Colleges and universities have decades of practice building things like pools and basketball courts, but installing climbing terrain is still novel. This primer is intended as a starting point for developing an RFP for the installation of a climbing wall that saves you time and money.
Like with the development of any facility, there are a variety of stakeholders who have needs that must be addressed. The issues below are typical in the process for building a climbing wall of any size. Terms marked with an * are included in a glossary at the end of the piece.
Brainstorm with the Core Planning Team
Your first step is to prepare a list of the benefits of adding a climbing wall to your facility. School leadership, recreation directors, and possible donors/funders will want to know how the wall will affect recruitment and retention, impact student achievement, meet educational requirements and health-related objectives, and be built and managed in a way to mitigate risk
Begin Discussions with Recreation Directors and Managers
As part of your discussions with your recreation directors and managers, you will start by asking yourself these two questions:
What are the program needs? What will you teach and/or offer?
Depending on your answers, each of these options requires particular features and hardware to be incorporated to the walls.
Among these considerations are (1) Bouldering*; (2) Top rope climbing*; (3) Lead climbing*; (4) Rappelling*; (5) Crack climbing*; (6) Anchor building*; (7) Trad gear placement*; (8) On-the-wall training opportunities for climbers; (9) Competitions, official or unofficial; (10) Access for outside user-groups and/or the general public; (11) How many users will be using the wall at one time?; (12) What is the budget and timeline?; (13) Does the project need to go out to bid or can it be sole sourced?
Chat with Facility Managers and Architects One of your first considerations is to determine if the wall is going into a new building or if it will be an addition to an existing facility.
With the help of your facility managers and architects, you can determine if any construction or demolition need to occur before the wall can be installed. You will also decide if the wall will serve as an architectural/design statement as well as a functional feature.
Consult Climbing Wall Manufacturers
Prepare in advance for any consultations with climbing wall manufacturers by asking all of the following questions: (1) What wall systems do they offer and how do they meet your various needs?
(2) What is their planning and installation process? (3) How do they handle engineering and permitting? (4) Do they include warranties and on-going support? (5) Have they previously completed college and university projects?
Drafting The RFP
The RFP should be comprehensive and used consistently so that comparing submitted proposals is comparing “apples to apples.”
The RFP should include nine key components. The first four pieces include the following:
1. The scope of the project
2. Specific programming requirements
3. Your budget
4. A timeline with anticipated completion dates.
Additionally, you should provide architectural and structural drawings of the space. The more information you provide to the potential vendors, the more accurate the quote can be. Expect to share floor plans, elevations, and structural drawings.
Climbing wall companies will need to understand where the wall should go and the loads that the facility wall(s) and floor can support because climbing walls are heavy.
You should also include climbing wall systems specifications for the particular vendor, photos or renderings of the space, and a description of access for construction.
Finally, work to find answers to the following questions as part of the RFT drafting process: Will the facility be open or closed during construction? Can a forklift enter and be used in the space? Will there be demolition of existing structures? Who will be the project supervisor? Will a general contractor be the point of contact or a representative from the school?
The proposals you receive should contain both information about the design and construction phase and costs for labor, materials, and additional services and equipment. Necessary information about the design and construction phases will include the following: Executed Contract, Formal Design, Engineering (as necessary), Shop Drawings, Prefabrication, Mobilization, and Installation
As you work through your planning, construction and subsequent operation, there are a few key resources available to provide information and assistance. Climbing Wall Association offers a website (climbingwallindustry.org) that features several helpful publications, including Industry Practices: A Sourcebook for the Operation of Manufactured Climbing Walls and The CWA Guide to Climbing. Secondly, Climbing Business Journal (climbingbusinessjournal.com) provides the latest news about industry best practices, risk management, product reviews, route-setting and more. Lastly, Climbing Magazine (Climbing.com) is an excellent resource for learning about climbing in general.
Estimating Amount Of Space Needed
To estimate the amount of space you need for your climbing wall, first consider how many climbers you wish to serve with a simple formula: two active participants for every seven foot wide section of wall (one climber and one belayer/spotter). At peak capacity there will be one or two passive participants for every active participant. Therefore, every seven linear feet of wall can entertain four climbers. For example, 100 linear feet of climbing wall under peak capacity would entertain approximately 57 participants. Bouldering terrain can reasonably support even more climbers.
