Soar To New Heights

The county of Charleston, S.C., offers an array of activities to show off its beautiful coastline, but it is climbing to new heights with its latest program.

In March, the Parks and Recreation Department hosted its first USA Climbing competition on the climbing wall in James Island County Park, where roughly 50 to 70 competitors from across the country faced off in technical and speed challenges.

While USA Climbing gave the department wall guidelines to follow in the competition, Charleston officials were able to set the specific routes. In the technical aspect of the event, climbers were evaluated by their technique in five routes. With 45 to choose from, the climbers were given four hours to climb, and judges gave point values to each route climbed, only scoring the top five. In the speed round, climbers aimed to record their best speed score on two designated routes. Winners of the competition were awarded with climbing and outdoor supplies, such as ropes, shoes and training devices.

Mounting Interest

Although the competition is new to the community, climbing has been a part of Charleston culture for more than 10 years. In the last three years, however, membership has doubled. “What started as a novelty took off and became something unique that people wanted to be a part of and do on a regular basis,” says Robert Lavarnway, climbing wall manager for the department.

The county has its own youth climbing group that competes through the climbing association. Ranging in age from 8 to 17, team members train twice a week for about four hours, and travel throughout the southeastern states to compete at state, regional and national levels.

Park officials began to see an interest in climbing features in 1989 when Alpine Tower opened. The hourglass-shaped obstacle course included some basic climbing skills that seemed to pique the residents’ interest. In 1997, the county installed its climbing wall.

The wall seems to attract fans of all ages. In the summer, the wall offers a daytime activity for families, and in the spring it attracts college students on spring break.

“The climbing wall has definitely expanded what we offer,” says Lavarnway. “Being on a coast, everyone assumes we have only water-based activities. This brings something unique to Low Country.”

Payment options vary--someone just trying the wall for the first time can buy a $10 day pass, while an experienced, regular climber can buy a $190 one-year membership.

Taking It Outdoors

The county also offers 20 different classes to its patrons to hone in on special skill sets. The classes range from beginners courses to rescue classes and anchor building. Class sizes are limited in order to give each participant the most one-on-one instruction possible. The cost ranges from $20 to $80.

Instructors also provide each climbing enthusiast a personal outline for course progression.

In addition to the climbing wall, weekend trips are organized for those interested in exercising their new skills out in nature. The participants are accompanied by a trained instructor, and spend Saturday and half the day Sunday climbing. Oftentimes, the county will contract with colleges or Boy Scout troops to take the groups on guided climbs.

Staff Requirements

The county operates with a three-person team for the climbing wall--the wall manager oversees operations, the technician operates sales and coaches climbers, and the assistant handles customer service, coaching and keeping climbers informed.

Staff members are trained on issues such as instruction and safety information. Any staff member who wants to supervise a climbing trip also is required to shadow the wall manager on a previous trip.

“We are really strict about who teaches,” says Lavarnway. “You have to be safe and make sure the customers are getting the best knowledge available.”

While a number of the staff comes to Charleston County with a basic knowledge of climbing, they learn a great deal of the more technical aspects while on the job. “We end up teaching each other, and we learn and grow together,” says Lavarnway.


Besides using a wrench on the entire wall each month, checking for signs of corrosion or rotting and ensuring everything is tight and safe, there is also a mandatory annual inspection for all climbing walls. Other maintenance items include changing the routes on the wall every two to three weeks in order to keep the course exciting and new for frequent climbers.

“Changing up the course keeps people coming back,” says Lavarnway. “It helps with our overall retention of members.”

Heather Reichle is a freelance writer living in Columbus, Ohio. She can be reached via e-mail at