Britain Sets National Standard for Gyms

Awesome Walls Sheffield
Awesome Walls comp wall.  Photo: BMC
Awesome Walls. Photo: BMC

The British Mountaineering Council has initiated a bold new program that aims to create more climbing centers in the UK that are qualified to host large international and national competitions. The new program, called National Performance Center, will certify climbing facilities in the UK that meet strict standards for the design of the climbing wall and event space.

BMC is Britain’s representative body for climbers, hill walkers and mountaineers, and is the sanctioning body for competitive climbing in the UK (a role played by USA Climbing in America).

According to Rob Adie, the Climbing Walls & Competitions Officer for BMC, the impetus behind the new program was a lack of quality training and event venues in the UK. “Currently the only wall capable of hosting national/international lead events was up in Edinburgh, Scotland so the BMC wanted to encourage wall developers to build international quality competition walls in other areas of the country,” said Adie.

In addition to creating venues with the ability to host large, high-profile comps the new standards will create training grounds for the British National Climbing Team. A big advantage to NPC certified facilities will be the ability for the British Team “to train on international standard routes on a wall steep enough to compare with walls that host World Cups and Youth Cups across the rest of the world,” said Adie. “If you go to most large climbing centres in Europe there are lots of steep walls set with lots of high grade routes all being used by some of the best climbers in Europe. We aim to mimic that sort of training environment in NPC walls in the UK.”

The NPC standards for lead walls include:

  • 15-18m wide by 15-20m (49ft – 65ft) high, with a minimum 8m overhang, ideally extending to a 10-12m (32ft – 39ft) overhang in sections.
  • Large flat panel construction to allow use of moveable volumes and features to give flexibility and creative options for routesetters.
  • A standout design with spectacular competition features, but simple and easy to view at the same time ( hidden arêtes or edges).
  • Not to include corners or grooves (which would give bridging rests).
  • Separate isolation area with a warm-up wall.
  • Competition wall capacity to hold at least 300 people (competitors, volunteers and spectators).
  • Capable of having 10-12 competition style routes (i.e. wandering) set at any one time with at least 6 being able to run at once completely independently.

Currently the BMC does not charge a fee for the designation.

The NPC standards were developed using existing IFSC requirements for facilities that wish to host international competitions. The rest came from the BMC’s desire for the British team “to train on world class competition standard routes every day of the week,” said Adie. ” These sort of training facilities will be a huge asset to the team and one they have not had in the past.”

The BMC standard does miss a key aspect to competition training: routesetting. While a facility may have been built to look just like a World Cup arena, without high-quality routes set by trained and experienced routesetters the athletes will be missing one of the most important aspects to training.

Awesome Walls Sheffield

Awesome Walls

The NPC designation appears to be a win for both the BMC and the climbing facilities that are certified under the new standard.

The first gym to receive the NPC designation, Awesome Walls in Sheffield, England, opened last month with a grand opening that included hosting the British Lead and Speed Championships. Awesome Walls Sheffield is the largest climbing gym in the UK, and having the NPC designation has added extra cache to the facility.

“Having the title of NPC adds to our reputation of providing a quality facility that has met a national governing bodies criteria,” said Dave Douglas, Managing Director of Awesome Walls. “Even though the main competition wall will only be climbed by a very small minority of climbers, it is worth every penny as the WOW factor is just awesome when people see it for the first time (and repeatedly!). This wall will inspire a whole new generation of climbers to come and try harder and steeper challenges than they have ever dared climb before.”

A British Invasion? Not anytime soon.

Currently the US does not have anything like the NPC. If a similar program was created in the US, new climbing facilities looking to meet the standards would have to continue the current trend toward bigger walls and more spacious venues. In the past 40 to 50ft walls were the norm, but in the past few years new gyms have been meeting the 49-65ft wall standard. Fitting 300 climbers and spectators into the building, however, is still a stretch for most new gyms.

Bouldering walls are even further behind. The NPC standard requires almost a 100ft wide bouldering wall, which is a marked departure from the way US bouldering areas are currently being designed.

Even if more international-level walls are built in the US, we still have a long way to building an international-level climbing team. As it stands now, Team USA does not have a dedicated training facility and the athletes do not have regular trainings together.

Imagine, then, a time when competitive climbers in the US have a dedicated training center with routes set by professional routesetters from around the globe and elite-level coaches and trainers on staff. With the current financial state of the US federation this fantasy is unlikely to happen anytime soon. But it will come eventually, and when it does we will be well on our way to building world class climbing in America.