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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!



How to Navigate the Crag, Part 4: What to Climb

This is part 4 in our 5-part series How To Navigate The Crag. If you missed them, be sure to read Part 1: Leave No TracePart 2: Crag Etiquette, and Part 3: Learning Local Issues, so you’re up to speed.

Before you go to the climbing gym, you don’t plan your routes. Outside, you have to.

One of the first things you’ll think about when you first start planning to climb outside in a new area is what routes you’ll do. You have limited time, after all – maybe a couple days, at most, before you pile back into the car to make it back in time for work the next day. Maybe you’re paging through a fresh new guidebook, combing through hundreds of routes based on a couple of lines of description and rating alone. How do you pick what to climb when you’re new to climbing outdoors? Nothing’s labeled, of course, but routes are often far apart enough to merit careful choice in selecting where to go for a day.

The simple, first answer is this: If you’re a new climber, thumb through the back of the guidebook, where you’ll likely find an index of routes sorted by grade. Pick a grade perhaps one below your gym level (gym routes rarely feel as difficult as the equivalent grade outdoors for a number of reasons), and look up the best rated routes of that grade. In many cases, because difficulty occurs naturally outside based on the rock itself, you’ll find a number of similarly graded routes near each other, with a couple routes considered high quality “classics.” Head there. Keep in mind, though, that these crags are likely to be the most popular areas around, so plan (and time) your visit accordingly. They’re well-trafficked for a reason – fun movement, non-chossy routes – so there will be tons of beta for new outdoor climbers getting used to movement on real rock.

Once you’ve knocked out some classics over a few trips, though, you might feel the urge to pick an exciting and challenging project to work over the course of a weekend. That creates some strategic necessities you’ll want to consider before you head out:

1: Avoid burnout and injury: have more than one project at first

Here’s a personal anecdote: A few years ago, I was climbing at Smith Rock in Bend, Oregon, and found myself fixated on a 5.12a with one move that required pulling on a one finger pocket – maybe two fingers at most. With few breaks between attempts, I tried and tried on that route, for probably 90 minutes. I never sent it. Want to guess what stopped me?

I strained a tendon from that pocket. I could have prevented that in part by taking my time, trying other routes with different, complementary movements periodically, and just generally being more strategic about my approach to sending a route I really wanted to finish. My point is this: Keep a few different routes in mind, in case your “single project” turns out to be too much, too fast for your skill level. You’ll get your project done eventually – probably much faster if you try a few different routes than if you single-mindedly punish yourself on a single climb. That leads to the next point:

2: Don’t stretch yourself too far in one push

Ultimately, it’s no fun to throw yourself repeatedly at a route that spits you off over and over. Plus, like I did at Smith Rock, you run the risk of injury. Stay modest if you’re new to outdoor climbing. It’s more fun in the long run to grow in wisdom, experience, and great stories, rather than pure strength and a steady uptick in redpoint grades (i.e. the grade you can typically complete not on the first try but after multiple attempts working the moves). This sport is a lifelong journey anyway, where youthful strength is only going to be an arrow in your quiver for a few years. Choosing the right routes for your body and skill will keep you in the game for longer.

Remember that gym grades are not equal to outdoor grades. You might have heard the term “sandbagging” – grading a climb with a lower, easier grade than what it actually deserves. Well, compared to indoor climbing, a lot of outdoor grades feel sandbagged, at least from a gym climber’s perspective. One reason outside routes feel harder: you will spend a significant amount of time route finding outside. Because the holds aren’t marked for you, you’ll need to search for the holds and the best way to hold them, figure out whether the route goes left or right, etc. Route finding takes time and energy, so your on-sight grade (i.e. the grade you can typically complete the first time you try it) will inevitably be lower.

3: Seek fun climbing, not fun sending

Especially in the beginning, as you’re getting used to outdoor climbing, it’s important to pay attention to the routes that are the most fun to climb in the moment, rather than fun to talk about later when you’re telling your friends. There’s a place in the world for Type II fun – after all, those kinds of experiences often enrich the soul most – but in the beginning of your climbing career, climb for fun in the moment rather than fun talking about the achievement. It’s okay to decide at a certain point that you really want to push your skills even if it takes difficult and concerted effort, but for now, make sure you’re having enough fun on your projects to come back out and do more! After all, the more partners we can find at First Ascent, the better.

In the next (and final) installment of the series, we’re covering logistics of planning a climbing trip. Stay tuned.

By Chris Rooney, FA member and writer.

Photos courtesy of Ed Yu and Chris Rooney.

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.

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:

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. 


5 Ways To Manage Fear While Climbing

Fear is basically impossible to get rid of, and it’s completely natural. When you’re climbing at your limit, about to make a big move, you will feel fear on some level. It’s instinctual, embedded deep in your animal brain, to fear falling from height. Fear of falling has its uses, to be sure – but for climbers, it can hold us back from what we want to achieve.

First, let’s clarify what kind of climbing we’re talking about: definitely not free soloing. You probably shouldn’t do that (we definitely don’t recommend that you do), and unless you’re Alex Honnold, you’re right to be afraid if you’re unroped, hundreds of feet off the deck.

We’re talking about “run-of-the-mill” bouldering, sport, and trad climbing here. Fear can be restrictive in these situations, to the extent that many climbers find themselves held back not by physical ability, but by mental strength to push through difficult and exposed moves. Imagine being in the middle of a crux move (the hardest move on a route or boulder problem) and suddenly feeling a sense of gut-level panic. Your body might be perfectly prepared to do the move, but without the right mental preparation, you can’t seem to make the move happen.

