Photo: ASCEND Pittsburgh

5 Reasons Ascend Might Be America’s Coolest Climbing Gym

Financial aid, free affinity sessions, and an in-house slacklining guru? Welcome to a gym like no other.

Rachel Stachelrodt knows what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck. After all, that was her reality when she first started going to Pittsburgh’s Ascend climbing gym in April 2021.

“I know $18 [for a day-pass] might not sound like a lot,” she says, “but when you’re in that position, it is.”

Still, Stachelrodt was able to keep climbing, even when money was tight. That’s because Ascend had recently launched an innovative new program: complimentary day-passes, available to anyone who needs them, no questions asked.

On weeks when she could afford it, Stachelrodt always paid full price. But when she couldn’t, the gym had her covered—a relief she says is hard to overstate. “It freed up space for me financially, but it also freed up psychological bandwidth because I didn’t always have to be thinking about and prioritizing where I’m going to put this $18 today,” she says. And maybe more importantly, she felt welcome in a space where she, as a Black woman, grew up being told she didn’t belong.

“There’s this idea that Black people aren’t supposed to go outside, that hiking and climbing are all nonsense that white people participate in,” she says. “That’s very much the sentiment within our own community—that this space isn’t for us.”

Those are the kind of stereotypes Ascend wants to change. In the summer of 2020, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, the gym launched what is perhaps one of the most comprehensive equity and outreach programs in the country. (Just a few months ago, it tapped Stachelrodt to be its new director.) Add that kind of progressive thinking to Ascend’s amazing events and strong community, and you have all the makings of a dream gym.

Photo: ASCEND Pittsburgh

Here are five reasons to check out Ascend next time you’re in Pittsburgh.

1. There’s something for everyone.

Want to learn to climb outside? Kick off a yoga practice? Get private slacklining instruction? Join a book club—or cycling club or run club?! Ascend has it all.

“Our slacklining program is maybe the only one of its kind in the country,” Guarino says. “We’ve also had these big events where we run 200-foot slacklines through the gym and have late-night parties.” The gym holds climbing competitions, too, but Guarino says it’s best known for high-quality climbing workshops and an expansive youth program.

“We also have a budding adaptive program, which we’re very excited about,” Guarino says. “We’re very much trying to be the climbing gym for everybody.”

2. The other members have got your back.

Aside from complimentary day-passes, Ascend also offers generous membership support—up to 70% off for those who need it. “And what’s even cooler is that other members have opted in to help us cover that cost,” says Paul Guarino, gym owner and director of operations and marketing. He says around 100 people have opted to pay anywhere from $0.50 to $10 more per month to help provide gym access to those who need it.

3. Affinity sessions are free.

Twice per month, Ascend closes down to the general public and opens exclusively for its two affinity groups. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) folks get the gym to themselves from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., on the first Saturday of each month, and the Queer, Femme, Trans, and Women’s group gets that same slot on the third Saturday. Better yet: Both groups are entirely free.

“Affinity sessions are what really made climbing stick for me,” Stachelrodt says. “Programs like this are really important because unless we are really intentional about removing barriers, people will continue to be excluded.”

4. Your voice actually matters.  

At Ascend, community rules. And the gym takes community input so seriously that it established an eight-person community advisory board made up of diverse members of the climbing public.

“The idea is that the community advisory board can help hold Ascend’s leadership accountable,” Guarino says. The board also brings member suggestions to the table, facilitates discussions about equity and outreach best practices, and helps direct the gym’s overall mission.

5. There’s about to be a whole lot more terrain.

Right now, Ascend has locations in Youngstown, Ohio, and on the south side of Pittsburgh, but there are two new facilities in the works. One, located in Pittsburgh’s Point Breeze neighborhood, is due to open in April 2022. The other will open doors in 2023. Both will have lead walls and more roped terrain than the current Pittsburgh gym.

Existing programs are also looking at bright futures. Ascend is looking to extend its youth program to younger ages, bring more members onto its community advisory board, and add value to its affinity sessions. “We want to make them bigger and better,” Guarino says. The goal, as he puts it, is a simple one—get more folks in the door, and spread the joy of climbing with as many people as possible—and a noble mission worth supporting.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.