Feature Article - March 2013
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The Perfect Ascent

The Next Wave in Climbing Walls

By Brian Summerfield

The Walls

For facilities that have to choose between bouldering and route walls because of space and resource limitations, the former is often recommended. It's more popular, and the equipment and staff needed to operate these walls is minimal. It's also a better option for all age groups. "If you have the space, bouldering is great," Moy said. "With bouldering, you can keep a child's attention for about an hour."

Still, many recreation and fitness centers will end up going with some combination of bouldering and route walls because the demand for the latter is still significant enough to make not having one problematic. This is where resourcefulness and blended spaces come in handy. For example, if you put a route wall in a racquetball court, which are typically about 20 feet high, you're going to have limitations, as the "sweet spot" for route wall height is between 28 and 35 feet, Rasch said. This problem can be solved with creative overhangs, she added.

In addition, you'll need to determine whether you're going to have a custom wall or a more modular setup. If you go with a more modular wall, you'll need to put in place route-setting programs to change up your holds in order to satisfy different groups and provide some variety in hold placements, Matys said. You'll also have to regularly make sure holds are secured well and tightened down when they start to get loose, as they inevitably will after significant usage.

Also, holds in these kinds of walls will need to be removed regularly and cleaned, as they take on shoe rubber and hand oil. For that reason, you may want to use bolt-on holds as opposed to ones that are screwed in because the former are easier to remove, Matys said. He added that they can be cleaned in a variety of ways, but specifically recommended using biodegradable cleaners to get oils off.

Side note: If you know your climbers will be overwhelmingly high school age or younger and will be climbing solely for the purpose of recreation—that is, not to participate in competitions or improve their proficiency in the sport—then you might consider thinking outside the box. Moy points to offerings such as low-level walls next to swimming pools that allow participants to climb up and jump or fall back into the water safely, or a company that constructs climbing walls that replicate environments such as the side of a tall building or library bookshelves.

Get Started

If you're looking to learn more about climbing walls, there's no shortage of free resources out there. First, be sure to check out various manufacturers' websites, where you can find numerous guides on climbing wall construction and maintenance, as well as tips on how to attract new climbers and keep existing ones coming back for more.

Additionally, sites of organizations such as the Professional Climbers Instruction Association (http://pcia.us/newpro), the American Mountain Guides Association (http://amga.com), the Climbing Wall Association (www.climbingwallindustry.org) and USA Climbing (www.usaclimbing.org) provide a wealth of information about industry education and certification, competitions and more.

Once you've got a good understanding of what all this will entail and what your users are looking for, you should reach out to a few vendors to find out more about their offerings and the time, effort and costs involved with getting a wall implemented.

Climbing walls can enhance the overall image and marketability of your center, and help you connect with a group of athletes that numbers in the millions in the United States and is continuing to grow rapidly.

"Across the U.S., it's very consistently on the rise," Rasch said. "There's not really any one area that's not interested. We do projects in every state. We've seen it work for military bases, colleges, entertainment centers.

"Climbing has a lot of community and mental challenges to it," she added. "Beyond that, though, it really spans any athletic ability and age group. There's really no limit to who can climb."