June 26, 2019
History of the climbing wall
Built to teach outdoor climbing skills
“What makes our wall different than other facilities, is that we are able to teach skills that are transferable to outdoor rock climbing, in a safe and controlled environment,” says Ashley Weeks, climbing program coordinator. “Pulling on plastic doesn’t really prepare you for climbing outdoors on real rock and how that feels. At our wall, cracks and realistic features allow climbers to experience outdoor movement technique.”
The wall is also a great place for getting used to the mental game that is a big part of climbing, she adds, “because it’s a mental challenge as well as a physical one.”
Designed to simulate outdoor climbing, the 13-metre-high wall is unique in catering to both experienced and beginning climbers, with instructional programs that include Outdoor ABCs that covers the basics of outdoor climbing: Anchor Basics, Crack and Trad, and Rescue Tips and Tricks.
“The wall’s fully accessible upper deck is an excellent place to practise anchor building and rope technique skills, including crevasse rescue and rock rescue systems,” Weeks says. “With several different types of anchoring options available, setting up and facilitating rope systems for both climbing and caving is easy.”
Part of Olympic legacy
The climbing wall is a great place to learn. “Most climbing gyms are focused on training in the vertical realm, but they’re not teaching facilities, and that’s what the Outdoor Centre wall does. It’s in its own category,” says the wall’s designer and builder, Murray Toft, a retired full mountain guide and retired senior instructor from UCalgary’s Faculty of Kinesiology. “It’s the best instructional wall in the city, if not western Canada.”
The climbing wall was built as a lead-up to the 1988 Winter Olympics. “The big concept with Roger Jackson, the visionary dean of the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Physical Education (now Kinesiology), was that after the Olympics, there would be a legacy,” Toft recalls.
A climbing wall at the university was built as part of that legacy, to serve as an instructional facility in a controlled environment before people went out to the mountains. “With the wall, we could make much more efficient use of our time.”
Good design stands the test of time
The wall has stood the test of time: people come from all over Alberta to practise their crevasse rescue skills. “It has simulated glacier anchors, and is one of the few walls with a top deck that’s big enough to accommodate teaching groups,” Toft says.
The cracks in the wall allow people to learn how to place gear for fall protection, which is quite different from most sport walls. The cracks also allow people to learn a completely different type of climbing technique.
“On most modular sport walls, you don’t get cracks — it’s mainly face climbing — whereas the wall at the University of Calgary Outdoor Centre has features that require another level of technique to climb,” Toft explains. “You can climb anything from fingertip, hand and fist cracks right up to a chimney, and all kinds of gradations in between . . . That’s the other big thing about the wall — you’re climbing on real stone. Most of the holds are fieldstone quartzite embedded in textured concrete.”
Leading the way to mainstream status
The wall has played a key role in the popularization of climbing walls in Calgary. “It’s interesting to see how far climbing walls have come,” Toft says. “Climbing walls have gone from a fringe athletic facility to the mainstream.”