Dead-center in Canada’s BC province (half-way to Alaska for lower 48ers) Greg Stokes, home climbing wall builder, climber, and all-around adventurist, has built a home rock climbing wall worth driving half-way to Alaska to see—and you can bet he’d be happy to have you. Greg started rock climbing in 2003 and has since burned a lot of calories promoting the sport in his remote hometown, putting up 30 sport routes, certifying as a AMGA Single Pitch Rock Climbing Instructor, recruiting locals to the sport, and helping organize educational climbing clinics and competitions.
My first online glimpse of Greg’s current home rock climbing wall I dismissed as the bouldering section of a commercial gym, inappropriately placed in a home rock climbing wall thread on a forum. Wrong. I turned out to be the work of a guy who doesn’t believe in doing stuff half way. Immediately I contacted Greg to find out more, both because it was personally inspiring to my own “next wall” ambition, and also because I could tell he would be a good info source for the followers of this site. My instincts were spot on. Greg, like an old friend, and willing to share his knowledge with anyone, replied almost instantly with a fire hose of home rock climbing wall enthusiasm.
To get the full story behind this amazing rock climbing wall I sent Greg some questions so he could tell it in his own words. If you already have a home rock climbing wall or if you plan on building a wall now or ever, Greg is a good guy to know. Subscribe to this site to see more content from Greg in the future and if you have a question for him please register for the homerockclimbingwalls.com forums or ask it in the comments at the end, he is quick to respond to anyone needing advice on a broad range of climbing and building topics. Also watch for an upcoming contest to name Greg’s home climbing wall and win something rad.
I originally aimed to cut the content in this article down to accommodate those of us with short attention spans, however after reading it many times I decided that someone about to build a home climbing wall would be hanging on the edge of their crimper to learn from Greg’s experiences—myself included. Bookmark it and come back if you can’t absorb it all in one shot.
Kirk: Before diving into the details of your most recent home rock climbing wall, give us the Greg-Stokes-background as it relates to climbing.
Greg: I am 33 years old, I live in Smithers, BC, Canada, where I was born and raised. I am married with three wonderful children ages almost-six, three, and 20 months. I grew up here playing in the mountains, hiking, biking, and have been snowboarding on average 40+ days per year since I was 12. I was introduced to climbing in early 2003 when the local rec center opened a small climbing wall as an add-on to their facility. My younger brother was in high school at the time and got a part-time job there and talked me into trying it out. It’s not a huge wall but it was enough to get me totally hooked. Climbing came to me at a time in my life when I dearly needed a physical and creative outlet, and I believe that climbing may have saved me from some potentially very dangerous and unhealthy lifestyle choices. I found myself out on the crags as much as possible starting that spring, and ended up travelling to Thailand and climbed there my first year of climbing. I continued sport climbing and bouldering, slowly learning the ropes and advancing my climbing skills. The climbing scene here is not that big so there were not that many people to learn from so things took a while. I became active setting routes at the local wall and helping with competitions starting in about 2006. I started trad climbing and developing multipitch skills in 2007. Northwest BC has lots of mountains and decent rock climbing potential but not many developed crags.
I was motivated to develop new climbing opportunities in the area so in 2009 I bought a drill and put up my first sport route. In the seasons since I have put up about 30 pitches of climbing from 5.7 to 5.12, mostly sport climbs, but this season I put up a 5-pitch 5.9 locally ground-up on mixed gear and bolts, which was a very memorable adventure.
Climbing has taken me to three continents and I have climbed at many of the major areas in Western Canada/US. I equally enjoy pushing myself, projecting in sport climbing and bouldering, as well as getting out on long days of trad climbing and the places it can take you. Both my wife and I have our parents living here in Smithers, so that family support has allowed us to continue to climb fairly frequently and continue to develop routes since having kids. Since climbing has had such a positive impact on my life, I am very passionate about sharing it with others. The scene here isn’t that big so I have found myself recruiting new climbers for partners and seem to be teaching people every year. This led to me in 2011 taking and passing the AMGA Single Pitch Rock Climbing Instructor Certification. I currently work as a Heavy Duty Mechanic to support my family, but occasionally help run clinics to help new climbers get into the sport and learn safe climbing practices, instead of having to fumble through the process like I did.
