Category Archive

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

Member Spotlight: Jevon Penalosa

This month, we’re spotlighting FA member Jevon Penalosa and recent competitor in the CrossTown Bouldering League! Read on to learn more about his love for climbing, what he does outside of the gym and what kind of climbing goals he has. Don’t forget to say hi when you see him around FA!

1. How did you get into climbing?

My best friend and bouldering league teammate Justin got me into it.

He did the referral for first timers so I could try it out, right when he just joined First Ascent. I was hooked on my first day. He told he would pick me up and we would climb whenever he was free if I joined too. So I joined right after my second day of climbing. He would hit me up everyday and we would go to Avondale even though my body was dead and didn’t want to. Climbing daily just became my part of my life. Avondale is only a five minute drive from where we live, so it was easy. Block 37 is only a minute walk from my office, so I now climb at Block 37 Monday—Friday for lunch and after work. Weekends are usually Avondale, Humboldt, and sometimes Uptown.

2. What do you love about climbing?

Don’t really know how to explain it but it’s all of these things:

-It’s really fun.

-It’s the best feeling when you send a boulder problem especially when it’s really tough and been working on it for awhile.

-Progress and growth.

-Get to hang out with friends. I’ve met so many great people through First Ascent who’ve become close friends of mine.

-It’s my escape from work, stress, problems, and boredom.

-Great way to workout and stay in shape.

-The community is the best.

3. Bouldering or sport climbing?

What is sport climbing? All I know is bouldering, but I would love to sport climb too.

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

I’ve only climbed outdoors once and it was in New York in the Shawangunks. It was awesome—never really had the opportunity to climb outdoors since I’ve been climbing for only a year now. I don’t know where or how to climb outdoors and didn’t know anyone who did. But I know plenty of people now who are willing to take me.

I really don’t do any outdoor activity. But I’ve frequently started snowboarding a lot with my super duper climbing squad (Dawid, Christine, Roger and Andrew), close friends whom I met through the bouldering league. We’ve gone four times already this winter and I plan on snowboarding a few more times before summer.

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

I want to be a solid V7-V8 climber, climb outdoors, and do sport climbing.

6. What keeps you busy when you’re not climbing?

If I’m not climbing, I’m either at work or with friends playing the Nintendo Switch.

7. What do you love about Chicago?

That you can experience/do so many great things here and have tons of great food spots without venturing too far.

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

There are too many great food spots for me to just choose one, but I love pizza, sushi and burgers. I listen to all types of music but my favorite ones are very melodic just like Aruarian Dance from Nujabes.

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

I’m super shy.

10. Anything else you want to say to the FA Community?

Thanks for the awesome experiences, opportunities and friends. You guys are the best. Let’s climb!

Introducing the Chicago Fixed Gear Initiative

Since we first opened the doors of First Ascent Avondale in 2015, we’ve watched as the Chicago climbing community has grown immensely with the growth of access to indoor climbing in the city. But outdoor climbing has always been difficult to access for Chicago climbers, with the closest outdoor climbing areas over 3 hour’s drive away.

It’s time to change that. There is vast route potential right here in the great city of Chicago, and we’re ready to bring that potential to life.

Introducing the Chicago Fixed Gear Initiative. A partnership between First Ascent and the best route developers in the area, the CFGI is dedicated to bolting and maintaining the best climbing lines in Chicago.

In a city known for its architecture, we’ve long dreamed of local climbers nabbing the first ascents on hard Chicago sport routes all over the city. 

Just picture it: questing up those endless corners on the Leo Burnett building, perfect for stemming. Or gaining climbing access to the parapets on the Tribune Tower, a whole new way to enjoy neo-gothic architecture and peep some amazing skyline views. Or even traversing the BP Pedestrian Bridge in Maggie Daley Park, one of Chicago’s most sustained overhanging king lines.

Elevator too crowded in the Aon Center? The CFGI plans to bolt a classic sport multi-pitch route to protect those flawless dihedrals so you can get to your desk job and have fun while doing it. Always wanted to summit the Wrigley Building? Imagine the shocked faces on the diplomats as you clip the anchors on your proj just outside the Austrian Consulate’s window? Ich glaub mich knutscht ein Elch!

