Feature Article - April 2012
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Reaching New Heights

The Evolution of Climbing Walls & Challenge Courses

By Chris Gelbach

Climbing walls and challenge courses have popped up in a growing array of recreational facilities as managers seek to elevate their programming with more adventurous offerings. "Twenty years ago, a lot of climbing gyms were being built. Now, a lot of climbing walls are being built in multipurpose facilities like municipal parks and rec, K-12, and college and university settings—that seems to be a fast-growing segment of the market," said Bill Zimmermann, chief executive officer of the Climbing Wall Association (CWA).

Likewise, challenge courses are also expanding into new facilities and attracting new clientele. "The number of programs and facilities worldwide are increasing," said Michelle Hepler, board chair of the Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT) and assistant parks and recreation director for Iredell County Parks and Recreation in North Carolina. These courses are often broken into low elements constructed on the ground or a few feet above it, and high elements built 25 to 50 feet in the air in trees or on utility poles with participants wearing a belay for safety. Challenge courses have traditionally been popular with groups such as service organizations, corporate groups and sports teams as personal development and teambuilding activities. But Hepler notes that she has seen the kinds of groups interested in her Iredell County challenge course diversify over time. And the courses have been further propelled into the mainstream by the adaptation of traditional challenge course elements to aerial adventure parks and canopy and zip line tours, which have skyrocketed in popularity.

For those facilities interested in adding a climbing wall, challenge course or zip line, the task has grown significantly easier thanks to an ever-widening array of new products and providers. "Twenty years ago, you had to be an entrepreneur and somewhat of a visionary to start one of these facilities," said Zimmermann. "Some of the early practitioners were gluing rocks onto plywood panels because there weren't even any modular handholds available. Now there are a dozen handhold companies, at least. There are half a dozen major design firms, business consultants who will help you with raising capital and your business plan, and even software companies specifically for climbing gym management. It's so much easier today."

The Need for Expertise

Climbing walls and challenge courses come in a growing variety of sizes, materials and designs, making them feasible for a wide variety of facilities and budgets. But they remain demanding in terms of the expertise they require of managers and staff to be run safely. Budgeting for a wall or course should therefore account not only for the structure itself, consumables like rope and periodic inspections, but also for definitive ongoing training for employees.

"What I see in multipurpose rec and K-12 is that the people running the climbing facility tend to be underexperienced and undertrained," said Zimmermann. "They'll spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a climbing wall, but won't spend a few thousand a year on training."

Since the CWA has rolled out its certification program, Zimmermann has seen that the people who don't pass the course tend to be people who are responsible for a climbing facility, but aren't climbers or interested in becoming climbers. "That's kind of a conundrum," he said. "You have to be willing to develop a level of expertise and knowledge of the sport to be able to run a climbing facility. If a facility doesn't have that person or those people, they need to find them and hire them."

This specialized expertise is needed not just for safety, but also for operational success. For instance, a climbing wall is unlikely to keep patrons engaged if its staff is unable to grade climbs accurately and set and refresh the facility's climbing routes regularly to meet the interests and skill levels of its climbers.

General commercial liability insurance policies typically cover climbing wall and challenge course operations, but Zimmermann noted that you should confirm this with your carrier. "A climbing wall is innocuous compared to some of the stuff multiuse facilities are already involved in, and they don't even realize it," he said. But while the frequency of incidents on climbing walls and challenge courses is very low, the consequences of one can be high. The legal protection these facilities have is provided by the doctrine of inherent risk—meaning that it's important that all participants demonstrate that they are voluntarily and willingly participating because they want to and they choose to do so despite the risks. In the challenge course world, this concept is often referred to as challenge by choice.

"A big piece that people tend to neglect, particularly in a multipurpose rec setting, is to have your attorney come to the facility and get an intro lesson or at least an orientation to the climbing wall," said Zimmermann. "Then hand him the participation agreement and have him go back and rewrite it considering what he's just seen regarding the inherent risks associated with climbing." The resulting document, sometimes called a hold harmless form, should be discussed with and signed by every participant.