but flat rock. “You’re going to use hero hands and grip the crack while you smear with your feet,” he told us.

The first of the group handled it, no problem. I started in, but my body was up too high and my elbows were bent. It was amateurish bad form, and I collapsed off the wall. Regaining my hands from a lower purchase, I was able to grip and shuffle straight-armed along the crack to where the route goes vertical. This was an excellent photo op, and I didn’t want my other friend to miss out, so I found this little one-foot ledge and parked myself. I could see out across to the other side of the canyon, and I looked down 300 ft. to the base between my dangling legs. I snapped some pictures of the view and my friend flawlessly navigating the crack

The final push was on an exposed arete. Again, it was just the right amount of challenge. My shoulders felt much better without the pack. The feeling of being so exposed as you’re climbing is really indescribable. We summited around the same time as the other group and grabbed some good pictures of them celebrating on the other peak. Unfortunately, the trip back down was really treacherous. There were two sections where our guide used ropes to lower us. At one point, I ended up slipping on a wet rock and bashing my shin. I was lucky that it was a minor injury, and we made it back with no other problems.

That afternoon we had a late lunch with our guides at Southern Sun Pub. We made some future plans with the guides for 2020 and talked about our final day of unguided sport climbing. I felt very ‘along for the ride’ at that point. I was worried we might get into something too difficult for me. We left our guides after lunch and headed to Neptune Mountaineering, a large outdoor outfitter. I strongly suggest making this your first stop. I bought a collapsible water bottle for the next day’s climb. We shopped around and enjoyed their coffee/beer cafe.

The next morning, we headed for Clear Creek Canyon. There was a rocky hike up the creek/river from the pull-off area. We located our route, Playin’ Hooky (5.8). I elected to belay first, even though I was anxious to lead. The first pitch had a very fun overhang, which I made it over without any trouble. The area was just majestic. The river runs right past the base of the cliff, and the scenery is breathtaking. Unfortunately, the sounds of the water make communication difficult, and occasionally we had to help relay messages about people being on or off belay to their climbing partners.

When I joined my group at the top of pitch one, they gave me a refresher on belaying from an anchor point. This was the moment I was waiting for. As I headed up, I noticed that the bolts were farther apart than I was used to. It was a bit unsettling, but I was able to find good features when clipping. There were a few moments where I was a long way above the last bolt, when my heart would start to race. My grip felt very strong, though, and I pulled through. I also noticed that my finger, which was still recovering from a pulley injury, was starting to give me some trouble.

I got to the anchors and set up my belay. After I belayed my group, my friend recommended I borrow climbing tape and wrap my finger. I formed a cross under the joint and then wrapped around the finger bones a few times to keep it in place. All went smoothly, and we continued up the cliff. We had split into the same groups as the day before, but elected to all do the same route. It was nice to all be hanging out together for our final day, snapping pictures and cheering each other on.

When we all made it up to the top anchor, it was very crowded, and we didn’t wait long before rappelling down. This was probably the most dangerous part of the weekend. Not so much the actual rappelling, but anchoring, rope management, cleaning anchors, descending, repeating. There is just a lot that can go wrong. It was a bit crowded, and at one point we anchored ten feet above a ledge full of people who were heading up the same route. Eventually, we made it back down, and the climbing was over.

My first multi-pitch adventure was such an incredible experience. I would say once-in-a-lifetime, but after doing it once, there’s no way I won’t be doing it again someday. I’m completely hooked on it. The preparation I did helped make my first experience a success. Now I need to keep working at improving so the next time I can climb more challenging routes.

James Dunn is a member at First Ascent Peoria. Give him a fist bump if you see him around the gym for accomplishing his goal of climbing his first multi-pitch route!

Climbing Podcasts to Get You Psyched

FA member Saul Boast shares the beta on his favorite climbing podcasts. Thanks for contributing, Saul!

I’ve been binging on podcasts lately and it’s really helped my motivation to climb and train. As a relative newcomer to podcasts, I was amazed to discover the growing variety of options to listen to, but to narrow things down a bit I’ve picked two climbing related podcasts to focus on that helped me find inspiration and education – and also raise my awareness of safety through the lessons others have faced. I hope this helps you get psyched and stay safe!