So, here are 5 actions you can take that will help you move beyond restrictive fear and crush that crux next time around:

1: Breathe

In high-stress or “panic” situations, many people instinctively begin to breathe shallowly through their chests – if they manage to breathe at all. Think of a deer freezing when hit with car headlights – a state of mindless shock induced by an overwhelming moment. But a fight-or-flight response saps our brains of oxygen, which feeds right back into that stress response, creating a cycle that quickly leads to muscular exhaustion and a fall. It’s better to develop the habit of deep and diaphragmatic breathing in these types of situations.

When faced with an uncomfortable situation above the bolt, try to consciously breathe in through your stomach and diaphragm: 4 seconds in, 4 seconds out. This practice, instead of feeding the stress cycle, kicks off what Harvard researchers call the relaxation response: a state of (relative) rest that floods your brain and muscles with oxygen, lowering your heart rate and stress hormones. This breathing practice will help you perform across all sorts of areas of life, as you may have seen if you’ve taken a yoga class at First Ascent. Diaphragmatic breathing will also allow your brain a bit of extra “mental space,” otherwise known as presence – the next step for dealing with scary situations and moves.

2: Focus on the moment

What is it that’s freaking you out? What’s in your control, and what isn’t? All beings have an instinctual fear of serious injury and death. When you’re in the gym and about to pull a crux move above your last clip, those fears are probably overblown (unless you have an untrustworthy belayer – see the next section for more on that). When you’ve taken a second to breathe and rest, you’ll have the mental space and lack of stress hormones to be able to think through the realistic consequences of just going for it. The worst that’s likely to happen, at least in the context of most sport routes and boulder problems in the gym, is a bruised ego when you don’t stick the move because you were holding your breath and panicking.

When you allow yourself to breathe and create the mental space to parse these problems, you can remove the panicky emotions that hold you back from focusing on the only thing that matters in the situation at hand, and the only thing you can control: the next move.

3: Know your belayer

One of the most important ways you can increase your confidence when climbing difficult routes is to build trust with your belayer. You’re not going to want to risk a tough move if you aren’t entirely confident that, if you fall, your belayer will give you a catch appropriate for the situation. If there’s a risk you’ll get a hard catch and swing into a ledge, you’ll be that much less prepared mentally to make the move that might get you that kind of belay treatment. When finding a belayer or building a relationship with your current partners, look for these three qualities:

  1. Technical skill and experience: they know how and when to give you a soft catch, they manage the rope well, they know when you might be most at risk of a fall and can feed or take slack as necessary. This comes from practice and experience.
  2. Attentive and focused: they’re not distracted, looking around the gym, talking to friends. They’re focused on you, the climber, whose safety is in their hands, following your every move and acting accordingly with practiced technique.
  3. Communicative: the best belayers play their part in making sure the two-person team is on the same page throughout the entire climb. They know when to engage you verbally, when to encourage you, and when to keep it quiet. They communicate clearly what they’re doing on the ground using consistent language to boost the climber’s confidence and inform their actions.

4: Don’t avoid falls – practice them

The last piece of the puzzle of fear management in climbing is to practice the situations that scare you. It’s a tenant in modern psychology that to overcome fear, you must engage with it and habituate yourself to those consequences in a controlled setting, rather than avoid them. You’ll never get over the fear of being on the sharp end if you don’t practice it – and that means falls on difficult routes to build your “lead head.”

The first part of exposing yourself to falls is to make sure you’re up to snuff on your technical skills. Are you managing your position around the rope properly? Of course, falls aren’t fun or safe if you decide to let go with your foot behind the rope. Upside down is no place to be. There are plenty of guides out there to help you learn and stay updated on rope management and effective communication; Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills is a classic all climbers should own.

Once you’ve got your basic skills related to falls down, it’s time to practice. On September 24, we’re hosting a Whipper Clinic at FA Avondale with the American Alpine Club’s Chicago Chapter.We’ll cover essential skills for lead falls, including mental preparation, breathing, and fall mechanics, as well as skills for belayers, especially how and when to give a “soft catch.” We’ll also practice taking falls as well as catching them.

If you’ve ever been afraid of falling, this clinic will leave you with a better lead head so you can feel more confident when working your projects. It’s free for members, but you’ll need your lead certification. Check out the FA Avondale Facebook page for event info.

Outside of the upcoming Whipper Clinic, the best way to get more practice in is to set aside an early-season trip to warm up for the upcoming outdoor season. Go to the Red, get on an overhung route, and take a few short, planned falls, with an aware and skilled belayer. Make sure the falls are short, the rope gets rest, alternate sides, and include regular safety checks. After not too long, with regular and mindful practice, you’ll desensitize yourself to panicky falls on your project, and start sticking the crux instead.

5: Smile!

It might sound silly, but smiling can help you overcome your stress response and remind you of something important: you actually enjoy climbing. You might be overwhelmed by negative emotions (fear of falling, fear of failing, or an “I can’t” attitude), but cracking a smile can put what you’re experiencing in perspective. Next time you’re feeling negativity creep in, smile, look around at your friends and the beautiful scenery, and remember why you love climbing in the first place. Because it’s fun!

Now get out there and crush that crux!

By Chris Rooney, an FA member and freelance writer specializing in rock climbing, fitness, and the outdoors.