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How to Start Climbing, Part Two: Your First Visit

This is Part 2 of our “How to Start Climbing” series. If you haven’t yet, check out Part 1: Get Started at a Climbing Gym.

So you’ve been bitten by the climbing bug (no, not a radioactive spider). To kick off your journey to true Rock Climber Stardom, you found a rock climbing gym in your area that looks friendly to beginners, like we recommended in Part 1, grabbed a buddy, and planned a day to visit. You might even have signed up for a class, like Learning the Ropes or Learning to Boulder here at First Ascent Chicago.

But what can you expect once you get there? What should you bring? How will you pick routes (or were they called “problems?”). What do all the numbers mean? We’re here for you: we all had our first days climbing once. Here’s what your first visit to the gym will probably include:

1. Renting gear 

When you’re checking in, be sure to mention that you need to rent gear (unless of course you have your own). Climbing in the gym calls for three essential pieces of gear: climbing shoes, a harness, and a chalk bag. At First Ascent, we rent these pieces a la carte or in a package for $10 per visit. Not bad, considering all together these items would cost $150 or more to buy. We’ll talk more about how to start acquiring your own gear in a later installation of this series, but for now, here’s the rundown on renting gear:

  • Climbing shoes are tight-fitting shoes secured with laces or velcro, attached to sticky rubber on the soles that forces the foot into a slightly downturned position. They should fit tightly, but not painfully—climbing feels much easier when you can put force into the footholds without feeling pain! Gym staff will happily help you find the right size, so don’t be afraid to ask for help here. Also, normally you don’t wear socks with your own climbing shoes so you can get the best fit possible, but we recommend wearing socks with rental shoes.
  • A harness is an essential piece of gear if you’re planning to enjoy roped climbing—it’s what you’ll use to attach yourself to the rope or autobelay. If you’re just bouldering, you can skip the harness rental, since bouldering pads are your fall protection in the bouldering area.
  • Chalk may seem unnecessary, but it’s an essential tool for climbing at your best. Before and during your climbs, if you’re putting a lot of effort into the climb (which you should!), your palms will sweat and you’ll lose some grip on the holds. Chalk absorbs that moisture and dries the skin, making it easy to pull up those new climbs and focus on fun, not on keeping your hands dry!

2. Going on an Orientation

Most gyms will require first time visitors to undergo an orientation before you start climbing. During the orientation, you’ll hear about facility rules and guidelines, climbing risks, and other basic information new climbers should know.

Take advantage of this opportunity to ask any questions you have about where things are located, what areas are best for newer climbers to try, and any tips and tricks staff have for climbers that are just getting started.

2. Learning the grading systems

Once you rent your gear and walk over to the routes or problems to give one your first attempt, you’ll notice a bunch of numbers and tape next to the bottom of each route or problem. This info reflects the grade, or difficulty, of the climb. Most gyms (FA included) two different systems for grades: bouldering grades, or V-scale, and sport (roped) climbing grades, or the Yosemite Decimal System. Without getting too deep into the history of these scales, here’s what you need to know for your first days at the gym:

  • Boulder problems range from V0 or VB (for “beginners”), the easiest, to V16, which is elite, futuristic climbing, which as a new climber you won’t (yet!) approach.
  • For roped climbing, you’ll see grades like “5.7” and “5.10a.” This is the Yosemite Decimal System, the method by which the difficulty of roped climbing in the United States is measured. For our purposes, ignore the “5” in every grade; the lower the number after the decimal point, the easier the climb. Start low and have fun!

3. Practicing basic technique 

Finally, onto the climbing itself. Newer climbers tend to focus heavily on their upper body exertion, which is a wasteful way to climb from an energy point of view. Keep in mind a few tips to make climbing feel more natural and powerful right from the start. You’ll notice much of these relate to energy conservation and endurance, two huge components of climbing fitness and technique:

  • Your feet should carry you up the wall. Your hands mostly keep you on the wall. As much as possible, use your legs to carry your body weight, something they’re used to doing already—pulling with your arms is a sure way to tucker yourself out.
  • Focus on your core—by firming up your core muscles, and bringing your hips into the wall, you make it easier to hold on, stand on small footholds, and propel yourself vertically. You’ll save tons of energy following this tip.
  • Use the lightest grip possible to stay on. This helps conserve energy so you can hold on better when it gets sketchy or difficult.
  • Breathe. This goes without saying—it’s very common for people to find themselves not breathing through difficult sections of a climb. Getting oxygen into your blood helps your muscles get through the “crux” (the most difficult part) of a climb.

Let us know how your first time climbing with us is—talk to any FA staffer, or find us on Instagram or Facebook. See you in the gym!

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!

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!

Recap: The Setter Showdown, December 2018

Four years ago, the Setter Showdown was started by Louie Anderson, a well-known routesetter and hold shaper, to bring routesetters from around the country to share ideas and techniques to better our craft. The event also had a competition aspect to it, the first competition I’ve ever seen in which the routesetters were judged for the final product they create. The judges had the difficult task of ranking route setters on their technical abilities, creativity and the function of the boulders. I attended the latest Showdown at Elevation Bouldering in Eugene, Oregon in early December. Here’s the rundown:

Round One

In Round one, each setter was assigned a zone. Every zone had two setters working within a general space, and we were tasked to set volumes for that zone, along with our own boulders. It’s important to note the volumes that we set in our zone would have to be used by every setter after us. We needed to make sure the volumes that we placed enhanced the zone rather than force every setter to do the same movement through the volumes. Once volumes were set, each of us went to set our individual boulders, I was tasked with setting an orange boulder with a set of Legacy Ascension slopers. At Elevation the color of the hold dictates what circuit or grade range a climb is in; for example, the orange circuit ranges from V4-V6. When I began setting my problem, I wanted to create something that invoked curiosity, with the main difficulty of the problem coming from the risk of the climb. This ended up being a sort of step-across foot shuffle move to a technical finish.