Now more than ever, the CFGI is a vital cause for Chicago climbers. A recent dispute led a surly, old-school trad climber brandishing a bright red “Make Climbing Traditional Again” hat to chop the bolts on the Trump Tower project, which starts at the terrace, claiming that only true ground-up buildering counts. Chicago climbers need the CFGI to help resolve these disputes and ensure that bolting is done responsibly and with community consensus on what should and should not be bolted.

With the start of the CFGI, we’re stoked to see Chicago become a world-class climber’s city, prepared and ready for first ascents of everything from the Willis Tower (5.12d R) to the Bean (5.3 A2 or 5.13c A3/4 depending on which side you start on). We’re even working on installing slackline anchors on the towers of DuSable bridge for those slackers looking to make their river crossings a little spicier.

With new routes ready to go up on historic buildings all over the city, we’re proud to formally support the CFGI. Routes bolting initiatives are beginning on all major high-rises this spring, with FAs open to all takers.

We’re supporting the CFGI in partnership with the 4-1 Initiative, a non-profit dedicated to supporting announcements on April 1st that seem a little too good to be true. Happy April Fools Day, everyone!

For real though, check out the RRG Fixed Gear Initiative and the Illinois Climbers Association if you want to support the real heroes keeping Chicago’s “local” sport climbing areas bolted and open for all to enjoy. 

Also, PS: one of these photos is real. Can you figure out which one? Photo credit goes to Boone Speed.


Finding a Date at the Climbing Gym

A trip to the climbing gym is the ultimate experiential date, so it’s no wonder that so many couples in the FA community either met here or spent a lot of time here early on in their relationships. Valentine’s Day is this week, so we were curious: how does one find a date at the gym? What’s the best way to meet people with a shared interest in the sport? We asked a pair of couples who either met at First Ascent or went on some of their first dates here for their advice, and we’re passing it along to you. Read on!

Mahreen Mirza and Bradford Dessy met at First Ascent Avondale a couple of years ago when Brad walked right up to Mahreen to say hello. “I was there with one of my friends who’d spotted Brad looking at me, so I kind of expected it,” Mahreen said. Now they climb two or three times a week together. “I’m a bit more into bouldering now, which is great since there’s so much bouldering at the gyms,” Mahreen said.

Katie Ott and Kevin Chan met a little over two and a half years ago while working at the same construction company (they still work together), but a bouldering session at Uptown was one of their first dates. Neither had climbed before, but since they liked experiential dates, a Groupon led them to First Ascent Uptown, which they signed up for on a lark. More than two years later, they’re still climbers: “I’m still surprised how much we still like it, more than we thought we would going into it,” Katie said. “It became super addicting.” Kevin was a bit stronger than Katie on some of their first boulder problems; that, of course, set off Katie’s competitive edge to get better. “I was like, ‘No! we’re coming back!’”

Check out their advice below:

1. Ask for a belay

Climbers are famously friendly. When Brad said hello to Mahreen, he asked her to belay him – not the other way around.

If you ask a stranger if they’d like a catch on a route they’re scoping out, they may not trust you, since they’d have to put their safety into a stranger’s hands. It’s way more natural – and feels safer for the person you’re asking – to ask someone you want to climb with if they could belay you on toprope. “I actually met Mahreen by just going up to her and just saying ‘hey, my friends are climbing, would you mind giving me a catch?’” Brad said. “I put my life on the line! And she said yes. That evidently worked at least once.”

“It was really sweet,” Mahreen said. “My advice would be just to go up to someone.”

2. Post your name on the whiteboard

What’s another great way to meet a climbing partner, besides asking for a belay if you need one?

Brad’s answer: “Put your name on the whiteboard!”

At Avondale, climbers looking for belay partners can post their name and info on the whiteboard for other people to find them. It’s a great way to meet other climbers, whether or not you end up wanting to date them. Finding a partner outside of climbing is just an occasional lucky bonus; at worst you’ll have a new friend.

“The climbing community is just so nice, and everyone’s super friendly. I’ve never been in a situation here where someone has made me feel uncomfortable or unhelpful, even if I had questions,” Mahreen said.

3. Plug into events

“There are so many awesome events; they’re so fun and they’re super communal,” Katie said. Whether it’s the CrossTown Bouldering League or Women Crush Wednesday sessions, plenty of regular opportunities exist to plug into the FA community – and it came in handy for Katie and Kevin early on.

