Big Thrills, No Spills

Safety First for Climbing Facilities

By David Mumpower

The explosive growth of indoor rock climbing has generated a lot of attention in recent years. There are already more than 350 indoor climbing facilities operating in the United States alone, and the industry has sustained an annual growth rate of almost 10 percent over the past two years.

With more than 7 million people literally climbing the walls to achieve a pronounced adrenaline rush, many gyms are attempting to attract some of these potential new customers by adding climbing walls. Standalone climbing facilities are also becoming increasingly prevalent in metropolitan areas. There is inherent risk for every climber, however, so one of the strongest steps in enticing consumers to use your gym is to gain a reputation as a safety-first enterprise.

The thrill of climbing is inimitable. Using only one's hands and feet, a person lifts and pulls their way up a vertical wall. Conversely, the danger of outdoor climbing is obvious. The great outdoors doesn't come with safety nets. The genius of indoor facilities is that they can provide thrill seekers with the same adrenaline rush of outdoor climbing but in a controlled environment. A person can receive a tremendous workout, burning approximately 475 calories per hour and building muscle mass without ever jeopardizing their well-being.

At least, that's the theory. In execution, there are occasional injuries at indoor climbing facilities. Such unfortunate situations create negative headlines for the gyms, unfavorable opinions among clientele, and even potential litigation in extreme instances.

Nobody on either side of the business/customer dynamic wants such issues, and the safeguards against them are surprisingly easy to implement. All that is required is awareness by management of the potential areas of concern and the employment of a well-trained staff who serve as on-floor safety protectors.

Before considering your training options, you should understand the primary causes of injury during indoor rock climbing workouts. Rich Johnston, founder of a climbing wall manufacturer based in Lynnwood, Wash., is an originator of American indoor climbing, yet with all of his years of experience in the industry, he cannot recall a single instance where hardware failure has caused an injury. Instead, user error is always the culprit. If used correctly, the straightforward, user-friendly system of hooks and harnesses will safely provide a climbing enthusiast with the workout rush they desire.

If the apparatus is so foolproof, how and why do injuries occur? There are a multitude of reasons why eliminating human error is tricky. Inexperienced climbers are too often allowed to begin a full workout before demonstrating that they completely understand the climbing equipment. Surprisingly, experienced climbers are just as susceptible to injury, if not more so. As Marleigh Hill of a Boulder, Colo.-based climbing wall manufacturer stated, "There is a healthy fear that exists in new climbers." That concern forces them to be safety-conscious throughout the early days of their climbing career. Once climbers lose their initial fear and grow comfortable on the wall, the fear no longer drives them. This is the moment when mistakes are made.

Someone who is distracted by the other aspects of their life such as a job, a family matter or a personal relationship may be sloppy about their wall preparations. Such behavior can have tragic consequences. A climber may fail to recognize that their gear is not properly employed until they reach the top of their ascent. Once they pull the cord to release and rappel downward, they can plummet straight down. This can and has led to at least one recent fatality as well as other serious injuries.

Realistically, most maladies suffered fall in the less alarming realm of a sprained ankle or sprained wrist. Climbing safety experts believe that these injuries are no more common than falling on a treadmill or slipping in a pool, but there can still be liability involved any time a customer has to visit the doctor after a workout.

Clearly, there needs to be a safety check done to ensure that all climbers are correctly tethered to their gear prior to their vertical ascent. Such a task seems simple enough, yet the fact that injuries continue to occur suggests that companies must do a better job of protecting their clientele. The best way to do that is through employee training.

While there is no legal requirement to force one of your workers to gain certification, it is the preferred practice. In 2007, the American Mountain Guides Association introduced the Climbing Wall Instruction Certification "to certify professionals who teach in an indoor or artificial wall environment." The stated intent is "to develop a more consistent standard of care for climbing instructors in the U.S."

In order to earn certification, a potential instructor must be able to climb 5.9 on artificial structures and top rope 5.8. They must also prove that they are "able to belay with an aperture belay device and an assisted locking device in competent, comfortable and confident manner." A person must also demonstrate that they can teach and coach related climbing skills. The testing process requires 20 hours over a two-and-a-half-day period. Once certified, a person is considered qualified to instruct for a period of three years.

Most gym facilities operate under the assumption that having a single certified employee on staff is satisfactory. Dan Jeanette of the Climbing Wall Association, the original organizing body in the industry, notes that following this practice "ensures that each staff member has been trained to standards that are commonly practiced within the industry."

The presumption is that the certified employee will train other co-workers in proper procedures and practices. At an absolute minimum, however, every worker should be trained in first aid and the activation of the Emergency Action Plan. As the industry grows more popular, such certifications could become mandatory. A forward-thinking company will get ahead of the curve by paying for employee certifications now. There is a competitive advantage in having better trained staff.

