Rise to the Challenge
Climbing, Ropes Courses, Obstacle Racing & Beyond
By Joe Bush
The past three decades have seen the climb of nontraditional fun in recreation. Zip lines, climbing walls, ropes courses and obstacle racing have risen along with athletic activities like parkour, CrossFit and functional fitness—diversions that involve adrenaline and strength-related exercise.
Climbing dominates this trend, as the instinct from childhood to use playgrounds rungs and bars and handholds to pull oneself up has morphed into vertical walls with grips and foot placements that can be moved around for maximum variety. Inside or out, the all-around use of the body while climbing has attracted fitness and adrenaline junkies alike.
According to Climbing Business Journal, from 2015 to 2016, the number of commercial climbing gyms in the United States increased from 388 to 414, and 43 more sprung up in 2017. That total doesn't include climbing walls in stores or municipal recreation centers. Prepare for this number to continue to, ahem, climb because the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo will feature three climbing categories: sport, speed, and bouldering.
The melding of traditional gyms or yoga studios with climbing gyms seeks to give people flexibility and less reason to choose another location to do both regular fitness and climbing, said Drew White, who manages the climbing programs at the Multnomah Athletic Club in Portland, Ore.
"There's a large group that uses climbing as a substitute for lifting weights or climbing versus playing basketball or instead of a team sport because it is an individual sport that you can do your entire life," White said. "Folks coming out of college are really into fitness, and they're finding climbing gyms to be the end-all and be-all. You can go to yoga, you can do your strength training, you can climb, which is fun and strength-building and community-focused, and when you're done we can all go have a beer together."
Climbing presents all sorts of creative programming possibilities for kids, competitive teams, moms, the disabled and the elderly. White said his club has been around for more than 120 years, and he's trying to help its climbing presence catch up with its much more established swimming and gymnastics programs.
The club boasts 10,000 overall square feet, with 6,500 square feet devoted to all three climbing disciplines.
White said the climbing team has grown 220 percent over the past four years, and he's developed a climbing school for kids who are not interested in a team environment. Adult usage also has increased.
"It's been a problem because we have so much programming going on in such a little space, we're hoping with that uptick in participation that upper management will consider expansion so our adults can grow and thrive," White said. "The climbing gym has evolved from a place where people came to get stronger and then go outside (to climb); it's now a place where people are going to find their community."
If your rec center could use some of that spirit and revenue boost, there's been a coincidental rise in companies that supply climbing walls and gear and programming and advice. Todd Chester, marketing director for a climbing wall, boulder and hold manufacturer based in Bend, Ore., said more and more organizations are studying whether climbing fits into their plans.
"The industry buzzword is exploratory play, and climbing fits right into that role," he said. "Right now we see more park districts looking outdoors into their public parks and creating some bouldering areas."
Bouldering is climbing with no ropes. Chester said until the past five years or so, climbing was about recreation and focused on getting people into the sport. The goal was indoor-to-outdoor transition—people learned in a controlled environment and then took those skills outdoors.
These days indoor climbing is an end in itself because it's turned competitive, said Chester.
"Climbing indoors is a mainstay now. You can see the number of commercial gyms opening across the United States, and the growth of the Climbing Wall Association, the number of athletes transitioning to collegiate competition and youth competitions. These programs are growing by leaps and bounds with USA Climbing."
Chester said this puts more emphasis on route setting—the changing of the handholds on the wall to raise or lower difficulty and add variation. Walls from 10 to 15 years ago were realistic, with a lot of natural features. Today's walls are pretty blank, allowing route setters to be more creative.
"That translates into changing routes more often, and that's good end product for members," he said. "If they change things once a month, you have a month to climb everything and you know different zones are going to change continually and always give you a new environment."
For organizations on the fence about investing in climbing, Chester said there are some crucial first steps. Space availability, budget and risk assessment are the top three, he said. The best situation is if the climbing space will be in a new construction, said Chester.
"We can work while you're designing the building and have an architect involved," said Chester. "You can look at ceiling heights and clear heights, where your rafters are going to be, what we can attach to in that building. These are major things that can affect budget down the road, where we're going to need reinforcements and steel columns to attach to for engineering loads."
