Category Archive

FA Staff Spotlight: Eric Schafer

This month, we’re shining the spotlight on FA staff member Eric Schafer. Eric is a long-time member of the Chicago climbing community. He is also our Fitness Coordinator at FA, so we’re excited to share his story! Eric is working on expanding our fitness programming, including Basecamp Group Training, Personal Training, and Redpoint Climbing Training. Make sure to say hi next time you see him at the gym.

How did you get into climbing?

I could trace the desire back to trips to various National Park trips out west when I was young, but I started technical rock climbing in 2008 at Lakeview Athletic Club. Initially, I was only interested in adding the skill to my toolbox as a means of pursuing peaks that require 5th class climbing like the Grand Teton. Of course, I was hooked almost immediately and began climbing regularly 3x a week.

It’s really fortunate that I happened to wander into LVAC, a wall with an amazing community and always well-managed, despite the limited resources available. Had I walked into a facility without the passion of the CAC climbing community, I certainly wouldn’t have been as drawn to it.

What do you love about climbing?

Pretty much everything. I’ll just list a few things here:

The community: The Chicago climbing community is incredibly welcoming and tolerant of overly enthusiastic newcomers with no experience. Within a year, I had gone on a dozen trips to the Red and a couple trips to climb ice with the friends I made at LVAC and LPAC.

It takes you to wonderful places: Climbing, and the associated technical skills, open up a whole world that is otherwise inaccessible. From high-mountain peaks to the canyons of Utah, almost everything is fair game if you know what you’re doing.

Signing the log on a summit and knowing that you are the only person who has been there in a week, a month or even a year is an amazing feeling.

There are infinite examples, but look at something like Matthes Crest, totally inaccessible without 5th class climbing and one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.

 It enables you to physically push your limits: This has always been a passion of mine and, in many ways, drives my general fitness pursuits as well. Top-rope and sport allow you to push yourself to the physical and mental limits.

Slopers: The best type of holds.

Why are you excited to be part of the FA team?

First Ascent is the heart of the Chicago climbing community. It was founded by a number of my friends and climbing buddies from the dark days before Chicago had a dedicated climbing gym.

I’ve worked in a wide range of industries over the years. From consulting to mountain guiding, the one common theme is that the most important aspect of the job is the people you work with. At FA, I work daily with people I consider friends who share the same passions.

It’s something I don’t take for granted.

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

Sport has always been my answer to this question, and probably always will be. I like being on a rope, pushing the limits of endurance and climbing beautiful lines. I’m inspired almost as much by the aesthetic and setting of a route as the movement within. I challenge someone to walk into the Midnight Surf or the Madness Cave and not feel inspired.

That said, over the years I’ve grown to appreciate bouldering, especially the social aspect of it. Unlike a sport route, where you’re largely alone on the wall, bouldering allows you to work together with a group of friends or people you just met to figure out a sequence. 

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

This is a really difficult question. Muir Valley is certainly up there. I’d probably say Ouray for ice climbing. Yosemite, both the valley and Tuolumne, is amazing. The Pacific Northwest is gorgeous and the Alaska Range is incredible.

Other outdoor activities I participate in are:

Mountaineering: Walking uphill has always been a passion. I guided on Rainier for a season and loved it.

Ice Climbing: Love it. It’s like rock climbing only you can put holds wherever you want and they’re always jugs.

Canyoneering: I don’t have much experience here, but of what I’ve done, it was super fun. I’m actually leaving for Zion in two days and hope to get a few descents in.

Skiing: Backcountry skiing is great because it takes the least enjoyable part of mountaineering, the descent, and makes it fun! Resort skiing is a blast as well.

Hiking: I suppose this can be enjoyable on its own, but this is best used as a means of accessing the things listed above.

Tennis: I haven’t played as much over the past few years with my main partner having moved to the suburbs, but I still enjoy it on occasion, despite being rusty. (I am a washed out high school athlete.)

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

Nothing specific. My goal is to continue to consistently climb three times a week to build finger tendon strength so I can climb more challenging grades without injury. I might target Super Best Friends or Cell Block Six for Fall 2019?

Fitness? Get Dan Bartz and Jon Shepard to do a conditioning workout with me! I almost had Jon one day, but he bailed right before the burpees started.

What keeps you busy when you’re not climbing?

Most of my free non-climbing time is spent lifting, doing gymnastic work and conditioning on occasion. Outside the gym, cycling (to and from the gym), watching movies, playing piano, planning climbing trips and playing video games, if we’re being honest here.

What do you love about Chicago?

Chicago is a great city. I’ve always said we should just pick it up and move it closer to the mountains. I like that everything is close together and easily accessible via bicycle.

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

In college, the dark days before I started climbing, I practiced martial arts for five years and was fortunate enough to earn a first-degree black belt in Japanese Jiu Jitsu and Tae Kwon Do.

I’m super out of practice, but I might still be able to throw a (very low) kick or dive roll.

Anything else you want to say to the FA Community?