Of course, there is an added expense in spending money on such training. In addition, a business must consider the cost of staffing, particularly with regard to the ratio of employees to climbers. The answer to this problem may seem counterintuitive, but there are more employees needed per customer at basic gyms. The ratio at these facilities should be an employee for every four or five customers. An exclusive climbing site will not be able to match that ratio, because it would be cost-prohibitive to staff that many people during peak hours. The good news is that it's not needed.

If you operate an indoor climbing facility, the customers are more likely to be a part of the climbing community as a whole. Think of them as power users who can make their own way for the most part. As long as you perform safety measures to guarantee that they are following standard procedure at all times, a lower staff ratio is perfectly acceptable. In fact, Johnston believes that ratios are only important for individual classes rather than general activities.

Another crucial determination a facility must make involves responsibility. Once a customer enters the building, who is accountable for their safety? Johnston, an avid outdoor climber, notes that the situation is reversed indoors. Whereas someone scaling an outdoor rock or cliff is in charge of their own preventive measures, it is the opposite for indoor climbing. The facility should bear the onus for the customer's protection.

"There are a certain set of protocols or things that should happen before the customer gets to the wall." Johnston points out that these responsibilities include getting a signed waiver, the duty to inform guests of individual site rules, the operation of specific local equipment and the importance of a proper belay check. A company is derelict if they fail in any of these regards. Only once these tasks have been accomplished does the user become responsible for their own safety.

In considering how to create an environment that is virtually risk-free, remember the origins of the sport. Mountain climbing and outdoor rock climbing are intended to involve a significant social element. A pair of climbers operates as a unit, with one of them checking the security of the other's belay then vice versa. In an indoor facility, solo climbs are much more likely. The standard practices should remain the same, though.

Once a person visits your site, they should be tested to determine their skill level. Anyone new to climbing should be expected to pass a basic training class. A couple of hours of training could be enough to prepare them for their first climb, but always err on the side of caution. A veteran climber will want to attack the wall as quickly as possible. You must still ensure that they understand the differences in your company's safety regulations. Then, there should be apparatus in place to identify when a solo climber fails to prepare correctly for their workout.

The most likely cause for mishap is an improperly tethered belay. Because the issue has become the most prevalent for potential injuries, companies have built their own safety gear to negate the problem. Jeanette and Hill both point to one auto-belay manufacturer's latest innovation, the belay gate. Jeanette describes it as "a physical barrier that a climber must interact with in order to use the auto-belay." In lieu of a partner check, it is a great way to guarantee correct tethering.

Another popular manufacturer has patented an auto-belay safety system. Its intent is to identify any improperly tethered climber on the wall. If this occurs, an alarm will sound and a light will change color to notify the staff as well as the climber of the issue.

If you don't want to splurge on these new technologies, an old-school approach is also available. You can require any solo user to get their gear checked by a fellow climber prior to accessing the wall. Jeanette said, "All efforts are designed to add an additional layer of protection to a climber utilizing an auto belay station."

Once the safety measures are in place, the fun part begins. Route settings elevate climbing workouts by adding variety to the climbing experience. You can craft a wall to maximize your clients' endurance, strength and balance. Power users also relish challenging speed runs as a way to add a level of competition to an ordinary exercise routine. When route setting, you should determine the basic concept, goal and difficulty of the challenge. Although the temptation exists to create the type of course that will immediately lead to viral videos on YouTube, make sure your employees realize that safety is more important to the vast majority of customers.

With the safety of your clientele assured, you can focus on the area of revenue generation via programming. Whether the gym guest is a new or veteran climber, they are likely to be interested in classes. Because solo climbing lacks the social element so important to the sport, proper programming fosters a sense of inclusion for all participants. You should provide a comfortable environment for visitors starting the moment they enter the facility. Make certain the client realizes that in order to gain access to the wall, they must complete their first program, which is a competence test. Calling it a program rather than a test negates people's innate fear of being graded. This will also provide positive reinforcement and a sense of achievement once the program is completed.

Programming represents a means of sustaining interest in rock climbing. Remember that the introduction to climbing is but the first step. Provide intermediate and advanced classes in order to enable climbers with a path to self-improvement in their new sport. Also, one-on-one training should be an option, as many customers prefer a more intimate learning experience and are willing to pay for the privilege. If you want to entice younger climbers, consider offering programs that will enable Girl and Boy Scouts and the like to gain badges by completing such classes.

Given the explosive popularity of indoor rock climbing, you should consider adding such services to your facility. You owe it to your current as well as your future clients to remain focused on safety in your new enterprise. Require many if not all of your staff members to be certified and provide programs to ensure that everyone on the wall is properly trained and belayed. Presuming you follow these guidelines and offer a great combination of routes and classes, your climbing business will generate a solid revenue stream for years to come.

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