Fancy building a climbing wall?

Posted by Damon Clark on 11/04/2013
Damon Clark - BMC London & SE Climbing Wall Representative
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There are lots of ways for a climbing wall to start life. A group of individuals might want to turn a passion for climbing into a career. A government-funded project may be trying to bring more young people into sport. Or a local scout group might wanting to build a wall at their scout centre. Damon Clark looks at what's involved.

The right facility, managed properly, in the right area can certainly be successful.  Whether success is measured from a financial perspective or you’re looking for the facility to target a whole range of far reaching benefits for individuals and the community, one common factor exists; the facility needs to be managed safely.  The true operating cost and resources to enable this are the reason why many climbing facilities struggle or even lay dormant.

In this article we are going to examine the true reality of developing a climbing facility.

Location and build
If your main objective is to create a commercial facility it’s all about location and potential footprint of customers. Check out whether there are any other facilities in the area or, more importantly, planned facilities in the area.  If you’re about to commit your life’s savings to a wall the last thing you want is for a government backed multimillion facility to be built around the corner. If you are considering an outdoor facility, make sure you discuss the security implications with the wall manufacturer and local planning department. 

Particularly in the current economic climate there are some fantastic buildings waiting to be converted. Many can provide unique features that can be incorporated into the design which can help create that very important atmosphere. Some of the UK’s premier climbing centres are located in old mills, churches and even a water tower.

With building conversions and purpose build facilities, it’s best to involve a reputable climbing wall manufacture at the earliest possible opportunity. This work is usually completed for free and not only will they provide some fantastic advice but also ensure that the building has or will have the necessary structural requirements to support a climbing wall. Buildings have been erected with the intention to install a climbing wall at a later date only to find out that the facilities was not only structurally too weak to support a climbing wall but also failed to meet the necessary health and safety requirements. 

Due to benefits associated with climbing, many facilities are of charitable status; this brings a whole range of financial benefits and funding opportunities. This may be worth considering strongly before committing your own funds to such a project. The Charity Commission is the best place to start.  It may also be worth contacting your local Sports Development department who can offer some great advice on funding applications.

The design of the facility is key and is often where so many facilities come unstuck. 
Boulder fields are becoming increasingly popular and a good option for operators with limited resources. Boulders can be sculpted with natural rock features and/or fitted with bolt on holds, providing the option to regularly change routes. It is worth considering that holds will need to be checked and washed every three months, and holds can be removed or damaged if not in a secure location.  Boulders can offer a range of problems and can be a good introduction to the world of climbing.

Specialist boulder walls can be tricky to work commercially.   It is vital that they are built in densely populated areas or at a location close to some outdoor crags that attract climbers.  

The most common type of wall to be built is a standard top rope and lead facility with a boulder section. Whether the facility is a multi million pound super wall or a school wall, one thing remains the same; most of your climbers will be beginners climbing 4-5+.  This is important to consider when designing your wall. Your bread and butter will be casual or inexperienced groups and parties, beginner courses, and junior clubs.  Providing progression is also important and there is no reason why you cannot cater for all, just make sure the ratio is appropriate. For example, having 80% of your wall overhanging may look impressive but will soon intimidate and disillusion beginners and groups.  Remember who you’re building the wall for and remember to make sure this is clear in the design brief as climbing wall manufacturers can often get carried away and it’s you that is left managing the facility.

It’s also worth considering how complementary activities can help add commercial value and more importantly provide further progression into the great outdoors. Wall manufactures are becoming increasingly innovative and creative, providing facilities that are moving even further away from real rock designs and looking more at home on the set of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Team Building facilities, high ropes courses and indoor cave systems can all work very well commercially and also provide alternative challenges to those who struggle with heights. 

So you thought building your wall was expensive?  It doesn’t get easier once you’re up and running. The first task is to implement the appropriate operating procedures.  This will be your complete instruction guide to running your facility and should include centre rules, safety checks, customer registration process, staff competency standards and all other health and safety regulations for running the centre. This is quite a complex and in-depth topic, so we will only touch on it in this article.

Operating Procedures
It is advisable that all facilities aspire to be granted full membership of The Association of British Climbing walls (ABC). The ABC is a representative body of Climbing Centre Managers and Owners, and has three main objectives:
• Development and benchmarking of safe practice and quality management processes for operating climbing centres.
• Production and promotion of a sustainable national climbing centre development strategy.
• Promotion and development of sustainable and synergistic ABC members network

The ABC offers a fantastic support network and a whole range of resources to help operate your climbing wall.  Full membership also ensures your centre is running to a national standard, which is vital in order to be current with practices and also from a business protection perspective. 

It is also advisable that a competent technical advisor is appointed. The key word here is competent. The individual should have a suitable qualification (MIA is recommended) and considerable experience with running and understanding climbing wall facilities.  The role of this individual is to ensure that the operating procedures are appropriate and the staff are appropriately trained. 

