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How to Start Rock Climbing, Part 1: Get Started at a Climbing Gym

This is the first part of our “How to Start Rock Climbing” series. Stay tuned for How To Start Rock Climbing Part 2: Your First Visit

So, you want to start rock climbing. You’ve picked a great time to get started: the rock climbing community is growing fast, thanks to the accessibility of climbing gyms as well as mainstream coverage of the Dawn Wall ascent, the Oscar-winning Free Solo documentary, and the addition of climbing in the 2020 Olympics. You’ve probably even got a few friends who’ve started to climb, plastering their Instagram feeds with all their “sendage.”

But how do you actually get started? For those who haven’t yet set foot in a climbing gym, here’s where to begin:

1: Find your local gym 

Climbing gyms are everywhere now, and new ones open every year. A good climbing gym will empower you to try out climbing in a controlled and fun environment. Trained climbing staff and guides will teach you everything you need to know to get started. Starting your climbing career at a gym is also a great way to meet fellow new climbers, who could become future climbing partners.

Even if you’re in a geographically flat area like metropolitan Chicago, it’s easy to find a place to climb. Google’s the easiest way to find a gym: try searching “rock climbing gym in [YOUR CITY].” Here in Chicago, First Ascent has 4 locations in different parts of the city: FA Avondale, FA Uptown, FA Block 37 (in the Loop), and FA Humboldt Park. If you’re in Peoria, you’re in luck too: check out FA Peoria.

2: Sign the Waiver

It’s important to note here that climbing is a dangerous activity. Managing the risks associated with climbing is of course our top priority at First Ascent – we manage risk through visitor orientations, climber education, proper personal protective equipment, etc. – but not all of the risk of injury can be eliminated when you’re climbing off the ground.

Before you get started climbing at First Ascent, we ask everyone to acknowledge that they understand that climbing is dangerous and that they take personal responsibility for their own safety by signing a waiver (click to sign online). You’ll find the same thing at any modern climbing gym you visit.

If you have any questions about the risks associated with climbing or our waiver, please feel free to ask one of our friendly staff members.

3: Choose your type of climbing 

Most gyms provide a few different types of rock climbing. In climbing gyms, there are two basic types of rock climbing: roped climbing and bouldering.

Roped climbing involves attaching a climber to a rope using a harness to protect you as you climb up a route. Watch the video below to get an idea of what roped climbing is like at First Ascent Avondale.

There are a few different kinds of roped climbing: autobelay, top rope, and lead climbing. Most modern gyms offer autobelays, which allow you to clip in and climb after a short orientation. Top rope and lead climbing require knowledge of belay devices and rope management, and you need to pass a belay check at most gyms in order to climb on top rope or lead. If you’re new to top rope and lead climbing, you can typically take a class to learn what you need to know (see below for more on that).

Bouldering, on the other hand, features much shorter, more physically challenging rope-less routes (called “boulder problems” in climbing lingo) with thick pads below you to cushion your falls. Watch the video below to see what bouldering is like at First Ascent Block 37.

Some say bouldering is the purest form of the sport – it’s just you, a pair of climbing shoes, and the wall. Bouldering is also the quickest way to get started climbing because it doesn’t require knowledge of ropes, harnesses, belay devices, etc. It is worth noting, though, that if you have any ankle, knee, or back issues, bouldering is probably not the best option for you, since every fall is a fall back down to the pad when you’re bouldering.

Not sure whether roped climbing or bouldering is right for you? That’s okay—plan a visit to your local gym, try both, and see which you like better!

At First Ascent Avondale and First Ascent Peoria, we offer both roped climbing and bouldering—and we’ll show you how to do whichever style you choose! At our other locations (Uptown, Block 37, and Humboldt Park), we offer bouldering only.

4: Sign up for a class 

Taking a class is really the best way to get started climbing. In a basic climbing course, you’ll learn about the gear you need to climb and the techniques you’ll need to use that gear properly to manage climbing risk. You’ll also learn some basic climbing technique—how to use your arms and legs efficiently so you can climb more challenging routes or boulder problems. But even with all that knowledge, you’ll probably still be sore afterward, since climbing uses a lot of muscles in new ways that you’re not used to if you haven’t been climbing regularly.

At First Ascent, we offer classes for beginners, including our Learning the Ropes classes at our rope climbing gyms, where you can learn how to belay and gain full access to all of our top rope lines. The class also includes a day pass and gear rental. For aspiring boulderers, we offer Learning to Boulder, a one-hour class where you’ll learn the basics of bouldering safety and technique.

5: Get ready, then go to the gym!

Once you’ve picked your gym and the style of climbing you’re interested in, it’s time to get ready to go to the gym!