HEIGHT: For top roping, climber satisfaction is generally optimized at heights of 24′ to 35′. While 20′ tall top rope walls tend to be popular because of building constraints, if you have less than 20′ you might consider bouldering terrain instead because the ideal height for that style of climbing is 10′ to 14′ tall. Traverse walls under 8′ tall are typical for kids’ terrain.
VOLUME: Your floor space needs a landing area that extends at least seven feet out from the furthest protruding wall feature. Plan for space that is at least 15′ to 20′ deep (perpendicular to the wall) to allow for exciting climbing features and safe flooring.
Determining Need For Mobility
Modular walls are the way to go if you will need to move your climbing wall to a new facility at some point in time. If you want to be able to provide your climbers with exciting terrain that “doesn’t get old” the way to do that is to frequently reconfigure the handhold routes, not take the wall down and reconfigure it.
Estimating Pricing Commitment
When asking for pricing, be sure to be specific on the items you would like included in your climbing wall package. Available options include handholds, ropes, auto belays, rental items like shoes and harnesses, flooring and any special features you would like your climbing wall to include such as cracks and belay ledges. This is the best way to guarantee complete pricing for everything you need.
- Handholds and fastening hardware. Handholds bolt onto the wall and can be grouped to make terrain continually interesting to your climbers.
- Ropes. Ropes may be one of the larger operational costs, especially if a facility provides ropes for lead climbing.
- Rental equipment. The size of classes you offer will usually determine the scope of the rental inventory. You may want to carry harnesses, locking carabiners, belay devices, chalk bags and footwear.
- A few miscellaneous items. You will need a route marking system, tape, quick draws and floor anchors for lead climbing, tools for course-setting and an assortment of ladders.
- Autobelay maintenance. If you purchase autobelays, they will need to be maintained annually.
Glossary Of Climbing Terms
Anchor Building – When climbers are ascending a rock using trad (traditional) methods, they will need to build an anchor at the top of a pitch in order to create a belay for the second. A gym needs a collection of artificial cracks to practice building anchors.
Belay – A roped climber is protected from falling by passing the rope through a type of friction enhancing belay device.
Belay device – A mechanical device used to create friction when belaying by putting bends in the rope.
Bouldering – Climbers scale boulders or short walls. Since the climber is close to the ground, usually less than 15 feet, protection takes the form of crash pads and friends spotting instead of belay ropes. Climbers work to move from a specific starting point to a specific end point and solve what is called a “boulder problem.”
Crack Climbing – A climber ascends on a rock face by wedging body parts into cracks. Cracks can vary in size from the width of fingertips, hands, fists, to even whole bodies.
Lead Climbing – The difference between lead climbing and top roping is that the climber is not protected by a rope that continuously runs through an anchor at the top. The climber has one end of the rope tied to her harness and the belayer has the rope feeding through a belay device.
As she climbs, the “leader” clips her rope into bolts that are spaced about 5 feet apart in a line going up the wall. The belayer feeds out only enough rope so that if the leader falls, she won’t fall far. When the leader gets to the top of the route, she will clip her rope into an anchor and then get lowered by the belayer.
Rappelling – The process by which a climber may descend on a fixed rope using a friction device.
Top Roping – A climber scales a wall between 25′-40′ high following marked hand and footholds that create a “climbing route.” For protection, a rope runs from a belayer at the foot of a route through an anchor system at the top of the route and back down to the climber.
The rope is attached to both the belayer’s and the climber’s harnesses. As the climber moves up, the rope is pulled tight so the climber can’t fall. When the climber finishes the route, the belayer slowly feeds rope into the system and lowers the climber.
Trad Gear Placement – Traditional (or “trad”) climbers will place their own protection/gear as they climb rather than relying on fixed bolts. If a gym has artificial cracks, climbers can practice placing protection. Protection can be camming devices or non-moving devices like nuts or stoppers.