Member Spotlight

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Member Spotlight: Lester Arguelles

Meet Lester Arguelles, FA Member since the beginning and constant presence around all of the FA Chicago gyms! Lester climbed for the first time in Denali National Park, and he often ponders the paradox of wild places: places we love to be in but want to keep wild. Read more about his climbing journey below and say hi next time you see him around FA!

1. How did you get into climbing?

After teaching English for a year in Taiwan, I went to Alaska to make beds and clean toilets at the chalets in Denali National Park. There I met a mountaineer who set up a top-rope on what he decided was a 5.10, and he invited me to try it. True to every beginning rock climber, I tried to campus it — all 20 meters of it. I tried very hard.


2. What do you love about climbing?

Puzzling over how to move across vertical or overhanging terrain with my hands and feet, and learning how to enjoy a good long fall. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve taken long falls. It’s that I have yet to enjoy them.

3. Bouldering or sport climbing?

Sport climbing because I love long format storytelling, which allows for diversion and detours that set you up for the unpredictable plot twist. Similarly, a sport climb meanders between easy and impossible, and, if you’re reading it for the first time, you just don’t know when the crux is coming, or even if you do, you don’t know how difficult it will be relative to the state of fatigue you’re in. Much like a good story, it offers states of euphoria and despair and everything in between. Besides, the views from up high can be truly breathtaking.


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

The Red River Gorge in Kentucky—it’s the world-class crag that is closest to me, and its development has just been superb. Apart from climbing, I enjoy swimming, biking, and running.

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

Yup. My perennial goal is not to get hurt, either by climbing or running. I’m currently nursing an Achilles tendon injury, so my running goal of a sub-3 marathon is kaput for this year. But that does let me focus on my climbing goals for this fall, which is to break into the 13’s on sport, and perhaps even flash a 13a. I’ve got a couple of candidate routes picked out at the Red.


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

Home life, work, ceramics, and friendships.

7. What do you love about Chicago?

Deep down, I am a city person, and I love that Chicago is an affordable, world-class city with great food, music, arts, public transit, architecture, academic institutions, and ethnic diversity.

I love Millennium Park. The Frank Gehry designed bandshell is an architectural wonder with a first-rate sound system to convey the free Grant Park Orchestra concerts across a lawn sprawling with picnickers. On the south end of the park is the Lurie, which has been referred to as a “model of responsible horticulture.” Community gardens have become kind of a big thing in Chicago, and it has been shown that the floral diversity in cities make them places where bees can proliferate, unlike the monocultural wasteland of our industrial farms that use enormous swathes of land to grow 1 or 2 things. Big urban centers, such as Chicago, can be a powerful mechanism for environmental protection, and the Lurie Garden is indicative of that.

Finally, I love Lake Michigan, with its many moods. It is, without a doubt, one of the best swimming holes in the world.

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

I love Ethiopian food, and for that, I go to the Ethiopian Diamond in the Edgewater neighborhood. All the music venues in town are great, but if you’re a Jazz fan, the Green Mill is the best. I spend a lot of time making pottery, so I have to shout out to the Lill Street Art Center, which has a ceramics facility that is one of the best in the country, but when I want to veg-out in art in general, it’s the Art Institute all the way.


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

I tend to be solitary, and I play the piano. Very badly.

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

I have this belief that our wild places hold spiritual and aesthetic importance. There is a paradox in that our desire to experience wild places feeds a desire to make them less wild and more accessible. So I wonder where the proliferation of climbing as an outdoor activity will fall in the paradox. Falling in love with the outdoors puts one in the center of this paradox, and acquiring the skill of climbing more so because it brings the power to explore more and more remote places of the world — more of us in places that used to have none of us. So, I suppose what I’m saying to the FA community is that being in nature is not simply about being outside; it is about where you see us, humans, in relation to nature. What does wilderness mean? How do you define it? Why are wild places important, and how do we experience these places without removing the unbridled thing that drew us to them in the first place? What is our role?

Photos by FA staff member and photographer Sandy Morris. See her work at

Trip Report: New River Gorge, July 2019

In this trip report, Danny Delanty tells us about his weekend trip to the New River Gorge in Fayetteville, WV. Thanks for the beta and the wisdom, Danny!

Over the past weekend, I was able to check out the South Side crags at the New River Gorge. Since the crag can be accessed only from one very small dirt road, the South Side crags typically do not get the traffic they deserve. We were able to go to the Mud Hueco Area, Area 51, Brilliant Pebble, and The Other Place. With 200+ sport routes at these crags alone, this forgotten area is a hidden gem within the NRG.

