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Climbing Wall Basics

Location, programming, staffing and marketing all play a role in the success of your facility's climbing wall.

Climbing and bouldering walls have broadened the appeal of rock climbing. However, the sport retains a specialized image, and requires foresight in design, strong promotion and programming, and enthusiastic staffing to ensure that the wall will be well-used. Climbing has an edge over repetitive gym-based exercise because of the thrills, skill and challenge involved. Members may join your fitness center purely on the basis that it has a climbing wall, and to all facility visitors, a climbing wall can present an impressive visual impact.

Climbing continues to be a fast-growing sport, and climbing walls have broadened its appeal with the convenience and comfort of indoor facilities. When deciding whether to install a wall in your fitness center, consider design, location, atmosphere, maintenance, routing and marketing to ensure your climbing facility is a success.

Finding the right wall

Approach wall suppliers to help you focus on the climbing concept most suited to your situation. Brewer's Ledge, Boston, Mass., poses a straightforward question to its clients: "What are your goals?" A fitness center may be looking to create a complete climbing center, a simple place to experience a bit of rope work or a feature to help promote the fitness center as a whole. Conant Brewer, president of Brewer's Ledge, says this consultation phase is critical, as clients often have never clarified the purpose of their climbing facility.

The second question Brewer's Ledge asks is about staffing: "At what level are you willing to devote resources?" The level of staffing is an essential consideration that affects the type and size of climbing facility that can be operated. There are a variety of issues to factor into the design stage. "I often tell clients that a climbing area should be treated like a pool," says Brewer. They have to approach it with long-term operational aspects in mind, including safety, staffing, programming, etc.

Shane S. Riffle, senior program director of Ralph J. Stolle Countryside YMCA, Lebanon, Ohio, says the main considerations when designing a climbing facility are cost of construction and operation, potential usage, marketing opportunities and programming potential.


Location is essential for climbing walls. Climbing walls can provide fitness centers with a visual feast, which can attract not only users but can entertain observers. Situating your climbing wall behind the reception area, for example, can provide a striking backdrop.

Alternatively, climbing features can be accommodated in existing spaces where no other use is viable. Manufacturers can tailor walls to fit previously unused areas. This is particularly so with bouldering, which requires less height, and doesn't require ropes and belays.

Many facilities have found an opportunity to convert underused areas to climbing. Countryside YMCA, for instance, converted a racquetball court into a climbing facility. To help create atmosphere, it painted a mural of Arches National Park on one of the open walls.


Atmosphere is a key component in design, and can have a powerful effect on the popularity of your climbing area. Dirk Bockelmann, director of sales at The Boulder Rock Club and the Colorado Mountain School (BRC), Estes Park, Colo., says that his facility pays attention to dust management, lighting and temperature control, and ensures music is upbeat and suitable.

What type of climbers will use your wall also needs to be considered. "When designing a facility, location, size and orientation of 'climber-specific' areas versus 'programming-specific' areas must all be taken into account," says Bockelmann. Programming refers to activities such as birthday parties, classes and events.


There are also equipment issues to consider, one of the key ones being whether to use auto belay systems. On the one hand, Brewer's Ledge has used Rose auto belays for many years. "They work well, and I think are better suited than the air-over-hydraulic systems for mixed-use facilities and for non-amusement-type facilities," says Brewer. He adds that they are simple to use and easy to send back for maintenance and service.

On the other hand, BRC does not use auto belay systems. "They would allow our members to use the facility when they do not have a climbing partner; however, they require significant training and maintenance," says Bockelmann.


Once you have your climbing facility installed, whether it is successful in large part depends on the energy of those staffing it. "We hire people who are friendly and safety-conscious," says Riffle. "You can teach skill, but good customer service is a must."

BRC looks primarily for teaching experience and technical climbing knowledge. "Climbing skills do not necessarily take priority over teaching skills, or safety and technique," says Bockelmann. "So good communicators and organized leaders are good candidates."

Maintenance is often taken care of in-house. And Brewer says that, with most facilities, maintenance is usually handled by in-house staff. "The key issues on belayed walls are rope and belay inspections, documentation of all maintenance and trying to keep the holds clean," he says.

BRC takes care of most of its maintenance internally, overseen by its manager of operations. "Safety (ropes, anchors, holds and quickdraws) is far and away the most important part of wall maintenance," says Bockelmann.

Riffle says Countryside YMCA cleans holds and performs daily safety inspections. In addition, he says the climbing wall is annually inspected by an Association for Challenge Course Technology-certified builder. He adds that it is important to follow the manufacturer's instructions to ensure a well-maintained wall.


As climbers grow familiar with a wall, existing routing patterns (i.e., where the holds are placed) can lose their initial challenge. Change keeps people interested. "Route-setting, from a manufacturer's perspective, is never done enough," says Brewer. "This is an area that, as climbing grows to many different types of facilities, could stand much more work and thought."

