Climbing the walls – literally

Does it ever feel like your kids are climbing the walls? Doug and Renee Huntman know the feeling. Their kids do it all the time.

On any given day, you’ll find them climbing the walls in the entryway of their South Anchorage home – on an 18-foot rock wall.

Photography by Photo Arts by Janna

“Alaska winters are long,” says Doug, “and we’re an active Alaskan family that doesn’t want to sit in front of the television any more than we have to!” That’s why Doug decided to take action and construct the two-story indoor climbing wall. “It’s for the kids (and the adults too!),” he explains.

Keeping it Safe

Safety on the climbing wall is a top priority, says Doug. “I designed all of our safety systems after the Alaska Rock Gym, as well as from recommendations from the top climbing sites. We have all new equipment, and anyone belaying must be ‘belay certified’ at the Alaska Rock Gym. The wall has two top rope anchors attached to the ceiling, each made of 2-inch galvanized pipe. These anchors, like the wall, are supported in the attic across at least 4 trusses. Climbers are top roped using a 10.1 mm dry static climbing rope. There are two 8-inch thick bouldering mats placed at the bottom of the wall for short falls. Harnesses are required for climbing, but not for bouldering. If you plan to climb higher than 4 feet (marked with a fluorescent green piece of trim, installed 48 inches from the floor), you have to have a harness on. I check all gear before climbers go up. All climbers must adhere to the climbing commands – ON BELAY? BELAY ON!, CLIMBING? CLIMB ON! - and climbing must always be supervised by an adult. As an extra safety measure, the kids are required to wear helmets when climbing,” he says. “Indoor rock climbing is an active sport and accidents can happen, but I think that one has a greater chance of slipping and getting hurt on ice in the driveway.”

Before grabbing the ropes on this idea, however, Doug wanted to make sure his kids Zach, 9, and Sam, 5, were up for the adventure. “We took a trip to the Alaska Rock Gym,” says Doug. “After just a couple of hours in the gym, I noticed a rapid improvement in the kids’ climbing abilities and comfort level being on a wall 20 feet off the ground! This initial experience confirmed that rock climbing would be a fun activity for the family, and give us something to focus on when it is too cold outside.”

Soon after the trip to the Rock Gym, it was time for Doug to bring up the idea to wife Renee. An 18-foot rock wall in your entryway? It could be a tough sell. “I thought I could get her to agree to building a somewhat smaller wall along the back of the garage,” he says. ”Renee agreed that some sort of indoor activity that would help to burn off the kids’ seemingly endless amounts of energy would be a good idea. It was actually her recommendation that the entryway with the highest ceilings of the house be a good location for the wall.”

Doug built the wall from scratch using lumber he purchased locally and plans he found on the Internet. The websites indoorrockclimbing.com and metoliusclimbing.com (how to build a home climbing wall) were both instrumental in the success of the project. “I am a DIYer and enjoy various projects around the home,” Doug explains. “I have constructed a ton of projects of various types in the three houses we have owned over the years. I knew I had the tools and skills to not only build a safe climbing wall, but build one that would be aesthetically pleasing to look at and not look like a ‘home built’ wall. After all the wall would be in the entryway and needed to reflect the quality of the rest of the house.”

Doug used scaffolding as he constructed the wall – “wife not happy about not using front door for a month” – and spent many an hour in the attic attaching the upper part of the wall to the ceiling joists for support. Once the wall was finished, he hired two route setters from the Alaska Rock Gym to set four climbing routes of varying degrees of difficulty on the wall.

Those route setters, Ted Phelps and Austin Ash, have seen many walls throughout Alaska and were impressed with the construction and finish of this project. Along with being one of the largest private indoor climbing walls in Alaska, it’s also “really professional and clean,” says Austin. “It looks really nice."

Building an indoor rock wall is no easy task – it takes “tons of research,” says Austin. He highly suggests that anyone building and setting a rock wall themselves should check out other walls in gyms, homes, online, etc. His number one tip for success is to make sure to add enough feet (rocks that you step on) for the height differences when setting a wall. "Quality routes are what make a climbing wall," he notes. It's not as fun if the routes aren't done well. It could get boring.

For the Huntman family, they won’t be getting bored any time soon. “The guys from the Alaska Rock Gym come to the house once a month to re-set the routes and keep the wall challenging,” Doug says.

"We love the wall and climb on it practically every day,” he adds. “The kids have gotten very comfortable climbing and now say that they love climbing more than watching TV. The wall has exceeded my expectations in providing us with an activity to do during the winter."

And, the Huntmans are not the only ones enjoying the wall. Whenever they entertain friends and family, the entryway, transformed from just a place to drop off boots and coats, becomes the highlight of the party. “The party inevitably gravitates towards the wall,” says Doug. “It is great having such a fun activity at our disposal. Kids or adults, they all want to go up!”