Feature Article - April 2019
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Rise to the Challenge

Climbing, Ropes Courses, Obstacle Racing & Beyond

By Joe Bush


For organizations on the fence about investing in climbing, Chester said there are some crucial first steps. Space availability, budget and risk assessment are the top three, he said. The best situation is if the climbing space will be in a new construction, said Chester.

"We can work while you're designing the building and have an architect involved," said Chester. "You can look at ceiling heights and clear heights, where your rafters are going to be, what we can attach to in that building. These are major things that can affect budget down the road, where we're going to need reinforcements and steel columns to attach to for engineering loads."

Understand what sort of climbing your community wants, said Chester. Whereas bouldering needs no staff facilitation, roped climbing walls require more employee interaction because there are harnesses and ropes, belayers and auto belays. For either kind of climbing, lines of sight are important for safety, much like in aquatics.

Sizes of walls are wide-ranging. If a client has drawings, companies will work with those. If they don't, Chester said his company is happy to advise. Once installation is complete, Chester's company will train staff and consult on maintenance and programming. Chester recommends that facilities use the American Mountain Guides Association for instructor training, with the goal that those trained will then train the next generation of staff.

Christina Frain, marketing director for a Louisville, Colo.-based climbing wall manufacturer, said knowing your present and future membership is perhaps most important. Analyze the user group and target audience. If heavy interest is anticipated, then make room for more climbing lanes.

"All companies can help project that if you want to be able to accommodate 20 people in the space at a time this is how many routes you need to have, and that number changes if you have an auto belay, with 20 people climbing at the same time," Frain said. "Are you going to be teaching climbing skills that relate to rope? Are you going to teach people how to top rope belay, are you going to teach people how to lead climb and lead belay? That needs more staff."

Frain said the smallest budgets can buy DIY wall panels that can mount on any area that has six feet of space for a climber to fall to. These have colors and reliefs, and $10,000 will provide a sufficient-sized space with holds and flooring.

"It's not a particularly interesting thing to climb unless you're a kid, but it's a starting point," Frain said. "Trampoline parks are adding them."

The next level is a modular product, which might include a three- to four-lane climbing tower or wall, 21 to 27 feet high. The next step up is custom, which might include bouldering for a handful of people simultaneously. Larger projects have multiple roped climbing lanes and bouldering terrain.

"It's not quite as ubiquitous as every rec center needs a pool, but it's pretty much everybody building a rec center now they have at least some bouldering and we've done a couple recently. They're getting very close to the size of small climbing gyms," Frain said.

Pools are also adding climbing in their never-ending search to make water play more interesting. Climbing walls mounted at the edge of deep ends allow for risk-free chance-taking, said Leslie Amico, sales manager for a company that sells these walls as well as poolside zip lines and an installation that resembles monkey bars stretching over the water.

"You don't always get to the top on the first try, but if you don't you just splash into the water and try again," said Amico. "It's like experiencing risk in a controlled environment."

Amico said facilities considering adding poolside climbing need to know pool design and depth. Five feet deep is the minimum, she said, but depth has to increase with wall height. Four feet of concrete is necessary for mounting on the deck. Amico said the walls are designed for self-installation as well as easy removal and re-install for events.

The walls come with handholds that can be rearranged, said Amico.

If a facility doesn't feel that climbing is for its membership, perhaps a ropes course is of interest.

Safety always should come first, and auto belays

A dizzyingly combination of climbing walls, rope ladders, bridges, zip lines, mazes and, if desired, a free-fall device provides physical fun for patrons and members and team building or events for companies. Customization based on budget, space and client goals can put all of these features in one structure, or some of them, or provide just one, said Zachary Bergemann, outside sales executive for an Allegan, Mich.-based company that provides ropes courses, zip lines and more.

Themes and colors and add-ons like souvenir photo capability is available, and Bergemann's company provides the product, installation and training for instructors, maintenance and inspectors. There's ROI calculators for every possibility, and much of what's available to grownups is available in kid-sized setups as well.

"Since [our] inception, we have seen a desire for physical adventure attractions with the rise of digital-based entertainment such as (virtual reality)," Bergemann said.

can provide a smart way to make climbing safer.

"We find solutions to enable businesses to do what they do," said Chris Koske, director of marketing for a Boulder, Colo,-based manufacturer of auto belays and other safety equipment for climbing, zip lines and more.

"We have this internal saying that we may not build the walls or the adventures, but we power the best ones in the world. Our devices enable businesses to reduce staffing costs, increase user throughput and enable higher speeds in the zip world. We work with people who have great imaginations, and our products help enable them to accomplish their vision."

The recreation industry is in good hands if it wants to try nontraditional features. Climbing is fast becoming traditional, and with the 2020 Summer Olympics featuring it, it may become mainstream even faster.

"It's booming right now, and it's continuing to boom," said Chester. "We don't see a slowdown. Youth programs, commercial gyms adding more spaceā€”it's a common story across the country."