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Reducing rock climbing risks.

Rock climbing is a popular activity offered by many camps. While climbing adds challenge and excitement to camp programs, the very nature of the sport is perceived by many as risky or dangerous. One way to minimize or control this risk without reducing the excitement, thrill, challenge, and fun associated with the activity is to consider all parts of the program in relation to safety and be prepared for the unexpected.

The checklists that follow can be useful risk-management tools to help camp administrators evaluate and assess the quality of their climbing programs and to help reduce some of the risks inherent in the activity. While risk-management plans cannot eliminate all risks and lawsuits, they can reflect the camp's concern for the well-being of its participants while reducing unnecessary risk.

Risk-management plans for rock climbing programs should be started to prevent damage or destruction of property, minimize potential injury or suffering to participants, implement loss-reducing and prevention programs, and transfer risk when control by other means is difficult. These plans should focus on the administration of the climbing program, the climbing and surrounding environment, the selection and maintenance of the appropriate equipment, considerations to the health, safety, and well-being of campers, as well as the employment, education, and retention of qualified climbing staff.

Administering the Program

The day-to-day operation of a climbing program requires good interpersonal and organizational skills, in addition to sound management practices. To help in this process, a comprehensive operations manual should be developed for your camp's rock climbing program. The manual should be well organized and reviewed and updated on a regular basis. It should document the daily operations of the climbing program, its safety policies, and recommend program procedures.

Consider including the following information:

* The goals and objectives of your program.

* General background information on your program, including what types of climbing your program offers (bouldering, top rope, lead climbing, rappeling) and where your program's participants climb?

* Policies and procedures detailing for all activities and program areas. Policies are issues that must be followed; procedures are suggestions designed as useful guidelines and are not mandatory requirements.

* Staffing specifics: qualifications, training, and requirements.

* Activity specifics: bouldering, top rope, lead climbing, rappeling, and other climbing-related activities, etc.

* Emergency information for each area, including phone numbers of the sheriff and rescue squad, and evacuation routes.

* Examples of paperwork (risk forms, accident report forms, belay test, trip reports, etc.).

* Standard operating procedures for all climbing sites.

Inspecting the Climbing Environment

The environment includes all rock climbing sites used by the camp. Pay particular attention to the following:

* Is there a process in place for approving and evaluating climbing sites?

* What criteria are used to approve climbing sites? Who approves the sites?

* Are sites appropriate for the skill level of campers?

* Have standard operating procedures been developed for all areas?

* Are all climbing staff members familiar with all sites (including access and egress)?

* Are staff members conscious of area ethics?

* Have the appropriate permits been acquired for federal or state land or permission secured for private property?

* Are "clean-climbing" techniques encouraged and practiced?

Maintaining and Inspecting Equipment

All campers should be provided with functional equipment appropriate for the activity. All equipment should conform to UIAA climbing standards. Climbing staff should be familiar with the manufacturer's instructions for intended use, lifetime, and product care. Consider the following:

* Keeping rope and equipment logs. Logs should include who, what, where, and how the equipment is being used.

* Conducting regular equipment inspections. Staff should be trained in the use, care, and maintenance of all equipment. Checklists of what to look for are helpful to aid in this process.

* Implementing a retirement policy for equipment. Is this policy properly documented and known by all?

Program vs. personal equipment. Are campers permitted to use personal equipment? If so, have guidelines been established for the use and inspection of this equipment?

Protecting Participants

The overall health and safety of campers are important components of risk management and should take into consideration. For example:

* Emergency procedures need to be carefully developed, known, and enforced by all staff.

* Appropriate first-aid kits should accompany campers to all climbing sites. Their contents and location should be known to all.

* A reporting system should be in place for all accidents and near misses. A near miss is an event that has the potential for serious injury, although minor or no injury occurred.

* A bloodborne pathogens protocol should be established and all staff trained and equipped appropriately to handle these situations if they should arise.

* A lightning protocol should be established.

* All climbing areas and participants should be closely supervised. Specific supervision should be provided any time instruction is being conducted. This is most important when beginning climbers are learning new skills.

* Periodic peer safety reviews should be conducted. The peer review is a process for assessing the safety and quality status of a camp's climbing program. The review usually includes a team of qualified members making a brief visit to your camp or climbing site(s) to gather relevant information. In turn, feedback is provided to the camp director or program manager to update the program and specific recommendations are made concerning safety.

Managing Staff and Campers

Two of the most important resources for any organization are its employees and customers (campers). Camps are no different. Consideration should be given to establishing criteria for hiring, training, retraining, and evaluating qualified staff. Emphasis should be placed on maintaining the well-being of campers and giving them a high-quality experience.


Those involved with the supervision of a camp climbing program must be safety conscious, skilled, experienced, and able to work effectively with campers. Moreover, climbing staff should be enthusiastic, aware of their climber's abilities and needs, and eager to help them learn. At a minimum, all climbing staff members should be able to belay, establish anchor systems, execute a belay escape, rappel, and ascend a fixed rope. They should have completed first-aid training (Wilderness First Responder or equivalent) and be certified in CPR. Potential staff members should complete a comprehensive application that documents:

* Previous teaching, supervising, climbing, or instructional experience

* Certifications: Are they current? Have they been updated? Do they have documentation?

* References

* Specialized training

Your program should also take into consideration:

* Clearly defining and documenting climbing staff's responsibilities. This information should be clearly understood by all supervisors.

* Establishing an effective means of communication between staff members and camp administration.

* Initiating and sticking to a camper/staff ratio.

* Conducting staff training on a yearly or as needed basis to update current staff on new policies and technical information and to train new staff.

* Using peer evaluation, participant feedback, or direct observation from camp management. This information should be documented and kept on file.

* Developing a pro-purchase program or offering equipment discounts or specialized training to retain exceptional staff members.


A quality rock climbing program should have measures in place to ensure that participants are aware of the hazards inherent in the activity. Campers should also understand that they are responsible for their actions and behaviors, and they should agree to follow the policies and procedures designed to enhance their safety and climbing experience. To expedite participant safety and experience, consider:

* Campers' experience level. Do they meet minimum age requirements? Are they beginners needing more supervision or instruction? Are they experienced climbers looking for more challenges?

* Campers' needs. Are opportunities for bouldering, top rope, or lead climbing offered?

* Campers' knowledge. Are campers evaluated on their competency and knowledge about rock climbing? Are other evaluation procedures in place? For example, has the belayer test been successfully completed and documented?

Rock climbing programs do have hazards and despite the best precautions accidents can happen. Adopting or modifying the strategies outlined above can go a long way toward bringing risks within acceptable limits and providing your campers with enjoyable and rewarding climbing experiences.

Rock Climbing Resources

Following are several organizations that offer information on rock climbing training and certification. For a list of other organizations, contact Jody Winter in the ACA standards department, 765-342-8456, ext. 349, or e-mail

* Association for Experiential Education (AEE)

2305 Canyon Blvd., Suite 100, Boulder, CO 80302; phone 303-440-8844; fax 303-440-9581; e-mail, web site:

* National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS)

288 Main St., Lander, WY 82520-3140; phone 307-332-6973; fax 307-332-1220; web site:

* Outward Bound National Office

Route 9D, R 2 Box 280, Garrison, NY 10524-9757; phone 800-243-8520, 914-424-4000; web site:


van der Smissen, B. Legal Liability and Risk Management for Public and Private Entities. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson Publishing Company, 1990.

Aram Attarian, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.
COPYRIGHT 1998 American Camping Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:camp management
Author:Attarian, Aram
Publication:Camping Magazine
Date:Sep 1, 1998
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