Feature Article - April 2009
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The Height of Adventure

Climbing Walls for Exercise & Recreation

By Richard Zowie

Facilities with climbing walls often offer programs targeted at adolescents and teenagers. (If you have a wall, it's an excellent way to fill the pipeline with patrons who have an ongoing interest in the sport.) The climbing wall at the Paul Derda Recreation Center in Broomfield, Colo. is no exception.

Melissa Kennington, the climbing wall manager there, said her facility offers after-school programs for youth and teens. "We teach them climbing and safety," she said. They also educate people about climbing and how it can even be done as a sport.

When kids get into wall climbing, they often introduce it to their parents.

"They go climbing together," said Jennifer Hazelrigs, the assistant director of the University of Arkansas' intramural recreational sports department and co-editor of Rock Climbing, a book available through Human Kinetics. "It can become very common for wall climbing to be a family event. Some kids are surprised and never thought their parents would go climbing."

And for those who want to challenge themselves and be challenged by a little competition, there are climbing and bouldering competitions.

"You can be part of a whole series," Hazelrigs said. "That's really neat since you travel to locations and have goals in mind. You work out for it and build up."

Scott Powell, chairman of Midlothian, Va.-based Peak Experiences, said that first and foremost, people enjoy climbing walls because they're fun. And to keep them fun, variety is indeed the necessary spice. "As long as the climbing center is setting high-quality routes regularly and creates the proper culture, it stays fun indefinitely," he said.

Setting new routes regularly is another way to keep patrons coming back for more. At Peak Experiences, they set about 10 to 12 new routes weekly, which Powell estimates translates into about 500 to 600 new routes each year. Each week brings a new experience—whether a person maintains their existing ability or strives to improve their skills.

"In addition to being fun, climbing gives folks a great sense of accomplishment because it's also challenging," Powell said. "You push yourself and break those self-imposed limitations we all create for ourselves. The great thing about this challenge is that it's not you versus your buddy in a sport. It's you against the rock, and your buddy is there to support and encourage you. There aren't many sports that provide that kind of positive challenge."

An added bonus, Powell said, besides the immense fun, is the "incredible" workout that allows climbers to burn lots of calories. "You burn more calories per hour than in most other fitness routines and sports, but instead of mindlessly running on a treadmill, you're fully engaged both mentally and physically," Powell said, adding that climbing "…requires full-body, functional movement rather than single muscle groups engaging in repetitive non-functional movement like you'll see as you look around the weight room of health clubs."

Back to Basics
  • Climbers are attracted to indoor gyms because they offer a comfortable place to climb, practice, train and compete.
  • Among the types of climbing most gyms offer are lead-climbing routes, top-ropes and bouldering.
  • Because lead climbs in gyms are "almost always" protected by bolts, it's not necessary for climbers to carry their own protection.
  • Climbing gym floors are usually covered with thick mats or other specialized padding or surfacing.
  • Rigorous risk-management and safety procedures are observed at indoor climbing gyms while standardized industry practices are frequently updated.
  • Those who want to practice roped climbing unsupervised should pass a belaying and climbing test to "demonstrate competence with the basic safety systems and climbing commands."

Source: The CWA's Guide to Climbing by Dougald MacDonald