Climbing Wall Risk Management: Part 1

July 15, 2011

Jason Kurten, M.S.
Outdoor Adventure Coordinator
Director of Indoor Climbing Facility
Texas A&M University, College Station

Josh Norris, M.A.
Climbing and Adventure Education Coordinator
Adventure Leadership Institute
Oregon State University

Climbing Walls. Many, if not most of today’s colleges and university recreation centers feature one of these installations in some form. Whether it is a small bouldering wall tucked away in a corner or a free standing tower rising through the center of your building, these facility features pose an unique issue for managers. Through the 1980’s, the climbing wall industry historically lacked consolidation and standardization. Facilities were built in areas where outdoor climbing was popular and they provided a place where these outdoor adventurers could practice their craft in a controlled environment. Today we see these installations in YMCA’s and university recreation centers, and run as commercial operations – even in areas devoid of any outdoor rock climbing opportunities. This article is the first in a two part series. Part I will focus on physical facilities by covering three topics: Published Guidelines, Documentation, and finally Facility Risks and Inspections. Part II will focus on Employee Training, Climber Instruction and Competency.Published Guidelines
The challenge that artificial climbing walls pose to managers is not unlike the challenge faced by the early aquatics industry. Pool managers were challenged with the problem that their pools had been built and now people had to be monitored, taught to swim, rescued when necessary, plus the facilities had to be kept clean and safe. Today’s climbing facility manager faces similar needs. Prior to the early 2000’s, they had to do this without the benefit of published engineering standards, training standards or operational standards. Today, a variety of guiding documents are available to the climbing wall manager. These documents have been written and published by the Climbing Wall Association ( They include:

  • Industry Practices: A Sourcebook for the Operation of Manufactured Climbing Walls, 3rd Edition. Copyright 2007, Climbing Wall Association.
  • Specification for the Structural Inspection of Artificial Climbing Structures, 1st Edition. Copyright 2009, Climbing Wall Association.
  • General Specification for the Design and Engineering of Artificial Climbing Structures, 1st Edition. Copyright 2009, Climbing Wall Association.

As a collection, these documents serve as a reference library for the climbing wall manager for everything from designing a climbing wall to the day to day operations of the wall itself.

Any climbing wall risk management program hinges on good documentation of the program’s components. From staff training to rope inspections, proper documentation and the retention of those documents not only provides a trail of due diligence that can be followed in the case of an accident but also reminds managers of the necessary components of the program. Documentation can be anything from a binder that contains paper copies of inspections and employee training records to a sophisticated database or computer application that digitally stores the same documents, even an online program run by equipment manufacturers. What matters is that managers document what they are doing in terms of risk management and then keep up with whatever schedule they set for themselves.

Facility Risk
Risk posed by the physical facility of the climbing wall and its parts is one aspect of climbing wall risk management. The current industry opinion is that artificial climbing walls should be considered to be installed equipment rather than a building or facility. Therefore, having a periodic third party inspection of the wall is recommended by most climbing wall manufacturers. Each manufacturer has a different recommendation depending on the technology of the climbing wall. Climbing wall technology ranges from plywood decked walls with no texture to industrial fiberglass walls married to a rocklike concrete surface in order to simulate real rock. Reputable climbing wall manufacturers will always provide guidance and documentation for the operations of installed climbing walls. If this documentation was never provided, then the CWA’s Industry Practices: A Sourcebook for the Operation of Manufactured Climbing Walls can always be consulted.

Third party inspections by qualified engineers that may be conducted only once every few years are not enough to manage the day to day risks of a climbing facility. In addition, managers must set up a periodic schedule for interim inspections. Different parts of the facility and personal protective equipment (PPE) used in the facility all require inspections or oversight ranging from daily checks to yearly in-house inspections. Always follow the guidelines set forth by the manufacturers of the equipment or the facility, or discuss with the manufacturer any proposed modifications to guidelines.

Daily Checked Items

  • Ropes and toprope anchors — visually checked for general condition.
    Guiding Questions: Do these look right? Do the ropes appear severely worn or is the core showing? Are the toprope anchors intact and attached to the wall?
  • Landing surface — visually checked for general condition.
    Guiding Questions: Is the flooring excessively worn or torn? Is padding torn or worn? Are drag pads properly placed?
  • Wall surface — visually checked for general condition.
    Guiding Questions: Are there pieces of the wall missing or broken? Do I see any clear dangers or hazards that look outstanding?
  • Equipment — counted and in place. This can be done as the equipment is being checked out for usage.
    Guiding Questions: Are all harnesses, shoes, belay devices, carabiners, helmets and other gear in place and accounted for? Are they all in working order or do they need to be replaced? Follow manufactures’ guidelines –period.
    Note: Managers should have protocols in place for how broken equipment is reported, retired and replaced.

Weekly checked Items

  • Ropes — visual and tactile check. Each rope should be visually inspected for irregularities and tactilely checked for irregularities. Examples of problems are: soft spots, flattened spots, sheath slippage contracted to one end (also known as caterpillaring).

Monthly checked items

  • Equipment — detailed inspection and count.
  • Quickdraws — if lead climbing is allowed at a gym, all components of quickdraws should be inspected for proper performance. Carabiner gates should open and shut freely, quicklinks should be tight, webbing should be free from wear. All hardware should be inspected for cracks or excessive absence of material (grooving due to rope rub).
  • Wall surface — detailed inspection for cracking and worn spots.
  • Floor anchors – all components of floor anchors should be inspected for proper performance. Carabiner gates should open and shut freely, and webbing should be free from wear.
  • Toprope anchors — detailed check for smoothness and reliability of all components. If belay bars are used, welds should be checked for cracking and bars should be smooth and free of burrs or grooves.

Handholds for climbing walls should be visually inspected prior to installation and after being removed from the wall for cleaning. Any holds that are cracked or broken should be discarded from use. Dirty holds should be cleaned. A variety of methods are used for this including: scrubbing with soap and hot water, industrial degreasing, vinegar and water solution (natural acid), powerwashing, running them through a common household dishwasher or a commercial climbing hold washing solution. Cracked holds increase the chances of catastrophic hold failure while dirty holds are vectors for bacteria and diseases. Managers need to maintain a schedule for stripping and re-setting the wall’s holds to keep routes fresh for climbers and free from hazards.

Part II: Employee Training and Climber Instruction and Competency

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