But what should you wear? We recommend wearing comfortable athletic clothing when coming to the gym: a t-shirt or tank top is usually best for tops, and yoga pants, sweat pants, or other stretchy, form-fitting pants are best for bottoms. Shorts are okay too, but be aware that you may scrape your knees on holds or the wall while climbing.

Once you’re dressed and ready, head on over, and the staff at your local climbing gym will guide you through the process, making sure you understand what you need to know and have fun while you’re at it. We’ll talk you through what that looks like in How To Start Rock Climbing, Part 2: Your First Visit. Stay tuned!

Change for the Better: 30 Years of Climbing Evolution

First Ascent Peoria has opened, and as I slowly pull myself back into the climbing world, I’ve had my eyes opened to the amazing evolution of climbing standards, technology, and risk management improvements over the last 35 years.

I became interested in climbing in 1985 while attending High School in Urbana, Illinois, the world center of alpine activity (maybe not!). After deciding to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I enrolled in a “Hoofers” outdoor club climbing class that was taught at Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin. From that first class, I knew that climbing was a passion and eventually went on to teach climbing for UW Madison and climbed technical and alpine routes in the US and around the world. In 1990 there was no climbing gym in Madison but I was a “member” of a climbing barn, run by a passionate climber who made all his own holds and fired them in a kiln before bolting them up into 15-foot routes across the roof of an old barn outside of Madison.

At that time (and still today) Devil’s Lake was a “no bolt” site, which meant that you either top-roped or learned to lead climb by placing traditional protection. I did a lot of both. The first thing that hit me as I used a Grigri belay device (for the first time at First Ascent last week) was how far the belay technology has come. Here is a shot of a few of the belay devices I’ve used over the years:

From left to right – a Figure 8, a Tubular, a Stitch Plate, and a more modern Black Diamond ATC.

Before buying the Figure 8 (my first piece of gear), I climbed for about 6 months using body belays which were what I read about in the most current edition of Freedom of the Hills in 1984. My conclusion: Grigri’s and other modern belay devices are way better! Managing risk still has to be carefully considered and a constant conscious thought, but the belay technology alone has changed the accessibility of the sport. Properly trained, almost anyone can use a modern belay device properly to protect a climber. It doesn’t require an iron grip, unusual strength, or any special technique beyond performing the basic brake hand function correctly. Following the right belay procedure is critical, but new technology and design has radically improved the whole process.

The next thing that hit me when I walked into the newly opened roped section of Peoria’s First Ascent was the amazing display of top rope routes. The French say “Il pleu des cordes” when it’s raining hard. The direct translation is “it’s raining ropes”, and that’s what you think of when you enter the roped climbing area. It’s raining ropes. There are bolted quickdraws up every route to protect when lead climbing. Learning to lead climb at Devil’s Lake required placing “natural” protection and that technology has also evolved dramatically in the last 35 years. Here is a shot of some natural protection that most climbers have used when climbing outdoors on traditional (non-sport) routes:

From left to right – a cleaning tool, corded nuts, wired nuts, tri-cams, hex’s, a first generation Friend, and various sized camming devices.

The monstrous green thing is a #5 Camelot for use in horrible off-width climbs like the Central Pillar of Frenzy on Cathedral Spire in Yosemite. You only carry that thing when you’re sure you will need it!

My conclusion: bolted routes and quickdraws have changed the game and, in many ways, allowed the sport to become more athletic and more gymnastic while at the same time making it significantly less risky. Whether indoors at your local climbing gym (so excited to say that in Peoria!) or outdoors at the nearest crag, these changes are fantastic for opening up the appeal and accessibility of climbing to young and old. As a side note, if you think all these innovations have somehow reduced the available adventure in the world then I suggest a trip to Devil’s Lake to lead a classic like Upper Diagonal that was rated 5.9 in 1980. It is traditionally protected and adds to the sandbagged rating scale legend that is Devil’s Lake. There is still plenty of adventure to be had!

Thanks so much to the First Ascent team in Peoria. It’s the friendliest group of people you could ever hope to meet. They will teach you what you need to know to manage the risk associated with climbing, and they’ll work hard to make sure everyone has a great time. “Pull Down Hard” and see you at First Ascent.

Saul Boast is a member at First Ascent Peoria.

Go See: Grace, or the Art of Climbing

Anyone who climbs understands that rock climbing is different from other sports. This may be our way of justifying its absence in the arena of popular, publicized athletics; climbing isn’t overlooked, simply set apart by choice.

It’s clear once you start climbing, though, that it’s more than a sport. As you move, there is a deep, primal sense of fulfillment that only comes from scaling a wall, swinging from branch to branch, or ascending to the peak of a cliff. The human body was made, from its earliest days, to go where other animals couldn’t. These abilities, initially protecting us from danger, fed our drive to thwart gravity, to escape the confines of the forest floor, and to break free. Then, as we stood up and ran, away from old obstacles and towards a smarter way of life, our strengths became our passions. Transitioning from necessity to pleasure, what once kept us alive now gives us a reason to live. We have learned to look for beauty in the world around us, and how we interact with it.

