Category Archive

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!

My 6×6 Challenge Story: Dan Bartz, FA co-founder

First Ascent is launching its second 6×6 Challenge the week of October 14th, and I for one cannot be more excited for another 6×6. 

In many ways, I consider myself the least likely person to take on a fitness challenge. I discovered climbing back in college, and at the time, I was out of shape and uninterested in changing that. When I visited the local climbing gym, climbing clicked with me in a way that no sport I had tried previously ever did. I was hooked from my first visit, and it was my passion for climbing and my drive to improve that lead me to set a regular climbing routine, eat healthier, and — gasp — start running and lifting weights to build endurance and strength for sending.

Fast forward to last spring. I hadn’t been climbing regularly in a few months — my full days at First Ascent plus my two young kids at home (ages 6 and 2) were making it hard for me to get into a rhythm. I was also working through some chronic shoulder problems that were making bouldering, my favorite style of climbing, difficult for me to pursue the way I wanted to. I was tired of hibernating after a long winter. I felt like I needed to make a change. 

When I told my wife, Annika, that we were launching this thing called the 6×6 Challenge at First Ascent, she looked at me and said “We should do it!” That same part of me that resisted traditional fitness when I was younger balked. I kept thinking “No, that’s not for me — I’m a climber.” I wanted to spend the precious little time I had to exercise on the wall, not doing burpees. But I knew I needed something new, so we signed up.

Boy, am I glad I did.

What I found during the 6×6 Challenge was so much more than just a fitness routine. I found a community of people pushing themselves beyond their comfort zone every session. I found the coaching I needed to learn new movement patterns and perfect my form on kettlebell swings, deadlifts, and Turkish getups. I found the motivation and accountability I needed to stick to my routine. And, perhaps most surprisingly of all, I found that traditional fitness can be fun.

Don’t get me wrong — it was hard work. We started the 6×6 Challenge with a baseline assessment: the time it took to complete a 500m row, 40 air squats, 30 situps, 20 push ups, and 10 pull ups. Mine was one of the longest on record: a 10:23. My fellow Basecampers were all coming in around 7 or 8 minutes, but the time wasn’t even the biggest factor for me. I was completely destroyed after that first workout. I could barely walk down the stairs afterward. I knew I had my work cut out for me. 

The first few workouts felt similar, but after two weeks of regular Basecamp sessions I started to see progress and feel better and better after each workout. At the end of the 6 week challenge, we ran the baseline assessment again to measure our progress. This time, I came in at 5:57, cutting my original time nearly in half. What’s more, I felt great afterward. I felt like I could do the whole thing again right then and there. I felt empowered, like I had rediscovered a version of myself that I hadn’t seen in a while.

Basecamp crew post rainy kayak paddle. Photo courtesy of @amandanicc

We capped off the challenge with an urban adventure for all the finishers: a kayak trip with Urban Kayaks on the Chicago River. It ended up pouring rain that night, but the strong crew of Basecampers just laughed and enjoyed the Type II fun. We had already pushed so hard and overcome so much over the last 6 weeks. What’s a little bit of rain?

It’s for all these reasons that I am psyched to take on another 6×6 Challenge this fall. If you’re looking to make a change this fall and improve your base fitness level, I want to invite you to join me and the Basecamp crew for this fall’s 6×6 Challenge. You’re going to meet some great people. You’re going to feel challenged to be your best. You’re going to learn and get stronger. And best of all, you’re going to have fun — both Type II and Type I.

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.


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

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

FA Member Spotlight: Dr. James Lee

This month, we’re shining the spotlight on FA Member Dr. James Lee! Starting this month, James will be using his expertise to offer physical therapy services at all First Ascent locations. Follow James on Instagram @leephysicaltherapy, connect with him via email ( if you’re looking for physical therapy or need a quick tip, and say hi to him next time you see him around FA!

How did you get into climbing?

As a little kid, I would love to climb trees all the time. My cousins would make fun of me and call me jungle boy, but it wasn’t until I started physical therapy school in 2006 when one of my classmates introduced me to indoor climbing… game changer.

What do you love about climbing?

