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

What's Your Style?

The two most popular styles of climbing walls are modular and custom. Modular walls are a bit like pre-fab homes. They are panelized systems that are sold in pieces and include everything needed to install and assemble the wall. You can pay to have the manufacturer install it or do so yourself—at your own risk.

With custom walls, the manufacturer is normally involved in the entire process, Fisher said. "Design, manufacture and installation. Every custom wall is a highly involved project and should be coordinated through the manufacturer."

There also are three main types of climbing walls: traverse walls, top-rope climbing walls and combination walls. According to Mrvos, a traverse wall is 8 or10 feet high, and participants climb horizontally across the wall. Since participants are never more than a few feet from the floor, no special equipment or training is required. Mats are at the base of the wall to provide a safer landing surface.

A top-rope climbing wall, also called a vertical climbing wall, is higher and more challenging than a traverse wall. Mrvos said this type of wall requires special equipment: ropes, harnesses, helmets and belay devices. Participants must go through a training process to learn how to tie into the harness and how to belay to increase the climbers' safety. Top-rope walls help to develop trust, teamwork and positive risk-taking, in addition to developing climbing skills. They are more expensive to build than traverse walls since they are more elaborate and structural engineers need to be involved with the design of the wall. There is also more material and labor involved in the installation process. Additionally, the staffing and maintenance requirement of these walls are greater.

The material of the existing wall over which owners plan to build a climbing wall also plays an important role in choosing the space that will work best.

Mrvos said to consider the surface where the wall will be installed. Is it cinderblock, concrete, drywall with wood or metal studs, built into a corner, or a continuous straight wall? This information will help inform what type of installation is needed and whether the panels are directly mounted to the wall, or whether a sub-wall is needed to mount the panels.

"Ideally we are looking for a wall that is void of such obstacles as clocks, thermostats, fire alarm pulls/strobes, pillars, dividers, basketball hoops, water fountains or windows," Mrvos said. "We can work around obstacles, but the fewer the better. Traffic flow through the space is also a consideration."

A good designer will speak with a facility owner to get a better understanding of the needs of the community and design flexible terrain to meet those needs. The key to recouping your investment is to invest in a climbing wall that will keep people engaged and coming back.

Fisher noted that it is important to invest in large diameter belay bars (top-rope bars), which are safer than double point anchors. In addition to reducing ropewear, the larger contact area allows belayers to better control falling climbers, especially when there is a large weight disparity.

Tips for Getting Your Team Ready for Wall Climbing

The Association for Challenge Course Technology, a nonprofit organization that offers facility owners information about safe construction and operation of challenge courses, and the certification of challenge course staff, offers the following standards to get a staff prepared to manage a climbing wall:

  1. All staff should be trained in first aid/CPR so they can respond immediately.
  2. The climbing wall should only be used when supervised by trained staff. No unauthorized use should be allowed. A sign to that effect should be posted in the immediate area. The wall should be designed to prevent unauthorized use, or the area should be secured by other means.
  3. If the participants are young, all staff should be at least 5 years older than the oldest participant (and preferably at least 18 years of age).
  4. Attention should be paid to each staff person's weight or anchoring; it needs to be enough to control participants on belay.