Feature Article - April 2009
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The Height of Adventure

Climbing Walls for Exercise & Recreation

By Richard Zowie

All Ages & Abilities Welcome

Recreational activities often have a wide target audience, and climbing walls are no exception. Typical climbers range from young kids to adults well past retirement age. But that doesn't mean that all patrons are climbing the same wall.

Raue said The Rock Club's walls serve many functions depending on how the holds and routes are set up. "These provide a much greater effect on appropriateness," he said. "We can set walls for the highest levels of competition or for teeny kids."

Kennington said that at the Paul Derda Recreation Center, they try to set up their climbing walls to target everybody, not just one particular age group. "We try to get a wide variety of people," she added.

Raue and Kennington's wide customer base isn't surprising. Indoor climbing, Powell explained, is a sport that can be targeted at everybody. While Peak Experiences has climbers as young as 4 and as "mature" as 80, he noted the core of his market ranges from 8 to 45.

"Each climbing gym will have its own somewhat unique approach to their target market(s)," Powell said. "I've been to some gyms that are clearly targeted from the college student to the young professional. The music is geared toward that demographic, the staff are clearly in that demographic, and you just get a vibe that it's not really a place you would bring your kids. You'll typically see this type of climbing center in some markets in Colorado or California where there are significant concentrations of established climbers."

Powell also noted that some of the older gyms around America are also like this since the sport began with the "hard-core committed climber" in the age groups of 16 to 30.

Other gyms focus primarily on the younger crowd. "Again," Powell said, "the music, staff and general atmosphere are targeted at kids, and sometimes it can make you feel like you're at a Chuck E. Cheese."

Peak Experiences tries to focus on programs and cultures that appeal to both kids and adults. Many of their programs focus on kids in the afternoon and weekends, while weeknights and weekends focus on college students through professionals in their 40s and 50s. Daytime hours go to corporate groups during the week.

"The sport lends itself very well to virtually any age group and physical ability, so the real determinant is the culture the management of the climbing center seeks to create," Powell said. "Our philosophy at Peak Experiences is to develop relationships through an engaging atmosphere with fun and challenging experiences. We play cool but clean music so folks in college can have a great time next to a kid in middle school. We also train our staff extensively in ways to promote our culture so everyone feels welcome."

Facilities with climbing walls often offer varying styles of climbing wall so everybody can get in on the action, regardless of their experience level.

Raue said The Rock Club offers walls for both the experienced and inexperienced, along with those who are still developing their strength to those who are physically fit. Some of the walls are what Raue described as "very aggressive," meaning you have to be strong to have fun on them since they're steep.

"We have enough variety where anybody will find lots to do and not get bored," he said. "Our goal is to be everything to everybody."

Climbing is for all ages, sizes and skill levels, said Hazelrigs. "The stereotype is that you have to be a super-lean, 19-year-old male [in order to climb]," she said. "We like to really emphasize that you don't have to be an elite climber. You can do it for exercise and socialization. It's for everybody of all abilities."

While wall climbing is an activity for all ages, Hazelrigs said it's drawing increasing interest from younger generations. They may be exposed to it at school in physical education classes, and also have easy access through youth centers, recreation centers and commercial gyms.

"Elementary school kids love to climb," she said.

And whereas climbing trees can be dangerous and sometimes results in trips to the emergency room, climbing walls incorporated into a P.E. program can be very exciting with relatively low risk. Such walls for kids don't feature the "negative" angles where all the strength is on the hands.

"When they fall, there's not as much risk of injury since it's a flat wall," Hazelrigs said. "You traverse from one part to the wall to the next. On traverse walls, most of walls are not higher than 8 feet. The goal is to climb across space, not up."