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Gym Spotlight

The Climbing Wall Association: Protecting Indoor Climbing Since 2003

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Have you ever wondered how your gym picked the belay technique that it teaches, why the lead anchors in a gym are so trustworthy, or how the staff at your gym prevents accidents while setting routes? Behind all the details you enjoy at your gym the Climbing Wall Association (CWA) works to help gym owners make the critical decisions that affect the wellbeing and enjoyment of everyone in a climbing gym. But where does the CWA come from and how do they help a gym make these decisions?

Before there was a Climbing Wall Association, in the 1990s, the few rock gyms that existed in the United States gathered together under the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) as the Climbing Wall Industry Group (CWIG). At that time many rock gyms were built with love of the sport and a lot of trips to the local lumber yard. While everyone who built a gym had the best intentions, there weren’t any guidelines on how to build or operate a climbing wall, so each new gym had to invent its own systems.

In 2003, the CWA was founded and began recruiting gyms around the country to gather input about the current methods for constructing and operating a climbing gym. The CWA’s first publication “General Specification for the Design and Engineering of Artificial Climbing Structures” was published six years later in January 2009. For the first time ever, professional wall builders and prospective gym owners had a reliable resource for building the amazing walls that we all enjoy.

When the CWA left the OIA they also brought with them the “Sourcebook for the Operation of Manufactured Climbing Walls.” Working with the support of climbing gym owners around the country, the CWA refined this set of best practices, ultimately publishing the third edition in 2007. Now gym owners could review their belay techniques, teaching methods and operations to make sure that they were providing the best experience possible.

In addition to helping climbing gyms run smoothly, the CWA also works to make sure that any laws or regulations written by local and state governments don’t impact our ability to climb at gyms in a normal fashion. Climbing is sometimes perceived as an extreme activity, and in some states there is pressure to make it conform to standards intended for other applications, such as amusement parks. Could you imagine being required to wear a helmet while bouldering, or have a ride attendant at each belay stance?

Other types of laws and regulations wouldn’t affect your climbing experience so directly, but they could raise how much it costs you to climb. If a climbing gym is overburdened by inspections, insurance or compliance costs they must raise their rates. By actively educating the public about the risks of the sport of climbing and empowering individual climbing gyms with tools to manage those risks, the CWA helps keep climbing accessible to us all.

Those efforts also make it easier to open a new facility without running into legislative roadblocks. When an entrepreneurial climber gets the bug to open a new gym, their first stop is often the CWA. All the resources we’ve highlighted can help streamline the first steps into starting a new climbing business.

As our sport grows, the CWA will continue to help climbing gyms stay independent, professional and successful. We all know the sense of community we get to enjoy as climbers is remarkable. That same love for the sport and each other is the fuel that inspires the members and volunteers of the CWA to protect your local gym and your climbing experience.

Feature Image by Ani Manova/Walltopia

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