By John Burgman
There are few aspects of a gym that serve more purposes than flooring. At times a steward of worst-case scenario protection on a lead wall, a floor also has the utilitarian purpose of supporting repeated falls in a bouldering area. Add to all of this the fact that the foam itself is a highly nuanced product (closed-cell, open-cell, innumerable thicknesses), and you have enough variance to make reaching any agreements on the subject a tough challenge.
This was brought to light recently in an industry-wide discussion that began with an open letter addressed to gym owners by Touchstone Climbing’s CEO, Mark Melvin. In the letter (attributed to “Touchstone Management”), Melvin noted that recent gym industry growth has resulted in, “a wider variety and a larger number of participants, as well as the ongoing development and evolution of climbing facilities and safety mechanisms.” Melvin pointed out that the gym industry currently lacks any precise standards that would ultimately curve flooring toward some semblance of consistency.
Melvin continued: “We find it disturbing that an increasing number of gyms are opting for a more minimal approach with regard to padding…settling for only a couple inches of closed cell foam directly over concrete.” Melvin did not specify which gyms he was referring to, although he did provide data from a test performed at Touchstone Climbing by gym flooring company Flashed—showing that among other things, 2-inch carpet-bonded closed cell foam by itself exceeded an arbitrary force (200g’s) at as low as 7.2-feet above ground. In other words, according to the data provided, such minimal padding is inadequate for substantial or high falls, and is potentially extremely dangerous.
There was no singular issue that prompted Melvin to pen the letter, as he told Climbing Business Journal that flooring is something he has been thinking about for years. In the letter, Melvin did not explicitly call for industry-wide standards for flooring to be adopted at this point, nor does he think flooring is particularly contentious. “I don’t know if this issue is particularly divisive,” he said. “If so, I guess we’re learning it now. We don’t think it should be.”
Regardless, Melvin’s letter did prompt a swarm of varied response letters and statements from flooring companies in reply to the notion of standardization and testing. For example, Shad Burnham, Sales Director at Vertical Solutions, offered a statement to Climbing Business Journal that read in-part: “Vertical Solutions does offer a range of route flooring options for our clients to choose from, based on their needs and own risk management. Our clients are free to choose about any padding thickness for both their bouldering and route flooring, from two inches to more than two feet.” It’s important to note that Burnham also said Vertical Solutions would support any efforts to establish industry-wide “route flooring safety recommendations,” although the hope would be for independent testing on the matter.
What’s Old is New
To an outsider, Melvin’s letter and the ensuing chatter might make flooring sound like the hot new issue in climbing, but in fact, it’s a topic that has been debated by industry insiders for years.
Mike Palmer is the owner of the flooring company Cascade Specialty, and his interest in flooring goes back to when he started a gym in 1996—with pea gravel serving as the floor. He doesn’t necessarily like to interpret the industry as being contentiously split on the issue either, although he does acknowledge that there is variance—at times to a problematic degree—in how gyms are floored. He says the issue of flooring has a history of becoming hot but then fizzling out: “Flashed, Asana, Futurist and myself put together some flooring guidelines at the [Climbing Wall Association] summit five years ago, and submitted them to the CWA for inclusion in their Industry Practices [IP] Manual,” Palmer says. “I was on the IP board and that effort stalled after a year, and as far as I know, there hasn’t been any movement towards guidelines or standards.”
Palmer thinks that the CWA is sensitive about instructing its members to upgrade their existing floors to meet any arising standards, but points out that there seems to be an agreement among most flooring providers that establishing guidelines would be a sound starting point. And any standards, if subsequently deemed necessary, could be discussed and possibly adopted after that.
Mark Fraser, an executive and engineer at Flashed Climbing—which also contributed to those early proposed guidelines at the CWA summit—points out that flooring guidelines have long been discussed within the industry, but the issue has new urgency now as facilities are constructed to greater heights. “15 years ago, it was rarer to find route climbs over 40 feet, and now is not uncommon to see new facilities at 50 feet or higher,” he says. “Certainly with the increased height comes increased impact forces in the rare cases that someone falls from high on the route walls.”
