Working With Gravity

Vertical Endeavors in St. Paul, Minn., Duluth, Minn., and Warrenville, Ill.

By Emily Tipping

ong considered a sport with natural barriers to entry, climbing is becoming mainstream as an increasing number of climbing walls are added to schools, health clubs and recreation centers across the United States.

Since 1992, Vertical Endeavors, a full-service indoor climbing facility, has been building its business in conjunction with the sport's growing popularity, starting with a "typical" commercial climbing gym in St. Paul, Minn. Since that first location was built, two more facilities have been added, in quite different locations: one in an upscale LifeTime Fitness Health Club in Warrenville, Ill., and another in Duluth, Minn., in a Family Fun Center. All three of the facilities feature climbing walls from Nicros Inc. The development came full circle in 2004, when Vertical Endeavors completed a substantial addition to its flagship facility in St. Paul. Vertical Endeavors is thriving, according to Jason Noble, district supervisor for all three facilities, and between them, more than 10,000 new climbers are introduced every year to the sport.

"Climbing is a challenge sport in which participants experience a feeling of accomplishment based on their level of challenge," said Scott Williams, facility manager for the Warrenville location. "This level is completely variable as challenges are available for people of all athletic abilities, size, weight, age, mental attitude, etc. In addition, climbing is an adrenaline sport. Making it to the top of a scary route or a difficult route is an adrenaline rush—one not easily duplicated, and one that often engages people who are not as apt to participate in team sports."

In search of that adrenaline rush, climbers of all stripes can come to Vertical Endeavors and find a wide variety of programs at various levels of difficulty to engage them and get them hooked on the sport.

"A full-scale climbing gym like Vertical Endeavors offers a wide array of programming, including recreational climbing teams, competitive climbing teams, high school intramural sports, adult training programs, social get-togethers, sanctioned competitions, private lessons, team-building programs, group events, outdoor lessons and trips, advanced training, climbing clinics, demos and climbing presentations, to name a few," Williams said.

Kids in this age group—too old for the playground, too young for the health club—represent an excellent target market for climbing facilities. And with its focus on individual goals and challenges, indoor climbing makes a perfect alternative for kids who eschew traditional school sports, helping to combat childhood inactivity and obesity. Because it's so much fun, it makes it easy to "trick" kids into getting a workout.

"Indoor rock climbing is great for children and teens, simply because it provides the opportunity to try a more exciting activity than traditional school sports and workout plans," Williams explained. "Rock climbing programming also offers metaphors to life, like teamwork, communication, problem-solving, conquering fear, etc."

To get started, organized group climbing experiences with fully trained, experienced staff help beginners build their confidence. "Beginner climbing classes offer a structured way for those ages 14 and up to develop a base of knowledge in the sport," said Noal Ronken, facility manager for the St. Paul location.

Parents may be nervous about getting their children involved in the sport of climbing, but awareness has grown in step with the industry. "As parents begin to understand the controlled environment of the indoor facility versus blindly clawing to a cliff's edge, the 'high risk' stigma has started to fade," Williams said.

Still, managing risk and supervising customers to ensure their safety are top concerns for any climbing facility. "The consequences can be severe due to the height and fall factor," Williams said. "However, the gear used for the sport, when used correctly in an indoor setting, is relatively safe provided it is properly inspected and maintained. The overwhelming majority of incidents and accidents are the result of human error or lack of training," he said, adding that like any athletes, climbers will experience typical sport injuries like strains, pulls, bumps and bruises.

Vertical Endeavors' operations revolve around providing as secure a space as possible, which includes providing the proper equipment, keeping up-to-date on facility maintenance, performing frequent inspections, and responding quickly to incidents. Training is another key component of ensuring a safe climbing facility, Williams said, with training and development continuing from the orientation process through qualifications, checkouts and floor supervision. Finding and training qualified staff has become easier as an increasing number of people have gained experience as climbers, and climbing companies like Nicros can provide comprehensive training programs.

Safety isn't the only critical focus for staff members at Vertical Endeavors though. Increasing participation, Williams explained, is all about providing excellent service.

"If somebody has a great experience in your facility, the likelihood is that they will return and bring others," he said. "Of course, a large facility with quality routes and extensive programming helps to open the sport to more people, but it does not matter how amazing the gym is, if people do not have a good experience. Increasing a climbing customer base begins and ends with customer service."

With staffing and safety firmly in hand, Vertical Endeavors' three locations prove that climbing is within reach for virtually any facility. And with the introduction of simple paneled walls, adding indoor climbing has become more affordable for schools, gyms and recreation centers operating on smaller budgets.

Williams said he believes climbing walls will continue to sprout in recreation centers, health clubs and schools for some time. "There may be a day in which every other school has a bouldering wall in their gymnasium, and maybe one out of 10 has a standard top-rope climbing wall and programs, he said.


Vertical Endeavors:

Nicros Inc.:

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