Facility Profile - January/February 2002
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When the Only Place to Go is Up

University of Maryland’s vertical challenge course
College Park, Md.

By Mitch Martin

The University of Maryland's vertical challenge course, an Alpine Tower II, was almost brand new on Sept. 24, 2001, the day a tornado roared through the College Park, Md., campus.


Considered one of the worst tornadoes in memory, it killed two people and injured 50. The tornado passed within 50 yards of the Alpine Tower II and practically leveled a nearby stand of trees, though the 50-foot Alpine Tower II came through almost without a scratch.

"Our staff swears they saw the thing swaying back and forth, but it suffered almost no damage," says Jon McLaren, director of outdoor programs for the university's campus recreation department.

With a tetrahedron-like—or hourglass—shape, the Alpine Tower II is a sturdy creation. A two-day check by the staff at Alpine Towers International showed it remained structurally sound despite the twister.

"I think even they were surprised it did that well," McLaren says.

Tornado survivability was no doubt not the major design consideration for the tower. The compact design is particularly helpful for programs that want to provide a climbing and/or ropes course, but don't have the land area required for a traditional program.

Based in Jonas, N.C., Alpine Towers International is an Adventures Group company. Designed by a group of former Outward Bound staff, the Alpine Tower is a vertical, hybrid ropes and challenge course. It basically combines the attributes of a linear ropes course with some of the attributes of a climbing instrument.

Instead of spreading individual challenges over a park site, dozens of challenges are located within the 50-foot tower. Joe Lackey, the president of Alpine Towers International, says this allows the concentration of staff and time to improve safety and the amount of learning that goes on.

"One of the best things about this is the number of staff required to safely manage an activity is smaller because the staff isn't spread out," Lackey says. "I think that's one reason we have such a good safety record."

The tower can be used for anything from corporate team-building exercises to adventure learning classes.

One of the biggest changes in the design over the years is that most of the tower is now fully accessible to people with special physical challenges. More than nine years ago, Dr. Don Rogers, a professor of therapeutic recreation at Indiana State University and now a ATI consultant, challenged the company to make its tower accessible to people with physical disabilities.

"The fact that nearly the entire structure was accessible was a real winner for us," McLaren says.

The Alpine Tower II has a turnkey cost of approximately $60,000. The cost includes full train-the-trainer programming, regular maintenance and inspection. Site preparation is not included in that price.

About 200 Alpine Tower II models are in operation in the United States. The company also makes several other large adventure learning instruments, including several ropes courses. An Alpine Towers International Carolina climbing wall also survived the tornado's brush with the University of Maryland's adventure complex—which is good news since both structures get plenty of use.

"Our complex is one of the very few that's lighted, and we use (the wall and the tower) pretty much around the clock," McLaren says.

For more information
Alpine Towers International: 800-706-0064