First Ascent

First Ascent Climbing & Fitness, Pittsburgh’s newest climbing gym, is opening at Station Square

Does the pandemic have you climbing the walls? Then get your family out of the house and head to Station Square when First Ascent (FA) Climbing & Fitness opens on Feb. 26 in the old freight house at 125 W. Station Square Dr.

The 30,000-square-foot facility boasts 10,000 square feet of bouldering terrain. Movable holds are routinely cleaned and put into different configurations, creating new challenges for visitors.

“We try to design our terrain and the routes to cater to all ability levels,” says Dan Bartz, co-founder of the Chicago-based company.

First Ascent
Photo courtesy of First Ascent Climbing & Fitness.

While there is no age requirement, Bartz recommends introducing kids to the sport at around age 5. The company sponsors the REACH Youth Program to empower children ages 8 to 18 in underserved communities with free or reduced-cost climbing access and mentorship.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are members in their 80s.

“This is a sport you can do for a lifetime,” Bartz says. “It’s great for parents because you can do it along with your kids.”

For folks who are new to the sport and want to try it out, FA offers day passes with in-depth orientation. Climbers can book an hourlong guided session for groups of up to six people. There are also 10-trip passes and monthly and yearly memberships for people who plan to climb four or more times a month. All of the necessary gear is available to rent.

In addition to the climbing surfaces, 12,000 square feet of the First Ascent facility is dedicated to cardio machines, free weights, exercise class areas and locker rooms. There is also a lounge with healthy, pre-packaged food and beverages and a workspace with free Wi-Fi. Hours are Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

“We give customers the complete experience, so they don’t need two different gym memberships,” Bartz says.

First Ascent
Photo courtesy of FA Climbing & Fitness.

In the next two years or so, Bartz says FA Climbing & Fitness plans to open a 25,000-square-foot rope climbing gym in the former Sears space at Ross Park Mall.

The original First Ascent opened in Chicago in 2015 and there are now four more locations in Illinois (coincidentally, the second flattest state in the country after Florida. Pennsylvania is the country’s second hilliest state; West Virginia is No. 1).

Bartz, who grew up in Ohio and visited Pittsburgh (including Station Square, which recently welcomed a new restaurant) on family trips, thought the area would be a great place to expand the business thanks to its topography and growing climbing community. In 1992, The Climbing Wall in North Point Breeze kicked off the trend in Pittsburgh, with Ascend opening in 2017. They also offer youth climbing programs.

Bartz fell in love with the activity as an engineering student at the University of Michigan. Although he was an outdoor enthusiast and an Eagle Scout, he wasn’t into traditional sports. Bartz initially struggled, but, with veteran climbers cheering him on, he reached the top of his first mountain peak and felt a unique sense of accomplishment.

“Something about climbing just clicked with me,” he says. “It appealed to my engineering brain because it’s problem-solving. It’s you versus the wall.”

FA is partnering with 3 Rivers Outdoor Co. and the Southwestern Pennsylvania Climbers Coalition to hold educational and recreational events.

“We’re excited to not only be part of the revitalization of such a cool space,” Bartz says, “but to be part of the development of the climbing community in Pittsburgh.”

The only direction is up.