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Feature Article - April 2015

Big Thrills, No Spills

Safety First for Climbing Facilities

By David Mumpower


The explosive growth of indoor rock climbing has generated a lot of attention in recent years. There are already more than 350 indoor climbing facilities operating in the United States alone, and the industry has sustained an annual growth rate of almost 10 percent over the past two years.

With more than 7 million people literally climbing the walls to achieve a pronounced adrenaline rush, many gyms are attempting to attract some of these potential new customers by adding climbing walls. Standalone climbing facilities are also becoming increasingly prevalent in metropolitan areas. There is inherent risk for every climber, however, so one of the strongest steps in enticing consumers to use your gym is to gain a reputation as a safety-first enterprise.

The thrill of climbing is inimitable. Using only one's hands and feet, a person lifts and pulls their way up a vertical wall. Conversely, the danger of outdoor climbing is obvious. The great outdoors doesn't come with safety nets. The genius of indoor facilities is that they can provide thrill seekers with the same adrenaline rush of outdoor climbing but in a controlled environment. A person can receive a tremendous workout, burning approximately 475 calories per hour and building muscle mass without ever jeopardizing their well-being.

At least, that's the theory. In execution, there are occasional injuries at indoor climbing facilities. Such unfortunate situations create negative headlines for the gyms, unfavorable opinions among clientele, and even potential litigation in extreme instances.

Nobody on either side of the business/customer dynamic wants such issues, and the safeguards against them are surprisingly easy to implement. All that is required is awareness by management of the potential areas of concern and the employment of a well-trained staff who serve as on-floor safety protectors.

Before considering your training options, you should understand the primary causes of injury during indoor rock climbing workouts. Rich Johnston, founder of a climbing wall manufacturer based in Lynnwood, Wash., is an originator of American indoor climbing, yet with all of his years of experience in the industry, he cannot recall a single instance where hardware failure has caused an injury. Instead, user error is always the culprit. If used correctly, the straightforward, user-friendly system of hooks and harnesses will safely provide a climbing enthusiast with the workout rush they desire.

If the apparatus is so foolproof, how and why do injuries occur? There are a multitude of reasons why eliminating human error is tricky. Inexperienced climbers are too often allowed to begin a full workout before demonstrating that they completely understand the climbing equipment. Surprisingly, experienced climbers are just as susceptible to injury, if not more so. As Marleigh Hill of a Boulder, Colo.-based climbing wall manufacturer stated, "There is a healthy fear that exists in new climbers." That concern forces them to be safety-conscious throughout the early days of their climbing career. Once climbers lose their initial fear and grow comfortable on the wall, the fear no longer drives them. This is the moment when mistakes are made.

Someone who is distracted by the other aspects of their life such as a job, a family matter or a personal relationship may be sloppy about their wall preparations. Such behavior can have tragic consequences. A climber may fail to recognize that their gear is not properly employed until they reach the top of their ascent. Once they pull the cord to release and rappel downward, they can plummet straight down. This can and has led to at least one recent fatality as well as other serious injuries.

Realistically, most maladies suffered fall in the less alarming realm of a sprained ankle or sprained wrist. Climbing safety experts believe that these injuries are no more common than falling on a treadmill or slipping in a pool, but there can still be liability involved any time a customer has to visit the doctor after a workout.

Clearly, there needs to be a safety check done to ensure that all climbers are correctly tethered to their gear prior to their vertical ascent. Such a task seems simple enough, yet the fact that injuries continue to occur suggests that companies must do a better job of protecting their clientele. The best way to do that is through employee training.

While there is no legal requirement to force one of your workers to gain certification, it is the preferred practice. In 2007, the American Mountain Guides Association introduced the Climbing Wall Instruction Certification "to certify professionals who teach in an indoor or artificial wall environment." The stated intent is "to develop a more consistent standard of care for climbing instructors in the U.S."

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