Let’s dive right in. Your current home climbing wall, it’s incredible—tell us about it and what led up to its existence.
Greg: After the birth of our third child in Spring 2012, it became clear that we needed a bit more living space than we currently had to avoid losing our minds, so we started house-shopping for a new place. We settled on a nice 5-bdrm in a good location just a few blocks from my folks place. Nice big rec room for the kids to play and laid out well to separate the kids play space from adult living space made it attractive for our family logistics, but the main selling feature for me was the detached insulated garage/workshop with a 12′ ceiling. I knew that this had to be my next home wall space. This wall is actually my third home wall. The other two were both at our previous home where we lived for the past eight years. The first was an outdoor wall 16′ wide and 12′ tall, freestanding and topout. It was pretty fun but had the same angles for its entire width (1′ kick, 15 deg overhang almost to top, and then a couple feet of 75 deg slab to blend into the topout), and being outside I couldn’t really use it in the times when I was really lacking for climbing. It was more of an experiment than anything, and it gave me some ideas as to what might make a good design for a future wall. The following year I built my second wall, this time I framed in and insulated a 12×14 section of my detached woodshed and built a wall in there. It only had a 9′ ceiling, but I had a 30 deg wall and a 45 that were blended together diagonally with a 24 deg section. I also framed a little box hanging from the ceiling and put my hangboard there. I also had a small space heater for the winter months.This wall, while small, was fully functional from a training standpoint and I was able to stay motivated and gain a lot of strength and maintain a structured training program for the majority of the couple years that I had it. Here are some photos of the construction of wall #2:
I should mention that I have a carpentry background (my father is a carpenter and I have worked with him a decent amount over the years) and a couple of my climbing partners are carpenters as well so it was not intimidating to design and build these walls for me, which is a big advantage.
How much space are we talking about for the current climbing wall?
Greg: The building is 20’x25′, so 500 square feet of floor space with a 12′ ceiling. There was a 7×9 garage door installed which I removed to facilitate more climbing space. Basically the entire area is used for climbing space, save about 3’x6′ in the entrance so that people can open the door and take their outdoor footwear off before getting on the padded floor. The actual landing zone of the padded floor covers about 430 square feet, so I have used most of the available space. Do it once, do it right.
Please fill us in on the juicy details. Dimensions, features, problems. Whatever you think is applicable to someone wanting to borrow some ideas for their next wall build.
Greg: I bought 36 sheets of plywood for my wall surface and used almost all of it for an approximate climbing surface of 1100 sqft. Referencing the panoramic shot above, left-to-right from the entrance there are 6 basic climbing “sectors”. First is a bulge 20 degrees for 6′, 4′ of 45 deg, then 4′ of 15 deg, bordered on the left by a vertical 90 degree arete. This wall transitions into a convex roll wall again 6′ of 20 deg angle, followed by 4′ of 15 deg and 4′ of 10 deg. Both the bulge and roll are 8′ wide each, with the transition section between them being 4′ wide. The roll ends at a 90 deg corner to the back wall of the building which is a vertical wall. The vert wall is 20′ wide at the bottom and about 7′ wide at the top because of the shape of the walls on each side of it protruding inward. Continuing on the back right wall is the roof. 1′ vert kick board, followed by 4′ of 45 deg, 8′ of 60 deg, 4′ of 30 deg, and a 1′ vertical top. Again this section is 8′ wide. This wall transitions into a 40 degree wall, again with a 3’ transition to blend the angles. The 40 deg wall is just 1′ kick, 15′ (or so) of 40 deg, and a vert 1′ top, again 8′ wide. The corner of this 40 degree wall blends back to the side corner of the building at a 22 degree overhang creating an awesome arete that is one of the most fun features to set and climb on. 8″ t-nut grid on the whole climbing surface for a total of around 2300 t-nuts, and I have about 15 volumes that I use to mix it up in there from time to time. Around 50-100 taped problems set at any given time, currently 70. I also have 2 hangboards set up in my basement on which I do specific finger strength training 1-2 times per week year-round.
Any pics to share of the climbing wall building process? Photos before the plywood goes up are gold to a new builder.
Any construction challenges along the way?
