Challenge Programs and Belay Practices
Climbing walls, towers, and high-ropes courses have been a part of the camping world for many years. Urban and suburban facilities will frequently install climbing walls and bouldering walls as new recreational and leadership elements within traditional programming. Regardless of facility or program, climbing walls, towers and high ropes courses introduce a level of risk that necessitates special training and supervision. The skills necessary to safely operate and maintain these structures and their associated equipment require annual updates, annual site inspections, operator certifications, and staff training in both hard and soft skills.
Challenge courses, regardless of their configuration, require onsite supervision whenever programming is taking place. Association of Challenge Course Technology (ACCT) standards require organizations that use challenge course technology (whether that consists of a single climbing wall or extended courses with high or low ropes elements) to have a “designated, qualified challenge course manager in place who is responsible for supervising all challenge course operations.” The standards define the qualifications and competencies required of a challenge course manager: education, training, experience, sound judgment, plus mastery of the technical and facilitation competencies needed to safely oversee a challenge course. His or her principle roles are to set or to design the programs, train the staff, maintain equipment use logs, coordinate inspections, perform routine maintenance and ensure participant safety at all times. To do this effectively the challenge course manager should be present at all times the challenge course is operating. Safety is the top priority.
COMMON CAUSES FOR INCIDENTS
Alpine Towers International (ATI) has documented field studies that show the common factors that lead to accidents or incidents on a challenge course. The following are some important factors:
- Time Pressure: Failure to allow adequate time for staff or climbers to develop skills is a crucial issue. Inadequate skill verification may compromise the safety system and rushing any safety check or protocol puts the climber at risk. For example, skipping steps in the five-point check (helmet, harness, knots, carabiner and rope) may result in a belayer or climber failing to recognize an unsafe situation.
- Trying New Methods: Avoid experimenting or modifying established techniques, protocols, and/or program design. Any new program element added to the existing program should be reviewed and approved by both the challenge course manager and a qualified outside consultant prior to implementing to ensure that risks have been carefully addressed.
- Lack of Proper Training and Experience: Newly trained staff members may have fresh skills, but they lack the necessary experience to “run the wall.” Skills must be constantly and consistently verified and practiced to gain the level of expertise required to facilitate an element. Training and mentorship programs that groom junior staff into challenge course leadership positions should be implemented. No staff should be promoted above their level of training and verified skill. Comprehension alone is inadequate. The skill gained through regular practice and in-service training is essential for challenge course facilitation.
- Judgment and Maturity: Appropriate staff selection, proper training and experience all combine to develop judgment and maturity. When faced with an emergency situation, staff who possess appropriate judgment and maturity are more apt to act so as to be able to positively affect the outcome of an otherwise negative experience.
EQUIPMENT TO CONSIDER
If you currently operate a climbing wall, tower or high ropes course there are certain pieces of equipment that should always be used with every participant and every staff member.
- Properly fitted sit-harness
- Properly fitted helmet
- Static or dynamic climbing rope (inspected prior to and logged after each use)
- Appropriate belay device
The following items should be considered as they are nearly fail-safe in their ability to minimize user error:
- Auto-locking carabiner: this type of carabiner locks automatically when the gate closes, preventing an open gate from which the rope may come loose.
- Gri-gri®, Cinch® or similar belay devices: These cable brakes grab and lock the rope when the rope loads. There is a manual lever to open the lock to allow controlled lowering of the climber.
- Chest Harness: any climber is more secure when a chest harness is combined with a sit-harness, but for particularly large or small climbers the added protection is highly recommended to prevent the climber from inverting and slipping free of the sit-harness.
Such additional equipment will increase initial costs but the added protection is well worth the investment. As with any new equipment, specific training and orientation is essential prior to use. This, like all other training, should be documented: who, when, what (equipment, procedure, etc.), and by whom. Proper documentation of in-service trainings may be extremely valuable in the event of an incident to verify that staff is trained and skills are checked.
POLICIES AND PROCEDURES TO CONSIDER
- All climbing programs should be supervised by trained staff (preferably the challenge course manager) at all times.
- Each participant’s belaying skill is verified at each climbing session regardless of known climbing ability…this not only ensures qualified belayers but also reminds the belayers of the importance of their task.
- Belaying by non-staff should utilize a backup belayer even if a fail-safe device is used.
- All belayers should be supervised by trained, qualified staff (preferably the challenge course manager).
- All safety systems should be checked, double checked, and preferably documented. Remember five-point checks are the responsibility of both climber and belayer prior to each ascent and descent. Staff supervision of safety checks and five-point checks is critical.
- Utilize a climbing log that records date, block of time, rope, overseer, belayer, backup belayer, climber, and system checks/double checks. Have a space to note anything unusual.
- For every primary safety system, implement a backup safety system: belayer (especially if not staff) should have a backup belayer; two carabiners (opposite and opposed) should be used instead of just one.
Safety must be the primary goal. Only when safety systems and supervision are adequately addressed do we gain the ability to use these facilities for group work, leadership development, self confidence building, and challenge growth activities. In the climbing world there is an old saying, “When everything is perfect, it’s perfectly safe.” For more information about challenge course safety and best practices, visit the ACCT website www.acctinfo.org