Category Archive

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.

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

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