I’m biased for sure, but I think climbing has to be one of the most all-encompassing, full-bodied, high-tension, peaceful, physical, social, frustrating, encouraging and spiritual activities out there. It’s rare to find people from all walks of life come together like this.You learn not to give up, to press on. The moment when everything finally comes together for the send, it’s a great feeling. Being out in nature and, literally, on top of the world looking down, you’re awestruck. It can’t get better than that.

Why are you excited to start the physical therapy program at First Ascent?

Physical therapy is still a very young branch of medicine. Not many people really know what we do, so I’m excited to educate people more about their own bodies and show how they can optimize their physical health with movement. It’s important to distinguish when to be alarmed about certain pains versus when it’s okay to work through other pains without the fear of causing more damage to yourself. Learning good habits is a lot easier than breaking old ones, especially when it comes to a strenuous activity like climbing.

Why is physical therapy important for climbers? What’s your best tip for preventing injury with climbers?

How many times have you heard someone going to see their doctor because of a climbing injury and the doctor tells them to stop climbing? At the end of the appointment both parties are frustrated and don’t understand each other. Physical therapists are movement experts and can teach you when it’s okay to push yourself and when it’s time to listen to your body and rest. Climbing motion is also pulling specific. When you’re constantly working your body in one direction, inevitably the opposing muscle groups tend to get neglected. It’s important to know how to fix those muscle imbalances because they may end up leading to chronic issues down the road. The best tip I can give beginner climbers is to practice OPEN HAND CRIMPING!

Bouldering or sport climbing? 

Sport takes you to greater heights. I love finishing a climb and being able to soak in the view. Bouldering gives you a different high. I feel accomplished when I’m on top. I did it. Short and sweet. But when you’re hundreds of feet off of the ground, you feel small and almost insignificant like a tiny blip on the radar screen.    You get a sense of something greater, something beyond you, something truly awesome.

What is your favorite place to climb outdoors?

I’ve been going to Devil’s Lake more and I love it. There are new boulder routes being set up as more people explore the talus fields. I’m more confident in my anchor building skills and I’m starting to climb simple trad routes. The rock is slick and it’s the perfect place to build a strong foundation.


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

I’d love to go to the Red and get back on Easy Rider 5.13a or Orange Juice 5.12c. Those were my two most memorable fails, and I’d be happy if I can red point them one day. Jesus Wept 12d looks like a really fun climb too and I’d love to give that one a go. I feel accomplished leading and flashing the Upper Diagonal 5.9 trad at Devil’s Lake. There’s no need to go any harder than that. A personal fitness goal I’ve always wanted to sort of (not really) meet is to get a six pack, but I love sweets much more than the thought of shredded abs. Key lime pie at First Slice is my favorite. 

What keeps you busy when you’re not climbing?

When I’m not climbing, I’m treating patients or I’m busy making videos on instagram to help people with climbing. I volunteer with the Adaptive Climbing Group (@adaptclimbgroup) where we help people with disabilities to climb. And I love spending time with my wonderful girlfriend who just said yes to marrying me! We enjoy cooking together and also going out to eat. If you ever see us in the gym training together, it’s probably the only time you won’t see her smiling… my fault. 

I’m also currently training my pet Sophie to become a great crag dog one day! She has her own Instagram @crag_dog_sophie.

What do you love about Chicago?

I love calling Chicago my home. We have the most beautiful skyline, the city streets are clean and we have a lake the size of an ocean. It’s easy to find a peaceful corner to get work done or get caught up in a big crowd at a music festival. The diversity of cuisines is never ending too. I just discovered this Venezuelan restaurant on the very north side of Lake View. The cheese sticks alone are so delicious.

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

I’ve been playing the drums almost every week at my church for the past 20 years. I was self-taught starting my freshmen year in high school because our youth group needed a drummer.I now play for our adult service. I’m actually really surprised it’s been 20 years, maybe because I learned at such a young age and it was built into my routine for so long that you just lose track of time. It’s so much fun. I still feel like a kid whenever I play.

Anything else you want to say to the FA Community?
I’m excited to be on the front lines of injury prevention at FA. Climbing is my passion and I’m fortunate that I can use my profession to help people climb better. I can’t wait to meet you!