Climbing Walls in Branch Facilities


Climbing walls have been a regular feature of resident camp challenge courses for years, and are becoming a more common sight at branch facilities as well. While it is exciting to have such a dynamic adventure in close proximity and thus much more accessible to kids, the last few years are revealing cultural and operational differences between camps and branches that have produced significantly different injury statistics for these activities.

Our last six years have seen 13 camp-based challenge course incidents, the most serious resulting in two fractured wrists. During the same time branch-located climbing walls have produced 32 reported incidents including a punctured lung, broken back, broken pelvis, and 23 other fractures. The frequency and severity of branch-located walls are both about 250% of the camp experience, yet camp participants are exponentially more numerous than branch participants and camp elements have significantly more potential for injury.

Seriously injuring people is unacceptable – the knee-jerk reaction would be to return this adventure to those shown to be best qualified to provide it – camp. That, however, probably is not the best solution in most situations.

A better response is to treat climbing walls as we treat the other dangerous branch activity – aquatics. We take that activity seriously, with clear, closely followed protocols, specific training activity, testing and marking of swimmers, and well-trained, thoroughly knowledgeable lifeguards overseeing the activity. Climbing walls should be no different – they need to be taken seriously with similarly protective protocols, appropriate training, testing and marking, and highly-qualified, experienced facilitators who actively supervise and control the climbing experience.

Climbing walls should be governed by a written policy manual that includes job descriptions and qualifications for staff and volunteers. Those who

supervise the wall must be capable of communicating with climbers and parents and able to train and evaluate potential climbers and belayers. There must be sufficient staff on duty to control all aspects of the wall and the immediate floor area – those climbing, belaying, bouldering, or observing.

The following are extremely important:

  • Rules for the wall should be clearly posted.
  • A means of testing, marking, and possibly recording the bouldering, climbing, and belaying skills of participants is needed, just as for a pool.
  • Every participant’s skills should be determined before they begin climbing.
  • Equipment should be checked for condition and proper application – an improperly tied knot that did not get checked by the facilitator and then came untied and dropped the unsuspecting climber has been our most common incident – every knot should be checked before the climb.
  • All who are on the wall should be conspicuously marked so staff can tell at a glance whether climbers are authorized to be where they are.

Specific waivers should be required for all climbers because even employing all precautions gives no guarantee of absolute safety. The waiver, however, is no substitute for consistent, diligent supervision and active staff involvement. Climbing is a great sport that can be done safely at branch facilities but it will take serious commitment and constant effort. Please see our Facility-based Climbing Wall Initiative for more information.

Please call us at 800-463-8546 to discuss this or any other risk management safety tip, or visit our web site at to learn more about JCC risk management issues.


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