Feature Article - March 2013
Find a printable version here

The Perfect Ascent

The Next Wave in Climbing Walls

By Brian Summerfield


What Wall Is Right for Your Facility?

With these trends and your own resources in mind, how should you go about setting up a climbing wall? Discussions on this topic can quickly get very technical, moving into esoterica like t-nut density and furring strips.

Matys said it's best to start with three simple questions:

  1. Who is going to be climbing (ages, skill levels, etc.)?
  2. What money and space do you have available for the project?
  3. Are you going to have a bouldering wall, a route wall or both?

For the most part, those three answers will make any subsequent decisions fairly straightforward. Here's a look at the impact each of the three can have on your project.

The Climbers

A couple of things will be needed irrespective of which groups will be using your walls. The first is a padded area at the base of the wall where people can fall safely. The second is a large, empty space. (More on that in a bit.)

Beyond those, there are plenty of variations to meet the needs of different groups. For example, Matys recommends having brighter, more colorful holds for young children. Additionally, the gamut of sizes of their holds should be limited, ranging from medium to large. For high schoolers and older, you should probably go with holds in more neutral colors (such as earth tones) that range from small to extra large.

Also, the spacing matters a great deal when dealing with different age groups and skill levels. For younger or more inexperienced climbers, you'll want to have a higher density of holds on the wall. That's because children and beginners are generally going to have problems if they have to reach more than two feet up or over while climbing. For adults who are intermediate climbers or better, you can have certain sections of the wall where the distance between the two closest holds is between three and four feet.

Matys said 72 t-nuts—that is, the holes that allow for placement of the holds—should be placed in every 4-by-8-foot section of wall. That amounts to one every 8 inches in any direction. "That gives you so many options for where to set the holds that you can please everybody," he added.

Your Resources

Climbing walls are available at a variety of price points, Matys said. These range from as little as around $10 a square foot for panels, framing and holds that you and your staff would have to construct to more than $100 per square foot for a top-of-the-line, professionally installed concrete or molded fiberglass wall that replicates rock.

Of course, most facilities will fall somewhere between these two extremes. Few have the resources to commission massive, cutting-edge climbing complexes, and fewer still have the expertise needed—or the time to learn how—to install a wall without outside assistance. The key here is to think very practically about the overall image of your recreation or fitness center and what its users really need.

Another key consideration is space. "I'd love to have a climbing wall, but where can I put it?" said Rasch of the dilemma that faces recreation and fitness center managers. "Also, what are the biggest priorities?"

"The industry wants to have these huge walls, but the reality is that most facilities can accommodate a 500-to-1,000-square-foot wall," added Russell Moy, CEO of a Maryland-based climbing wall manufacturer with a large presence in the European and Asia-Pacific markets. "If you're going to get something small, get something you can reconfigure. It's a recreational activity, and it should be something that should be totally adaptable in the longer term."

Many facilities simply do not have much room to spare, and can't put in much more than a simple setup without sacrificing some other activity. This forces directors to get creative with where they put their walls. Sometimes it might be in a gym behind a basketball backboard, Matys said. (This option can work especially well if those backboards can retract.) Or it could be on the wall of a racquetball court, Rasch said.

If those don't work, facilities managers might consider an unused area of the lobby—assuming it's large enough and the layout could accommodate such an arrangement—or somewhere along the outside wall of the building, though that can create an entirely new set of challenges related to weather and maintenance.