Understand what sort of climbing your community wants, said Chester. Whereas bouldering needs no staff facilitation, roped climbing walls require more employee interaction because there are harnesses and ropes, belayers and auto belays. For either kind of climbing, lines of sight are important for safety, much like in aquatics.
Sizes of walls are wide-ranging. If a client has drawings, companies will work with those. If they don't, Chester said his company is happy to advise. Once installation is complete, Chester's company will train staff and consult on maintenance and programming. Chester recommends that facilities use the American Mountain Guides Association for instructor training, with the goal that those trained will then train the next generation of staff.
Christina Frain, marketing director for a Louisville, Colo.-based climbing wall manufacturer, said knowing your present and future membership is perhaps most important. Analyze the user group and target audience. If heavy interest is anticipated, then make room for more climbing lanes.
"All companies can help project that if you want to be able to accommodate 20 people in the space at a time this is how many routes you need to have, and that number changes if you have an auto belay, with 20 people climbing at the same time," Frain said. "Are you going to be teaching climbing skills that relate to rope? Are you going to teach people how to top rope belay, are you going to teach people how to lead climb and lead belay? That needs more staff."
Frain said the smallest budgets can buy DIY wall panels that can mount on any area that has six feet of space for a climber to fall to. These have colors and reliefs, and $10,000 will provide a sufficient-sized space with holds and flooring.
"It's not a particularly interesting thing to climb unless you're a kid, but it's a starting point," Frain said. "Trampoline parks are adding them."
The next level is a modular product, which might include a three- to four-lane climbing tower or wall, 21 to 27 feet high. The next step up is custom, which might include bouldering for a handful of people simultaneously. Larger projects have multiple roped climbing lanes and bouldering terrain.
"It's not quite as ubiquitous as every rec center needs a pool, but it's pretty much everybody building a rec center now they have at least some bouldering and we've done a couple recently. They're getting very close to the size of small climbing gyms," Frain said.
Pools are also adding climbing in their never-ending search to make water play more interesting. Climbing walls mounted at the edge of deep ends allow for risk-free chance-taking, said Leslie Amico, sales manager for a company that sells these walls as well as poolside zip lines and an installation that resembles monkey bars stretching over the water.
"You don't always get to the top on the first try, but if you don't you just splash into the water and try again," said Amico. "It's like experiencing risk in a controlled environment."
Amico said facilities considering adding poolside climbing need to know pool design and depth. Five feet deep is the minimum, she said, but depth has to increase with wall height. Four feet of concrete is necessary for mounting on the deck. Amico said the walls are designed for self-installation as well as easy removal and re-install for events.
The walls come with handholds that can be rearranged, said Amico.
If a facility doesn't feel that climbing is for its membership, perhaps a ropes course is of interest.
Safety always should come first, and auto belays
A dizzyingly combination of climbing walls, rope ladders, bridges, zip lines, mazes and, if desired, a free-fall device provides physical fun for patrons and members and team building or events for companies. Customization based on budget, space and client goals can put all of these features in one structure, or some of them, or provide just one, said Zachary Bergemann, outside sales executive for an Allegan, Mich.-based company that provides ropes courses, zip lines and more.
Themes and colors and add-ons like souvenir photo capability is available, and Bergemann's company provides the product, installation and training for instructors, maintenance and inspectors. There's ROI calculators for every possibility, and much of what's available to grownups is available in kid-sized setups as well.
"Since [our] inception, we have seen a desire for physical adventure attractions with the rise of digital-based entertainment such as (virtual reality)," Bergemann said.can provide a smart way to make climbing safer.
"We find solutions to enable businesses to do what they do," said Chris Koske, director of marketing for a Boulder, Colo,-based manufacturer of auto belays and other safety equipment for climbing, zip lines and more.
"We have this internal saying that we may not build the walls or the adventures, but we power the best ones in the world. Our devices enable businesses to reduce staffing costs, increase user throughput and enable higher speeds in the zip world. We work with people who have great imaginations, and our products help enable them to accomplish their vision."
The recreation industry is in good hands if it wants to try nontraditional features. Climbing is fast becoming traditional, and with the 2020 Summer Olympics featuring it, it may become mainstream even faster.
"It's booming right now, and it's continuing to boom," said Chester. "We don't see a slowdown. Youth programs, commercial gyms adding more space—it's a common story across the country."
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