The act of climbing is not about reaching a destination. Representative of life, the joy is found in the climb itself. There is a flow, a beauty in the way it looks and feels to climb, and deep relevance to the struggle of life. This depth is well-captured in Brown Paper Box Co’s stage production of ​Grace, or the Art of Climbing.

The play was written by theatre and circus artist L. M. Feldman and first produced in 2013 in Denver—a fitting location for a play about climbing. Feldman’s work consists of plays that promote queer activism and feminism, as well as humanitarian messages and an adventurous sense of questioning that touches the explorer’s spirit inside of all of us: how we try to support and push each other, how we fall short, what happens to us when those we trust don’t meet our expectations, and how we can choose to take what we have been given and learn how to help ourselves.

As an artist, a climber and an aspiring playwright, this story speaks to me, loudly. The conversations and interactions have applications and are not just surface-level banter. It shows how people can have different perspectives but choose to allow others’ ways of life to coexist, even connect, with their own.

This is how we support each other and learn to support ourselves, so we don’t have to rely on someone else to take care of us or do everything for us. It can be enjoyable to be taken care of, but if we never learn how to take care of ourselves, then we will be stagnant when that support is gone. Just like in climbing, it’s helpful to have someone to help catch us when we fall, but the work and the willingness to fall are efforts we must make for ourselves.

Grace​ is being put on by Brown Paper Box Co., a Chicago company that has been producing theatre for the last decade. The director, Erin Shea Brady, has discovered countless minute details in the piece and in the world of climbing that can be applied to make the show as accurate and as meaningful as possible.

At the start of the show’s process, I reached out to Brown Paper Box to express my interest and inform them of my tie to both the worlds of theatre and climbing. They were kind enough to ask me to come on as the climbing consultant, to ensure accuracy and safety for the show. Fortunately for me, they also needed a male understudy for the cast. And, fortunately for them, I have plenty of experience making sure that climbers don’t get themselves killed. So, for the last couple of weeks, I have been graced (hah) with the presence of a beautiful, intelligent, and strong ensemble of actor/climbers, and the pleasure of witnessing a magical piece of art blossom.

Working on this play has opened my eyes to a lot of the poetic similarities between climbing and other aspects of reality—falling in love, battling mental illness, recovering from physical illness, even putting on a play. Everything requires trust in one’s own capability to take care of oneself, and in others to do the same.

It’s been inspiring to see people involved in the show instantly fall in love with climbing, gearing themselves up and restructuring their schedule around “climbing days,” thrilled by the physical and mental adventure that they get up on the wall. No matter where someone is approaching it from, whatever intent or whatever walk of life, whatever it means to them to push themselves to be stronger, there is a clear reward when they finish that one route, or their project. Sure, the joy and beauty is found during the climb, but the indisputable accomplishment of personal challenge gives one a high so pure and addictive that they cannot help but jump back on the wall. It’s something all climbers feel, but that we often take for granted, or overlook, losing ourselves in the jargon and culture of it all.

Grace​ is running from June 6 to July 8, at Stage 773, 1225 W Belmont Ave, Chicago. There is more information about the show schedule and ticket pricing on, or the performance space’s website, and First Ascent members can get $5 off tickets with promo code ASCENT. If you’re able to attend this production, it would mean the world to the company and I’m sure, eventually, to you. If you would like to see my work in particular, I have an understudy performance on June 23rd, at the matinee time, and would greatly appreciate an invested audience. As you may know, I also work at First Ascent, primarily at the Avondale location, so if you’d simply like to talk to me about the production, about climbing, or about this post, you can find me there nearly any day of the week. But you can climb any day. Our show will only be showing for a limited time, so please, for your own sake, make your way to ​Grace.

Jonathan Wilson is on staff at First Ascent Avondale, an actor, and an aspiring playwright.

Recap: Red River Gorge Beta with Dru Mack

If you’ve been climbing in the gym for a while, it’s a pretty safe bet you’ve caught the outdoor climbing bug—after all, outdoor adventure is the root of our sport. But it’s not quite as easy as throwing your stuff in the car and driving to the Red River Gorge. Every climber should know some basic etiquette and ethics to enjoy all that the Red has to offer in a sustainable and safe way. That’s why we had the Red River Gorge Climbing Coalition come out to Avondale on May 11 with pro climber Dru Mack to help us learn more about the do’s and don’t’s of climbing at the Red, whether it’s your first time or your 50th.