Thank you for always being so welcoming to new climbers. The community will grow over the years and it’s difficult to not roll our eyes when someone calls “free soloing” by the term “free climbing,” but let’s never get to a point where we think we’re too cool. After all, we’re still just climbing pieces of plastic, screwed to plywood, in a city nowhere near any outdoor climbing and everyone thinks we’re crazy.


Dragon’s Cave and the Hot Sea by Julia Kuo

In this special guest post, FA member Julia Kuo shares how she got into climbing through illustrations and words. You can see more of Julia’s work at We love stories like these! If you’re interested to share your story, email us at

On Matching Tank Tops & Community

Shelly Sital has been a First Ascent member and fixture in the FA community since the beginning. She sent us this blog just after our two-year anniversary, and all we could say was “Aw, shucks – thanks Shelly!” We’ve heard so many stories like this one since we opened, and it’s stories like these that keep us working hard and loving what we do. Thank YOU, Shelly, for being a part of it. We love our community!

If ever there was a climbing gym that has fostered a sense of community and forged strong friendships, it is definitely First Ascent. I have visited a good number of climbing gyms around the U.S. and Canada and, I think my climber friends would agree, we have something special at First Ascent. So, this month, in honor of First Ascent’s two-year anniversary I wanted to share some brief thoughts on the community that has been built at FA and express my gratitude that I get to be a part of it!

Last month, several of members of First Ascent converged in a small town called Chester, Illinois, to watch the solar eclipse. We all arrived at different times the day before, but when we stepped out of our tents on that beautiful Monday morning, we had a good laugh because all of the women in the group had chosen the same First Ascent shirt to wear that day! (See photo taken by fellow FA member and shirt designer, Valentine Chen) What’s that saying about great minds?! We are a community beyond the walls of First Ascent. This community fosters a full-on mind and body experience. Together we encourage one another to see more and do more. We push ourselves further and find joy in a variety of experiences. We may not have climbed on this recent excursion to watch eclipse totality, but climbing is what brought us together from different walks of life and parts of the city.

When I first joined First Ascent in August of 2015, I had no idea that I would be making friends that I would go to Red River Gorge with, learn how to ice climb with, take lead classes with, eat pho and fried chicken with, and go on so many other adventures with over the past two years. The sense of community that has been fostered at this gym – built by climbers for climbers – is amazing, and I cannot express enough gratitude to the owners and staff who have kept this mission alive over the past 2 years, and most importantly, to my climbing buddies who show up every day (except while they’re off in Korea or some other exotic destination, of course). You see, with a strong community, comes stronger climbers. We keep on each other to push ourselves to be the best we can be, and to be safe while doing it. We cheer each other on. We get competitive when FA hosts endurance challenges. We give each other tips on beta, hugs, and laughs. What better way to get a workout in without a moment of boredom?!

P.S. A disclaimer: I promise I was not paid by First Ascent to write this. I just love this place!

Find It – The Balance

In this installment of FA Community Voices, climber, mom, and FA Team booster Jerry Steele reflects on the challenges of parenting a competitive climber. Her son, FA Team crusher Vincent Lee, took home 1st place in Sport and Speed at Divisionals this season and is on his way to Nationals in July with 12 other FA Team kids. 

I’m strugglebussisng my way up this funky conglomerate rock on a hot-as-hell day in Montserrat, Spain. I’m thankful for the helmet I’m wearing as a goat above has loosened rock that bounces off my head and crashes below toward the covered cabezas of my belayer and my 12 year old son waiting his turn on something more challenging.Jerry Climbing

“Find it – the balance,” Toti Vales, well known Spanish climber and our guide for the day, yells up to me as I shift my feet and wonder where the “better” holds are.

This advice would be shouted vertically the entire trip, to me as well as to Vincent as he attempted hard routes in the Pyrenees.

Two years since that amazing experience and Toti’s words ring in my head even though I’ve never really believed in life “balance”. Life is more fluid than that. Tides rise while other recede and we are constantly course-correcting, running in and out of the waves.

Vincent ClimbingAs a parent of a competitive climber, finding the balance between support and pressure has been one of my trickier juggling acts. Especially as I lug my childhood baggage of being an invisible 6th of seven kids to the crag and gym with my only. Will planning an outdoor trip to Red Rocks be seen as pressure? Will showing up at comps, volunteering, being involved be stage mothery…or is it welcomed?

Am I leading, or following? Does spending money on shoes, comps, a garage woody, and climbing trips create unsaid expectations?

I’ve always tried to take my cues from Vin and prop up versus push his passion. He threw down the gauntlet at seven after his first regionals where he missed the bid to divisionals. When he secured a pass-down invite, he declared, “I want to quit baseball and everything else, I want to train with Hidden Peak, I don’t want to do anything but climb.”

And with each victory and defeat he’s doubled down – sometimes asking to hit a local climbing gym on the 5-hour drive home from a weekend of competition. But I still worry that the planner in me gets ahead of myself, and more importantly him, sometimes.

