From a mere toehold, rock climbing businesses now getting strong grip

The 165-foot outdoor climbing wall on the walls of CommRow in downtown Reno is more than the tallest facility of its type in the world.

It throws a spotlight on the fast-growing sport, which has seen a boom in development of large climbing facilities to augment the rocks provided by Mother Nature.

Large climbing facilities have been constructed in recent years in San Diego, Boulder, Salt Lake City, Atlanta and several locations in Northern California, says Keith Ferguson, director the USA Climbing Association.

The association headquartered aptly at Boulder, estimates that about 6.1 million people participate in organized climbing activities.

"More facilities are being planned everyday," Ferguson says. "Access to facilities and coaching are the two most important factors that drive growth, and both have increased significantly in the past 10 years. Many colleges are putting in climbing walls for the recreation of their students, not because they want to create demand but because the demand already exists."

Adam Koberna, vice president of marketing and sales for Entere Prises of Bend, Ore., which built the outdoor climbing wall for CommRow developer Fernando Leal, says his company has grown every year over the past decade.

"Fifteen to 20 years ago, when most of us got started, it was always, 'When is the trend going to end?' It is not really a trend anymore, it is just what people are doing," Koberna says.

The buzz surrounding the CommRow project the hotel property formerly known as Fitzgerald's already has impacted business for RockSport Indoor Climbing Center on Silverada Boulevard next to Sak 'N Save Food Store.

Owner Mark Gammon was hired by Leal to manage both the climbing wall and the large bouldering park being constructed inside CommRow by Vertical Solutions of Salt Lake City.

Gammon has hired 20 additional employees to staff the downtown climbing facilities, although some help will split time between CommRow and Rocksport. New hires were primarily northern Nevada climbers.

"I had a pretty good turnout once we started putting out the word that we were looking for staff members," Gammon says. "The majority have a background in climbing and will be used as counter help to oversee the bouldering park, while the more talented climbers will manage the outside wall."

Gammon says RockSport stands to benefit from climbers using his facility on cold, snowy or windy days that don't lend themselves to climbs outside the downtown hotel.

"We see our combined efforts in management as a perfect chance for us," he says.

Construction crews for Entere Prises have essentially completed their work at CommRow and are back in Oregon, Koberna says. The climbing wall at CommRow, which starts about 40 feet off the ground to rise more than 200 feet, was one of the most challenging jobs undertaken by Entere Prises.

"There is no doubt that this project was not as straightforward as our other jobs," Koberna says. "Just the height, managing crews and thinking about how everything was going to be staged and working with Fernando's crew added an extra layer. Everybody had to be on top of it."

The wall was built in sections at the company's worldwide headquarters in Bend, and completed segments were shipped to northern Nevada.

Koberna says one of the issues he needed to hammer out when Leal approached his company with an idea for the project was the degree of technical difficulty for the wall itself. Make it too easy and you alienate the serious climbing community, he says, but make it too hard and you risk alienating first-time climbers and tourists.

"We had to put a lot of thought into striking a balance," Koberna says. "No matter who we are building a wall for, you have to figure out how to make everybody happy. The end result is how many people want to use this and in five years how many people will want to use it."

Gammon faces similar challenges.

However, pre-determined routes at RockSport are color-coded with tape so climbers can follow and easier or more challenging paths depending on their skill. Easier routes typically are established at the beginning of the year to accommodate the many New Year's resolution climbers, and routes are adjusted throughout the year.

Gammon says the recession has brought more people into the facility. RockSport sells annual and monthly memberships, as well as pre-paid passes for climbing sessions. The company also does brisk business in retail sales of climbing gear ropes, harnesses, shoes and hardware such as belaying devices and carabiners.

RockSport also has seen an uptick in business from local companies who are training workers in new jobs, Gammon says. Over the past few years he's conducted many training sessions in equipment safety practices for construction workers who are taking on duties out of their normal scope of work.


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