After the event, we had the chance to catch up with Dru to get his pro tips on how to navigate RRG crags. Here’s a bit of what he had to say:

Keep an Open Mind

Sometimes, it can be easy for more experienced climbers to negatively throw the word “gumby” around when new outdoor climbers make mistakes in etiquette. But new climbers are usually not making mistakes on purpose: “A lot of times more local climbers or people who have been climbing longer think people are messing up and they know better,” Dru says. “If you offer advice or help they’re usually more than willing to hear you out and make their process easier, as long as you don’t come across as a jerk.”


Manage Your Group Size

The Red is growing rapidly in popularity—and overcrowding can easily become an issue at a crag, especially with large groups who lock down routes for hours. “I’ve been to a crag where someone told me ‘there are 13 people in line for this route,’” Dru says, “but there weren’t even 13 people at the crag.” What’s the solution? “If you have a big group, spread out—go to different crags,” Dru says, “but if you’re all at one crag, make sure to let other people hop onto the route in between your whole group.” At the end of the day, communicating with other climbers is key to making sure your large group isn’t putting off negative vibes to the rest of the crag’s climbers.

Stay Within Bounds

In many areas at the Red (and in other crags around the world), climbing’s slotted into very predetermined areas. Outside of those areas, if a person or dog wanders around, erosion and damage to the landscape can threaten our access to those spaces. But that’s not just for out-of-bounds: Dru says keeping your pets and gear corralled is important for safety reasons: “It’s easy to be distracted, especially as a belayer,” Dru says, “and if someone’s dog is going through your bag, it’s really easy to look away and not give what you’re doing enough thought.” Keeping your gear and person within bounds leads into the next point covered: leaving the Red how you found it.


Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace means exactly what it sounds like: leave it how you found it. “Our impact [as climbers] is one thing,” Dru says, “but leaving gear or trash or things out there has a negative effect on the area.” Most people aren’t intentionally littering, but it’s easy when you’re dealing with a lot of gear to drop some tape here, a wrapper there, especially with everything going on at the crag. But that stuff adds up whether you meant it or not—in both physical impact to the land, but also its beauty and the landowners’ willingness to tolerate climbers. It helps to pick things up even when it wasn’t yours. All climbers should make a point to pack out whatever they can to help keep the Red in great condition.


Get Involved Locally and Stay Educated

The RRGCC, who sponsored the event, is a great organization for climbers to get involved with if they want to integrate with the local scene and meet other climbers—on top of learning good etiquette and ethics. The best way is to contribute and stay up to date on new info: “Donating money goes a long way to maintaining the Red’s areas or buying new land, which can help spread people out,” Dru says. “But if you can’t donate your money, then donate your time,” like at trail days, where volunteers can maintain trails to the Red’s amazing crags.

It was a great event, and we’re so glad the RRGCC and Dru came out to talk to us. Follow them both on Instagram to stay up to date and learn more about outdoor climbing!

Red River Gorge Climbing Coalition: @RRGCC
Dru Mack: @drumack5

Climbing photos by John Wesley @lightningsnaps

Share Your Climbing Photos for Make-A-Wish

There’s something about the sport of climbing that allows us to show what we’re really made of. Are we prepared to face the challenges the sport—and life— presents us head-on, or do we give up and put down our agency, our striving for life? Ian Vallejo was an example of taking life on full steam, and we’re excited to help honor him alongside the Make-A-Wish Foundation – but we need your help.

Ian spent the last three years of his life battling osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer that forced him to face intense radiation and chemotherapy, as well as the loss of his right leg to amputation, before he passed away in July 2018. But Ian was a climber, and kept climbing throughout his cancer, starting an adaptive climbing group at Brooklyn Boulders Chicago. And he always wanted to climb in the French Alps. Even facing a debilitating cancer diagnosis. That’s where the Make-a-Wish Foundation came in.

They made his wish a reality, helping Ian to live his life on the edge—his personal mantra— and choose life, even when his illness stared back at him. Many of us knew Ian, and we’ll never forget the lessons he taught us about strength and perseverance.

This Saturday, May 18th, the Illinois chapter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation will be hosting their annual Wish Ball. At the ball, Ian’s mother will be sharing her family’s story, to try to raise funds and awareness of the possibilities life offers even those suffering from debilitating diseases.

That’s where the climbing community comes in. We’re putting out a call to climbers and to members of the Make-A-Wish community to hear Ian’s story and to dedicate an upcoming climb (either indoors or outdoors) in his memory. We’re asking FA members to post a picture or video on social using #lifeontheedge and to tag @wishillinois with a short message saying something like, “This climb is for Ian”, or “I’ll climb until I can’t”, or “After hearing Ian’s story, I dedicate this climb to him”.

Let’s remind the whole Make-A-Wish community what being a climber is all about—living life to the fullest in honor of our lost friends and loved ones, the people who showed personal strength and taught us lessons our community holds dear.

Climb till I Can’t Climb from Medill Reports on Vimeo.