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.

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.

A Higher Education

In addition to their spread in parks departments, climbing walls have also been constructed at many colleges and universities to complement students' educational experience, while also serving as showcase features on campus. "A lot of university climbing walls used to be located in the back of rec centers, usually someplace like an old racquetball court," said Jeff Huskey, associate director of Campus Recreation at Colorado State University (CSU). "Today, they have gone from being a very functional facility to being an aesthetic one. Our climbing tower is in the lobby of our rec center. It's very attractive and impressive-looking, and it's the first stop on our admissions tours."

Given its Fort Collins, Colo., location, CSU has a large climbing community, but also attracts a large population of out-of-state students with no climbing experience who come to CSU wanting to experience the outdoors. "We didn't have a good mechanism to get them from being novice climbers to that comfort zone of being at an intermediate to expert level," said Huskey. "Having a climbing wall we can program to teach people how to climb helps them move toward being able to go out and enjoy the areas that we have around us."

CSU features four different climbing structures in its new rec center that provide a good snapshot of the climbing-wall options available to facilities today. CSU's facility includes an indoor climbing tower and bouldering wall, a poolside climbing wall and an outdoor boulder outside the front door. Each structure serves a different purpose. The climbing wall gives students the opportunity to learn the top-rope climbing and belaying skills they need for outdoor climbing. The poolside climbing wall, complete with waterfall, functions more as a play feature that's popular with faculty and staff children and summer-camp groups. "It's not very tall—the hardcore climbers get bored with it very quickly," said Huskey. "What we hope is that a student tries the climbing wall in the pool and it's a gateway to trying the bouldering wall or tower because they now feel more comfortable with climbing."

Of all the structures, the bouldering areas are in greatest demand, in part because they require no harnesses or belaying skills. Bouldering also tends to be a more social activity than top-rope climbing, which is typically more partner-based. "I think campus climbing facilities need the climbing tower to teach students climbing skills," said Huskey. "But the bouldering area is where we see the majority of our usage. Bouldering walls are like fitness space or storage space—you can never have enough. My advice to someone looking to design and build a campus facility would be to go heavier on the bouldering space than the tower space."

A Group Challenge

Unlike CSU's climbing facilities, which mainly serve the student population, the university's challenge course relies on attracting outside groups. "We are constantly balancing our subsidized events for students against our revenue-producing events for non-students," said Rodney Ley, who oversees the course as assistant director of Campus Recreation. Ley estimates that CSU students comprise just 25 to 35 percent of the course's clientele, depending on the season.

The course gets the largest proportion of its outside business from public school groups, which come from as far away as Nebraska. It also serves other universities such as the University of Wyoming that don't have their own challenge course. While the program is 20 percent subsidized, according to Ley, "There's no questioning the positive energy that comes back from other universities and regional school districts. The goodwill generated by this program actually has a value."

This kind of group-style programming approach is also common in recreation and parks department challenge courses. For example, while Charleston County's climbing wall operates on a pay-for-play model, its challenge course program caters to groups on a reservation-only basis. Like Charleston's, Iredell County's challenge course program also emerged from an outdoor-education approach and focuses on groups.

Experts agree that effective course design can enhance this team-building dynamic. Charleston County replaced its previous-generation tower and pole-style high course with a new course design in 2010. While the previous pole course could only have one person up on an element at a time, the new course allows up to six people to go through the course and be on each of the elements together. "It helps solidify the idea that there is a team up in the air together having to work through those elements," said Palka.

Ley recommends designing a challenge course for groups with bushes or other elements as separation so that two disparate groups can use the course at the same time, and stresses that offering a variety of course elements is critical for attracting repeat visitors. "We have clients that return year after year and have never repeated the same experience," said Ley. "Variety of structures gives you flexibility in programming."

Hepler recommends also thinking from the start about where you see the program going. "You should be intentional in planning for any future growth," she said. "Where do you see the facility in five years? In 10 years?" Consider also whether an access-prevention plan will be needed for the course when it's unattended. And look at the expected life of both the course and of required equipment. "One harness may be manufactured by a company that recommends it be replaced in five years, another by a company that recommends it be replaced in 10. It's important that managers be aware of these considerations when purchasing equipment," said Hepler.

The kinds of groups you want to serve should also shape both course design and staffing decisions. "The facilitators are the product," said CSU's Ley. "If you hire high school and college students, you'll have a high school/college program. We have several people with master's degrees and licensed family therapists on staff and can deliver a really high-quality program for rehabilitation groups. We work with Larimer County Correction inmates. You can't do that with high school and college facilitators."

A Taste for Adventure

Facilities looking for a challenge course-style attraction with more revenue-generating punch than educational appeal may also consider a zip line or canopy tour. According to Bradd Morse of Canopy Tours Inc., who recently opened New York Zipline Adventure Tours at the Hunter Mountain ski resort—which includes the fastest, longest and highest zip line in North America—zip lines are the fastest-growing form of ecotourism in the world. "The reason is that the financial model of the zip line tour and these adventure parks are most unique and quite profitable," he said. "The overhead is minimal, the impact to the land is minimal, and you can highlight and show off your area in a way that's most unique."

According to Morse, zip lines and aerial adventure parks have become so successful, in part, because of a perception of risk that outstrips reality. "You just think what you're doing is crazy, and that's what sells the tickets, but it's really quite safe for the most part."

And because they require nothing of participants other than the courage to step off the platform, zip lines are attracting patrons who might find a high ropes course or climbing wall too daunting. "They're like the entry into more advanced tours," Morse said. "Once people realize 'I can do this because it's pretty safe,' then they're more likely to go and try an obstacle or challenge course."

But Morse also stressed that a zip line isn't right for everybody. "You've got to look at where you're at, where you're going, what the community around you has. There's no right formula."

The same could be said of climbing walls and challenge courses. All three can offer memorable, unconventional and rewarding experiences for patrons—should you decide the time and situation is right to take your facilities to new heights.

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