“We’ve made some of the best friends out of climbing,” Katie says. “When I started, I wouldn’t talk to anyone at the gym, but now I’ll talk to anyone because people are so nice and welcoming.”

Next time you’re signing up for a yoga or fitness class, check out Community Sessions as well to find events like FA Hangouts every Monday at FA Avondale from 7-9 pm, where you can meet and toprope with new belay partners.

The core of this advice gets to the real heart of the climbing community: don’t be afraid to get involved. Climbing has always generated a tight-knit, friendly community of people interested in solving problems and finding adventures together. The FA community is open and roots for each other’s success. The worst thing that can happen if you join an event or belay a few new people is you gain a new friend, so don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Happy Valentine’s Day everyone!

2018 Holiday Gift Guide for Climbers

The outdoor climbing season here in the Midwest has wrapped up for most people, and almost instantly the holidays have arrived. We asked ourselves what we’d want to receive or give as climbing-related gifts and came up with this list. If you’re the climber in question, share this with your loved ones with a little *wink wink*. If you’re gift-shopping for the climbers (or aspiring climbers) in your life, we have a few suggestions to get you started. Let us know if you receive any of these as a gift, or purchase them for your own friends and family:

Climbing Gear

Our top pick for give-able climbing gear is the Petzl GriGri 2.  As the belay device of choice at First Ascent, it’s very effective if used correctly, and it’s a popular device for a reason. While it takes some practice to learn to lead belay with it, it makes a great stocking stuffer. The GriGri is one size fits all, unlike climbing shoes and harnesses that require a good fit, and it’s the most straightforward and relevant gift for new climbers looking to climb outdoors soon (maybe in the spring…). Some alternatives here are a set of quickdraws or maybe a new rope – but for non-climbers buying gifts, those are more difficult to choose if you don’t know what exactly you’re buying.

Access Fund or American Alpine Club Memberships

It’s hard to know the ratio of rock climbers who have donated in some form to either one of theseorganizations during their climbing careers. But we’d bet it’s high, for good reason: the Access Fund is the primary US organization pushing for the protection of many of our beloved climbing areas, and the American Alpine Club is the main association for the rock climbing community. Gifting memberships to these organizations not only gets your climber great swag and discounts, it also helps protect and support the sport of climbing itself. How could a climber not love that?

Travel/Guide Gift Cards

Most climbers have this in common: they love to travel to new places. Who hasn’t dreamt of looking up at limestone crags in Siurana, or the oceans of granite slab in Yosemite after watching their climbing heroes put up new and exciting lines? The privilege of travel is a great gift to give in general, but doubly so for climbers, who often dream of remote routes and boulders they hope to climb someday. We’d love to get a gift card from Southwest Airlines to get us to new crags – or a Red River Gorgeous cabin rental gift certificate (call to inquire) to book a weekend at the Red.


Guiding Services or Guidebooks

One of the best ways to get immersed in a new climbing area, especially for newer climbers, is to hire a guide. Devil’s Lake Climbing Guidesa guiding service in Baraboo, Wisconsin, offers guiding services and courses at Devil’s Lake State Park. Check out their Adventure Gift Certificates for specific classes, like Anchors or Rope courses for two, as well as general gift certificates for custom amounts if you don’t know which course to buy. You could also buy guidebooks for a safer bet, like the Devil’s Lake Climbing Guidebook by Wolverine Publishing or the combined Minnesota & Wisconsin Bouldering Guidebook by Rock & Snow.

First Ascent Schwag & Gift Cards

Lastly, of course, is our in-house schwag . We offer gift cards to First Ascent for everything from Intro To Climbing classes to 10-Passes, or any amount you’re looking to give. Also, walk into any of our gyms: we offer First Ascent t-shirts, trucker hats, pom beanies (these are new, and turning out to be popular), coffee mugs, and even pint glasses to buy for friends and climbing partners to enjoy a post-send beer. We even just picked up Red River Gorge-themed vegan, hypoallergenic soy candles – perfect for relaxing after a training session (available only at First Ascent Avondale). Come by anytime and take a look!

We hope this list helps you with your holiday shopping. In the midst of all this hustle and bustle, remember: the greatest gifts we have are the people in our lives – friends, family, and loved ones. Keep them close this holiday season. Happy holidays to all!