If any recommended guidelines were to be mandated by the CWA, it would no doubt result in some gyms’ floors being deemed inadequate—and meeting any new industry flooring code would naturally have to be budgeted by those respective gyms. Thus, Fraser can see why some gym owners might protest: “It’s understandable that anyone who is faced with a potential change—but not having any control over how far that change will extend, or know how it will affect future business—would be resistant and cautious,” he says. “However, this shouldn’t mean that we don’t talk about it at all. Climbing flooring is there to attenuate an impact and mitigate the risk of an injury. If we look at other areas of the gym we see that much of the equipment has some sort of rating associated with it: ropes, carabiners, harnesses, quick-draws, hangers, anchors, etc.”
Palmer at Cascade Specialty also grasps why some people might be skeptical: “I understand why some gym owners are hesitant to move forward with standards,” he says. “It would force them to upgrade their floors, and in some cases, rebuild their walls because of inadequate fall zones.” (For research and development of Cascade Specialty’s flooring, Palmer and his engineer use a 66-pound missile for impact testing; other flooring companies use a similar device, although most other testing missiles do not weigh as much as Palmer’s.)
Palmer points out that universities with rec-center climbing walls are another tier of the industry that occasionally uses inappropriate flooring—and would benefit from a testing guideline: “The only part of the industry using a standard are institutional gyms such as universities, which are using a playground standard—which is not appropriate for a climbing landing surface,” he says. “Having a CWA-endorsed guideline would help a lot of institutional gyms install better flooring initially, instead of trying to retrofit a new floor over their original flooring.”
A Slippery Slope
One gym owner with a valuable perspective on the issue of flooring is David Kortje, who operates the Bliss Bouldering and Climbing Complex in Wichita, Kansas. His gym features flooring designed by Futurist that combines several types of foam. Beyond being a climber and a gym owner, Kortje is also a physician, and the medical industry is rife with its own standards and protocols. He points out that it costs pharmaceutical companies a lot of money to research and develop and test a drug before it hits the market, which contributes to the many complaints about medication being so expensive for consumers in the United States. Inherent in that highly-regulated pharmaceutical industry are lessons—or, at least precautions—that could be applied to the climbing industry.
Kortje’s keen understanding of the medical industry contributes to his opinion on whether he would support the adoption of industry standards in gym floors: “No, I wouldn’t support it,” he says. “First of all, who’s going to decide on testing, and by whose standards? And then, are we going to get to a point where we’re using cardboard box flooring that just collapses after a fall? Once you start trying to regulate, you open up a whole can of worms that I’m not sure our industry really wants or could really tolerate. And the other side of it is: financially, how would that work out?”
Kortje has a point: Most flooring companies interviewed on the subject acknowledge that gym owners—particularly those whose gyms are not part of a larger franchise—are the ones who might have the hardest time covering the cost of meeting any adopted standards. Randy Englekirk, owner of The Wall Climbing Gym in Vista, California, says perhaps preexisting gyms could be given clemency—a sort of grandfather clause—from flooring guidelines. “I think the idea of an industry standard would be great, but I don’t think there’d be any reason to go through and retroactively ‘decertify’ older systems,” he says. “It’s very likely that older systems would prove inadequate, but isn’t that something most of us already know? If anything, this test would just bring that into the light.”
Englekirk also says standards could be advantageous for gym patrons, and “provide customers with some peace of mind that the pad they’re falling on has been tested and approved.” There’s a potential legal component as well. Englekirk notes that law is not his area of expertise, but he wonders if an industry standard for flooring could also prove helpful during any potential litigation related to falls.
The topic of falls brings the discussion back to flooring degradation: How and when should gym foam be replaced or repaired? Kortje at the Bliss Bouldering and Climbing Complex notes that he rides a motorcycle—and the safety standard with a helmet is to retire it completely after just a single hit to the head. Replacing a gym’s flooring after each fall is unrealistic, but like a helmet, you sometimes can’t tell just by looking at foam and flooring whether or not it should be replaced. “We’ve looked at our foam after big falls, and we don’t see any changes in it, but I don’t know as far as how big of a hit foam has to have before you decide to replace it,” Kortje says. “How many hits does the foam take before you decide to replace it, and what constitutes a real hit? Is a 10-foot hit a real hit, or does it have to be a 30-foot fall? And what happens when you lower somebody really hard on belay and they hit the ground that way? I don’t think most of that has been answered, or that anyone even knows any answers.”
Age degradation is also a concern with foam flooring and comprises any testing criteria performed on new foam. Foam breaks down over the life of the product which causes the foam to behave differently than when brand new. The four flooring systems that were tested by Touchstone, with the help of Flashed all behave dramatically different over time.