The Enormocast

The Enormocast: a climbing podcast

First, whether you are a beginning climber or have been at it for years, the mother of all climbing podcasts has to be The Enormocast. Hosted by Chris Kalous, as of 2019 there are a whopping 189 episodes. The podcast started in December of 2011 and Mr. Kalous has been steadily producing about two 75-minute interviews a month ever since. There is a lot to listen to here (several hundred hours of interviews) so if you’re not inclined to just start listening from the beginning, here is my thematic tour to get you going:

To start it off, in case you have been under a rock instead of on one for the last couple years, Alex Honnold free-soloed Freerider on El Capitan on June 3, 2017. The Enormocast has lots from Alex including interviews before and after this amazing feat. First Ascent Peoria set a boulder problem to match the crux move on Freerider (the Boulder Problem) a few months ago and I think it was the most popular route in the gym for 6 weeks. At V6, it was not within everyone’s reach, but that was sort of part of the fun, as it was easy to replay the movie as you plummet to the mat every time you try the karate kick! Honnold-related Enormocasts include:

  • Episode 28: Alex Honnold – Calmer than you are (58min, Feb 2013)
  • Episode 49: On Stage with Honnold and Kennedy (39min, Jan 2014)
  • Episode 133: Alex Honnold – Kind of a Big Deal (1hr 21min, June 2017)
  • Episode 179: Diedre Wolownick – Mother of Honnolds (1hr 27min, July 2019)

A note on Episode 133; this interview happened after the free solo but before the movie was released. The interview gets technical and may be difficult to follow, but it’s fascinating to hear about some of the techniques and back story behind this astounding accomplishment. Who would have guessed what Mr. Honnold did the afternoon of his aborted first attempt on Freerider? It’s not in the movie but this interview answered that and many other questions, and just floored me.

There is one episode recorded at Devil’s Lake so I included that for the local interest:

  • Episode 128: Live from Devil’s Lake Craggin Classic (57 min)

Episodes that include famous climbers of all types (and one MIT professor) that should not be missed include:

  • Episode 48 : Hazel Findlay – Being blonde, bold, and resolute! (1hr, Dec 2013)
  • Episode 81: Peter Croft – Kid in a Candy Store (1hr 40min, May 2015)
  • Episode 100: Tommy Caldwell – Adventure Addict (1hr 45min, May 2016)
  • Episode 111: Brad Gobright – High Class Dirtbag (1hr 4min, Aug 25, 2016)
  • Episode 118: Conrad Anker – You’ve Come Far, Pilgrim (1hr 9min, Dec 2016)
  • Episode 122: Hans Florine – A need for Speed (Climbing) (1 hr 4 min, Feb 2017)
  • Episode 148: Hugh Herr – Never Broken (53Min, April 2018)
  • Episode 165: Adam Ondra – Getting Closer to the Luck (1hr 14min, Dec 2018)
  • Episode 177: Allison Vest – Trashcans and Try-hards (1hr 3min, June 14, 2019) 

If you are paying attention you might have noticed that one of the most famous and beloved climbers of all time was not in the above list. I’m listing the Lynn Hill episodes separately to make sure you don’t miss them.

I don’t claim to know Lynn Hill, but I’ve run into her a few times in the last 30 years. The first encounter was at Devil’s Lake in 1988. I had just taken over teaching climbing for the University of Wisconsin – Hoofers (handed off from Jan Tarr who was a well-known climber in the area at that time) and an event was put on at Devil’s Lake that Lynn Hill attended. I was lucky enough to belay her on a climb called “Acid Rock” and what Lynn did (and didn’t do) that day informed my climbing for decades to come. What she did was move up to the crux move on Acid Rock two or three times, down climbing it each time. Then she untied and moved on to the next top rope we had set. What she didn’t do is fall on Acid Rock.

She explained that even on top rope she tried to never commit to moves she couldn’t do, or couldn’t reverse. On this climb (rated 5.12 today but I believe 5.9 in the original guide book) there is a long reach across an empty face and she simply couldn’t reach the hold, so she backed off and moved on. Times have certainly changed. At that time sport climbing was largely unknown in the US and in many ways a ‘no fall’ ethic was critical. Having said that, certainly the lycra-wearing Europeans had figured out how to bolt and climb a sport route by then!

  • Episodes 51 & 52: Lynn Hill – Ain’t no mountain high enough (1hr 53min, Feb 2014)

If you want to remind yourself that trad climbing on big walls is dangerous and has consequences then listen to this one. (If you don’t, then do not listen to this one.)