Another potential risk with climbing gyms, says Brewer, is that routes that are "easy" and interesting for staff members are too hard for members. Holds for easier routes can easily be color-coded to different levels of expertise. In addition, minor route changes can be made frequently, with major changes done periodically.

BRC changes its entire route library every two months. This means all holds and tape are on the wall for a maximum of two months. "Our course-setting team manages this process, led by the manager of operations, who uses a bell curve graph to cater to all levels of climber," says Bockelmann.

Countryside YMCA changes its climbing wall route on a weekly basis. "Staff ...are allowed to create new routes after they are trained about proper hold installation," says Riffle.


Peak wall usage tends to run parallel with the normal working day. Peak hours at BRC are from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Thursday. The facility's largest user group is between the ages of 18 and 40. Peak hours for the climbing wall at Countryside YMCA are 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. in the winter.

At the Y, a wide age-range of members uses the climbing wall, from as young as four years old to older adults. "We try not to attract the hard-core climbers, so as not to intimidate our beginner population," says Riffle. "For us, it is a fun way for members to experience this sport in a ... non-intimidating environment."

Brewer's Ledge hopes to introduce more childrento the challenge of climbing with its KidWall and WingWall. The patented Natural Pace technology on the TreadWall rotates the wall only when kids climb, staying 1 to 2 feet off the floor.

While the safety and convenience of climbing walls, bouldering and climbing machines like TreadWall have broadened the appeal of climbing, it is still far from being an all-inclusive activity. Older adults, obese people and those with disabilities are largely excluded by the nature of the activity. However, it is not difficult to imagine equipment aids that would, for example, support some of the climber's weight or compensate for disabilities. "As far as I am aware of, there are no commercially available devices to assist disabled climbers," says Bockelmann. However, he gives an inspirational example of one of the BRC members, Malcolm Daly, president of climbing gear company Trango, who lost his leg in an accident but climbs several times per week using a custom-made prosthetic limb.

Broadening the appeal too much threatens to dilute one of the main attractions of rock climbing's appeal to the existing pool of committed climbers: Climbing is seen as an edgier sport, something a little different. It's an attractive image for people wanting to be adventurous.

A downside is that climbing is still viewed as a specialized activity and, therefore, it is most suited to a facility that can attract a suitably large pool of interested users. In addition, climbers can be a different breed, and may not "gel" with other facility members.


Atmosphere, routing, programming and promotion are vital to ensure a vibrant wall. Given its visual impact, a busy wall can createmore interested participants. An inherent problem with even a large climbing wall is that only a small number of people can make use of it at one time. Group classes can help to spread out users over the day and week. Fitness centers canincrease wall usage during non-peak times by offering special access to community groups and schools. Promotional events can also work well, such as climbing races, individually or in teams. Climbing walls offer good opportunities for corporate away-days and associated events, which can also boost usage.

Countryside YMCA uses in-house brochures and camp publications to promote its climbing wall. It is only open to members except during the summer, when it offers youth climbing camps.

Bockelmann says BRC uses local print media for advertising and promotion."Close ties with the local climbing community and the nurturing of our community role are very important to the BRC," he says. "The local community is what supports and promotes the club, and so communicating well with this group is paramount to our growth."

"In general, creativity and humor are the two biggest assets in running a successful wall," says Brewer. "Although safety is paramount, the issue of fun and creativity is often lost behind the gloom that is frequently used to promote safe habits." This need not be so. "With an indoor wall, the basic safety issues are clean and clear cut. A good operator can easily promote excellent safety habits within the realm of fun and creative programming. This, to us, is the key to success."

Keys to success

Whether a facility is dedicated to climbing, such as BRC, or isa multi-use center like Countryside YMCA, the same design and operation issues apply. There are also similar keys to success: Profitable wall operation depends on refreshing routing, healthy programming and, above all, energized staffing. By following these guidelines, your climbing wall can be both a visual attraction and a hard-working facility asset.

Boulder Rock Club
The Boulder Rock Club, Estes Park, Colo., was founded in 1990, and was one of the first commercial indoor climbing facilities in the U.S. It has 900 members, including some of the nation's most competitive and renowned professional climbers. It was originally a 10,000-square-foot facility with walls 30 feet high. It has grown to a 14,000-square-foot facility with plans for more growth of up to 20,000 square feet and 38-foot-tall walls. The facility has full weight-training and cardio facilities, locker rooms and "ABC," a children's (ages two to six) climbing facility. The Boulder Rock Club is also a sister organization with the outside guiding service, Colorado Mountain School.
Ralph J. Stolle Countryside YMCA

The Ralph J. Stolle Countryside YMCA, Lebanon, Ohio, has approximately 195,000 square feet of facilities; climbing is a relatively small component. Named "The Summit Climbing Center," this climbing facility was made by Eldorado Wall Company and features a rocklike texture, along with a TreadWall. Classes are offered as an introduction to rock climbing. In addition, the center offers private lessons taught by American Mountain Guide Association-trained instructors. The Summit is also available for birthday parties and group rentals.

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