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

Staff Spotlight: Colin Manning

This month, we’re featuring Colin Manning, General Manager of Membership & Fitness at First Ascent. He’s new-ish to climbing (and catching the bug), so we asked him some questions about fitness. Reach out to Colin at!

How did you get into fitness?

I had been a life-long athlete, and after college and moving into the corporate world, I needed to find a better alternative to health and wellness outside of the normal globo-gym setting. I began getting certified in various aspects of the fitness industry and eventually became passionate enough to open my own gym.

What do you love about fitness?

Pushing my limits beyond what I thought I was capable of. Seeing the direct correlation between hard work and results.

What other outdoor activities do you participate in?

Anything and everything outdoors…the more time I can spend outside the better. I have no limits and will try anything, so I’m slowly checking different things off of my list. Currently, I’m learning how to use a compound bow.

Do you have any particular fitness goals for this year?

Nothing specific to fitness, but I am looking to build a pole barn and home gym on my back property in the coming year.

What keeps you busy when you’re not at First Ascent?

My house and my property. My house was built in 1930, so I spend a lot of time working on remodeling the house. I also have several acres of land and 18 acres of water that I have been slowly developing. I’m looking to begin growing some of my own food next year.

What do you love about Chicago?

The sports and the people. After living all over the United States, nothing beats the passion of Chicago sports fans and the genuine attitude Chicagoans have.

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

Au Cheval absolutely lives up to its reputation, Cafe Robey Rooftop is a good place to grab a drink for a hell of a view of the city skyline, Violet Hour is still a staple for pre-dinner drinks, Publican is a quality go-to for both drinks and food, RPM Steak & RPM Italian (along with all LEYE venues) always deliver on great service, but I live out in the suburbs, so I tend to stick to my local spots.

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

I attended the University of Hawaii, Indiana University, and University of Nevada Las Vegas. I have 3 rescued Mastiffs. I drink entirely too much coffee every day. I am obsessed with Texas but will forever think In-n-Out is FAR superior to Whataburger.

Anything else you want to say to the FA community?

I absolutely love when people join me for a workout, so if anyone ever wants to jump in with me or schedule a day and time to work out together, e-mail me and we can work out together:

How to Start Rock Climbing, Part Four: Buying Gear

This is Part Four 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 Visit, and Part Three: Finding Climbing Partners.

Now we get to what rock climbing is all about — blowing your rent money on sweet gear, which is the real cause of #vanlife.

Just kidding.

Climbing can quickly become an expensive pursuit, but only a few critical pieces of gear will get you through years of your new sport. But climbing gear can be confusing, especially since the equipment protects you from falls and has industry-specific specs. We’ve got some guidelines for your first kit below — follow these, ask your local gear shop or climbing gym for guidance, and you’ll be ready to go.

1. Shoes

Image result for tarantulace

Climbing shoes will be the simplest choice you make. Remember this: your climbing shoes should not hurt to wear. They should feel snug, but pain is bad, no matter what a salesperson tells you. Try on shoes with a neutral or moderately downturned shape, which will allow you to wear your new kicks for long periods of time and for all sorts of climbing styles. If you’re getting started, avoid super downturned shoes like the La Sportiva Solutions. Shoes like these are “tuned” for specific styles of aggressive climbing. which if you’re just starting, you’re unlikely to be working on yet. The La Sportiva Tarantulace makes a great first choice: you’ll probably see these all over the gym.

2. Harness

Several different types of harnesses exist for all different styles of climbing. For beginning gym climbers, a sport or gym climbing harness will work best: you don’t need all the gear loops and extra bits that go into a trad harness. Don’t go purely for the cheapest harness you can find: this is not a place to skimp on safety. Brands like Petzl and Black Diamond have been making this equipment for decades, and have the safety ratings to match.

Your harness should first of all be comfortable and well-fit. Make sure the waistband fits snugly and doesn’t shift much when you tighten it up. Usually, an employee can help you make a good decision; if you buy it at First Ascent, we’ll even let you weight the harness to see how it feels to hang in it.

3. Belay device


This device attaches you to your rope and helps manage your falls during top rope and leading climbing. At First Ascent, we recommend assisted braking belay devices and only allow these types of devices in our gyms. Why? They offer all the freedom for sport climbing belays that old-school ATCs do, while providing safety features we think all climbers benefit from. The devices you see all around our Avondale location are the Petzl GriGri+, which we wholeheartedly recommend for new lead climbers.

