How Climbing Walls Became Essential to Campus Rec Centers

Michael Popke Headshot
[Photo courtesy of Eastern Kentucky University]
[Photo courtesy of Eastern Kentucky University]

As campus recreation directors welcome students back to their facilities this fall, finding new ways to engage them with post-pandemic programming will be critical. The climbing wall might be a solid place to start.

"It's all about introducing them to the sport," Dakota McClendon, coordinator of adventure programs at Eastern Kentucky University, says about the importance of developing relationships with students who've never climbed. "Rock climbing is intimidating for people, so we always make sure our staff approaches beginners with the mindset that we want to see them come back. We need to make them feel safe and let them know that it's okay to fall, that it's okay to fail, because that's part of the sport."

EKU opened a new recreation center in January 2020 with a 36-foot-tall climbing wall and an arched bouldering wall, and the number of ropes expanded from six in the old facility to 19. A climbing club with intercollegiate competition for experienced students is complemented by several workshops and special events that target non-climbers.

Learning to climb also can ease students' transition into young adulthood by helping them overcome fears, according to Trey Knight, assistant director of outdoor adventures at the University of Miami, where a 14-by-60-foot indoor climbing wall anchors the first two stories of a large residential facility in Lakeside Village, a new 12-acre living community that opened on campus in January.

"We help them get out of their comfort zone," Knight says. "The whole idea of adventure programming is rooted in the climbing wall because people look at it and can visualize themselves climbing it — even if there's a little bit of apprehension," Knight says. "The climbing wall is so much more tangible than a camping trip or a paddling trip."

No wonder climbing will be a major design focus in a new student wellness center at Montana State University, set to begin construction this year. "By far, the thing students are telling us they want most in the new facility is a climbing wall. It's a mandate," says Ty Atwater, assistant director of recreational sports and fitness at Montana State University.

McClendon, Knight and Atwater's comments below offer insight on how to take climbing programs to new heights.

Eastern Kentucky University
"Find ways to break down that barrier of intimidation."

When EKU's Student Recreation Center reopened with limited capacity in August 2020 after the coronavirus shutdown, a maximum of 20 climbers were permitted in the climbing area at any given time. Such restrictions, however, didn't stop McClendon from offering diverse theme nights reserved for students who might otherwise be too intimidated to give climbing a try.

"Ladies Climb Night" and "Pride Night," for example, focused on creating a safe place for female climbers and LGBTQ students. And "The Silent Climb" was organized by a campus recreation student staff member who is deaf and provided instructions in sign language to members of EKU's deaf and hard-of-hearing community. All participants were encouraged not to speak during the event.

"There are definitely other groups that we'd like to reach out to," says McClendon, an EKU alum who helped found the university's first climbing club at the former campus recreation center. "We're still figuring out all the things we can do and what groups are interested in working with us. Many of these special events have been driven by our student employees, which is really exciting."

Some students who attended theme nights often returned to climb on their own, and they brought their friends. As capacity restrictions ease, McClendon also hopes to relaunch "Cosmic Climb," a black-light, glow-in-the-dark-style climbing event.

"In the past, it's been really fun," he says. "What's crazy is we'll see students who are not climbers and didn't have any intention of climbing that night. They just showed up for the atmosphere. But then they'll get excited and want to try routes."

[Photo courtesy of University of Miami][Photo courtesy of University of Miami]


University of Miami
"Climbing is new to many people in Miami, so it gives us an opportunity."

Knight understands the responsibilities that come with the University of Miami being home to only one of three indoor climbing facilities in all of South Florida. That's why the new wall was installed in the high-profile Lakeside Village, which also includes retail, dining, academic and other recreational spaces.

"It's all part of reimagining the residential experience for students," Knight says. "While the wall is open to the whole campus community, we know that students who live on campus are going to engage more with opportunities where they live. In the climbing community, there's a large social aspect — people come to climb and hang out — so we've got to focus on that community-development component."

Miami's Department of Wellness & Recreation offered a six-week bouldering league in the spring. Knight and his staff assigned teams of three to divisions and then handicapped them so everyone could compete on equal footing. Points were assigned for each individual climb, and participating climbers received a T-shirt and were eligible for prizes donated by sponsors.

"Students got to feel a part of something," Knight says. "With so many COVID restrictions, they weren't allowed to go to football games in the fall or basketball games in the spring. This gave them a way to feel connected. We're trying to get students into the climbing gym and make friendships."

[Photo courtesy of Montana State University][Photo courtesy of Montana State University]


Montana State University
"Climbing is fun and it's eye-catching, which is a value-added element."

In March 2019, two roofs at Montana State University's Marga Hosaeus Fitness Center collapsed, making a climbing wall unusable and relegating student climbing activities to a previously existing bouldering area inside two converted racquetball courts.

