By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Basalt High School opens new climbing wall
Teacher Tanner Jones sees his vision realized
Climbing wall students
Alexis Jones shows Connor Wolfe, Rands Lim, Henry Butchart and Kyla Everett how to tie a figure-8 follow through. Photo by Mollie F. Burns

Mid-Valley climbers rejoice!

There’s a new indoor climbing wall at the Basalt High School, and once school and community officials come up with some guidelines and rules, it will be open to the community. While decisions about public access are still being considered, the wall is already open to high schoolers, who are enjoying the new amenity.

Last Saturday morning, a handful of BHS students attended an unofficial opening in the school’s auxiliary gym. There, they tried their techniques and tested their strength in the never-ending fight against gravity on the new purple, gold, gray and white wall. Tanner Jones — a BHS English teacher and accomplished climber — watched on. Jones was the driving force behind getting the wall built and has been tirelessly plugging away on it since he arrived at BHS two years ago. 

“It was really amazing,” he said of Saturday’s opening. “It was a dream a long time coming. It’s been about a year and change since we started fundraising and getting it going. To see kids on it, actually chalking it up, was an incredible feeling.”

The idea for the wall was planted several years ago by principal Peter Mueller, an accomplished climber himself. From there, physical education teacher Ralph Smalley and a group of students began putting the pieces together, measuring possible spaces and researching what could be done.

Initially, Jones thought his involvement would center on getting the Reel Rock Tour — a traveling adventure film show that communities can present in their own venues to raise money — shown in Basalt, thereby supporting the high school effort. But he got “swallowed up” by the BHS wall project and started spearheading many aspects of the project.

Tanner Jones
As teacher Tanner Jones watches, Kyla Everett and Henry Burchart belay while Connor Wolfe and Rands Lim weight the new ropes for the new first time. Photo by Mollie F. Burns
Eventually, after researching and fundraising, BHS officials chose Eldorado Climbing Walls, a Boulder-based wall company, to build the wall. It was completed late last fall. (Eldorado recently built the new wall at Elk Camp on Snowmass ski area, as well as Colorado’s tallest indoor wall at the Limelight Hotel in Base Village.) In more recent weeks, Jones has been recruiting volunteers — including Mueller and athletic director Sean Nunan — to screw holds to the wall, a lengthy and tedious process.

The new BHS wall features a traditional safety system, in which ropes run through “belay bars” (simple bars about five inches in diameter) at the top of the wall and down to climbers and those belaying them for safety. Belaying is a part of climbing where the non-climbing partner in a team of two secures the rope for the climber, making an ascent safe. Such systems require climbers to be actively aware of safety issues. 

Some indoor walls rely on automatic belay systems, where climbers simply clip into an automatic system that ratchets a rope upwards and catches the climber if he or she falls. Such systems are more common at tourist destinations, such as the Limelight Hotel in Snowmass Base Village.

“We may in the future add some kind of auto-belay system, but the real purpose of this wall is to teach kids to climb and to be belayers and everything that goes along with that,” Jones said. “Whether that’s in their [physical education] class, whether that’s for the climbing club, whether that’s for some gym-to-crag program or whatever that looks like, we want kids to know and understand climbing safety, rope craft, proper belay techniques and good communication — all of those things that go into understanding just how climbing actually works.”

High school officials expect the new BHS wall to play a big part in both regular school classes, such as PE, and the school’s outdoor programs, which include outdoor education and leadership classes and trips. 

Smalley noted that climbing, as a sport, provides participants with multiple physical and mental gains. 

“Bringing a climbing curriculum into the high school promotes a wealth of benefits,” he said. “Climbing teaches support and cooperation, communication, trust in others and perseverance by setting personal goals and striving to constantly improve. These are all part of the values we instill in our physical education program.”

According to Smalley, climbing involves less impact than some other high school sports and is an activity that can be pursued for a lifetime. 

“In the PE  program, we try to provide a wide variety of movement skills,” Smalley said. “In sports like climbing, these are movements that are unlike other sports and can challenge students on new levels while providing students the opportunities to thrive where maybe they’ve struggled in conventional sports. Also, climbing is one of those sports they can participate in for the rest of their lives. It’s not like football. Three 50-year-old friends can’t just go out and play a game of tackle football — but they can go climbing. The goal is the promotion of lifelong physical activity, and teaching climbing is a means of that.”

While the wall will undoubtedly be a hit with the community’s young people, BHS and the Basalt Recreation Department are working out details to make it available to all community members.

“The vision for the wall is to make it accessible to the public, as well as the youth of the community,” Mueller said. “The logistics still need to be ironed out.”

For his part, Jones said he is surprised by the support he found in the Mid-Valley for the wall.

“I am in awe of the support that this community as a whole has given this project,” he said. “In just a year and about four months, we raised almost $70,000 and that speaks volumes of both the support of the individuals and companies that donated to this project and the recognition that we want the opportunity for all of our students to climb, regardless of socio-economic background, regardless of ethnicity. We want to give everyone an opportunity to see what it’s all about.”

Climbing students
Tanner Jones, Henry Butchart and Kyle Everett (belayer) watch Connor Wolfe climb a 5.7 route. Photo by Mollie F. Burns
Climbing on artificial walls is nothing to sneeze at. Its growth worldwide has been phenomenal, and the 2016 announcement by the International Olympic Committee that climbing would be included in the 2020 Games in Tokyo saw the industry continue to zip along at a healthy clip.

Indeed, in 2017, 43 new commercial gyms opened in the United States, according to Climbing Business Journal, a trade journal that covers the indoor wall business, a bump in the industry that amounted to a 10 percent growth. Gyms opened in 23 states from Florida to Hawaii, CBJ reported. In March, Earth Treks, a climbing gym operator, announced it would build the nation’s biggest-ever indoor climbing facility in Denver (53,000 square feet).

According to Ibisworld, a market research firm, the indoor climbing industry grew at 7.8 percent between 2013 and 2018. It is now a $638 million-dollar industry.

More recently, ESPN and USA Climbing, the governing body of competition climbing in the United States, inked a multi-year deal that will see ESPN2 covering a variety of competitions and many broadcasts will be archived on ESPN3 in an on-demand format.

“I think it’s wonderful to see projects like the climbing wall recently installed at Basalt High School,” said Louie Anderson, one of the country’s most-respected climbing gym route-setters and author of “Fundamentals of Routesetting.” “Having been a climber all of my life, I’ve personally seen the fitness benefits of climbing, and it’s great to see more young people exposed to it.”