FIRST ASCENT CLIMBING

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

FA Staff Spotlight: Eric Schafer

This month, we’re shining the spotlight on FA staff member Eric Schafer. Eric is a long-time member of the Chicago climbing community. He is also our Fitness Coordinator at FA, so we’re excited to share his story! Eric is working on expanding our fitness programming, including Basecamp Group Training, Personal Training, and Redpoint Climbing Training. Make sure to say hi next time you see him at the gym.

How did you get into climbing?

I could trace the desire back to trips to various National Park trips out west when I was young, but I started technical rock climbing in 2008 at Lakeview Athletic Club. Initially, I was only interested in adding the skill to my toolbox as a means of pursuing peaks that require 5th class climbing like the Grand Teton. Of course, I was hooked almost immediately and began climbing regularly 3x a week.

It’s really fortunate that I happened to wander into LVAC, a wall with an amazing community and always well-managed, despite the limited resources available. Had I walked into a facility without the passion of the CAC climbing community, I certainly wouldn’t have been as drawn to it.

What do you love about climbing?

Pretty much everything. I’ll just list a few things here:

The community: The Chicago climbing community is incredibly welcoming and tolerant of overly enthusiastic newcomers with no experience. Within a year, I had gone on a dozen trips to the Red and a couple trips to climb ice with the friends I made at LVAC and LPAC.

It takes you to wonderful places: Climbing, and the associated technical skills, open up a whole world that is otherwise inaccessible. From high-mountain peaks to the canyons of Utah, almost everything is fair game if you know what you’re doing.

Signing the log on a summit and knowing that you are the only person who has been there in a week, a month or even a year is an amazing feeling.

There are infinite examples, but look at something like Matthes Crest, totally inaccessible without 5th class climbing and one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.

 It enables you to physically push your limits: This has always been a passion of mine and, in many ways, drives my general fitness pursuits as well. Top-rope and sport allow you to push yourself to the physical and mental limits.

Slopers: The best type of holds.

Why are you excited to be part of the FA team?

First Ascent is the heart of the Chicago climbing community. It was founded by a number of my friends and climbing buddies from the dark days before Chicago had a dedicated climbing gym.

I’ve worked in a wide range of industries over the years. From consulting to mountain guiding, the one common theme is that the most important aspect of the job is the people you work with. At FA, I work daily with people I consider friends who share the same passions.

It’s something I don’t take for granted.

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

Sport has always been my answer to this question, and probably always will be. I like being on a rope, pushing the limits of endurance and climbing beautiful lines. I’m inspired almost as much by the aesthetic and setting of a route as the movement within. I challenge someone to walk into the Midnight Surf or the Madness Cave and not feel inspired.

That said, over the years I’ve grown to appreciate bouldering, especially the social aspect of it. Unlike a sport route, where you’re largely alone on the wall, bouldering allows you to work together with a group of friends or people you just met to figure out a sequence. 

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

This is a really difficult question. Muir Valley is certainly up there. I’d probably say Ouray for ice climbing. Yosemite, both the valley and Tuolumne, is amazing. The Pacific Northwest is gorgeous and the Alaska Range is incredible.

Other outdoor activities I participate in are:

Mountaineering: Walking uphill has always been a passion. I guided on Rainier for a season and loved it.

Ice Climbing: Love it. It’s like rock climbing only you can put holds wherever you want and they’re always jugs.

Canyoneering: I don’t have much experience here, but of what I’ve done, it was super fun. I’m actually leaving for Zion in two days and hope to get a few descents in.

Skiing: Backcountry skiing is great because it takes the least enjoyable part of mountaineering, the descent, and makes it fun! Resort skiing is a blast as well.

Hiking: I suppose this can be enjoyable on its own, but this is best used as a means of accessing the things listed above.

Tennis: I haven’t played as much over the past few years with my main partner having moved to the suburbs, but I still enjoy it on occasion, despite being rusty. (I am a washed out high school athlete.)

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

Nothing specific. My goal is to continue to consistently climb three times a week to build finger tendon strength so I can climb more challenging grades without injury. I might target Super Best Friends or Cell Block Six for Fall 2019?

Fitness? Get Dan Bartz and Jon Shepard to do a conditioning workout with me! I almost had Jon one day, but he bailed right before the burpees started.

What keeps you busy when you’re not climbing?

Most of my free non-climbing time is spent lifting, doing gymnastic work and conditioning on occasion. Outside the gym, cycling (to and from the gym), watching movies, playing piano, planning climbing trips and playing video games, if we’re being honest here.

