The Ins and Outs of Running a Stellar Rock Climbing Program

Rock Climbing

Oregon State University’s Recreation Center has two 43-foot tall rock climbing walls for patrons to use. A lot goes into operating a rock climbing system as they can be very dangerous if safety regulations aren’t implemented properly.

Ty Atwater, the coordinator of climbing and wilderness skills in the Department of Recreational Sports at Oregon State University, understands how important safety is in regards to the climbing walls and talks about the ways he ensures that those who are climbing are safe — everything from harness safety to flooring.

CR: What is the difference between the two walls?

TA: The walls are different in that they each offer complimentary climbing and teaching terrain. When we designed and built our facility we did so with the intent on not duplicating terrain and with an eye to instructional spaces.

As a result, our first facility is a mixture of intermediate to advanced climbing terrain and our second facility is more beginner terrain with teaching space, and a significant increase in bouldering space. As a participant, you have two choices when using our facility. You can either boulder, which is climbing at a lower elevation without the use of ropes or harnesses, but using a padded mat as fall protection. Roped climbing uses a belayer, ropes and harnesses to keep the climber safe.

CR: How is safety monitored with the two walls?

TA: Both of our climbing facilities are staffed by student employees whenever roped climbing is available. The staff work to supervise climbing teams to help reduce errors, teach belay skills courses and check participants in and out to ensure that they have the proper waiver and any equipment they need. The staff includes a supervisor and one to two floor staff, depending on the time and number of participants climbing.

CR: What kind of training does that staff have to go through to be qualified to monitor the walls?

TA: All of the student staff who work at the wall have successfully completed a Climbing Wall Instructor Course, which is designed to train them on effective teaching techniques and essential climbing wall management skills. The staff also has ongoing education and training requirements, including: technical skills proficiency, first aid and CPR audits and scenario based learning.

The climbing wall instructor course or CWI is a certification course offered by the Professional Climbing Instructors Association that is required of our staff prior to being hired as a climbing gym staff. The CWI course is 20 hours in length and is typically taught over two-and-a-half days. It is designed to take someone who has a moderate amount of recreational climbing background and equip them with the skills to be part of a climbing wall staff. It covers topics around gear use and inspection, rescue techniques and effective instructor of climbing skills, to name a few.

After employees complete the CWI course, they then go on to shadow and assist in the delivery of our belay skills check. As they gain experience and show proficiency in the delivery of the course, they can begin assisting with the delivery of other topics. Only after they have demonstrated proficiency with teaching as an assistant can they move on to being the lead instructor for various topics. This progression can take a few weeks to a few years, depending on the topics being taught. Staff also have to maintain current First Aid and CPR certifications.

CR: Are there any waivers to sign before climbing?

TA: Yes, depending on the type of climbing there are different acknowledgements of risk and responsibility forms to sign. All of the documentation includes acknowledgement that the climber understands the expectations and agrees to abide by the facility rules.

CR: Are there any training/ courses beginner climbers must take before climbing the wall?

TA: Anyone new to our facility who wishes to partake in roped climbing must watch an orientation video and then complete the Belay Skills Check.  This course is offered twice a day, seven days a week and we see roughly 5,000 to 6,000 climbers participate in them annually. The course is designed with the brand new climber in mind and covers everything from how to wear the harness and tie the figure eight knot to catching a fall and proper double checks of the systems used. It typically takes 60-90 mins to complete the course. As a climber in our facilities you must demonstrate proficiency with the skills annually.

CR: How do you maintain and inspect the equipment? How regularly do you evaluate it?

TA: Our equipment is evaluated each time that it is issued or used. It is also subject to monthly in-depth inspections. The walls are inspected biannually by the company who manufactured and installed them in accordance with industry standards. If at any time a piece of equipment is flagged as questionable it is removed from circulation and evaluated to determine if it should be retired.

CR: What are the most common causes of wall injuries & how do you prepare for those?

TA: The most common injury that we see are minor cuts and abrasions to the hands and knees. The best way to avoid these injuries is to climb under control and avoid wild or dynamic movements. The staff are prepared for first aid situations and practice their skills on a regular basis.

CR: Have you ever dealt with any injuries, if so how did you respond?

TA: We’ve dealt with a variety of injuries at our facilities. We follow our emergency action plan when responding to any and all emergencies/injuries. As well we review and update our plans as needed based on incident reviews and changes to industry standards.

Eight quick safety tips from Atwater:

  1. Take a course from a certified instructor to learn new skills.
  2. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for the use and inspection of their gear.
  3. Be willing to seek out more education from reputable instructors as you look to push your climbing boundaries.
  4. Know your limits and be willing to admit that you don’t know.
  5. Climb with a partner who you know, trust and whom you’ve discussed expectations with ahead of time.
  6. Establish clear communication between you and your partner before you leave the ground.
  7. Take the time to check in with yourself about a given situation and then listen to your gut feeling.
  8. Establish a routine that includes double checks of all the components in your system.  Then do it!

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