Get A Grip On Climbing Walls

Climbing walls are about more than aesthetics. Good management, excellent customer service, highly trained staff, and challenging routes are the defining factors in transforming a one-time climber into an enthusiast.

Structurally, climbing walls are of two types–mobile or stationary. Deciding the best option for a recreational facility requires reviewing the needs and wants of patrons, considering the cost of insurance and evaluating the availability of qualified staff and budget.


Mobile walls range in height, but generally top out at 32 feet; after all, the wall has to be towed from one location to the next. And that leads to the next consideration–you need staff that is comfortable with towing and setting up the climbing wall in a potentially small space, such as on a trade-show floor.

“Our rock walls can be found at YMCAs, Chicago Parks and Recreation, Charleston Park and Recreation, every Six Flags, and even with the U.S. Military National Guard,” says Philip Wilson, marketing manager with Extreme Engineering, which designs both mobile and stationary walls.

“The mobile product helps the parks advertise the park’s services,” says Wilson. “It is a huge draw and they can put on banners, and they can lift up the activities for the parks.” Some parks rent out the use of their mobile climbing walls to various groups and festivals, which helps promote a climbing program and also generates a revenue stream.

Mobile-Wall Programming

Hamilton County Park District in Ohio offers a mobile climbing wall at its camp facility, various programs and a limited number of festivals. Rick Wheeler, Adventure Outpost manager for the district, says, “We use a trailer with a hydraulic lift and are able to set the tower on a flat, solid surface in less than five minutes.”

While the tower is on the trailer, staff also check all the handholds, install the auto-belays, and if needed reroute the wall. Auto-belays are mechanical devices used to take up the rope slack of the climber, and provide a safe descent without the need for a person to belay. Therefore, just a few trained staff members are needed to safely operate the tower. When the tower is not manned, it is on the trailer. This prevents people from climbing the tower without proper supervision.

“We do a basic climbing course which incorporates personal growth. There are a lot of people that have never climbed before. It is good for them to learn how to climb and gain that self-confidence,” says Wheeler, who regularly works with climbers of all ages.

Stationary Walls

Stationary walls come in all shapes and sizes, but don’t let their good looks fool you into buying an aesthetically pleasing, rockish-looking wall when what really matters is the flexibility of the wall in providing a variety of challenges to different levels of climbers.

“We see some facilities that want to have a REI (lifelike) experience, but you potentially sacrifice route setting and peanut placement,” says Rich Johnston, designer and owner of four Vertical World climbing wall gyms in Washington state, America’s first climbing gym. Also the chairman of the Climbing Wall Association, Johnston, who has been building climbing walls for over 20 years, explains “peanuts” are the places where the handholds are secured to the wall.

“You have to build a wall that has a lot of route-setting capability,” says Johnston. “Choose routing over beauty. You can have a crummy wall with great routes, and people will have a blast on it.”

“How often you change out a route depends on the number of routes, climbers, grade distribution, skill of climbers and the size of the wall,” says Bill Zimmermann, executive director of the Climbing Wall Association Inc. “A 10,000-square-foot facility with a lot of traffic will need to be rerouted frequently to keep the wall fresh.”

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