An Outside Perspective
Given all the complexities, it’s perhaps a little easier to understand why the issue has—according to several flooring company representatives—stalled for years when it comes to the CWA taking any action. Bill Zimmermann, CEO of the CWA, did release his own response statement to Mark Melvin’s letter, and said, “Installing impact attenuating systems (padded flooring) in a climbing facility is an example of minimizing or mitigating the risks associated with a fall…It is clear that padded flooring in a commercial climbing facility is a common industry practice. What is not clear, and specifically not addressed in any CWA publication, are the design and performance requirements for flooring systems for commercial climbing gyms.”
Zimmermann’s statement also attributed the CWA’s lack of action related to flooring guidelines or standards over the years to no industry-wide agreement on the requirements for flooring—not among the builders, and not among the commercial gyms. His statement closed with an assertion that it’s time to “develop a rational, consensus-based, minimal standard or set of practices—at the very least a standardized test method for flooring – that owners can specify, designers can design to, and the industry can willingly adopt.” Zimmermann also said the CWA will assemble an Engineering Standards Committee for flooring research this winter.
Representatives at several flooring companies are hopeful, acknowledging that most modern gym floor systems are already good. Yet, time will tell whether the variance of opinions will once again prove too great for the CWA to take action, or whether this winter’s committee might prove constructive.
Ideally, the CWA should only play a part in the larger process anyway. Michael Gentile is Executive Director at Sports Labs USA—a company that assesses performance surfaces for different athletic endeavors. (Sports Labs USA is the type of independent agency that some proponents of baseline testing for gym floors demand be involved in any conversation. In fact, Futurist Flooring uses Sports Labs to test their bouldering and route flooring systems.)
Gentile, who is also a climber, points out that the CWA should look to eventually shepherd a recommendation of guidelines to ASTM International, the organization that develops and promotes padding standards for most other sports. “There’s an ASTM test for wrestling mats, there’s an ASTM test for turf surfaces, for pole vault landing surfaces,” says Gentile. “Certainly an ASTM method is where these things should go [for climbing] in the long run. Standards often start—or are proliferated through—associations, and are often done with the advocacy of associations. But at the end of the day, it’s the ASTM’s test methods that are relied on as a way to assess these surfaces.”
But it goes beyond climbing’s sporting aspect. All one has to do is walk into any climbing gym on a given weekend to see a throng of children—having birthday parties, participating in family outings, climbing for fun rather than sport. Yet, playground surfaces—also usually full of kids—are regulated. And to Gentile, that seems illogical. How can a responsible society deem it necessary to regulate where kids play outside, but then not do the same thing when the kids play indoors (at a climbing gym)?
Gentile advocates first separating bouldering and climbing, in terms of baseline testing, and looking to Europe as a starting point. (Europe’s standard, for example, requires a gym wall of less than three meters in height to have floor coverage equal to at least two meters, and a wall greater than that height to have floor coverage of at least 2.5 meters, among other points related to padding and fall zones). “Europe is always ahead of things when it comes to sport and comprehensive testing. Playgrounds—same thing, it has always been early-on testing,” Gentile says. “Because people look at [playgrounds] and say, ‘Well, geez, we have to establish protocols so that we’re not having issues that end up hurting the industry as a whole.’”
So, the industry is left with a lot to discuss—on a subject that has already been hotly discussed for years. But with these recent developments, the idea of establishing and implementing any flooring guidelines likely has more momentum than ever before—even if the procedure of working with the CWA and eventually channeling recommendations to an ASTM International committee would realistically take a few years, as experts predict.
Posing questions and keeping the conversation alive now will drive any future change. “Some of the questions that will need discussion include: What injuries are we seeing in the industry? What type of injuries are we willing to accept? Which ones do we most want to avoid? What can be done with some certainty to lower those injury risks? This will help define what sort of tests will need to be conducted,” says Fraser at Flashed Climbing. “From there: What should we be measuring? G-force? Head Injury Criteria? Angular rotation and acceleration (power)? Force in newtons? It’s worth noting that certainly many tests and values could be measured, but in the end having a simple, quick, and easily performable test will likely have the most support.”
John Burgman has been writing about climbing for nearly a decade. He is a Fulbright journalism grant recipient, a former magazine editor at Outdoor Life, and the author of two books. He holds a master’s degree from New York University and bachelor’s degree from Miami University in Ohio. In addition to writing, he coaches a youth bouldering team.