So… you want to build a Climbing Wall

May 10, 2012

Heather Reynolds
Climbing and Outdoor Rec Program Coordinator
Dalhousie University

My enthusiasm for climbing was sparked when I was still a University student and I took a Sunday afternoon to go to a cliff with a coworker. After a brief introduction, away I went. As I tried to make my way up this sharp granite face, I can still recall the intense focus and physical challenge of the route. I also remember being so absorbed in the task that I did not notice being afraid. It was intense and incredibly empowering. With a handful of outdoor climbing opportunities, I was convinced that climbing was an amazing experience that everyone should have. Within a year, I was working diligently with Climb Nova Scotia (a not-for-profit organization), a few working professionals and the Dalhousie Department of Athletics and Recreation to get approval to install a climbing wall in the recreation facilities on campus. Through the process of this endeavor, however, many lessons were learned. And still more lessons became more apparent when I eventually returned to manage this wall, and a newer one in the same building. With the responsibility of administering a wall, I gained a new insight into the key elements in operating a safe and successful facility.

Climbing is still a fast growing market and as a result, more and more people are interested in having a climbing wall in their facility. I recently visited a facility that purchased a wall from a manufacturer, complete with holds installed, climbing equipment provided and the structure installed. After looking at the facility I can tell you the company took advantage of them. To ensure they were not liable for the structure, the organization ended up paying an engineer to come in and inspect the structural integrity of the wall. This involved the labor of removing panels and inspecting the wall behind the panels and then reinstalling them with reinforcement. Imagine the added expense for this work! The ropes provided by the company who designed the wall were not long enough, they installed twice as many belay anchor bars than one would safely use, building at least an unnecessary additional $600US into the equipment cost. The holds were put on when the paint was wet so very labor intensive to change and there were no floor anchors installed, which could lead to some serious safety issues. The lesson here is – to learn what you don’t know.

For some wall owners or potential owners, the question is, “we want to build one, what do we do?” And sometimes the question is, “we have one, what do we do?” Immediately, I begin to ask more questions, with the intent of discovering how to best answer either of these questions. Running, operating or even just having a climbing wall places the operator in a position of responsibility and opportunity. The degree to which you want to be involved with the elements of responsibility and the opportunity shapes what you do with your wall or what wall product you buy. A third element is the resources you have available to you. If you think of these three elements as circles, you can begin to see how the outcome or opportunities can be impacted by the level of risk you may or may not be willing to bear. Similarly, the resources you have will have an impact on the goals or opportunities you have with the wall. Let’s look at these three elements more closely.

Resources:

  1. How much money do you have to spend on the installation and ongoing operation?
  2. What are the things you currently know about operating a climbing gym? Comparing your knowledge to those operating a facility, how well does your knowledge compare? Or do you have other knowledgeable people to support your project?
  3. How much space do you have?
  4. What type of space do you have?
  5. What is the wall structurally supported by? Or is it a free standing structure?
  6. Who will be using this wall? What is the size of this population? Age? Economic status?
  7. Who will monitor safety? Are there enough people to monitor safety relative to your access time and numbers of users?

Goals/Opportunities:

  1. How many people and groups would you like to see access it?
  2. Is the wall required to generate revenue or not?
  3. What type of experience would you like a user to have; more casual play or meaningful learning?
  4. Is the wall a show piece or for actual use?
  5. Are you trying to cultivate a climbing community?

Responsibility and Risk:

  1. What is the skills and training of those monitoring the wall?
  2. What is the skills and training of those instructing (if that is something you are doing)?
  3. Who will monitor safety checks and maintenance of equipment?
  4. How easily can the wall be accessed?
  5. What flooring are you using?
  6. Can people climb past the recommended bouldering height without a rope or supervision?
  7. What is the planned response to an injury or potential risk?

After reviewing these questions, more clarity is developed around the potential for the project. You can see that the answers to some questions influence the other questions. For example, If the wall is easily accessible by passersby, then supervision of the space will be necessary in order to manage risk, OR you may have build a bouldering wall only. Some aspects will be of more importance to you than others. If for example developing a climbing community is very important to you, then investing more funds initially to ensure a space that can actually facilitate a climbing community and having events, clinics and knowledgeable climbers will be very important to your success. It is also my hope that these audit questions will provoke some additional questions on your part. For example, what is the protocol for flooring under a bouldering wall? How high is a safe bouldering height? What do most instructors need to know? Is there a staff certification process? (Now you know that there is a process through the CWA.) What kinds of programs or clinics do other climbing gyms run? Is there a local climbing community already?

