Thirty years ago, the first institutional indoor climbing wall was built in Washington, D.C. Twenty years ago, the first commercial indoor climbing gym, the Vertical Club, opened in Seattle, Wash. Since then, hundreds if not thousands of climbing gyms have sprung up across North America. Yet until this past weekend, there had never been a large gathering of climbing wall builders, gym owners and gear manufacturers.
About 210 people attended the first annual Climbing Wall Summit and Managers' Symposium in Boulder, Colo., from April 12-14. Organized by the Climbing Wall Association (CWA), there were 45 workshops covering all aspects of operating indoor walls. A party sponsored by Entre Prises and Rock & Ice Magazine featured a terrific slide show by Boone Speed followed by a question-and-answer session with Speed and Chris Sharma -- although neither of the two famed climbers train indoors, they certainly inspire many who do.
Bill Zimmerman, the executive director of the relatively new CWA (formed in 2003), told SNEWS®, "One of my first priorities was bringing the industry together for an opportunity to interact. Other associations I've worked with in the past all hold annual conferences and I was a bit surprised that the climbing wall industry had never really gotten together."
The planning for the Summit took over a year and a half. One sponsor confessed to SNEWS®, "At first, we were worried we'd only get 30 people showing up. But we felt the Summit was important to the future of climbing, so we committed to support it."
Among the most well attended workshops were those that focused on risk management, legal aspects and liability insurance. Many noted that these are all areas of major concern to climbing gyms in both the United States and Canada.
There have been numerous lawsuits around the country -- many of which go unreported because they are settled out of court -- that are threatening the existence of climbing gyms. Although the majority of these cases involve amusement parks (portable walls and inflatable walls) or adventure courses, that distinction is lost on legislative bodies that don't understand all the aspects of climbing. Combined with the insurance crisis that hit following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the climate is ripe for gym closures nationwide unless the CWA can expand and provide a united front.
Other workshops focused on route setting, marketing and gym management. Stan Mish of Vertical Relief Enterprises gave a demonstration of the company's RockBiz software that offers management tools for climbing gyms.
Another hot topic of discussion was belay methods used by climbing gyms, which varies greatly from facility to facility. Some gyms only allow customers to use Petzl Gri-Gris anchored to the floor (ostensibly a requirement of insurance companies). Others prohibit the use of all automatic devices (Gri-Gris, Trango Cinch and Fader SUM, for example) based on the argument it's impossible to teach gym staff proper operation of every variation, while they can more easily monitor all tube-style belay devices (Black Diamond ATC, Petzl Reverso, Trango B-52, etc.). And some gyms feature auto belay/lowering devices for solo climbers, while others consider them too risky.
Petzl's workshop at the Boulder Rock Club presented the company's leader fall belay demo. Called the Assure'Tec, it allows climbers to catch a hard fall and feel what the forces are like. A 180-pound weight is lifted by a winch about 30 feet and then dropped 7 feet -- enough to lift an unanchored belayer off the ground -- a dynamoter tells the belayer how much force they held. During the demonstration, forces on the top anchor ranged between 3.0 kN and 8.5 kN depending on the belay device, weight of the belayer and firmness of the person's grip.
The plenary session, titled "The Future of Climbing," featured the CWA board of directors and was an eye-opener for the large audience. While prior discussions had danced around the topic of pending legislation, the board members slammed home how dire the threats are to indoor climbing. Zimmerman said during the session: "This is truly an access issue that affects all climbers. Since the vast majority of new climbers start indoors, if we begin losing facilities, that will impact gear manufacturers and put more stress on limited outdoor resources."
Attendees were also informed that the CWA is in the process of developing operational standards and engineering standards for climbing walls. It is actively working with states, such as Massachusetts, on developing legislation that won't kill the industry. And they are actively trying to grow membership to more than 400 organizations to ensure both adequate funds and clout with governments.
Following the Summit, the American Mountain Guides Association offered a two-day pilot program for a certification as a climbing wall manager. This new course is shorter than the existing top-rope site manager certification, so it should reach a larger number of staff.
To learn more about the CWA, visit www.climbingwallindustry.org.
SNEWS® View: It's about time! This conference was long overdue and vitally needed. Following the ending of the Climbing Wall Industry Group's relationship with OIA nearly a decade ago, this important part of the climbing industry had no voice and was very disorganized.
We were impressed by the number of gym owners and staff, many of whom appeared in their 20s and 30s (not just the expected 40- to 50-somethings), that showed up from around the country. SNEWS® spoke with gym owners from Toronto who were so impressed that they planned to bring more staff to next year's event. A gym owner from Boston told us that the Summit had been highly educational and he planned to return (although he did play hooky and snuck off to nearby Eldorado Canyon for some outdoor climbing).
Sponsors too were pleased with attendance and the opportunity to interact with current and potential customers. This type of meet and greet simply could not happen at Outdoor Retailer trade shows where there are too many distractions and not many gym employees.
We do hope that the CWA looks at the current inadequacy of certification for climbing instructors since rock gyms are indeed fitness facilities. At present, neither the AMGA nor the quality fitness certifications (NSCA or ACSM) offer good material for those who work in climbing gyms instead of health clubs.
Bill Zimmerman and Rich Cook from CWA deserve a big pat on the back for a well-organized event. This was clearly the first step and there is no doubt that greater things are to come.