  • Episode 169: Quinn Brett – Forward from the Fall (1hr 7min, Feb 2019)

If you have read Kiss or Kill, know about Mark Twight, or have never heard of Mark Twight, this one is worth listening to. These two episodes probably scared me the most of any Enormocast interview!

  • Episode 171 & 172: Mark Twight – Still Coming Down (3hr 13min, March 2019)

To wrap up the Enormocast “hit parade,” take a listen to these just for fun! If you still use a daisy chain for anything but aid climbing, please do listen to Episode 143. It will either annoy the crap out of you or make you laugh. Either way, hopefully it will reduce the misuse of daisy chains!

  • Episode 54: Lady’s Night at the Enormocast (1hr 15 min, Apr 1, 2014)
  • Episode 143: The TAPS Edition AKA Kill Your Daisy Chain (1hr 25min, Jan 2018)
  • Episode 167: TAPS part Deux AKA Climbing Humor is Dead (1hr 31min, Jan 2019)

The Sharp End

My second podcast recommendation is The Sharp End – Accidents in North American Climbing. This podcast is hosted by Ashley Saupe and is personal interviews with survivors of accidents that were reported in the American Alpine Club publication of the same name. Listen to them all if you climb outdoors so you can learn from others’ mistakes!

“Pull Down Hard” and see you at First Ascent.

Saul Boast is a member at First Ascent Peoria. Saul previously wrote Change for the Better: 30 Years of Climbing Evolution. Check it out!

How to Start Rock Climbing, Part Five: Getting Better

This is Part Five of our “How to Start Climbing” series. If you haven’t yet, check out Part One: Get Started at a Climbing GymPart Two: Your First VisitPart Three: Finding Climbing Partners, and Part Four: Buying Gear.

Out of the corner of your eye, you’ve seen that tricky V5 or 5.10b you just can’t send. How are you going to work up to that? You see people training on hangboards or the scatter walls, but they’re so overhung or crimpy that you can’t even play on them for longer than a few moves. How are you going to improve so you can send that route?

By now, you’re climbing a couple days a week. Hopefully, you’re meeting up with some new or old friends to run through the routes or problems you like and chat about them. You’ve got your routine: warm up on the VBs and V0s, climb for an hour or so, lapping the V1s and trying a V3.

Becoming a better climber is a huge motivator for lots of people. As climbing’s grown over the past few years, fancy new training methods have emerged as the “answer” for improving as a climber.

Here’s the thing: people have been climbing for decades, and improving all the while. They didn’t use intense hangboards and campus boards, though tools like that can definitely come in handy down the road. They stuck to some basic principles that any climber can apply right now:

1. Climb more and “try hard”

It sounds obvious to say, but the first thing to try is to climb more often, work those routes and to put serious effort into those attempts. No training plan can replace simple exposure to the movements and effort needed to send your project routes. If you’re climbing twice a week for an hour or so, pop in a third or fourth time, or even spend longer at the gym. Once you’ve warmed up, try that problem you haven’t been able to do, even if it seems too tough. Don’t throw yourself at it, but focus on working it, a move at a time.

Telling you to go to the gym might sound self-serving coming from us. But listen to Jonathan Siegrist, who put it best: you need to try hard. It’s not a moralistic, “you’re lazy!” kind of statement, either. “Trying hard” in climbing means giving your body the physical stimulus necessary to adapt to the route or problem.

2. Warm up, stretch and rest

Even more important is all the stuff that happens around the actual climbing: warming up, stretching and resting. Climbers can easily overtax specific muscles, leading unwary athletes to chronic overuse injuries. Avoiding that is worth the effort, so warming up, stretching and getting enough rest matters. You can’t climb if you’re hurt. So it’s critical to warm up slowly, stretch consistently, and then start working harder problems or routes.

Practicing yoga before or after a hard climbing session can help you warm up or cool down key areas of the body for climbing—not to mention build up opposing muscle groups to keep your forearms, shoulders, and hips in balance.

To work on harder routes, you need to rest harder. Strength grows during rest, after you’ve “tried hard” on your projects — your muscles regrow larger than they were before. Eating a good diet helps, too. Not only does it help you send your projects, it’ll make you feel good!

3. Practice specific technique

Have you seen the film The Dawn Wall? There’s a scene where Tommy Caldwell builds a replica of the legendary dyno to practice over and over. That’s the kind of specific practice you might want to apply to your projects.
Is there a gaston you’re struggling with? Find a bunch of problems in the gym with that type of move, and practice it. Make yourself the First Ascent gaston master.

