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Bouldering for All Ages

By Ed Fisher, Rockcraft Designs

When rock climbing became an established sport in its own right, its practitioners sometimes honed their skills on short rock faces or boulders. They could practice close enough to the ground to avoid injury without the requirement for special safety equipment such as ropes or harnesses. Climbers learned that practicing this type of training, dubbed "bouldering" could lead to remarkable gains in the gymnastic aspects of climbing and thus a new playground staple was born.
Photos Courtesy of Rockcraft Designs

The popularity of the sport of rock climbing has exploded in North America in the last fifteen years. Somewhat ironically, rock climbing was at one time considered merely a training exercise for the committing activity of mountaineering.

Climbers learned that practicing a type of training, dubbed "bouldering" could lead to remarkable gains in the gymnastic aspects of climbing. This was especially true of those who challenged themselves on short intense "problems," a term coined by mathematician and legendary founder of modern bouldering, John Gill, who would sometimes work for days, weeks or even months on solving the mental and physical challenges of a difficult sequence of bouldering moves.

Climbable playground structures should scrupulously avoid potentially hazardous features such as chimneys, deep corners, cracks, leg holes, sharp holds, horns, climb through tunnels, and/or any support, climbing, or decorative structures that would impede an unobstructed fall to the absorbent surface.

Are Climbers Grown Up Children?

Now bouldering itself has become recognized not only as a competitive and recreational sport, but also, as one of the fastest growing indoor/outdoor fitness activities in the world. In the last few years several companies have begun manufacturing artificial boulders for parks and playgrounds, mainly for children. Climbing comes naturally to children and it has been said that rock climbers, in some ways, are just children who never grow up.

RockCraft Designs is a company at the forefront of this new trend. The members of the creative team at this company's North Vancouver, BC workshop/studio have been building artificial climbing walls for almost 15 years. The company's vision for the past few years has been to make the climbing experience safe and accessible for everyone.

Beginners and children should find friendly holds within easy reach on every section of the artificial boulders. At the same time experienced climbers should be able to find more difficult "crimps" and "pinches" while climbing or circumnavigating the piece.

Baseline General Principles

All successful playground climbing structures, from any manufacturer, will incorporate some similar general principles. The number one priority, at every level of design and construction of an artificial boulder, should be safety. Over-hanging climbing structures are generally the safest designs as they facilitate an unobstructed landing, in the event of a fall, onto an absorbent landing surface.

The second principle of good climbing boulder design is climbabilty. Each piece should be designed with a variety of hand and foot holds in an array of sizes so that there is something for everyone. Holds that are hidden, or can be used in a variety of ways, will give the users a sense of exploration similar to climbing on real rock. All climbing holds used outdoors should be self-draining, to avoid water pooling.

Now both children and adults are being attracted to the eye-catching artificial climbing boulders that are quickly becoming community centerpieces. These three-foot, six inch climbing boulders are made from high strength fiberglass reinforced concrete.

Sizes for All Sizes

Scaled down climbing boulders for elementary school children and even preschoolers are available from various manufacturers. On the other end of the spectrum some of the newest cutting edge designs feature radically over-hanging aspects that can be used for serious training by committed rock climbers. With the incorporation of a variety of holds, from small crimps and pinches to large jugs, these piece can still remain accessible and fun for children. Training on steep faces with friendly and ergonomically designed handholds has been proven to produce very positive results in climbing gyms all over the world during the last fifteen years. This type of training has been shown to increase strength dramatically with minimal tendon injuries while additionally developing inter-muscular coordination well beyond what would be achievable with conventional exercise equipment. Some of the new designs can be circumnavigated on either difficult or easy holds, or training can be intensified with up and down laps on the steep faces. Campus board type training on large or small holds, with or without the use of footholds, can also be practiced on the steep faces.

Beautiful, Natural and Climb-able, Too

In addition to safety and climbability the third key ingredient of every climbing sculpture should be aesthetics. A successful piece will feature many more and a greater variety of hand and footholds than would ever be found in a comparable square foot area in the course of natural geology. In this sense a successful climbing piece will be somewhat unnaturally contrived. Some climbing boulders are designed to incorporate the option of being butted together (i.e. to form an arch). Caution should be exercised with this kind of configuration to ensure that falls to the landing surface remain free of impediments. A good rule of thumb is to make sure that the bases of any climbing boulders in a playground setting remain at least eight or nine feet apart; this rule should include any bases of boulders incorporated into an arch.

"Climbing comes naturally to children and it has been said that rock climbers, in some ways, are just children who never grow up."

Most climbing boulders are manufactured from molds; some incorporate advanced GFRC concrete technology although some companies still offer the option of hand sculpted concrete pieces. In either case, whether hand sculpted or molded, many hours of finishing are required to bring a piece to final completion so that it is ready, from the aspects of both safety and aesthetics, to be placed in a public park. This process should not be rushed. A team of quality inspectors tests every piece, both visually and with a variety of probes, rings, and latex gloves, to ensure that there are no blemishes, snags, or entrapments. As a final test they get on each piece and have fun.

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December 14, 2019, 7:53 am PDT

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