Feature Article - April 2004
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Hitting the Wall

How to boost climbing wall attendance

By Kyle Ryan


The tangibles
Availability and cost

At the Elmwood Fitness Center in Harahan, La., just outside New Orleans, Assistant Fitness Director Eric Schadler supervises the club's 960-square-foot freestanding outdoor wall.

It's "off the beaten path" of the 170,000-square-foot facility, Schadler says, and it plays a minimal (at best) role in attracting new members. The wall has limited hours and sees most of its activity during spring and summer, despite the area's mild winters.

When it comes to personnel, Schadler relies on one active climber (a high-school student) to help with route-setting, but that's as hard-core as it gets.

"We try to utilize the people for the wall for fitness as well so we can justify their salaries," Schadler says. "Because if they're just sitting out there for two hours watching nobody climb, it's hard to justify it."

It's easy to get caught in a self-perpetuating cycle when it comes to climbing walls: People never climb because it seems like the wall's never open, and the wall's never open because people never climb. There may also be prohibitive costs with equipment rental, instruction or basic wall usage.

"A lot of these facilities are open from six to nine Monday and Wednesday nights," O'Connor says. "What can you really do with that? Your window is almost not open. Having that availability so that the second they are interested in it, they can pursue it to some degree [is critical]."

Rerouting

Even if the wall's open a lot, if you don't change the routes, people won't come back. Fitplex completely strips its wall every three months (quarterly is about average). Petraitis estimates there are more than 100 routes on it.

"There isn't a climbing wall in the country that sets routes as frequently as we do," he says. "It's constant, and you know I think climbers appreciate it."

According to O'Connor, not only do climbers appreciate it, rerouting the wall is absolutely necessary if it's going to be used regularly.

"The two biggest things are they don't route-set enough, and they don't change the holds out often enough," O'Connor says, describing climbing-wall mistakes. "So people, after they come in a few times, they're bored."

At the Boulder Rock Club, where routes can change on a weekly basis, O'Connor says some members come in on Monday nights just to see what's new.

Technology

When it comes to rerouting, new design-friendly holds have opened up areas that were previously tough to route. Holds have become more comfortable and inexpensive, which means wall operators can order more to create different routes instead of just replacements for broken holds.

One new thing O'Connor mentions may sound small but makes a big difference: screw-on holds, which don't require a T-nut to connect to the wall. According to O'Connor, they have allowed his route-setters to use previously vacant corners of his walls.

Flooring has improved as well, by becoming more absorbent for potential falls and less aesthetically jarring. General-use harnesses, the staple of any wall that relies on nonexperts for revenue, have also improved, according to Postma, growing more comfortable and functional in recent years.

The biggest technological innovation, though, is auto-belay systems. The devices automatically take up slack as climbers ascend, and they control climbers' rate of descent if they come off the wall. The systems don't require external power for operation and require little training to use.

"Auto-belay systems are great," O'Connor says. "That opens up a whole aspect of the facility. It takes climbing from a partner-based sport to an individual sport."

With auto-belayers, people can train alone, and one person can supervise numerous people using the wall at the same time. Auto-belay systems have greatly decreased the amount of orientation needed to get beginners on a wall, and they have therefore been hailed as revolutionary devices.

Not everyone is a fan, though. After a fatal accident involving an auto-belay system last year, wall managers who felt hesitant to use auto-belayers before became firmly opposed to them (see sidebar on page 16).

"Technologically, though, climbing walls are still climbing walls," Postma says. "The only other thing that's really happened with climbing walls is that newer and better products are coming out. Some products are better, and other products are cheaper, making it easier for people to purchase or afford."