The Perfect Ascent

The Next Wave in Climbing Walls

By Brian Summerfield

It's safe to say that for as long as people have been around, they have been climbing rocks. There are Chinese paintings dating back to the 5th century B.C.E. that show men performing this activity, and members of the Anasazi tribe, who carved structures and caves in cliffs hundreds of years ago in what is now the southwestern United States, regularly climbed rocks get "around town," as it were. Also, it has long been a component of mountaineering, as trekkers would often have to go up steep rock faces as part of their ascent to a peak.

But rock climbing as a recreational activity in and of itself did not come into being until the second half of the 19th century, as adventurous English, American and German sportsmen started to scale large geological formations in places ranging from Yosemite National Park in California to England's Lake Country to the Dolomites of Northern Italy. And even then, it was something of a novelty. It wasn't formally recognized as a separate sport from mountaineering until the 1950s, and the number of climbers at any time before the 1980s—when sport climbing with indoor walls started to take off in certain parts of North America and Europe—was very small.

What a difference a few decades makes! Figuring out the current number of active climbers in the United States can be tricky, as young people who rock-climb once or twice a year as part of a scouting, church or other youth organization are sometimes counted and sometimes not. But recent low-end estimates (meaning only those who participate in the sport at least once a month) run from 500,000 to more than a million. Put more casual climbers into the mix, and you're probably talking between three to five times that amount.

So it's not unreasonable to say the number of climbers in the United States runs into the millions, which is remarkable when you consider that the sport counted maybe a few thousand participants prior to 1980. And it continues to gain momentum in all parts of the country thanks to outreach, innovation and depictions in movies, TV shows and other media. If you manage a facility and want to connect with this growing population, here are a few things you need to know.

A More Social, Accessible Experience

Kenny Matys, who started climbing in 1989, was part of what could be called the "first wave" of the popularization of the sport in the United States. He competed in more than 100 climbing competitions, including the International Federation of Sport Climbing's (IFSC) World Cup and the X Games. Though he's since retired as a professional climber, he remains active in the sport as a participant and as president of a Utah-based company that supplies climbing holds for walls around the world, from recreation centers to consumers who build their own setup at home.

Matys said he sees another, larger wave of people coming into rock climbing, due largely to a shift in focus. When he started out, the participants were predominantly interested in route climbing, which places an emphasis on height. But in the late 1990s, he said, the sport began a move toward bouldering, which involves a more horizontal form of "climbing" that typically doesn't get more than 10 feet from the ground. And while the phrase "rock climbing" still tends to conjure up an image of an incredibly lean, strong individual hanging off the side of a cliff hundreds of feet above the earth below, "low altitude" bouldering is today the most popular form of the sport by far.

Why has bouldering overtaken route climbing? For one reason, it's more social, explained Leslie Rasch, sales manager for a Boulder, Colo.-based climbing wall manufacturer. Her company sells walls to facilities all over North America, and has supplied them to places as far away as Ireland and the Caribbean as well.

"With bouldering, you can all take turns with a climbing problem," she said. "It can open up that social side of things, and that's helped proliferate the sport."

Also, the people participating in bouldering don't have to constantly be aware of the person on the wall, Matys added. "In a route environment, I have to be paying attention to what you're doing," he said. "You might have a spotter in bouldering, but it's not so intense."

Another advantage of bouldering is that it requires less in the way of equipment. In route climbing, participants have to put on harnesses and use carabiners to hook themselves on to ropes. They also need a live person on the ground performing belay duties, unless the facility has an auto-belay system, in which the climber links to a line that comes down from the top of the wall, Rasch said.

For that reason, bouldering is great for a membership that is increasingly on the go. "You can get a much more intense workout in a shorter amount of time by bouldering," Rasch said.

However, the rise of bouldering notwithstanding, there is still a demand for route walls, especially among more experienced climbers. "You will find some commercial gyms that are purely bouldering," Matys said. "That's not exactly rare, but most facilities have route climbing as well. [Bouldering] provides a quick fix. If I had more time, I would be route climbing more. I'm 40 and I don't care about chasing [climbing] grades."

Inside Out

In addition to selling climbing walls, Rasch is an avid climber herself. She got started in high school, but really got into the sport while attending college at Texas A&M. "They had a really nice climbing wall there," she said.

Today, she makes her home in Boulder, Colo., a city she calls a "Mecca" of rock climbing. Being in the Rockies, there is no shortage of spots for climbers to engage in their sport in the great outdoors. Does that mean there are no indoor walls? Not at all. Rasch said there are three large commercial gyms devoted exclusively to climbing serving this city of approximately 100,000. They even have niches, she said: One is more devoted to bouldering, while another is heavily affiliated with mountaineering.

Why are there so many climbing gyms in a place with an abundance of free outdoor options? Well, there's the weather, for one thing. "There's outdoor climbing, but in the winter months it's great to go to a gym to climb," Rasch said.

Additionally, even in areas where there is a strong outdoor climbing culture, it helps to have indoor options close to where most of the people live for the sake of convenience. "Beyond being viewed as a backup, being an indoor climber can augment your ability to train," Rasch said. "If you don't have time, you can still get in your workout in an hour at the gym. And someone who's never gone climbing before can start out indoors."

Recreational facilities and health clubs can also schedule off-site outdoor sessions for new to intermediate climbers who need the assistance, she added.

Getting Competitive

In addition to the recreational side of the sport, competitive climbing is on the rise in the United States and around the world. In fact, climbing is on the short list of new sports being considered for inclusion in the 2020 Olympic Games, a decision that will be made in September 2013, said Kynan Waggoner, operations director of USA Climbing.

"That's indicative of the growth of the sport of competition climbing," he said. "All we're seeing is growth in terms of competition."

That's good news for Waggoner, as his organization has a simple mission: "To grow the sport of climbing." Waggoner, who has been an active participant in the sport since the late 1990s, has been with USA Climbing since 2006. Prior to that, he had years of experience placing route settings at climbing competitions.

With the right setup, many recreation or health and wellness facilities could serve as sites for some climbing competitions, Waggoner said. "The requirements of size at the championship level are usually cost-prohibitive," he explained. "But recreation centers can have an effective climbing wall for local-level events or even regional events."

However, they need to meet a few qualifications in order to host a competition. The biggest is that the climbing walls cannot be designed to resemble real rock. "You can't have fixed features," Waggoner said. "For competitions, we need to have clean surfaces and modular handholds."

Additionally, there should be ample open areas available for spectators, and the spaces must be reasonably well-lit and clean, Waggoner said. However, the standards here are not necessarily explicit and may vary from situation to situation.

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.

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 (, the American Mountain Guides Association (, the Climbing Wall Association ( and USA Climbing ( 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."

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