I met a friend, Craig, down at the NRG and we traded belays working on our goals for that weekend. Craig was working on an extremely aesthetic climb called Crossing The Line (5.13b) at the Area 51 Crag while I was going around trying to get up as many 12- and 11+ as my arms would let me! If you climb 5.13, Area 51 at the NRG is for you, almost all the routes have permadraws, and there are multiple highly rated 5.13’s in that area. I ended up one hanging two really fun and chill 12-‘s and sending another one that goes by the name of Hard, Pipe Hittin’ Tiggers (5.12b). This is a route that everyone should hop on; it is a little contrived since you can skip the crux and go around it to make the climb go at 5.11-, but the crux sequence is very exciting! You get a good kneebar for rest, then you come out to two half-pad crimps which set you up for a big throw to a sloping but good ledge. From there it is jugs to the anchors. Leading up to the crux, however, is a super fun, (slightly reachy for those like me with shorter stature) very techy slab climb for the first 3-4 bolts that would be fun enough to do on its own!

We camped at a campsite on the river and were lucky enough to be given some low tide which exposed some large dry rocks on the river that were the perfect spot to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner on. Anyone who is a fan of camping and climbing would simply find this spot to be a paradise! All four crags are within a 15-minute walking distance from your tent at the campsite, so once you drive in, you do not need the car until you drive out! There are no modern facilities at this campground though, so do remember to bring all the water, food and filtration necessary to support you as you go send hard!

Climbing with people that are working on routes four grades harder than yours is a very good experience. On one hand, if the rock doesn’t humble you, seeing someone crush a climb you’re constantly whipping on will humble you. On the other hand, when belaying you can not afford to look away too much, and through this, I have learned much better technique and resting strategies. Employing what I have learned just from one person has surely bumped me up a few grades on sport, which is what all climbers want and deserve!

Change for the Better: 30 Years of Climbing Evolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saul Boast is a member at First Ascent Peoria.

Member Spotlight: Cristina Anichini

In today’s Member Spotlight, we’re highlighting Cristina Anichini, who checked into FA more than 280 times last year! Read on to learn about her all-girl band, her Chicago vegan food recos, and how bouldering sets her free, then make sure to say hi to her next time you seen her around FA!

1. How did you get into climbing?

I’d always been curious about climbing, but was intimidated and didn’t think I was strong enough. Three years ago, I finally asked a friend if I could join him at FA Uptown to try it out and instantly fell in love with bouldering.

2. What do you love about climbing?

I love how it involves both physical and mental aspects. The combination of strength, technique, and problem-solving helps my mind feel connected to my body. I think it’s cool how people of various heights and fitness levels can climb a problem in different ways. Most importantly, I love introducing new climbers to the sport and helping them feel as comfortable with it as I’ve become.

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

Bouldering! I like the freedom it allows me to climb alone or with friends, and I prefer power over endurance. Heights are not really my thing, so I also appreciate being as low to the ground as possible.

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

I’ve never actually been climbing outdoors yet, though It’s a goal of mine to go someday. I’ve been an “indoor kid” most of my life, but I’m trying to change that by going on nature walks, hiking, and attending outdoor yoga festivals.

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

I have so many goals this year…hopefully I can accomplish them all! First off, I’d love to get a V4 under my belt. Been close a few of times, but no dice yet. Secondly, I’m aiming to beat my PR of 30:15 in the Hot Chocolate 5k. I’d also like to improve my strength-to-weight ratio, get better at AcroYoga, hold a controlled handstand for more than 2 seconds, improve my flexibility and coordination skills, and master some of the hand balancing poses in yoga.

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

During the day, I work as a photo retoucher at a graphic design company. Fitness is a pretty big hobby of mine, so I love attending the variety of classes that FA offers. Personal favorites are Movement & Coordination with Niko, Sunrise Yoga with Tatiana, AcroYoga with Paula, and Core for Climbers with Jen. When I’m not at the gym, I enjoy drawing & painting, photography, dancing, playing music, and designing websites.

7. What do you love about Chicago?

I grew up in Chicago and am constantly finding new things to love about this city. I love how the Siberian-esque winters build character and provide contrast to the beautiful summers. I love the hard-working, down-to-earth people, the variety of food, and how each neighborhood has it’s own culture and personality. Most of all, I love how there’s always a new corner of the city to explore, no matter how many times I think I’ve seen and done everything.

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

Upton’s Breakroom has some of the best vegan food in the city. Highly recommended after a climbing session at FA Humboldt (their breakfast tacos are top-notch).

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

I used play the keyboards in an all-girl band.

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

I love you guys! I’ve made some really wonderful friends at FA. And the staff – teachers, trainers, front desk, etc. – you guys are the best! Everyone is so positive and welcoming, I instantly feel at home whenever I’m at the gym. Thank you for always being so supportive!

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!