Feature Article - April 2012
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Reaching New Heights

The Evolution of Climbing Walls & Challenge Courses

By Chris Gelbach


A Higher Education

In addition to their spread in parks departments, climbing walls have also been constructed at many colleges and universities to complement students' educational experience, while also serving as showcase features on campus. "A lot of university climbing walls used to be located in the back of rec centers, usually someplace like an old racquetball court," said Jeff Huskey, associate director of Campus Recreation at Colorado State University (CSU). "Today, they have gone from being a very functional facility to being an aesthetic one. Our climbing tower is in the lobby of our rec center. It's very attractive and impressive-looking, and it's the first stop on our admissions tours."

Given its Fort Collins, Colo., location, CSU has a large climbing community, but also attracts a large population of out-of-state students with no climbing experience who come to CSU wanting to experience the outdoors. "We didn't have a good mechanism to get them from being novice climbers to that comfort zone of being at an intermediate to expert level," said Huskey. "Having a climbing wall we can program to teach people how to climb helps them move toward being able to go out and enjoy the areas that we have around us."

CSU features four different climbing structures in its new rec center that provide a good snapshot of the climbing-wall options available to facilities today. CSU's facility includes an indoor climbing tower and bouldering wall, a poolside climbing wall and an outdoor boulder outside the front door. Each structure serves a different purpose. The climbing wall gives students the opportunity to learn the top-rope climbing and belaying skills they need for outdoor climbing. The poolside climbing wall, complete with waterfall, functions more as a play feature that's popular with faculty and staff children and summer-camp groups. "It's not very tall—the hardcore climbers get bored with it very quickly," said Huskey. "What we hope is that a student tries the climbing wall in the pool and it's a gateway to trying the bouldering wall or tower because they now feel more comfortable with climbing."

Of all the structures, the bouldering areas are in greatest demand, in part because they require no harnesses or belaying skills. Bouldering also tends to be a more social activity than top-rope climbing, which is typically more partner-based. "I think campus climbing facilities need the climbing tower to teach students climbing skills," said Huskey. "But the bouldering area is where we see the majority of our usage. Bouldering walls are like fitness space or storage space—you can never have enough. My advice to someone looking to design and build a campus facility would be to go heavier on the bouldering space than the tower space."

A Group Challenge

Unlike CSU's climbing facilities, which mainly serve the student population, the university's challenge course relies on attracting outside groups. "We are constantly balancing our subsidized events for students against our revenue-producing events for non-students," said Rodney Ley, who oversees the course as assistant director of Campus Recreation. Ley estimates that CSU students comprise just 25 to 35 percent of the course's clientele, depending on the season.

The course gets the largest proportion of its outside business from public school groups, which come from as far away as Nebraska. It also serves other universities such as the University of Wyoming that don't have their own challenge course. While the program is 20 percent subsidized, according to Ley, "There's no questioning the positive energy that comes back from other universities and regional school districts. The goodwill generated by this program actually has a value."

This kind of group-style programming approach is also common in recreation and parks department challenge courses. For example, while Charleston County's climbing wall operates on a pay-for-play model, its challenge course program caters to groups on a reservation-only basis. Like Charleston's, Iredell County's challenge course program also emerged from an outdoor-education approach and focuses on groups.