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."

Leaving the Ropes Behind

Meanwhile, other facilities are attracting new members by eliminating the need to clip in completely during climbing through their bouldering amenities. "Regardless of whether it's the municipal or the commercial markets, we're seeing more bouldering terrain being built than ever before," said Wells. "Whereas 10-plus years ago facilities would be maybe 80 or 90 percent rope climbing to 10 to 20 percent bouldering, now we're looking at facilities that are either wholly bouldering, 60/40 rope climbing to bouldering or 50/50."

In the K-8 market, Whitney's company most often sees traverse walls being installed, because they can be easily added to an existing gym wall to provide a fun climbing experience with less liability risk than a roped wall. The company is also seeing increased interest in walls that have write-on wipe-off surfaces that enable schools to combine climbing with activities and games that involve math, language and other subjects. "Children benefit when movement and learning are integrated, as we're seeing in all kinds of kinesthetic learning studies," Whitney said.

Another low-risk, high-fun and rope-free way to introduce kids to climbing can be through a poolside climbing wall. "We're seeing a lot of them going in where people are taking out old noncompliant three-meter diving boards," said Whitney. "This is a great alternative in those situations because you've already got the depth there and you've already got the space. And when the wall's not in use, you can open up that space again, because the wall only goes out into the pool about two inches."

With products available at a variety of price points, a poolside wall also can be a relatively low-budget way to spike interest in a pool. Whitney cited the example of the Andrew R. Mickle Pool in Gainesville, Fla., which saw attendance more than double in the year after its poolside climbing wall was installed.

Sustaining Their Interests

When it comes to repeat business for a climbing facility, experts agree that thoughtful programming and a dedication to professional and frequent route-setting are critical. "Programming is the life of the business," said Todd Chester, climbing wall product manager for an international climbing wall company with its U.S. headquarters in Bend, Ore. "You can't just open doors, build a wall and then hope that people start lining up. That's not going to happen."

Having a certified route-setter on staff who understands how to set routes for a variety of levels of climbers, will change routes regularly, and is responsible solely for climbing can make a huge difference in a wall's success. It is also helpful to keep the wall readily accessible and open whenever the facility is, as opposed to just a few hours a day.

Newer flat-panel wall designs can reduce the initial cost of a climbing facility while also allowing for greater handhold density, and therefore greater flexibility in route-setting, compared with rock-realistic designs. "It leaves 100 percent of the route-building up to the route-setter," said Chester. "It creates a blank canvas for that person in charge of building the routes — they'll build different levels from beginner to expert and can change those out whenever they want."

A new flexibility also is being seen in challenge courses, where new products are making elements like free-fall-style jumps and zip lines more affordable and more feasible without the need for repeated (and supervised) clipping and unclipping. "A lot of people are learning how to do zip lines and they're coming way down in price," said Liggett.

Liggett also noted that in addition to today's ropes courses allowing for a more self-directed experience, their technologies are also allowing facilities to make each run of the course unique for repeat visitors.

"We're installing RFID in the puck so that every time you go you can have a different experience," he said. "Some elements may shake, some may smoke, some may squirt water into your eye … and with the RFID, how each element will react will be different. So you can program to never have the same experience twice." He noted that repeat visitors on the courses are common, and estimates that 10 percent of visitors are people who come back again and again throughout the summer.

The Bigger, the Better

As the activities grow in popularity, climbing walls and challenge courses are appearing on a grander scale than ever before. Chester noted that while it was once more common for larger fitness centers to focus mainly on fitness, and perhaps have a small climbing wall, he's now seeing the opposite. That is, large multimillion-dollar climbing facilities that incorporate general fitness in a smaller way. "It might be a main 20,000-square-foot area of climbing, but they're also adding yoga, fitness machines and endurance machines. We're seeing big growth in that," he said.

Climbing walls and challenge courses also are being built in an array of larger adventure parks on a scale rarely seen before. For instance, 2013 marked the debut of the largest manmade outdoor rock climbing structure in the world, with 60,000 square feet of rock climbing terrain. It is part of the Boy Scouts of America's extreme sports village at the Summit Bechtel Reserve in Mount Hope, W.Va.

"At the Jamboree last year, we put almost 40,000 scouts through rock climbing courses over a seven-day period," said Wells. "We just introduced 40,000 people to our sport over the course of a week—and I guarantee we changed some people's lives."

Meanwhile, the City of Chicago is currently building Maggie Daley Park, which is set to include the largest manufactured climbing space open to the public in the world, with more than 19,000 square feet of climbing surface.

On the challenge course side, more complex, multilevel courses are also appearing as part of larger sports complexes and adventure parks. "Everybody is trying to add everything they can—that's the whole trick," said Liggett.

One such example is the Oklahoma City Boathouse District, where Liggett's firm built a free-fall experience, a variety of zip lines and a six-level ropes course that Liggett said includes the tallest slide in America. "They wanted to build a destination," he said. "It's a critical mass of things, and these guys are knocking it out of the park on the weekends. Everybody's coming like crazy and climbing all over this thing and having a great time."

At the same time, ever-increasing options for indoor jungle gym elements and obstacle courses also give facilities on modest budgets more options to introduce kids to challenge by choice on a small scale.

As the sport of indoor climbing continues to grow in popularity with legitimate chances of becoming an Olympic event in the near future, climbing wall and challenge course manufacturers see no end in sight. And they see the fun and social aspects of these activities as being the driver of this growth.

"Our sport is terribly social," said Wells of climbing. "A rock climbing wall is the only place in a world where CEOs of high-level Fortune 500 companies are being belayed by guys who live in their van. It's a place where people are finding commonality and a way for people to enjoy fitness and get their social fix."

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