So how do you find out what you don’t know?

Who to contact:

  1. For Industry GuidelinesThe Climbing Wall Association is an organization which has been “the voice of the industry and does the work no one else can do. Since 2003, the CWA has been protecting the industry from regulation, promoting sound risk management practices, and providing valuable benefits and services to the climbing community.” This organization (the CWA) has a number of resources available that outline the industry standards for everything from the operation of your wall, the equipment, to the architecture and engineering standards. They provide valuable resources regarding policy and law concerning climbing walls and have publications available for purchase to assist you in gaining knowledge. The CWA also hosts a Summit each year where wall owners and operators have the opportunity to learn from each other about changes and progression in this industry. http://www.climbingwallindustry.org/index.phpI strongly recommend you continue your connection with the Risk Management experts like Sport Risk as well. These general types of risk management resources are very helpful in giving broad facility guidelines and a community through which you can learn and continue to become more knowledgeable about the risk and responsibilities you as an operator have. The equipment within the industry continues to change, standards change with the number and impact of users. http://www.sportrisk.com/
  2. For Instructor Certification and Training

 

For instructional certification information, the main organizations are the American Mountain Guides Association (US), http://amga.com/, the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (CA), http://www.acmg.ca/ and the UIAA (UK). These organizations all have indoor wall as well as outdoor accreditation programs and have an excellent reputation. You can also look to the CWA for guidance with indoor climbing wall instructor accreditation standards. These are available from their website.

3. For Climbing Walls

You will find lots of different climbing wall companies out there, but a general rule for finding a reputable one is to ask about previous projects and check some references. I recommend that rather than focusing on what you want to spend, discuss with them what you want to create with the wall and see what projects they have done which are similar. Then begin the discussion around cost and space requirements. Here are a few links of what are in my opinion some of the better organizations to contact.
http://eldowalls.com/
http://www.epusa.com/
http://www.climbingwalls.net/

Check with the CWA for a detail list of Climbing Wall manufacturers.

4.  For Climbing Community and Climbing Programs, Clinics
I recommend you call some of your local gyms or sister facilities. Find organizations like your own which run programs. For example, if you are a University, you could conduct a search of Universities with climbing walls. If you are a recreation center, you could look at a similar venue. I recommend speaking with more than one operator. Some walls are more show pieces and not used frequently, others are run by accredited staff. Some are geared toward revenue generation and some are not. There are also not-for-profit organizations that represent climbers — the Access Fund, for example who protect outdoor areas and in Canada the Tour de Bloc who represent competitors. Many of these can be found in the back of a Climbing magazine, for example, Climbing or Rock & Ice.

For Programs and Clinics, you can do a search of various walls websites and find out what types of programs they offer. Most will provide an introductory experience on using ropes. Some offer movement clinics or technique clinics. Some facilities provide competitions and have regular route setters to keep it interesting. For example, in the facility I operate, we have a badge program for Bouldering (a style of climbing) and Rope climbing (more safety and ropes oriented). There are 5 levels in each and youth progress from one level to the next over a 10 week program or over a camp week. Some facilities base a lot of their business on the birthday party experience or group booking, catering more to schools and Scouts or Girl Guide groups. The more programming you have, the potential you have to create committed climbers however, it also takes more instructor training and ongoing maintenance than the one time visit introductory clinics. Depending on the knowledge of your local climbers it may still make sense or not. The following are links to various sites for climbing walls so you can get an idea about programs and clinics.
http://www.totalclimbing.com/page.php?pname=membership/courses
http://athletics.dal.ca/recreation_fitness/rock_climbing.html
http://athletics.dal.ca/children_youth/climbing_programs.html

To sum it all up, I would suggest anyone interested in building a climbing wall, or operating one do some research. The Climbing Wall Association is probably the best place to start and from there, begin to get in touch with walls in operation that are not unlike what you feel you want to offer. There are many ‘wall manufacturers’ out there who will not even be aware of what the industry guidelines are. If they don’t know or haven’t heard of some of the organizations I have listed in this article, I suggest you keep looking. When looking for knowledgeable instructors, get a feel for where they have obtained their experience, speak with clients they have taught or people they have worked for. Most importantly, take some time to go to various gyms yourself and try them out. Let yourself be walked through the experience of a first timer in a facility and get a sense of what you are looking for. The bottom line is no matter how experienced the climber is, all climbers of all levels just want to feel safe.

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