What do you love about Chicago?

Chicago is a great city. I’ve always said we should just pick it up and move it closer to the mountains. I like that everything is close together and easily accessible via bicycle.

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

In college, the dark days before I started climbing, I practiced martial arts for five years and was fortunate enough to earn a first-degree black belt in Japanese Jiu Jitsu and Tae Kwon Do.

I’m super out of practice, but I might still be able to throw a (very low) kick or dive roll.

Anything else you want to say to the FA Community?

Thank you for always being so welcoming to new climbers. The community will grow over the years and it’s difficult to not roll our eyes when someone calls “free soloing” by the term “free climbing,” but let’s never get to a point where we think we’re too cool. After all, we’re still just climbing pieces of plastic, screwed to plywood, in a city nowhere near any outdoor climbing and everyone thinks we’re crazy.

 

How to Navigate the Crag, Part 2: Crag Etiquette

This is part two of our five-part series, How to Navigate the Crag. Part 1 covered Leave No Trace.

If you’ve been rock climbing for a while, you’ll have heard the term before: “gumby.” No, not the claymation character; in climbing, a gumby is someone, usually a beginner, who remains ignorant of the skills and etiquette needed to climb safely and in local style. For example, take the person who rappels off an anchor set up with lowering rings: it might not seem worth caring about at first glance, but if new climbers routinely ignore these lowering expectations, it’s possible someday that a “gumby” will take a new partner off belay who expected to lower. This ignorance of etiquette can lead to dangerous situations. That’s not to say “gumbies” are malicious, just uninformed.

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. Generally, experienced climbers follow a few basic guidelines for good “climbing citizenship.” Here’s where to start:

1: Know how to lead and belay safely

First thing’s first: before etiquette comes skills for safe climbing: you need to have the basics down.Jackson Falls climbingTo start, you’ll want to be comfortable lead climbing, including safely placing quickdraws, clipping skills and technique, and what to do at the anchors (and the belay) of a sport climb. Luckily, these are all skills we can teach you at our Gym to Crag and Learning to Lead classes. Before you go outdoors, get signed up and we’ll walk you through the technical skills needed to be safe and confident at the crag.

2: Keep the volume down

Great tunes make hard efforts in the gym so much easier, but at the crag they often make for unsafe conditions for you and others.Devil's Lake Bouldering When you’re starting up a project at your limit, the last thing you want is for your belayer to not hear you when you call for slack to make a clip, because someone turned up their favorite Pretty Lights song to warm up. It’s safer to skip the tunes, but if you must have them, ask everyone at the crag if they mind, and respect the consensus. As for screaming? If you need a little P’SAAAT to get through a crux, do what you need to do, but…maybe not like a metal singer.

3: Keep your presence nimble

One of the classic sport climbing faux pas is to set up multiple top ropes in a popular area. Basically, avoid it – if you and your partner aren’t actively working a route anymore, clean the route before you start another. If you’re resting in between tries, though, don’t stress – just let others use your quickdraws, which will earn you friendship opportunities and good karma. It can be fun to see how nimbly, safely and quickly you can get through a series of warm-ups or moderate routes – use that strategy at popular crags and people will happily share their space with you.

4: Unsolicited beta is only for danger

You’ll see it often in the gym: intermediate and/or confident climbers, often men (hey, I’ve been guilty before)share move-by-move beta to whoever (often a woman) is climbing nearby, usually instructions on which holds come next.The intentions may be good, but it’s annoying, more often confusing, and cripples people from developing one of the fundamental skills of climbing new and difficult routes: just figuring the thing out. It’s not helpful unless it’s solicited. But if someone’s about to z-clip, or is climbing with a leg behind the rope? That’s another story entirely – calmly talk the climber out of the dangerous situation.

5: Follow the local style

If this point to you sounds like you’re required to climb in parachute pants, please let me know where this parachute pants crag is so that I can exclusively climb there. What style actually means is the local ethics and climbing style: do people lower off the anchors or rappel? What routes can be climbed on rainy days? What access issues come into play? Many of these issues can be answered simply – such as the lowering vs. rappel debate, which relies usually on the fixed gear at the anchors – but others can get fairly esoteric.

Figuring out how to answer style and ethics questions is the subject of our next piece, coming later this month.

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

Photos courtesy of Ed Yu.

