Scaling New Heights

Harness the Popularity of Climbing to Take Your Facility to the Top

By Kelli Anderson

Say the word "climber" and for many of us a thrill-seeking renegade comes to mind. However, a more accurate picture these days bears little resemblance to the one of 20 years ago.

"I think originally it was a tiny community," said Natasha Fischer, head rock-climbing guide for High Country Outfitters in Atlanta, Ga. "Now the client is the 9-year-old boy scout to the 50-year-old woman who read about it in a magazine."

No matter the purpose—whether for serious climbers, for those seeking out its social and recreational component, or for those who've discovered its great application as a fitness tool—climbing is pan-demographic, reaching enthusiasts from male to female, young to old and all ethnicities.

"The population has changed," Fischer observed. "And they can bring in revenue."

Fit for the Job

Perhaps one of the greatest areas of climbing's crossover into the mainstream can be seen in its application for fitness. Just as lifting weights was once seen as an activity relegated to a macho-few but is now a staple in the fitness regimen, so climbing's application as a fitness tool is attracting a wider audience.

As a way to train, there is an enormous cardiovascular component as well as an application for strength training and improved balance.

"We're seeing a fitness movement," Fischer said. "It's a full-body workout—it's fun, it's spiritual and it's mental. For people who don't like gyms, it's perfect."

For many people, getting a traditional workout simply isn't fun. But it can be.

"One fitness director at our branch found out people weren't interested in the treadmill or machines," said Jay Buckmaster, branch executive director of the Northwest Branch YMCA in Wichita, Kan. "It was boring. He had people try the climbing wall and integrate it into their program, and it's worked."

Schools, too, eager to find fitness equipment for their students, have discovered climbing's great for building muscle, balance and endurance. Youth fitness facilities also have discovered *the benefits to be gained from bouldering—a form of climbing without equipment—and not only tout the effects of using long, low, fixed bouldering walls, but also like using training-dedicated climbing equipment with moving panels.

In Wilmington, Del., Brandywine High School's proposal for a specialized climbing wall grant was so compelling that they received the entire $10,000 needed at a time when physical education grants were hard to come by. With a proposed goal to virtually climb Mount Everest, the equipment could measure each student's accumulated distance and calories burned in their quest to reach "the summit."

Ten years later, their moving-paneled climbing wall has proven its value to their program over and over.

"We wanted to stay as cutting-edge as possible," said Sandy Kupchick, physical education instructor at the school. "We want to show them that so many things can provide lifetime fitness. The students enjoy it, have fun and continue to come back to it and use it. It's been well worth the money."

Even athletic teams are getting in on the workout benefits of climbing and it's being used as a regular fitness tool. Ironically, however, it is climbing's nontraditional image and ability to reach out to the non-athlete that makes it especially useful.

In a world where basketball clearly isn't for everyone, climbing is a perfect alternate outlet to team sports, helping build confidence, character and friendships while also building muscle.

"We've had moms come to us saying they can't believe how much more confident their son or daughter is," Buckmaster said. "They're walking taller. They see success there."

Josh Keith, a science department chair at Hyde School in Bath, Maine, has seen similar results.

"In my experience, students are drawn to the challenge and perceived risk of climbing. It is a very safe and controlled environment for students to challenge their mental and physical boundaries," Keith said. "It stresses the concepts of repetition and encourages students to risk failure. Many times learning a route may involve five to 15 failures, but instead of viewing failure as a negative, failure becomes part of the culture. The attempt is valued over the success."

Climbing wall programs and products even specialize for academic application, with wall holds designed to mark out levels of difficulty as they correspond to spelling out sentences or solving mathematical equations.


Perhaps climbing's most amazing ability is to bridge the greatest divide of them all—the generation gap. Whether it's something that goes back to our deepest ancestral roots of the jungle or just to the more recent past of our own childhood, climbing attracts just about every person imaginable. But it doesn't take a 40-foot sculptural monolith to get their attention.

When the parks and recreation department of Kyle, Texas, added a climbing structure that mimicked the look and feel of a real boulder to one of its parks, they were not expecting the response it created.

