Feature Article - April 2007
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Altitude with Attitude

Building Your Climbing Business by Catering to Kids

By Stacy St. Clair

Getting started

No matter how popular climbing becomes, there will always be recreation managers and physical education instructors reluctant to take their programs to new heights. Their fears are fully understandable and, in many cases, easily addressed.

Experts recommend testing patrons' interest with less-expensive climbing apparatus. The playground industry offers colorful walls that are strong enough to withstand the elements and safe enough for young children to scale.

Park and school officials also may want to consider climbing boulders, which look and feel like rugged natural stone. In addition to having a striking visual and physical impact on the site, the rounded edges and rocky texture provide safer grips and footholds. Recreation managers can put different-sized boulders next to each other, creating age-appropriate challenges for both toddlers and expert climbers.

Once the climbing apparatus is installed, managers can observe their parks and playgrounds to gauge the public's interest. If the walls and boulders are among the top attractions, experts say it would probably be wise to consider investing in an indoor climbing wall and bouldering program.

Recreation managers with lingering doubts also may want to consider renting a wall. There are companies throughout the nation that will erect temporary walls at both indoor and outdoor locations.

San Francisco-based Climb On! has been bringing the challenge and excitement of wall climbing to Northern California for more than a decade. The walls are frequently rented by schools and park districts that can't afford permanent structures. Others use the company as a way to test their patrons' interest in the activity.

"It's always a big hit," said owner Charles Whitman. "It's a little more unique and a little more rare than other things that have been offered, so people gravitate toward it."

Whitman's walls, which go up to 24 feet high, cost between $175 and $250 an hour to rent. Depending on the size of the rented wall, the company can have three to five people climbing at any given time. This means that as many as 65 people can scale the wall per hour with the help of an auto-belay system.

Groups often recoup the cost by using the wall as a fundraising event. Organizers charge $2 to $5 to climb the wall and keep all the money. Whitman, whose company covers the insurance costs, has seen groups make thousands of dollars in a single day.

"They rent the wall, charge each climber and keep all the money," he said. "We staff it. We handle everything. All they have to do is stand in line."

For groups using the wall to test their patrons' interest, Whitman advises being prepared for a positive youth reaction. Young people just gravitate toward the walls, allaying any doubts about whether there's a desire for more climbing opportunities.

"I've been doing this for a long time," he said. "I've never seen anything more popular with kids."