It takes a lot of hard work and commitment to implement robust operating procedures and your efforts can sometimes seem to go un-noticed as it’s all about prevention.  But when an accident does occur, it is vital to be able to demonstrate that you have done all within your means to prevent it in the first instance.  

Training of staff is also a topic worth considering. Developing an in-house training scheme is often useful for a variety of reasons. In-house training may help reduce high freelance instructor rates and also help manage session demand when instructors in the local area are sparse. It is recommended that any site-specific instructor scheme follows the guidance provided by the Mountain Leader Training Boards, and a 'suitably experienced and qualified instructor' develops and over sees the scheme and has some direct contact in running the scheme. It recommends that this person is a MIA, MIC or guide.

In- house qualifications are not a short cut for the Climbing Wall Award (CWA) Qualification, which is recommended by the BMC and ABC. The CWA requires a person to have at least one year experience, record a minimum of 30 visits to at least 3 different venues, and assist on at least 15 instructed sessions on two different walls, one of which must be a large public facility. This is the nationally recognised benchmark for indoor climbing supervisors and your in-house scheme needs be in line.

Management and Administration
The true costs to manage a climbing wall are often not realistically considered in the initial planning and budget creation. Often the initial budget discussions with climbing wall manufacturers are focused solely on the cost of building the facility. Additional operating costs to run the facility once it has been built can be quite substantial, so you need to be aware of all costs at the start of the planning process.

The amount of business administration required to run a climbing wall is also quite substantial.  Many walls will need to implement a Point of Sale (POS) system, create a process and system to schedule instructors, run marketing campaigns, and run other operational aspects of the centre. 

Building a team of in house qualified supervisors is often preferred but will take time.  Once you have your core staff trained, you will most likely need to utilize freelance supervisors particularly during peak periods.  The advantage of freelancers is you can turn off and on when needed, which is particularly useful during quieter periods of the year.

All climbing staff should be appropriately trained to deliver standardized and consistent sessions.  It is important to make sure instructors are not only able to deliver a quality session, but also have the resources to prevent sessions from becoming stale. For example, always having a repertoire of games to play at a Junior Club will keep the participants entertained and coming back week after week.

Route Setting
Route setting often makes or breaks a climbing wall. The ability to provide the appropriate variety of high quality routes at the appropriate grade with the right rotation is often very under estimated. Being able to design and manage a route setting plan and set routes is very much a different skill set from being a climbing supervisor.

Safety implications are complex and the speed of producing quality routes is a critical commercial factor. Setters often charge by the day, so it’s important to get an appropriate balance between quality and quantity. It’s no good having 12 routes thrown up if they are not enjoyable to climb, likewise setting one amazingly creative and fun route in a day, is simply is not commercially viable. Adopting a good route setting regime is vital.  Make sure your route setter has significant experience and recommendations.

Equipment management can also be a surprising cost, but is important to manage effectively.  Equipment should be checked, logged and replaced periodically.  This includes harnesses, hardware, ropes, holds, and matting.  This is often determined by manufacturer’s guidelines of wear and tear.

It all sounds scary however as long as you approach the project with an open mind there are plenty of resources and people who will be willing to guide you appropriately.  The far reaching benefits of climbing seem to provoke people’s generosity in terms of support…. and statistically I believe I once read Cheerleading is more dangerous than climbing.

For further information please visit the British Mountaineering Council and Association of British Climbing Walls. A shorter version of this article was printed in the May edition of Climber magazine.

Damon Clark - BMC London & South East Area Wall Representative / MD Rock Frog Climbing.

With special thanks to the BMC, Mick Cooke, Paolo Fubini, Christy Banks and Graham Coff

BIO - Damon Clark
Damon Clark began climbing in North Wales with his father Graham Coff at the age of 6.   In the mid 90’s both moved to Tremadog to become instructors before setting up Rock Frog together in 1999.

Damon continued to work in the family climbing business during his business degree and for a further 10 years whilst working within sales and marketing. In 2009 he left the corporate world and became a full time climbing instructor and to manage Rock Frog.

Rock Frog now run climbing courses throughout the UK and manage 4 climbing walls around the London South East area.

Additional Information

Building and managing climbing walls

How to rejuvenate an old climbing wall

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Damon Clark(author comment)
The pic above the article is not me...I've had a few comments with regards to how much I've changed... I'm still a man !
Anonymous User
Damon this is a great article, thank you!
I have been flirting with the idea of starting a climbing wall, my town has some great mill buildings dying to be converted, and the nearest wall other than a school one is an hour and a half drive away
What I worry is that there are not enough climbers to make it viable, do you have any ideas on how that kind of research would be done?
Really interesting article especially given how many walls there are now in the UK! I am based in the London area, where the interest is overwhelmingly in bouldering. Presumably this is a chicken and egg story, where bouldering is more convenient, so more people do it, so the reaction is to build more bouldering centres. Can you offer any other insight on why bouldering walls outnumber the rope climbing walls in this area? Is it due to height restrictions or just wall-building knowhow?


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