"The very first day after we installed the boulder we had kids of all ages climbing it," said Kerry Urbanowicz, director of Kyle Parks and Recreation. "The very first person was a 23-year-old woman who just had to try it out! If I go out to the park right this moment, I will find someone on it, guaranteed. It's a huge draw for the park."

The boulder's popularity was so strong, in fact, that lights were installed to permit kids of all ages to enjoy it until the park closes each night. Now, with 12 climbing boulders installed around the city so far, the park district is committed to having one in each of its parks.

In Corpus Christi, Texas, the response was the same. After checking out other parks and noticing that climbing was the go-to spot for kids, the city of Corpus Christi decided to give it a try.

"Boulders are great. They're attractive to kids because it's a challenge—but it's not just the kids," said Billy Delgado, superintendent of parks and special projects for the city. "It's the dads showing they can still do it. Ever since we installed them, we see more and more children and families going. That's rewarding."

And it only stands to reason that the popularity and ease of use for such exterior structures would lend themselves to interior and programming applications too. Bouldering is growing by leaps and bounds.

"Bouldering is huge and on the increase," said David Chambers, the assistant director of the student recreation center at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. "It's kind of a no-ropes, minimal-equipment alternative, which is all about power, strength and balance. People can do it on their own."

Part of that shift to bouldering has a lot to do with the social component the new caliber of climbers bring to the scene.

"There's been a move to a social environment," said Adam Koberna, vice president of a climbing wall manufacturing company. "That's a big part of it—to create a social space—and in that, bouldering is number one."

As little as three years ago such manufacturers had to educate clients about the benefits to be found from long and low bouldering designs, but not anymore. Customers, especially non-climbers (read: facility managers) are requesting them up front and often.

On the Ropes
Challenge Courses Still Swinging Into Action

Challenge courses, like their climbing wall cousins, continue to grow in popularity and application as groups seek them out to provide adventurous physical, emotional and psychological workouts while experiencing a healthy helping of fun to go with it. Put simply, it's going mainstream.

Although companies continue to develop a broader range of challenge course elements—team-based elements in particular—recent developments in the industry are also indicating a blurring of lines between courses used for more educational purposes versus those for recreational fun.

"The adventure and amusement line is getting blurred with the explosion of canopy tours," said Peter Aubry, a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist with a master's degree in sports leisure exercise sciences. "Ski resorts, for example, which will add an environmental component to their tours, might not call it a challenge course but it uses the same equipment. Resorts are incorporating the use of zip lines, cable walking and hiking such as the tour offered in Waifish, Mont."

Tom Zartman, president of a challenge course company out of Pineola, N.C., agreed. "We are starting to see challenge courses go recreational," he explained. "But we've had a lot of success with group-oriented high challenge courses in particular. It's still about teamwork and team-building."

Aubry also sees a movement toward more group activities, where static belay methods are ideally suited to move entire groups—such as a college orientation group of 300—though a high course more efficiently.

Resorts such as The Greenbrier in West Virginia are among those installing challenge courses to offer corporate team-building options for patrons, while hospitals are beginning to use them to for patients with disabilities, and universities are seeing the benefits to be had for their teens and young adults.

As a result of challenge courses becoming more mainstream, however, not only has the number of vendors exploded in the past 10 to 15 years, but regulations in the industry are soon to follow.

"Gone are the days of going into Camp Run-amuck with no permits," Zartman observed. "In four to five years everyone will have to have a level one or two certification—it's another indication that the industry is becoming more mainstream."

Trade organizations like the Association of Challenge Course Technology (ACCT) and the Professional Ropes Course Association (PRCA) are already developing standards, which are expected to be translated into national standards in the near future. However, some states, like Massachusetts, have decided not to wait and have issued their own regulations.

All in the Family

From boulders in playgrounds to climbing walls in daycare centers to schools using climbing walls for fitness fun, kids of recent generations are more familiar than ever with the climbing experience, and they're bringing their parents along for the ride.

With parents looking for more ways to connect with their kids, climbing walls are becoming a popular family-building activity. "One thing we are seeing more is parents getting certified to belay so they can belay their own kids," Buckmaster said. "They want to be the ones to see them succeed and overcome. It turns into a great family time."