4. Rope

For new climbers starting to dip their toes into lead climbing, a rope will make life much easier. But the ropes you see all around our Avondale location aren’t Home Depot specials. Climbing ropes are sophisticated tools that, when chosen well, make the difference between injury and a great time. Look for single, dynamic ropes between 9.5-10mm. These are your every day climbing ropes suitable for gym and sport climbing. We love the Sterling Velocity 9.8 so much that we keep them in stock at the gym, so come check one out!

5. Chalkbag and chalk

Climbing chalk isn’t your run-of-the-mill chalkboard stuff. It’s a specially-formulated substance that helps you maintain friction on the wall. Some popular brands include FrictionLabs and Black Diamond. It’s fairly cheap, and can be found in our gyms or any REI or similar outdoor store.

Your chalkbag is not a piece of safety gear, so you can have some fun with this. You’ll probably buy this once and use it for years, so we recommend finding chalkbags with a little loop for a chalk brush. The brush will help you remove excess chalk from holds on routes or problems you’re working on in the future. Designs run the gamut from plain and simple to all types of patterns and graphics. Have fun with this one!

The key to buying good gear is to get it from established climbing brands. They’ve done the work to make sure the equipment meets safety standards, and they’ve tested it to make sure it’s safe. You can always talk to a First Ascent team member as well — we’d love to offer guidance and advice. Climb on!

How to Stay Fit While Traveling

Let’s face it: Becoming a stronger climber when you’re traveling without a gym to train in is tough. But maintaining your level of fitness? You can definitely do that, and you’ll be glad you did when you get back to the gym or the crag.

You don’t need some expensive proprietary workout kit, or set of rubber bands (though if you’ve got ’em, they help!). All you need is a commitment to yourself, a few minutes a day to work on your health, and to cut yourself some slack. After all, fitness is a long-term personal journey. As long as you commit to your own health broadly, losing grade “gains” here and there is no big deal.

When we’re traveling away from First Ascent, we follow a few principles. We can’t prescribe a specific plan here — for that, we’ve got Redpoint Training and our crew of personal trainers. But these guidelines can help you care for your body so you can keep growing as a climber when you can get back to the gym:

1. Rest and hydrate

It sounds counterintuitive, but active rest might actually help your climbing performance. A week of walking around in a different city, a hike or two or a bike ride with family all counts as “active rest.” Strength and fitness actually build up during rest, not during the workout. Your muscles repair themselves after you break them down. So, when you’re on the road, put effort into staying active, on your feet for a period of time every day or so. You should also drink lots of water to fuel your muscles’ growth and keep yourself loose.

2. Stretch

Many people fall into the trap of overtraining. They climb and climb until they begin to experience chronic issues like tendonitis. Those who avoid it tend to have a couple of things in common: they focus on active rest and they stretch. Getting some time away from the gym is actually great for regular climbers. It’s a chance to work flexibility back into your muscles. Take ten minutes a day to gently stretch out your muscles — it’s really a chance to prevent injury. You might even come back in better shape to grow even more as a climber.

3. Cross-train

Another way to build your fitness “base” and prevent injury while on the road is to cross-train. A specialized sport like climbing taxes a specific set of muscles. Focusing only on those muscles, in the long run, can drive you to injury. Being away from the gym or crag is a great time to get yourself back into balance. If you’re in a place with forest trails, go for a hike or easy jog. Yoga, as always, makes for a great cross-training activity against the specialization of climbing. You can do some basic lifting in a hotel gym, or even dig up a bodyweight circuit routine on an app like Nike Training Club.

4. Improvise and prepare

To make sure your tendons and forearms stay in shape, you can pick up a set of portable training tools for use in hotel rooms and guest rooms. We like (and sell) the Metolius Rock Rings, which will fit in just about any piece of luggage you have and will allow you to do a hangboard routine wherever you set them up. And tools like these are great not only for your climbing muscles, but for core exercises and other muscle groups you might not usually train back at home.

5. Adjust

One final concept to keep in mind when training on the go: you probably won’t be able to perfectly mimic the training routine you have back home. Traveling is a time to broaden yourself with new experiences, and training on the road is just an extension of that. By working consistently over a period of a week or two to actively rest your body, feed your muscles, and build their resilience with cross-training and focused work, you may come back feeling less obviously “strong,” but overall in a much better place to keep pushing your skills to a higher level without injury. So don’t stress too much — listen to your body and what you think it needs.

Happy travels!

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 Youth Comp Results

2019 Citizens 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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