Are you struggling with endurance for a project route? Run laps on easier routes, with timed rests. If you’re afraid of falling, there are ways to manage that fear. Try to maintain a level of pump that’s manageable with rests, but high enough that your muscles learn to keep going longer.
It’s also helpful in the long run to practice good technique. You can find drills online to help you develop your footwork, avoid overgripping, and so on. Good technique puts you closer to sending by saving you energy as well as building your strength.

4. Work projects with friends

Besides being fun, working your projects with friends will give a few advantages to you as a climber. First, you’ll get built-in rest times, which can be difficult to manage if you’re climbing alone. You’ll also see different beta for your projects if your friends work the same routes.

Maybe you have a shorter friend who gets through the crux in his own way. Or your buddy with good footwork sets her body positioning differently and prevents herself flying off the problem like a barn door. Watching other people try their own beta is just data you can feed into your own understanding of your projects.

5. Take a class

Lots of people improve more when they can focus on the effort, and have someone else guide those efforts for them. Classes that give that guidance can help. We offer classes in our “UpGrade series” for both bouldering and sport climbing. These classes help you break into the next grade of route or problem over the course of 3 weeks. We’ll cover technique, movement, and approaches to climbing 5.10 and V3. In the future, we’ll be offering UpGrade classes for even higher grades, when you’ve inevitably started crushing all our routes.

And that’s a wrap on our How To Start Climbing series. We hope you found the information in this series helpful as you get started and work to get better as a climber. Climbing, ultimately, is a lifelong pursuit. There are always new things to learn and new routes or boulders to try. Chasing grades or projects can wear you out, so we can’t stress enough how important it is to have fun and be good to yourself and others along the way. Climb on!

Staff Spotlight: Jen Saito

This month, we’re featuring Jen Saito, Yoga and Fitness instructor at First Ascent Block 37! Take it away, Jen.

How did you get into climbing? 

My yoga student and friend Basha was convinced I’d love climbing so we took a class together back in August 2013. I dabbled here and there but didn’t start climbing outside until 2016.

What do you love about climbing? 

Every part of your body is working for you when you climb. And wow, when you project, you get to see your progress from taking whips galore to cleaning it all up. What an incomparable high you get when you clip the anchors on your project!

Bouldering or sport climbing? 

What’s bouldering? SPORT CLIMBING always. I don’t mind falling at all, but I am partial to falling into the fluffy clouds of my partner’s soft catches rather than the unforgiving hardness of a mat.

What is your favorite place to climb outdoors?

The Red is the closest we’ve got here in Chicago so my husband James and I go there often! I also love international climbing. Last year, we visited our friend Hector (whom I met at FA Block 37!) in Bernal, Mexico, and it was a blast climbing with him and getting to know the different climbing areas.

What other outdoor activities do you participate in? 

 In the summers I like to go salsa dancing at SummerDance in Grant Park.

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

I’d like to work on steeper climbs and send Betavul Pipeline at Bob Marley. I’d also like to get on (and send!) that gorgeous line Last Rites at Infirmary. By the end of 2020, I am aiming to get down to what my driver’s license says I weigh!

What keeps you busy when you’re not climbing?

I love teaching classes at FA mainly because everyone is so willing to work and laugh! When I am not teaching or climbing, I enjoy practicing yoga and taking dance classes. My latest love has involved my newfound discovery of kpop! 

What do you love about Chicago? 

I moved from New York City, which was a huge adjustment as Chicago is so much smaller. Not hating, just saying! Now that I have been in Chicago going on 10 years, though, I am truly in love with this city that is so bike-friendly, spacious, and gorgeous — hello, skyline! Plus, I met my husband here in Chicago, specifically at FA Avondale! I knew I wanted to marry a strong sport climber, and I found him!

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

I love everything about Chinatown, especially since it’s not far from where I live. Meet Fresh is my go-to for some hot grass jelly. I know, I know. You’re like — what? Come find me, and we will go get some!

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

I grew up speaking Mandarin. Please practice with me so I don’t lose my vocabulary!

Anything else you want to say to the FA community?

I spend so much of my time at FA, especially at Block 37. FA Fam, you are good to me. Thank you for always being up for some quick climbs, hearty laughs, and warm hugs. Let’s continue to push each other and send all the things!