Florida Southern College has joined a growing number of U.S. campuses offering a rock-climbing wall as a recreational amenity for students. FSC’s 22-foot wall at the Nina B. Hollis Wellness Center was introduced with a grand opening Jan. 26.

While in the works for months, the four-person construction crew did not begin building until Jan. 8, with the goal of completing it prior to the students’ return on Jan. 24. Drew Howard, the director of athletics and dean of wellness, saw the climbing wall as a natural fit for the Wellness Center.

“It’s not something we have on campus, or really in Lakeland,” Howard said. “We looked all over the country at people that have rock walls and their policies.”

Funding for the project was provided by Hal and Marjorie Roberts. Ms. Roberts serves as a longtime member of the FSC Board of Trustees, and the couple’s previous donations supported the college’s Roberts Academy for children with dyslexia. Their grandson Liam is a competitive climber, introducing them to the idea and leading to discussions about adding a climbing wall to FSC’s campus. 

The climbing wall offers 10 routes of varied difficulties and automatic belays. While a typical belay system requires a second person to support the climber, an auto belay is comprised of a nylon lanyard and a spring-loaded center spool. The lanyard is retracted into the spool during ascent and contains a braking system for descent.  

The project also includes a smaller bouldering wall, which does not require ropes. While the climbing walls go straight up, the bouldering wall involves angles. Director of Wellness Alicia Rossow explained that the varied walls encompass different forms of exercise.

“The boulder wall is for more endurance-based stuff,” Rossow said. “The climbing wall is all upper-body strength.”

FSC sophomore Amanda Townes scales the new rock climbing wall. Photo by Grace Newton.

The Wellness Center has enacted strict protocols regarding the wall due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Climbers are required to sanitize their hands prior to checking in and must be masked at all times. The staff also currently uses only half the belays, placing a gap between each climber. 

Even with the necessary hand sanitizing, the climbers are also provided with a CDC-approved sanitizing liquid chalk.

 “Liquid chalk is a very simple way to sanitize our handholds on a continuous basis and is used by various other collegiate institutions across the US,” Assistant Director of Wellness Douglas Davey said. “Our liquid chalk consists of one part dry chalk, which alone has been studied to show deactivation of 99% of infectious particles within one minute, and about two parts 70% isopropyl alcohol.”

The wall is open to students for three hours on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, as well as two hours on Tuesdays. These limitations permit fewer students prior to cleansing.

At night, the wall is cleansed via UV light, which is on a timer. The Wellness Center also closes the wall on Thursdays and Sundays, which gives extra cleaning days, and the staff removes a few handholds each day for a power-washing. Free to students, the wall is currently not accepting visitors due to COVID-19 precautions.

They also offer climbing shoes, which the staff highly recommends to all participants. The shoes are sanitized for 10 minutes between students.

FSC sophomore Amanda Townes climbed the wall on Jan. 26 and was impressed with the safety precautions.

“I think they did a good job with making us able to have this, while also being as safe as possible,” Townes said. “I’ve been wanting to be more active, and this is so much fun. And it’s a good thing to do indoors, no matter the Florida weather.”

As a new venture, the Wellness Center will be assessing student demand for the first few months. Rossow said that if demand increases,there is potential to extend hours. With the current need, if there is a wait, climbers will have a more limited time.

“If there’s a wait, we try to typically keep them at three runs or thirty minutes, whichever comes first,” Rossow said.

Rossow hopes this will be an enjoyable challenge for students and explained that the staff is currently designing a difficulty map. To keep the challenge for frequent participants, the wall will also be constantly changing.

“We’ll keep changing routes for different times,” Rossow said.

Howard said that they would consider adding a club or team in the future; however, his current focus this semester is building the program correctly.

Rock-climbing walls have increasingly become a campus amenity across the U.S., and more than 260 colleges had rock-climbing teams in 2019, up from 175 two years earlier, The Wall Street Journal reported.

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