Round Two

In round two, each setter was given a zone and a series of holds. My assignment was to set in the purple circuit V1- V3 with Kingdom Flanges, which is a comfortable jug line on a slightly overhanging face. Going into this problem, I wanted to keep the movement technical while not overloading the climber. To achieve this, I set the climb very directionally, meaning the angles on the holds would be turned to drastic angles to be sure the climber could only use them in a specific way. My other goal was to use a very large hold that the climber would use in multiple ways; this was the first hold I put on the boulder as it would be the centerpiece of the climb. Once my feature hold went on the wall I set the intro to this hold focusing mostly on the hands. From there I set problems leading out of the feature hold. Now that I had the outline of the boulder problem, I took a step back and tried to visualize how a climber would move. This led me to make a few rotations and also gave me an idea as to where the footholds should go.

Round Three

The final round of setting included one additional variable that we didn’t have in the first two rounds. As well as having the terrain and holds chosen ahead of time, we would co-set the final boulder. Some setters dread this, but it presents new challenges for everyone and teaches teamwork, letting go of ego, and communication. My biggest challenge with co-setting comes from trying to get both setter’s visions on the wall without the climb being disjointed. This can happen if each person sets different sections instead of working together on the entire boulder. When co-setting in this fashion communication breaks down, and the boulder loses the unique blend of setter visions. For my round, I was excited to find out my partner, a relatively new setter from Boston, and I had different styles of climbing and setting. This meant we were probably going to have differing ideas. But that was the whole point: normally a sole setter has creative control, but when working with another that vision is shared. The climb we ended up creating was probably my favorite of the day. It combined her enjoyment of slow, technical, and flexible climbing with my risky complex style.


The following day brought a different format – no new boulders were set that day. Day two would be a day of forerunning, which in my opinion is the most important part of the setting process. Forerunning is the process in which a team of routesetters will work each climb, think about whether or not that climb serves its purpose, and make any necessary changes. We ask three questions: Is the climb fun? Is it functional? And is it fair? Each should be checked off before calling a climb complete. Some answers are subjective, like whether or not someone thinks a climb is fun. But some aren’t: for example, “is this climb safe?” If a climb isn’t safe, it should be changed or taken down.

In the forerunning round we were grouped in fives and worked through each problem we set the previous day, making changes as we went. We disagreed on certain changes, but without competing opinions, there’s no way for the climbs to improve. This round tested us on our communication skills and ability to think of creative solutions for making a boulder better.

After the forerunning round, all we could do was sit back and watch – a rewarding and trying experience for a routesetter. We watched everyone attempt the climbs, perhaps unable to figure out a sequence, or even finding a new one the setter didn’t foresee. This showed us what could have been better or different for the next time we set a problem.


At the end of the day, winners were declared in different categories. This was a difficult process for me. Growing up playing multiple sports and being overly competitive about most things, routesetting was an escape for a lot of that. So here I was, back in competition; though this time the experience felt a little different, and wishing I could have come away a victor was on my mind initially. Still, I went through my climbs, talked with judges, other setters and some of the community and still feel extremely proud of the climbs I created.

The Setter Showdown was a great reminder that we can always improve and should never stop learning. When all was said and done, 60 new boulders were ready to climb, providing a new challenge for the climbing community. It’s why we routeset in the first place.

Take a look at the video documentation of the entire event:

Setter Showdown – Elevation Bouldering 2018 from Louie Anderson on Vimeo.

Ryan Smith is a full time setter at First Ascent.

Transitioning to an Assisted Braking Belay Device

Looking to make the switch to an assisted braking belay device for lead belaying, but not sure what device to choose or how to make the transition? 

The most important thing as you consider making the switch is technique – there’s no replacement for good technique and attentive belaying, and there’s always a slight learning curve when switching to a device that’s new to you. It takes a little bit of practice and sensitivity to feed slack quickly with good technique, so you’ll want to account for that for a session or two.

We dug up videos on the proper usage of the most popular assisted braking belay devices on the market, and we’ve included them below to help you decide which device is best for you. If you’re making a switch, look closely at the instructional video for the device you’re considering and ask yourself: will I feel comfortable with the technique required for this device?


Petzl GriGri


ATC Pilot


Edelrid Jul


Mammut Smart


Click UP


Wild Country Revo


Mad Rock Lifeguard


CAMP Matik


Trango Vergo


You can also check out the reviews below as you consider the device that might work best for you:

As far as our preferences go, the Petzl GriGri is the device we teach with at First Ascent. The GriGri is a great choice, and probably the most widely used assisted braking belay device around. If you’re used to belaying with an ATC, and still will outdoors, then the Edelrid Jul or the Black Diamond ATC Pilot offer the most similar slack feeding technique, but use assisted braking tech.

For those looking to get their new device through First Ascent, we’re building in the following initiatives through January 31st, 2019 to help you make the transition:

  • 30% off all belay devices we carry in the FA Pro Shop (GriGri, Jul, and ATC Pilot)
  • Free belay device rentals (GriGri, Jul, and ATC Pilot)
  • Clincis to introduce you to your options for assisted braking belay device options: click here to view the clinic schedule on Facebook.

Let us know which one you’re looking into – we’re here to help you get used to it. And if you have any questions or feedback, feel free to reach out to us at