Facility Owners Must Choose Climbing Wall to Match Interest Levels of Patrons
Dan Hague, a managing partner in Climbing Wall Management LLC of Washington, D.C., admits to the climbing-gym-goer's bias — real climbers don't like real rock — even as he expresses an admiration for what wall manufacturers are able to accomplish aesthetically.
"They look fantastic, but with a freeform wall you can't make a section of wall more difficult than the holds that are formed into the surface," Hague says. "It just limits what you can do as a climber."
While Hague believes that such difficulties will almost always limit a wall's appeal — "If the aim is to provide a wall that people will enjoy once in a while, maybe that's the best product," he says — he nonetheless feels that underutilization of climbing walls is most often due not to the type of wall selected, but to poor wall management.
"There are any number of reasons why climbing facilities are underutilized," he says, listing poor route-setting, restrictions on the use of gymnastic chalk and limited hours of operation. "Everybody wants to have a climbing wall, but they're not the easiest things to manage. It's not like having a treadmill, where you just put it out there and people use it. It has to be managed constantly."
Loue is the Akron wall's primary route-setter, but students do it, as well, as part of their climbing education. One of the things they learn is that while an obvious objective is to keep climbers engaged and interested, there are more serious risk management issues involved. For example, the natural formations in the freeform wall must always be taken into account so one climber on a ledge isn't in danger of being struck by a second climber, or so a climber doesn't reach a certain point in the wall and then get stranded.
"The people who climb on our wall with regularity know how to manipulate natural holds to their advantage because they're used to climbing them," Loue says. "We can throw a little kink in their system by just changing the way we mark the hold, or the direction they approach the hold, or what have you. But we have to be very concerned about what population we serve, and whether we're serving them in an appropriate way. The way you put the holds up really matters; you don't want to do anything that could compromise the safety of climbers by putting them in an awkward position or hurt them because of the style of hold you use. You don't just throw things onto the wall."
Increasingly, sculpted rock formations including ledges and fissures are seamlessly combined with flat, untextured panel systems.
That said, many climbing wall owners throw volunteer users into route-setting — a typical inducement is a reduced-price membership — something that rankles a lot of industry pros.
"What's particularly frustrating for me is that people will spend $300,000 on a wall and they won't spend $5,000 to get their staff trained to use it properly, or train some of their staff to become proficient in route-setting," Zimmerman says. "It's mind-boggling to me."
"Management of a wall is a specialized activity," adds Hague, echoing the plea for avoiding volunteers. "There are a lot of climbers out there who don't have any expertise in managing a wall. It's a big jump, even if you know climbing."
Alongtime climbing industry veteran recalls a meeting that took place last year in a conference room at a major Midwest university. At issue was the climbing wall, the type of which had not yet been selected. On one side of the room sat representatives of the school's administration and recreation department, all of whom were advocating the purchase of a stunning, enormous pinnacle of real-looking rock. On the other side of the room sat representatives of the school's climbing community, nearly all of whom were opposed to the grand architectural statement.
Increasingly, the option selected is ... both. And the result appears to be greater engagement of climbers at the outset and over time, and the ability to demonstrate the breadth of the outdoor climbing experience indoors.
"Some people learn how to climb inside, some learn outside," says Loue. "Those who learn inside are more attuned to bouldering, and sometimes they don't like the variety our big wall provides — it gives them too many options. Those who learn outside really appreciate the wall's natural features. There are definitely different ways to learn rock climbing."
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