Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Are Your Kids Safe at Rock Climbing Summer Camp?

Valley Vertical Adventures doesn't run a youth summer climbing camp. We feel that offering a rewarding summer camping experience has too many logistical challenges. There are so many things that need to get arranged and organized. It would require one person's full time efforts for the remainder of the year in order to organize high quality week-long or multi-week programs at a remote location.

About 10 years ago I was a BSA trip leader who took small groups of students to Rumney. A few times a summer we would take 6-8 campers and 2 instructors there for 5 weekdays at a time. We were one of the only group programs there most of the time.

Since then rock climbing has exploded in popularity. Kids learn to climb in gyms and many kids want to climb outdoors. Summer camp seems like a logical way to get kids outside for a week or more of climbing. Climbing camps have sprung up to fill this "camping" niche.

When it comes to climbing, these climbing camps are very similar to guide services. They need to manage risk effectively while providing a rewarding climbing experience. From a professional perspective this means they need to have the proper liability insurance, the correct land use permits must be acquired, instructors must be trained to industry standards, and the utmost attention needs to be paid to safety.

Children, who are frequently unfamiliar with or unaware of the risks associated with outdoor climbing,  seem unable to make good decisions when it comes to safety. The "obvious" dangers don't seem so obvious. Therefore, instructor role modeling is incredibly important for impressionable youth. Choosing the right climbs, wearing a helmet and keeping crag appropriate closed-toe shoes on at all times are all things that should be role modeled by skilled, highly-trained responsible instructors.

Toss in other complications, like vehicle transport of campers, which requires additional liabilty insurance and drivers trained to operate a 15-passenger van or bus, swimming during rest days or during hot weather, and food preparation, which should really be handled by a trained cook-staff in a sanitary space like a dining hall and you've got a pretty complex picture. Really, only large institutions or companies with these resources at their command and extensive insurance coverage can offer a big summer climbing programs.

This summmer I spent a week climbing at Rumney, a rock climbing area in White Mountain National Forest. During my week there I feel like I saw the entire spectrum of climbing camps. I witnessed really good instruction and good risk management behavior and I witnessed appalling displays of unprofessionalism that really upset and scared me.

The White Mountain School was running a camp in NH that week. They are one of the only AMGA accredited high school programs. They use mature, highly-trained adult instructors who are professional climbers, guides or educators. They make sure students wear helmets at all times, maintain ratios at or below the industry standard of 6:1 and seem to manage risk very carefully. This seems like a very good program.
On the other end of the spectrum were programs like International Rock Climbing School, a Boston Rock Gym affiliated program. During my week there we bumped into three of their groups. I didn't see a single adult (someone who looked over 21) closely managing their large groups, I watched shirtless "instructors", barely old enough to shave, climb routes in flip flops in the rain, children rarely wore helmets, and they brought 16 or more people to the most popular crags and basically made a junk show of the base of the crag.

If you're a parent who's thinking of sending your child to a rock climbing summer program you owe it to yourself and your child to do a little research. Not every program is the same. In fact, some of the oldest and most well-known programs seem like the scariest operations. As a climbing "risk manager" by trade, I'm terrified and dismayed by some of the things I see out there.

You probably shouldn't choose a camp solely based on the fact that well-known climbers are involved in the operation. It might be better to ask about insurance, land use permits, and the competency and leadership experience of the instructors. Remember, the best climbers aren't always the safest operators or the best teachers.

I've compiled a list below that may help parents of prospective rock climbing "campers" weed out the sketchy programs so that you can feel good about where your child goes climbing next summer.


Insurance protects the camp/guide service, but also offers protection for participants if an accident occurs. It can help defray medical costs should a severe accident occur. The professional standard, and the requirement from many land managers, is for a climbing program to carry a minimum of $1,000,000 coverage. Insurance doesn't work unless the company is following all rules/regulations/requirements. Even non-profits should have insurance and are frequently required to have permits. Here are the things to ask about:
  • Liability Insurance for Rock Climbing - Don't be afraid to ask for a certificate of insurance if you feel it's necessary. Most outfits will gladly provide you with proof of coverage
  • Vehicle/transportation insurance coverage - Any time you transport paying customers you're acting as a taxi/shuttle service. This type of insurance coverage is nice to have if you're transporting kids in a 15-passenger van. All drivers need to be covered.
  • Permits for places you'll be going climbing - Ask to see permits from land managers if necessary. Liability insurance won't be valid unless they're allowed to have commerical operations there. Also ask if commercial climbing is allowed at these spots.
  • Helmets should be worn at all times - Helmet waivers probably won't work for people under age 18. Besides, kids probably shouldn't be allowed to make the decision whether or not to wear helmets.
  • Other - How old is the gear they'll be using? How frequently is it inspected? When are ropes used? Is bouldering (unroped) climbing allowed by insurance?


Camps generally do similar day-to-day climbing programming as guide services. Therefore, all instructors should have the proper training. Bigger outfits should also have AMGA accreditation.
  • Lead instructors should be 21, assistant instructors should be at least 18 - Many insurance companies have a minimum age requirement.
  • Instructors should have CPR, WFA or WFR medical training, and ideally have AMGA SPI certification or better.
  • Instructor:Participant ratios should be low - 6:1 is the max 3:1 is closer to the appropriate size for high-quality instruction and guidance.

Other Items

There are many other issues that need to be covered.
  • Food Preparation - Is the food being prepared in a kitchen? Are dietary restrictions and requirements being met? If they're not being prepared in a dining hall or kitchen where are they being prepared and who's doing the cooking?
  • Swimming - If kids are swimming is there a lifeguard nearby? Are adults paying close attention and making sure kids are supervised
  • Medical - Who administers medications each day? Do they have medical training? Is there a doctor or nurse present, or someone who's a medical adviser for the organization. 
While this is by no means a comprehensive list, it should help you distinguish between programs.

Ryan Stefiuk is a professional climbing guide based in Northampton, Massachusetts. He is the only AMGA Certified Rock Guide offering programs in Massachusetts.