For my son John’s 17th birthday he asked me to help him engineer and construct a climbing wall in our garage. That was the gift he wanted from me, his father. I let out a heavy sigh, knowing, as a lawyer, my engineering limitations. I write contracts and ordinances. I don’t build things. But I couldn’t disappoint him. Testing his commitment to project, I promised I would help him if he did all the research. He spent hours on the internet compiling a book of various designs and techniques. He had done his part, so now it was time to do mine.
We carefully drew out our plans, bought the materials, and got to work. The first step was to assemble a kick plate and wall foundation to attach to and cover the garage footing.
The most difficult step was designing two wall sections, the first at 20-degrees and the second at 40-degrees. We began this process by cutting angled joists, the climbing wall’s ribs, if you will.
The angled joists rest firmly on the kick plate/foundation wall, bearing much of the climbing wall’s weight. This low wall is also where the climbing starts, with the climber in a sitting position.
The angled joists were also secured to ceiling braces, screwed into the garage roof trusses.
My good friend Paul (who is an engineer) instructed me that roof trusses are designed to withstand snow loads bearing down from above, not weight pulling down from below. So I climbed up into the garage attic, crawled through fiberglass, and braced the roof trusses with 2x4s. We also insert a portable vertical 4×4 post whenever anyone climbers, just to be sure the roof won’t fall in on the climbers.
Next came assembling the climbing wall surface. Before we mounted the 3/4-inch plywood, John drilled numerous holes and inserted threaded T-nuts, into which the climbing hold would later be secured.
With the holes drilled and the T-nuts set, we attached the wall to the angled joists.
(Note the antiques with which I decorated my garage, several made by or belonging to my great-grandfather Nelson Baker.)
With the most difficult work done, it was time for John to have fun planning his bouldering “problems” and setting the holds. The climber completes the “problem” by touching the top of the climbing wall.
In this photograph, John is hanging from holds on a box he built on his own to add to the climbing’s wall’s challenge. He also built the pyramid.
Note the crash pads underneath the climber. Crash pads are mandatory. These are surplus martial arts mats, to which we add several foam sleeping pads. (John is a third-degree taekwondo blackbelt.)
Weeks later, John removed all the holds and painted his climbing wall, adding sand to the paint to add texture to the wall. He used paint scraps left over from previous house painting projects. Tapes of various colors mark the different bouldering “problems” or routes.
Building this climbing wall with my son John, though intimidating to me at first, turned out to be a most meaningful experience for us both. We enjoyed working through the design and construction challenges together. John learned that he can dream and make his dreams come true. He, his brothers Caleb and Hyrum, and his friends spend hours in my garage bouldering through the various “problems” John has set. Just one year after completing his climbing wall, John off on a month-long NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) course learning real-life leadership and climbing skills. He dreams of following in the footsteps of climbing heroes Alex Honnold and Chris Sharma. John is pictured with Chris here.
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The week before Christmas 2015, Caleb (16, also a taekwondo blackbelt and climbing enthusiast) whispered to me that he wanted to add to John’s climbing wall by building a “campus board” as a Christmas present for his brother John (now 18). (Another sigh from dad.) A campus board is an angleled wall with horizontal rungs cut for hanging and climbing, to strengthen the fingers, hands, and indeed the whole upper body. Caleb designed it, and we set to work.
Caleb used his great-great-grandfather Baker’s plane to shave off one corner of the 2×4 rungs so that they would be parallel with the ground, or angled slightly inward, making it possible to grasp with the fingertips. I felt proud of Caleb for working so hard to bring his holiday plan to fruition, but mostly for wanting to make a meaningful Christmas gift for his brother.
These are experiences and memories that we will always share as father and sons.