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 community@firstascentclimbing.com

Study Results: Predicting Wrist and Hand Injury Risk In Rock Climbers

My name is Oliver Rivera and I am a physical therapist at UIC. You may have seen me at the Uptown or Block 37 locations last March and April trying to recruit FA members to participate in my research study.Oliver Rivera PT, DPT

For a little background on me, I am a suburban Chicago native who finished up physical therapy school in June of 2017 in Las Vegas. It was in Nevada at Red Rock Canyon where I developed my passion for climbing. Recently, I completed a 13 month orthopedic physical therapy residency at the University of Illinois at Chicago where I was required to create a research project on something related to my field. From what I saw, there currently is a gap in research related to rock climbing, so I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to combine some of my passions.

As a climber who has experienced a few wrist and hand injuries, I was very interested in whether there were any specific characteristics of the wrist or hand that could predict injuries in rock climbers. I spoke with my climbing friends, fellow physical therapists at UIC, and a few climbing specific physical therapists across the country to identify characteristics that would be interesting to look at in terms of possible correlations with wrist and hand injuries. We identified a variety of factors worth investigating, including climbing experience, climbing frequency, climbing ability, grip strength, wrist flexor and extensor strength, wrist flexor/extensor strength ratio, wing span, ape index, digit length and width, and digit length/width ratio. Climbers frequently discuss many of the factors regarding strength as areas to possibly focus on during their training, so this study has the potential to better inform the climbing community on areas that they should or shouldn’t be concerned about in their training, as well as what matters or not in regards to body type.

For the study, we used a survey based design to obtain questions about climbing specific information such as ability, frequency, and injury history, and then took measurements of all the strength and anthropometric characteristics that interested us. In total, 98 climbers participated in the study. Prior to running the analysis, I hypothesized that wrist flexor/extensor strength ratio and digit length/width ratio would demonstrate the strongest correlation with wrist or hand injury in climbers. Specifically, I believed that someone with an “imbalanced” wrist flexor/extensor strength ratio, and someone with narrower and longer fingers would be at a greater risk of sustaining an injury.

Wrist alignment on rock climber

With the help of a statistician, we ran an analysis of the whole data set to look for significant interactions between all of the variables we recorded. Unfortunately, no significant interactions were found between any of the objective measurements we took. These findings were disappointing, as the goal of the study was to find some type of objective measure that could possibly predict wrist or hand injury in climbers. However, the positive takeaway from these findings is that none of the objective variables mattered in terms of influencing injury risk; there may not be a specific body characteristic or strength measurement that increases injury risk.

After the analysis, we did find two significant interactions within our survey data. A significant correlation was present between the following: wrist/hand injury and self reported climbing experience, and wrist/hand injury and self reported climbing ability.

At first glance, these findings make sense, since the longer you participate and the higher difficulties you encounter in climbing, the longer your exposure and the higher the risk you have sustaining any type of injury. What I also interpret from these findings is that what the climbing community may believe to be important for injury prevention may not be as vital as knowledge of tissue adaptation and a solid training program progression.

Rock climbing at Devil's Lake

From my research, I learned an interesting fact about the climbing community. For a majority of injuries, climbers do not seek medical attention. A primary reason is that the majority of injuries climbers endure are minor (strains, sprains, and contusions) and heal in a short amount of time. However, another reason found in the literature was that climbers do not trust medical professionals with their knowledge of climbing and climbing related injuries. As a physical therapist, I can say that PTs spend their education learning about tissue injury, healing, adaptation, and rehabilitation. Our profession is now at a doctoral level, and with direct access to physical therapy recently passed as Illinois law, PT’s are more qualified than ever to assist the climbing community directly with the education and rehabilitation of climbing related injuries. For athletes, understanding tissue adaptation and being smart about training progressions can play a pivotal role in injury prevention and rehabilitation.

If you are looking for guidance with injury prevention or rehabilitation, any physical therapist can provide helpful insight, and seeking a PT with a climbing background or orthopedic/sports training can also help. Look for credentials such as OCS, SCS, or FAAOMPT: therapists with these credentials often go through additional education to become specialists in their field.

First Ascent will also run Finger Injury Prevention workshops at all locations over the next couple of months with fellow FA member Dr. James Lee – be sure to sign up for one to go into even more depth about injury prevention.

I recently underwent ACL surgery 2 months ago from a soccer injury so climbing has been on hold for me. However I hope to be back in at First Ascent in the next 2-3 months, so if you see me around, feel free to say hi and ask any questions. You can also reach me at oliriv90@gmail.com.

By Oliver Rivera, a Chicago-based climber and physical therapist. 

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: www.LNT.org.

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.