Feature Article - April 2014
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Ascending Appeal

Boosting Interest in Your Climbing Wall or Challenge Course

By Chris Gelbach

It's a boom time for climbing walls and challenge courses. According to Climbing Business Journal, the number of climbing gyms in America increased by 10 percent in 2013 alone. Meanwhile, canopy tours, zip lines and challenge courses are popping up across the nation in locales ranging from nature areas to malls and amusement parks.

These trends are being facilitated by advances that are making these attractions less expensive and less labor-intensive. They are also being bolstered by an increasing sophistication in programming and operations that is creating a more welcoming environment for newcomers and fostering repeat business from enthusiasts.

Removing the Intimidation Factor

One key for facilitating greater use of a climbing wall or a challenge course is to get people to try it in the first place—something many people remain hesitant to do. "Most people think, 'Oh, I can't do that,' automatically," said Jerad Wells, CEO for a climbing wall manufacturer based in Boulder, Colo. "And the reality is if you can climb a step ladder, you can go climbing. The perceived difficulty is one of the barriers, and it's very accessible for just about any age and physical condition."

Creating programming that caters to different audiences is one way to get a wider range of people involved in the sport. Wells noted the example of Paradox Sports, a charitable organization that provides inspiration, opportunities and adaptive equipment to introduce people with physical disabilities to rock climbing, ropes courses and other activities.

In this same vein, Tracy Whitney, director of marketing for a manufacturer of climbing walls and other active equipment based in Mendota Heights, Minn., is seeing more facilities purchasing its adaptive climbing wall. "It's got bigger holds that you can grip your whole hand around, and platform foot ledges so you can put your whole foot on the hold, and we're seeing those take off a lot in physical therapy, occupational therapy and special education situations," she said.

Another barrier that sometimes prevents people from trying climbing is hesitance surrounding learning the basics relating to ropes, knots and belaying. But new entertainment-based approaches such as the Clip N' Climb attraction at Spooky Nook Sports in Manheim, Penn., are shattering this barrier. The attraction allows visitors to clip in after only a few minutes of orientation and then experience a variety of climbing-related elements while controlled by an auto belay system.

"It's very inviting when you look at it. It's colorful and it looks fun," said Adam Bofinger, director of adventure for Spooky Nook Sports. "So, I think a lot of people without climbing experience can look at it and think, 'that's something I can do.' We get a lot of kids, families, birthday parties and corporate groups come and use it—all age levels enjoy it."

While the experience seems to be a hybrid of climbing and challenge course, the elements are actually based on climbing movements, making the attraction a fun introduction to the sport for beginners.

"Especially for kids, it's a good progression to start there and get a feel for the climbing movement and for the heights involved," said Bofinger. "And once they are ready for the next step, it's a good segue to the climbing gym."

Spooky Nook, a huge sports and entertainment complex, also has a traditional climbing gym with dozens of top-rope and lead climbing routes as well as a freestanding boulder. The gym offers a wealth of programming offerings, including lead climbing certification and bouldering and top-rope classes. It also hosts regular specialty sessions such as a ladies night, family night and college night.

Between the climbing gym and the Clip N' Climb, the facility is able to attract two distinct audiences. "We have a strong membership base in our climbing gym, but on a weekend, especially a tournament weekend here, the Clip N' Climb is very busy," said Bofinger. "We really have reached a bunch of different types of people and groups with it."

As facilities like these debut, and auto belays open up the possibilities of fitness climbing to more people uninterested in mountaineering, the "clip in and go" approach is also becoming more common in challenge courses. As it does, the typical challenge course is also evolving from an instructor-led, teambuilding experience to a more entertainment-based approach that can accommodate a wider range of patrons.

Jim Liggett, owner of a ropes course company based in Allegan, Mich., has been building ropes courses for more than 30 years. He recalls his earliest ones being three-hour experiences that required two staff members to take 12 kids through.

"Now, with two instructors you can put 30 to 50 people per hour on a course. You don't have to go through all the safety talk and they can have their own experience," he said. New technologies that allow people to stay harnessed in throughout the experience and to pass on corners make it a more self-directed activity. These technologies can also help alleviate lines and traffic jams on individual elements that can detract from the challenge-course experience.

Because they aren't particularly labor-intensive or demanding for participants, ropes courses like these are starting to appear in more amusement complexes and even malls. One example is the Palisades Climb Adventure Ropes Course in the Palisades Center mall in West Nyack, N.Y., which is 85 feet tall and offers 75 different challenges that include a tremor bridge, tension traverse, vertical rope ladder and many other elements.

"You can play for your 16 bucks for as long as you want—usually it lasts 35 or 40 minutes—and it's a great family attraction," Liggett said. "It's healthy, anybody can do it with various levels of fitness, and the elements lend themselves to doing it any way you feel comfortable."