Climbing Beyond Recreational Use

Over the past 10 years at Central Michigan University, the 10,000-square-foot Adventure Center in the Recreation, Parks and Leisure Services Administration Department has seen a popularity boom and healthy revenue stream, particularly related to the rock-climbing gym. However, the center also has experienced the ever-so-common “yo-yo” effect as the public’s interest in paying to climb the wall shifts. A handful of “regulars” keeps the doors open, but how to keep people coming back? The answer to this question was addressed, adding elements that changed the common rock gym into an impressive experiential learning center.

First-Year Experience

In a class known as the First-Year Experience (FYE), students are exposed to the rock-climbing wall in the following ways:

1. Instructors may take an entire class to experience a set of “team-building” and “problem-solving” activities.

2. Students are invited to attend special FYE-sponsored adventure activity nights for small groups or individuals as an option for completing an out-of-class assignment

3. Students may attend open-campus recreation nights on their own.

Climbing is used as a “from-here-to-there” activity, where climbers are in one place and challenge themselves to move to another. The climbing wall is front-loaded to represent the “journey” through the freshman year of college. A front-load is simply a suggestion or metaphor given to climbers to think about the connection between the activities in which they are participating and what is going on in their lives. Specifically, the bottom of the wall represents where they stand in the first eight weeks of college, and the top of the wall represents how they will finish freshman year. Some sample processing questions follow:

• What obstacles will you face during freshman year?

• What will it take to be successful (during the climb)?

• If unsuccessful, what were your struggles (during the climb)?

• How can these struggles compare to the struggles you will face this year?

• What was it like holding the belay line (during the climb)?

• For whom do you hold the belay line (in everyday life)? What will happen if you let go?

Students’ reflections suggest that the two primary FYE goals--promoting engagement and empowering students--are being effectively addressed through these climbing activities.

As Richard Kraft notes, “Adventure educators have begun to learn that the insights learned from adventure programs and other experiential learning environments have great potential for use in the mainstream of our educational settings, whether in schools and colleges, in therapeutic programs, or in the worlds of business and industry” (Miles & Priest, 1990). Other outcomes from adventure experiences include an improved self-concept, enhanced leadership skills, increased logical reasoning skills, enhanced cooperation, more effective communication skills, increased sharing and decision-making skills, new ways to solve conflict and improved problem-solving (Gass & Priest, 2005). The benefits of experiential education for a more substantial development of self appear to be significant.

Adventure activities, combined with other experiential and traditional methods of education, give participants better opportunities to develop the skills they need to succeed in life.

Although the program in this example is specific to freshmen in college, it also can be used for any students who will be transitioning to a new school (i.e., from elementary school to middle school or middle school to high school).

Team Climb And Team Belay

Although both of these activities can be utilized separately, the combination proves to be very effective. Begin the activity by organizing two climbing routes 5 to 6 feet apart. One climb is an easy route typical for a novice climber. The second route is more challenging. Tie the climbers together with a 3-and-a-half-foot tether (shorten to increase the challenge, lengthen to make it easier). One of the tethered climbers must choose to be blindfolded.

The climbers determine a goal and then proceed. Communication is a key element between the climbing partners because the blind climber needs to be told carefully where to place his or her hands during the climb. The rest of the group (on the ground) also can act as the climbers’ support by encouraging them to succeed. The use of the tether creates an added challenge in itself. A fall by one climber will pull the other climber off the wall. With an extremely tight belay (no slack in the line), the potential for one climber to pull the other off is reduced.

The climbers are belayed separately, and the facilitator has several options to run the Team Belay. Experienced belayers allow climbers to challenge themselves more fully. These belayers also can perform a lead belay, allowing about a half of a “smile” length of slack in the belay line, causing greater pull from one climber to the other in the event of a fall.

Another way to run the belay during the Team Climb is to use an auto-locking belay device. A commonly used device is a Gri-gri and is significantly more expensive than a typical tube or pyramid device, known as an air-traffic controller (ATC), but can serve a rock-climbing gym with many other functions. The use of a Gri-gri has been widely debated among the climbing industry for many years. Proper staff training and proficiency in belaying with an ATC prior to being permitted to use a Gri-gri for a team climb is prudent for climbing facilities. Such preparation will ensure that the Team Belay concept can be safe, and allows for more engagement from those participants not climbing (i.e., helping to belay as opposed to sitting and waiting for their turn). The use of a Gri-gri for the Team Belay also allows 10 participants to be involved at the same time.

The logistical setup for the Team Belay requires the facilitator to connect the rope and Gri-gri to one participant whose job is to pull the loose rope through the belay device. For the purpose of these instructions, this person is the “primary belayer.” A second person is assigned as the “slack puller,” and is positioned on the opposite side of the primary belayer’s brake hand. The slack puller’s role is to pull the slack out of the system as the climber ascends the climbing route, to keep the rope tight to the climber. The primary belayer works at pulling the slack though the device and breaking off, normally done by a single belayer. A third person is assigned to hold the back of the harness of the primary belayer, acting as a ground anchor.

Sometimes a fourth person is used to hold or coil the rope for the primary belayer, also serving as a back-up brake person. This system is set up for both of the tethered climbers. The lead facilitator’s job is to stand between the two belay systems to make sure that the slack in the rope created by the climber ascending the wall is pulled through the belay device. When the climbers have completed their climb, one of the climbers unclips the tether and prepares to be lowered to the ground. The lead facilitator manipulates the device to lower one climber at a time. Being able to utilize two trained and proficient belayers, however, allows the two climbers to be lowered at the same time, and is an added safety feature.

The lead facilitator can also have two to four other teams getting into their harnesses and helmets in preparation for the next team climb. A typical group of 12 to 14 people can all be active while only two participants are utilizing the climbing wall.

The Team Climb and Team Belay can provide an opportunity for groups to work on communication, trust, support, teamwork and motivation. This activity also can be designed and processed to meet many corporate team-building goals. Depending on the metaphorical front load of the activity, a simple processing question such as “What did it take for you to be successful?” can help a group to make connections with principles that apply to both rock climbing and the work environment. Even failing to reach a climbing goal can be a powerful learning experience for a group. The group may discover that being “connected” (symbolized by the tether) to bad influences affects team (workplace) success. The members may also realize that when they don’t share a common vision with the team (fellow employees), it can lead to falling off the wall (failing at business). This climbing strategy works well for corporate settings, as well as with any group of individuals that must work together to achieve a common goal (i.e., sports teams, or groups in educational settings).

There is a vast amount of information about experiential activities used for team-building programs. Climbing gyms cannot only utilize adventure-based experiential activities on their climbing walls, but can optimize the open space within the facilities for a variety of other team-building activities. Utilizing both strategies can enhance business, and produce a larger variety and more diverse client base.

Robert Schumacker is an instructor for the Recreation Parks and Leisure Services at Central Michigan University. He can be reached via e-mail at