Vincent preppingAfter that trip, being inspired by Toti and the simple way of life in Catalonia, I don’t wonder if my actions push. I simply ask. Vincent is mature enough now to sort and articulate what he wants without real fear of what mom and dad think. With each big, and sometimes small, decision I check in with a tactic borrowed from the doctor’s office pain chart, “How are you feeling about this on a scale of 1 to 10.” I’m not overtly asking if the proposition feels supportive or pushy, I’m sussing out his visceral level of psych to guide the decision and what’s next.

We’ve been around this competitive climbing circuit for a while now. Every climber is different, every parent’s approach unique. I was asked this past weekend if a young climber should “move up” to training three times a week. I inquired about what else she’s involved in and her dad listed a slew of commitments. I told him to really be good at any one thing, she’d likely have to commit. But what I should have told him was to get her involved in exploring her feelings by drawing a small, medium, or big smiley face next to the activities she does so he could see what makes her happy. It’s an exercise in listening that’s great for parents, but for all of us to take stock in what puts a smile on our face and props us up instead drags us down. And maybe the balance between support and pressure is running in and out of the waves, hand in hand. Balance is the middle ground of leading by listening and exploring the journey together.

By: Jerry Steele

If you have a story and would like to contribute to the FAmily blog, email us a pitch at Published posts earn FA members 2,000 FA Bonus points!

Vegas to Utah: Trip Report

In another installment of “The FAmily travels to climb somewhere awesome” Mila Ugryn and friends get out to Nevada and Utah to pull on some real rock. Sometimes the journey and the things you see along the way are just as magical as the destination. If you have a climbing trip and would like to contribute to the FAmily blog, email us a pitch to:


What happens in Vegas, goes to Utah:

Nowadays, whether I’m scrolling through Facebook or Instagram, most of my friends from First Ascent are having a great time climbing outdoors. From our home in the flat Midwest, the Chicago climbing community really makes an honest effort to climb outside; even if it’s a four-hour drive to Devils Lake, or the eight hours to “The Red” in Kentucky. 


Last weekend, I traveled with friends Zoran and Sasha to Las Vegas and the Utah for a trip we’ve all been anticipating for a long time. Flying into Las Vegas this time, meant climbing not gambling for us. Armed with trad gear, ropes, and sunscreen, we went almost immediately to explore routes to climb on nearby Bridge Mountain (7,003 feet) at Red Rocks. To us it is one of the most impressive, and most elusive summits in the entire Red Rock area.

With a 4am wakeup, we drove the short distance from Vegas and got to the end of a dirt road that would challenge even the most high clearance vehicles. This was the start of the most difficult and beautiful hike in Vegas. The hike gradually grows in difficulty, and only balanced rocks point to continuation of the hike. As we stood on the opposite side of the mountain from where we planned to climb, it became clear we didn’t know a safe approach to go around the mountain. So, we did what most climbers would do, had a sandwich, hid our gear and roped-up to start ascending though cracks and chimneys, which were rated about 5.4 all the way to the summit. Later, Zoran’s smartwatch showed we’d taken 35,000 steps or 17 miles total during out 12 hour trek and climb that day. I didn’t admit to it at first, but it was the most difficult and longest hike I’ve ever been on.



Something like Miguel’s out West? 

The next morning we headed to Utah and were hungry for some sports climbing. We visited a special place called Veyo Pool, near St. George, Utah. This private area will soon be renamed as Caldera Canyon, according to its new owners. With natural pool facility, a refreshing river running through, and a variety of nicely bolted routes, this place has the potential to become like Miguel’s Pizza in Red River Gorge, Kentucky. The owners of Veyo Pool/Caldera Canyon have grand plans in mind for the climbing community.


With some sport climbing under our belt from the previous day, we decided to find some red rock to climb. We headed to Snow Canyon in St. George Utah, a special place recommended even by the people on the plane. “Rarely a snowflake to be found,” according to; this canyon was named after its pioneers Lorenzo and Erastus Snow, and has consistent sunshine throughout the whole year. If words like “amazing” and “fantastic” weren’t overused as much as it is these days, Snow Canyon is a true representation of these adjectives with a few to add, like magnificent and majestic. One can find lava, sandstone, red rocks in a fluid relationship with each other throughout the park.

Community at every turn!


After doing some climbing in the shade, and realizing footwork and technique is key, we noticed some climbers on the way out of the Canyon. What are the chances that you meet someone from First Ascent in Utah? Apparently very high, since one of the few climbers we were watching, recognized us from First Ascent. Just a week or so ago, we were talking to Dain about a nice yellow auto belay route to the left of the overhanging section of the comp wall, and here we were – in Utah – chatting about the “Living on the Edge” route they were about to get on. Saying our goodbyes, and wishing each other safe flight back, we ended this weekend with tender feeling that climbing community is large, welcoming and wonderful. And the magnitude of mountains never seizes to humble and inspire.

By: Mila Ugryn