And it's a win-win for the facility. Although the climbing wall at the Northwest Branch YMCA is staffed two to three hours each day during prime time, non-staffed hours allow adults with belay certification to still use the wall and to include their kids or friends.

What is even more compelling is the climbing wall and bouldering structure's ability to attract the most elusive of recreational facility clientele—the teenager.

"This boulder is the only thing we have that teenagers play on," Urbanowicz said. "We can go out to the park after school today and find teenagers all over it. We also find moms and dads climbing it while their younger kids are playing on other features. The focus with our parks department is to offer more things for teens. This filled our niche."

For facilities more focused on climbing programming, teen response is outright phenomenal. For MetroRock, a climbing gym in Everett, Mass., which opened its cavernous facility to urban-dwellers in 2004, teens and college students have become a big part of their clientele, thanks to savvy marketing and programming.

"The biggest change is new climbers and a shift in a lot more youth," said Bruce Yap, owner and manager of the facility. "Our Newburyport location has strong high school teams who hang out there. Bands play there—it's a cool place to hang out. Parents like it too—it's a safe environment."

MetroRock's most notable success began with their early recognition of Facebook's value as a teen marketing tool, followed by the creation of a Friday Night Rocks program, a designated student night to which the teens flocked and brought their friends. From there programming has gone on to include theme nights, mini-competitions, glow-in-the-dark climbing and live music performances. For an activity that retains its "edgy" persona but is statistically safer than riding in a car and has less injuries than more familiar sports like gymnastics or soccer, climbing is a perfect draw for kids wanting something at which they can feel successful and even cool.

Reaching the Summit:
Good Programming

No matter how breathtaking the climbing structure, in the end, without good programming, it can become nothing more than a very expensive decoration. Here are some programming suggestions that have been key to the success of facilities with climbing walls:

  • Know thyself: Identify your target audiences and state your mission's desired outcomes clearly to chart your course and differentiate yourself from the competition. Are you more about sport? Recreation? Social interaction? Or education? Are your patrons all ages? Mostly newbies or diehard climbers?
  • Get competitive: Perhaps nothing builds a program faster than creating competitive opportunities—especially for kids. From casual, competitive fun nights offering prizes to serious high school and university teams, this is where the youth market can reach amazing new heights.
  • Go progressive: Offer classes to increase climbing levels. When you promote them from the "Spiders" class to the next "Tarantula" level, kids enjoy the fun of belonging to groups that help them excel.
  • Adults only: As much as we love our children, there are times when they can figuratively make us climb the walls. Offering adult-only climbing courses and hours can give everyone a much-needed break.
  • Theme it: Offer themed nights like women's night out, glow-in-the-dark nights, band nights or nights to invite a friend. The sky's the limit.
  • A league of their own: Less formal than bowling, teams of four meet each week for several weeks to climb and submit their highest climbing scores. Winners get to split the entrance fees as their reward for a job well done.
  • Challenge them: Create challenges like a mile-high challenge or scaling Mount Everest to create a goal for patrons to reach over a period of time.
  • Change routes: Boredom is the enemy of the climbing wall. Be sure to change routes often to keep climbing experiences fresh.
  • Teach to the test: Assuming that a simple-to-climb bouldering wall will be fun in and of itself will lead to bored users after one or two climbs. Though they require little to no equipment, bouldering walls still require education. Teaching newbies the strategies and methods of climbing will reveal the fun of the challenge.

Experience of a Lifetime

Yap noted that climbing is going mainstream, which is reflected in its use in after-school programs and climbing teams. As kids become more exposed to climbing at younger ages through programs at summer camps, daycare, school fitness programs and climbing gyms, it makes recreational and fitness climbing a lifelong pursuit.

"I think it's an exciting option for a lifetime sport," said Bill Zimmerman, executive director of the Climbing Wall Association (CWA). "If upfront and early, it's simply a matter of improvement and growth curve. As a lifetime sport, it's a great means for number retention."

When the Santa Monica Family YMCA in Santa Monica, Calif., decided they wanted to bring more variety to participants for their workouts, they installed a 27-foot-high and 40-foot-wide climbing wall this past June on an unused gym wall. The initial attraction of the wall brought in patrons who then went on to investigate the rest of their facility and liked what they saw.

