A Casual Climbing Competition

Today I (sort of) went to a climbing competition at First Ascent Uptown.

Ah, but I’m already getting ahead of myself. First Ascent is (I think) the most recent two entries in the climbing gym mini-boom that Chicago has experienced in the past year or so—first was Brooklyn Boulders, and then (if I’m remembering correctly) the outdoor climbing park operated downtown by the city park district (where I haven’t yet climbed), then First Ascent Avondale, and finally the Uptown location.

I went to the Avondale location when it first opened, and to be honest, I didn’t love it—the facility was big but the bouldering section didn’t seem to be, and the problems were rated harder than at Brooklyn Boulders (i.e., where I could do a V1 or V2 at Brooklyn, even the VBs were a struggle at First Ascent) so there weren’t many problems I could even do. Plus the geography is a problem—it’s probably actually physically a bit closer to my apartment than Brooklyn, but it requires two bits of public transport rather than one, and the second is a notoriously slow bus. It’s really not fair for me to be negative—there’s nothing wrong with the facility, but it really didn’t fit my needs as well as Brooklyn did. So I didn’t write about it, and I haven’t been back.

Uptown, however, is a very different animal. First off, it’s a huge amount more convenient for me—like a half an hour total of travel time, rather than an hour and a half for either of the other two. It’s also all bouldering—and since I’ve done no top-roping yet, that’s what I do.

Since it’s all bouldering, it feels huge. Which is a surprise, really. The facility used to be the second floor of a Borders bookstore, back when that was a thing. So it’s kind of hard to believe that a bouldering facility would fit. And to be honest, in my not-particularly-well-informed estimation, it does seem like the walls are a bit shorter there than at either of the other two places I’ve been to. But I suspect that effect is a bit less pronounced than it seems at first blush. The largest walls get respectable height, and certainly enough to be considered a full problem, even though you’ll be near the ceiling when you complete them.

A couple things stand out as impressive. One is the physical layout of the space. At the other climbing gyms, the climbing walls are mostly on the walls. Sure, FA Avondale has one sort of island crag thing in the middle of the bouldering section you can climb, and Brooklyn has two rooms and its bigger bouldering wall is on an interior wall, but at both of them you feel like you’re generally sticking to the outskirts. At the Uptown facility, almost everything you climb is internal. Most of the exterior walls are windows; the climbing surfaces are mostly islands or outcroppings.

Bouldering holds at First Ascent Uptown

Also, some of the holds have faces.

There are a few ways that FA Uptown compensates for the generally lower height of its walls. First off, a lot of the routes start low—like handholds below waist height-low. I’m often starting from a seated position with that pull-up motion just to get to the next one.

Second, a lot of the routes go at surprising angles, at least at the easy levels that I’m working. Whereas the taller problems at other venues are generally relatively straight verticals, several of the beginner routes here have handholds at what seems like about a 45 degree angle up from the footholds, forcing your body into a weirder position.

Finally, the walls seem to be a bit more craggy, if that’s the right word. All of the gyms I’ve been to have walls at various angles, but Uptown seems to have more where you’re climbing while leaning back at least a bit. And while both Brooklyn and FA Avondale each have a cave section where you can get fully horizontal while climbing on the ceiling, FA Uptown has several. They’re smaller, but that’s okay—you could only have one or two people at a time at the other facilities.

The harder route rating is still in place (though I’ve heard that Brooklyn has upped the difficulty of its ratings), but there are a huge number of problems, so there’s plenty that’s either doable or close enough as to be potentially feasible with practice. As a result, FA Uptown has become my go-to climbing gym. Not a dig against either of the other two places I’ve been, but it’s the one that’s practical for my life and situation right now.

So, onto the competition. But this will be pretty short, because I didn’t really compete. The rules were pretty straightforward: Climb as much as you wanted and could, and you get points for every problem you send—one point for every V level, and half a point for VBs or V0s. Much more casual than Brooklyn’s Windy City Gritty—no sections, no lines, and no judges. We were supposed to get a witness to sign off on our climbs. Most people had partners with them (it was called the V-Day V-Comp, after all), but I didn’t, and I wasn’t feeling particularly social, and I knew I wouldn’t be contending, so I didn’t bother to actually record anything. To be (dis)honest, I probably could have gotten away with just recording and not being witnessed, but why? Someone maybe could have cheated, but… the prizes were perfectly nice, outdoor puffy winter vest things, but they were on the scale that if you’re sad enough to cheat to win them then your life is sad enough that everyone would be okay with you taking them in hopes that you find some relief for what is obviously soul-crushing pain.

I have no idea how I would have ranked… no, that’s stupid. I would have ranked near or at the bottom, had I turned in my scorecard. Ultimately, though, I’m happy not to—I’ve been away from climbing for a few weeks while letting some shoulder and particularly back pain resolve itself, and I definitely needed a day where I could just have relaxed fun climbing rather than even thinking about a competition. But that said, I really like that the gym put the event on. It wasn’t precisely what I needed today, but there are plenty of times when I would have enjoyed it the way it was intended.


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