All of that will change, however, when a new Student Wellness Center opens in 2023. Discussions were already underway regarding a new facility prior to the roof collapses, which accelerated the process. Atwater says climbing will be an integral component of the new facility, offering about eight times more square footage of dedicated space than what exists in the current fitness center. Designed by RDG Planning & Design and a local architecture firm, the new facility likely will feature a three-story climbing wall with up to 24 ropes and approximately 150 linear feet of bouldering space.

"We've been really intentional about the design of spaces," says Atwater, who previously was involved in the opening of a climbing facility at Oregon State University in 2011. An alcove, for example, will provide bouldering areas with lower angles in a semiprivate space at MSU's new Student Wellness Center. The intent will be to host beginner workshops and encourage new climbers to be comfortable without feeling "on display" and out in the open, according to Atwater.

"We have a population of students on campus who identify as climbers, and they're going to come in and climb. I'm not too terribly worried about getting them in the door," he says. "That's not to say I don't want to design a facility that meets their needs — I very much do — but they're not the group that I'm going to struggle with to get in the door. It's the newer people, who maybe have never climbed before, who are what I call 'outdoor curious' or 'climbing curious.'"

Atwater offers three pieces of advice to campus recreation colleagues who may be in a similar situation with trying to create climbing spaces for all. First, use surveys to find out what students want from a climbing facility. Next, engage administration and staff members who will be involved in managing the climbing facility and allow them to influence its design. Finally, be involved in the design process early and often.

"Make sure the climbing wall is intentionally designed for educational outcomes, not just as a sales piece for the university," Atwater suggests. "Otherwise, it's a missed opportunity."

Climbing Wall Hygiene

COVID-19 has heightened everyone's general awareness of virus transmission, including in climbing wall environments.

"Climbing is kind of gross," admits Dakota McClendon, coordinator of adventure programs at Eastern Kentucky University. "It's a gritty sport. But I can't use sanitizer on a climbing harness, because it breaks down the fibers. So, our biggest issue with opening the facility back up was, how do we make sure that germs are not spread through the harness?"

Early on, EKU placed a greater emphasis on hand sanitizing before and after climbing, as well as reminding climbers not to touch their nose or eyes and requiring them to wear face masks.

Now, even vaccinated students are invited to mask up and take extra safety precautions if it makes them feel more comfortable, McClendon says.

Hand sanitation is the key to helping maintain climbing wall hygiene in the COVID era, according to Trey Knight, assistant director of outdoor adventures at the University of Miami. Knight co-hosted one of NIRSA's virtual "Ideas in Motion" roundtable discussions in 2020, focusing on climbing wall sanitation.

"It's not practical to clean the holds, except when you pull them off," he says. "If people are concerned about bacteria and virus transmission from shared surfaces on the climbing wall, the best thing to do when they get done climbing is to clean their hands."

Knight and his staff do remove and pressure-wash handholds when they reset routes. With six color variations, that means employees pull down two color sets per week, clean the holds and then reset them. The following week, two more colors are washed and reset, and so on. Consequently, all holds are cleaned over about a three-week period.

"The most effective way to remove skin cells, sweat and grease out of the texture [of the holds] is to pressure wash them with dish detergent, which is a natural grease combatant," Knight says. "It keeps them cleaner, makes them look nice and preserves the texture."

Miami also installed vinyl padding at the foot of its wall, which Knight's crew cleans nightly by pumping a combination of soap and water onto the padding, mopping it and then letting it air-dry overnight.


Reaching for Gold

Sport climbing will make its Olympic debut at the 2021 Summer Games with 20 men and 20 women competing in a combined event at Tokyo's Aomi Urban Sports Park. Competition is slated for Aug. 3-6 and will feature all three disciplines of the sport: bouldering, lead climbing and speed climbing.

EP Climbing will supply the walls, including one with a design inspired by the Olympic flame. The manufacturer also supplied walls for the International Federation of Sport Climbing's back-to-back World Cup competitions in May. Held at a purpose-built outdoor venue in Salt Lake City — the home of USA Climbing, the sport's national governing body — members of the U.S. Olympic Climbing Team competed alongside some of the world's most elite sport climbers in the Boulder World Cup one weekend and then the Boulder and Speed World Cup the following weekend.

"It is really important, I think, in our sport to get that competition experience leading to the Games, especially with the aspect of route setting," Salt Lake City resident and Olympics-bound sport climber Kyra Condie told The Salt Lake Tribune in the days leading up the IFSC events.

"And so we're actually lucky there's going to be two back-to-back World Cups in Salt Lake where we'll be on those competition-style lines and get that practice for the Olympics." has all the details needed to watch sport climbing's debut at the Games.


This article originally appeared in the July|August 2021 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Campus Recreation Takes Climbing Wall Engagement to New Heights." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.


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