"The numbers definitely changed," said Audrey Meyer, youth and family director of the facility. "We've had people join just because of the wall. They like the variety of different walls in the community, and membership has increased in all age groups from 3 to 75."

Changing Course

Similarly, contributing to the growth of membership of the Paul Derdra Recreation Center of Broomfield, Colo., was the recognition that an effective route-setting system and good programming was a must. They knew that just installing a climbing structure or even offering some classes was not going to be enough to create the earmarks of success—long-lasting interest and retention.

"You can't put a wall in like a cactus and just water it once a month," Zimmerman explained. "Where most people don't get it is they do a capital campaign to build a wall but won't spend $2,000 dollars to train staff or change route settings. Route setting is key to keeping it fresh."

While there is no one-size-fits-all number for route-setting schedules, it is a management issue that warrants close attention. Boredom is the enemy of the climbing program. While many facilities will tell you that they change their routes every two months, some may be monthly while others change routes only every three months. Thankfully, there is a guideline publication that takes the guesswork out of the problem.

The Route Setter's Guide, published by the CWA, along with the industry Bible also known as Industry Practices are resources no climbing program should be without.

If frequent route changes keep the climbing experience fresh, then equally important but also a challenge is finding good route setters. "We change our routes every two months," Buckmaster said. "It's critical to get good route setters, especially for diehards."

Other facilities that hold regular competitions even hire from outside to set the more challenging routes while at some facilities, like at SMU's Climbing Tower, staff will even set a particular route for a particular person in an effort to keep patrons challenged.

Service With a Smile

Keeping it challenging and fresh is certainly one part of the equation. Service-oriented staff would be the other.

"We try to build community," Chambers said. "I'd rather have an average-level climber but who is friendly and outgoing and wants to help people than the best climber. A new person will remember how they were treated, how they were helped and how our staff behaved. We're such a personal service society."

With a proactive approach to put everyone at ease, Chambers trains his staff to look for signs indicating that a patron may be puzzled about what to do next or where to go. Looking for opportunities to come to the rescue is all part of the package.

When the Greater Wichita YMCAs put in their second climbing wall in December 2002, they had certainly learned the value of good staff.

"It boils down to staff and leadership," said Dennis Schoenebeck, general executive of the regional organization. "Some kids aren't athletes—no self-confidence. We have life-changing staff with plenty of success stories. Good leadership has created a progressive program, and they've nailed it. Every time I go, the climbing wall is busy."

MetroRock, a world-class competitive sport climbing facility, also shares the view that hiring the right trainers is key, believing that to an extent climbing is all a service industry in which staff has a huge impact. Knowing safety requirements, knowing what it's all about is a good place to start, but it's also about a customer-friendly face and positive attitude. First impressions are especially important. Beginners will be more likely to become return clients when they experience a safe, friendly and enjoyable first visit.

If You Build It…

When it comes to first impressions, it also doesn't hurt to place a new climbing wall where everyone can see it—up front and center.

"When we opened our new facility one-and-a-half years ago, we included a climbing wall, a bouldering area and play area for kids to interact," Schoenebeck said. "They're in the lobby, and they're attractive and interactive. We knew we wanted it to entice participation. Location is critical."

The 40-foot freestanding structure is encased in glass, which can be seen by passing motor traffic and adds an additional "wow!" element. Thinking ahead, the YMCAs will have three such walls in different buildings but will ensure that each is different from the others to offer the variety that patrons are looking for in their climbing experience.

Space around a wall is also critical. Allowing room for climbers to sit while they wait for their turn, for family and friends to watch or even room to just lay down on the floor to problem-solve a new route is a must. Additionally, when there is a variety of climbing structures, it is important to make sure that one group will not be in the way of another.

Whether you are one of many who have discovered climbing's appeal and benefits for your clients or one of the diminishing holdouts reticent to venture into this fun-and-fitness territory, the fact is that climbing structures and programming possess ever-evolving and even yet-untapped potential. No matter your experience (or lack thereof), its revenue-generating power and multigenerational draw make its addition to your facility—or improving what you already know—well worthwhile.

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