Feature Article - April 2010
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From The Ground Up

What You Need to Know to Get Climbing Done Right

By Matthew M.F. Miller


Make a Plan

According to Fisher, the most important step when beginning to plan the addition of a climbing wall is to get a clear understanding of a facility's needs. The climbing wall itself is only one part of the equation. In addition to designing a climbing wall that meets the needs of the community, facility owners should consider how that wall is being made available to the community, as well as programming, hours of operation and additional staffing needs and training.

"In the planning and purchasing stage, owners need to make sure that they have a really strong understanding of their programming and potential audience, then need to select a product and configuration that is best suited for those needs," she said.

The facility should make using the wall as inviting as possible, with education, clearly displayed signs with rules and regulations, and events that highlight the wall and encourage use. Owners should eliminate as many barriers as possible (physical and psychological) to ensure that the facility members are comfortable trying out the climbing wall and coming back to develop their skills.

Space also is a major consideration when planning a wall. It needs to be large enough to attract users without eating up the entire square footage of a facility—and the size all depends on for whom it's designed.

"Ceiling height, wall size and floor space are all key concerns," said Garnet Moore, spokesperson for a Boston-based climbing wall company. "An operator should first decide what they want to get out of a climbing wall: impressive architecture, great rock climbing, innovative fitness training for their clients, etc. The size of the wall should really be based on these intentions."

Mertyce Mrvos, a spokesperson for a Mendota Heights, Minn.-based climbing wall company, said that owners should consider more than just the available space when looking to add a climbing wall. Building a big wall just because room allows doesn't necessarily equate to higher traffic.

"Consider the age group to be served. This will help determine the height of the wall, as well as the surface of the wall," she said. If you are serving a K-5 population, something as small as an 8-foot high wall is appropriate. If, however, you are serving a middle school-age population, a 10-foot-high wall would better accommodate the longer legs and arms of the climbers.

For a fitness facility, Fisher said a good height is 21 to 35 feet.

"This height range allows you to control the time climbers spend on a route, increasing route turnover and the wall's capacity," she said. In addition, this allows everyone at different skill levels and ages to reach the top, giving them motivation to keep coming back. And, of course, height will also be dictated by your facility.

"If you have less than 21 feet, consider traverse panels or bouldering, which has a lower barrier to entry and can be accommodated at heights of 12 to 14 feet," Fisher said.

Moore said that the best climbing walls make the most of the space available and should be as tall as possible. "A fitness-oriented wall can be a little shorter, but should be wider to accommodate more climbers and longer traverses," he added. "In really tight spaces, either a freestanding rotating wall or a short, 8-foot traverse wall can be a really nice way to bring in climbing at a low cost with a minimum of space."

It's not just vertical space that must be considered. The minimum distance a climbing wall extends from the structural wall is two feet and the average distance is three feet. According to Fisher, the minimum recommended fall zone adds an additional 6 feet from the pronounced area of the wall. A standard climbing lane is 4 to 5 feet.

"A great starting width is 16 feet, which can accommodate up to four climbers at a time," Fisher said. "Facility owners need to consider potential usage in both peak and off peak times and determine the height/width combination that gives them the optimal mix of climber participation and return on investment."