Feature Article - April 2012
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Reaching New Heights

The Evolution of Climbing Walls & Challenge Courses

By Chris Gelbach

Finding the Right Program Model

Traditionally, the majority of challenge courses were run by nonprofit organizations and summer camps as educational and therapeutic programs. But today, more and more new programs are created using a commercial approach. "The trend is moving toward the commercial and ecotourism industries," said Hepler, "and I think that's where some parks and rec districts may find that they fit in—that recreation style or pay-for-play style model."

"What you need to do is look at the ropes course or challenge course as a universal tool that can be used in a variety of ways, not just for education," said Bradd Morse, principal partner of Canopy Tours Inc., New York Zip Line Adventure Tours and Jamaica Zip Line Adventure Tours. Morse travels the world as a consultant advising others on whether they should build adventure parks, ropes courses or zip line tours. "It depends what your goal is—if it's to make money or service good or educate or all of the above. And that dictates what you do."

When determining whether a climbing wall or challenge course makes sense, be sure to survey the competitive landscape. "If you want to acquire a climbing wall or challenge course, where is the nearest one next to you?" said Danielle Palka, outdoor recreation coordinator for the Charleston County Park & Recreation Commission in South Carolina. "Is it a three-hour drive away, or is there one already in town? You have to think about whether you're going to be that competing business, and where your business is going to come from to really sustain you."

It's also important to determine what kind of adventure programming would complement existing programming effectively. Charleston County's challenge course and climbing wall programs emerged out of its successful outdoor recreation program, which added its challenge course in the '80s and the climbing wall program in 1997. "Every couple of years, we would find a new stash of money and go out and buy some new gear and start some programming for it," Palka said.

The first climbing gyms were concentrated in the Intermountain West, California, the Pacific Northwest and New England as places for hardcore climbers to train consistently. But Charleston County's climbing facility is an example of a growing trend—wall-climbing's emergence as a sport unto itself in areas where little natural climbing is available. "You have to drive four hours to get to real rock to climb on," said Palka, "and you'd think that putting a climbing wall on the beach is a ludicrous idea."

But the wall is perfectly situated to attract patrons, thanks to the park's nearby full-service campground. "We have people who are in our parks and wanting to recreate anyway," said Palka, "and it also seemed like a good fit because it allowed us to provide something else for our local community. People aren't going to drive four hours to go rock climbing—but they might drive 20 minutes across town to go to our wall."

The park's 50-foot, four-sided tower boasts 14 top ropes and two lead-climbing walls and was the largest in South Carolina when it was built in 1997. Along with a separate bouldering wall, the department also owns two portable climbing walls, one that's most often used for additional climbing space and another that's regularly transported for use at festivals and other events. According to Palka, the portable climbing wall paid for itself within three years by enabling the outdoor recreation department to do business outside the climbing facility, while also increasing awareness for the main outdoor climbing wall. "It's like PR on wheels," she said.