High Adventure, High Opportunity

By Jeff Merhige

The popularity of climbing walls and ropes courses has been huge in the past couple of decades and continues to be a distinctive feature to most camps and conference centers in recreation.


Most camps I've visited have some form of a high ropes course and most have some sort of a climbing tower or wall. Using these unique, fun and challenging activities for program reasons are easy to defend in regard to the benefit to the self esteem of the participant. Kids learn confidence, a sense of accomplishment, adventure and goal based achievement.

In addition, the camp atmosphere found in modern climbing programs are a far cry from those gym-based climbing ropes that scared me as a kid! Not to mention the increased safety.

Climbing that rope in gym class was out of fear of being yelled at, or made fun of by other kids, and not falling from the rope was based on a fear of not wanting to die!

Today's walls and high rope courses are actually safer than horseback riding and water activities. I wish that in gym class I had a climbing harness and person acting as my belay person. It would have been nice to know that it takes over 2,000 pounds of pressure to break my rope or harness!

No matter what type of climbing program your camp has or is thinking of having there are some safety issues to consider and programming integration questions you should be asking.

Too many camps and program people based their decisions on the Cool Factor. Well, of course it's cool! A 50' tower simulating a rock face with a zip line off the top! Of course it's cool, but is it right for you? And, if it is right, are you using it correctly and maximizing its use?

Highest Priority
Any camp that considers a high ropes element or a climbing tower should have yearly inspections of the equipment, poles, trees, and training programs for your facilitators.

It is essential that your course is inspected by an outside and neutral company. This protects your camp and your guests.

To find the right builder and company to provide training a camp you can conduct a simple search of ACA and YMCA recommended builders and trainers.

Research Camp Business advertisers and vendor lists from the camping conferences held throughout North America. High course builders frequent these gatherings. Call for references from these companies. Find out who they did work for and give a call. Combined, a camp will find the right company to work with.

All facilitators in your program should be trained and certified by certified trainers. Any shortcuts to safety can lead to accidents which cost a camp more than the investment in training or construction of their elements. There is no shortcut to highly trained people training and reminding your staff on how to use the equipment.

Far too many stories of camp that have someone who is on staff and continues to train other staff, then the training continues from one of those trained staff passing it on. Soon, the only training is based on the internal knowledge as it has been passed down from staff member to staff member. Much like oral history, it reeks of the old saying "That's the way we have always done it."

Get real! As a responsible leader in the recreation industry it is our responsibility to see that our staff is trained to the best of our ability by the best there are in the area being trained for. How to operate a 50' tower? How to navigate a 30' high course? That needs to be taught by experts, and that means making our staff experts every time, every year!

Use the above mentioned builders and companies to train. Have some of your staff become qualified instructor trainers. Just make sure that they stay current on industry standards.

Program Challenge
The first consideration a camp should discuss is what type of high adventure element fits in best with your program. All of the high adventure elements are great, but some take more time then others.

What is the goal you are trying accomplish with high adventure? What do you want the kids to get out of the experience? How do you want the activity to fit in the camp schedule?

A high ropes course for a group of 20 or less can take all morning or more to accomplish based on the type of elements that are being navigated and the number of them. Does that work in your schedule? And, are you using the course year round or seasonally?

I know of a northern camp that built a climbing tower and ran a zip line off of the top. The climbing tower is used constantly, but the zip is too staff intensive and takes too long to run the kids through, so… they don't use the zip! They only use the zip line in staff training.

Any camp that wants to add these type of activities needs to outline the expectations. In the above camp's example, their entire schedule is based on one-hour activity time slots. Using the zip with the wall is too time intensive for the number of kids they send per activity. Why have it?

Now it's just a visual disappointment for the kids to see what they won't be doing! A simple rule is to get past what you want and move toward what you need.

Here at Camp Kern we are fortunate enough to have multiple high courses, low courses and soon multiple walls. But each has a specific purpose and each fits a particular type of group or client.

Our Pine course (15 elements high course) is used for corporate, team and group retreats whose purpose is the specific experience, and a whole day is scheduled for use. Only the Leader programs in the summer use the course.

Our current climbing wall is used by outdoor education, summer camp, weekend groups and rentals. It is quick, efficient, medium challenge. The giant swing is used much like the general climbing wall.

The Brisben High course is circular in nature and set 15 feet higher than our Pine Course. It also stands alone without trees close by. It creates a higher challenge experience. These resources each fit a specific program need, and create ability for us to customize the challenge experience.

If you add a wall or high elements try and design a progressive experience program around the activity. Avoid races! Racing to the top is not recommended as an activity! It allows kids and staff to get lazy on the safety and doesn't send a great message to the kids. The fastest and highest climber is the best! Nope…

Here at YMCA Camp Kern we practice Challenge by Choice. You win no matter how high you climb or even by putting on your harness. Each camper knows that this is here to challenge them, not to live up to anyone else's goal.

If a camper has a fear of heights and just climbing eight feet is an accomplishment, then that is celebrated! Challenge by Choice allows any participant to try without fear. The campers are taught to encourage their cabin mates and celebrate whenever and wherever the camper wants let down.

You need to stress to your counselors this type of philosophy and see to it that it's practiced at all points. There are various challenges, such as individual, climbing, tandem, blindfolded and so on. Challenge by Choice allows you to go wherever the camper wants to go except for the not being safe! Explore different ways to use your wall. For example, build one with a really hard side and one with an easy side. Challenge by Choice is also a philosophy to be used with any high ropes element. It's all the same! Just make sure it's consistently practiced and displayed by your staff.

Jeff Merhige is the executive director of YMCA Camp Kern, Dayton YMCA, Dayton, Ohio.


For more information about companies providing further outdoor adventure, following is a list of active participants in the camp business.

Alpine Towers International Inc./Cornerstone Designs Inc.
PO Box 59
Jonas Ridge, NC 28641
(800) 706-0064
(828) 733-0953
(828) 733-3505 (fax)
www.cornerstonedesignsinc.com, www.alpinetowers.com
Climbing walls, towers, zip lines and other challenge course products and equipment.

Brewer's Ledge Inc.
34 Brookley Road
Boston, MA 02130
(800) 707-9616
(617) 983-5244
(617) 983-5261 (fax)
Climbing wall panels, playground climbing wall and exercise-oriented climbing walls.

Grip-It Adventures
9331 Philadelphia Road, Warehouse D
Baltimore, MD 21237
PO Box 5003
Lutherville, MD 21094
(877) 510-2084
(410) 918-0415
(410) 918-0417 (fax)
Climbing walls, towers, zip lines and other challenge course products and equipment.

Extreme Engineering LLC
80 P&S Lane
Newcastle, CA 95658
(530) 887-1056
(530) 887-1066 (fax)
Climbing walls, towers, zip lines and other challenge course products and equipment.

Northeast Adventure LLC
12 Jennifer Lane
Burlington, CT 06013
(860) 675-8734
(860) 675-8736 (fax)
Climbing walls, towers, zip lines and other challenge course products and equipment.

PM Climbing/Passe Montagne
1760 Montée 2e Rang,
Val-David, Québec
Canada J0T 2N0
(800) 465-2123
(819) 322-2123
(819) 322-2948 (fax)
www.pmclimbing.com, www.passemontagne.com
Custom-built climbing walls.