Greg: Removing the garage door was probably the biggest issue (see story below). Also for the steep walls, getting the top rails attached to the ceiling well required some thought, muscles, and a lot of structural screws for sure. Also making a plan to brace the frames and joints of the steep walls back to the building structure so that the wall was strong and rigid took a bit of work. The transition sections between the bulge and roll, and between the 60 roof and 40 were the most difficult to frame and sheet, but I am really happy with the results.
What inspired your design? Did you have a plan or a strategy when deciding on your angles and basic layout, or did you just go for it?
Greg: I took about 2 months planning and making models of my ideas. I wanted to make sure to have the best climbing variety and most efficient use of space possible. I drew on previous experience of my other home walls and gyms I had been to. I decided early to keep it relatively simple. I did paper, cardboard, and digital models of a few different designs before settling on a final idea. I tweaked the plan only slightly during construction—the 20/45/15 bulge was initially going to be steeper (20/90/45/20) but I decided against it to leave more space between it and the 40 at the ceiling, and I am happy with the decision. I designed the wall around a lot of full sheets of plywood and long sweeps of similar angles to minimize waste, and to add further shape to the wall using homemade volumes. This way rather than framing complicated features into the wall I can change the way the wall climbs from time to time and keep it fresh, rather than being stuck with a permanent feature that may lose the fun factor over time. To date I have built 15 volumes that migrate around the wall a couple times a year and so far has worked out really well.
Any special materials used to build the wall? Sheeting material preferences for home climbing walls or other construction tips?
Greg: All the framing was done with regular grade lumber. Structural screws were used to attach all top plates of the walls to the ceiling joists (lots of them). For sheeting I used all Select Fir Good-One-Side ¾” plywood. This grade of plywood is quite a bit denser than standard spruce. I used standard plywood on my previous walls and found the t-nuts would bury themselves into it fairly easily compared to Select Fir. G1S gives a nice smooth look which is good as well. I pre-drilled my grid for the t-nuts on all of my plywood, going through 4 sheets at a time, making sure to offset the grid to miss standard 16″ stud spacings. Then I would pre-fit each panel in place before installing the t-nuts to see if any holes needed to be added or the panel needed to be trimmed. When I was happy with the fit and number and location of t-nuts, I would take it down and install the t-nuts, then finally screw the panel in place. This allows you to fit it up and if you do have a piece of framing behind a t-nut hole, you can drill through a ways behind the t-nut hole to allow some room for the bolt to go past the plywood, and you can still have the t-nut there. Make sure you design in a way to get behind your wall. I have a panel on the arete face beside my 40 degree wall that can come off easily to allow access, and on the other side there was an exterior wall window that the climbing wall covered up. I removed this window and made an insulated panel that can be easily removed to get behind the other walls. I can replace any t-nut on my wall in about 5 minutes with the exception of the vertical wall and kickboards. One thing that people are always impressed with and asking me about are the way I have blended the transitions between the sections of wall together. It is a bit finicky but not overall that difficult. Put a screw in the corner of each angle change, get a ball of string, and lay out a bunch of triangles. Then you can measure your string lines and make backing studs, usually with compound miter cuts, etc… Worth the effort though. Take the time to finish your wall properly, and paint it. I used paintable caulking to fill little seams and gaps in my sheeting and after painting it looks awesome. Aesthetics can play a big part in how much time you want to spend on your wall.
A little more info about the paint on your home climbing wall? And what about texture?
Greg: It is just regular good-quality interior latex. I chose not to use texture for a few reasons, most of the walls are pretty steep so not much realistic smearing going to happen anyways, and I have experience with some textured paint products that were pretty hard on climbing shoes and skin. The cost of textured paint wasn’t worth any benefit in my opinion. I do mix some silica sand into the paint for the volumes I make though to give it a little texture.
Hands down the best floor I’ve seen on a home wall. Please share the details. What would someone need to know to pull this off? Could someone do it on the cheap?
Greg: My floor is 6″ thick, and it consists of 2 layers of foam. The bottom is an open-cell foam 4″ thick, 2.0lb density, 60 IFD (Indentation Force Deflection) rating, or 2060 grade. The top layer is a 2″ closed-cell firmer foam (think the carpet-bonded gymnastics foam type product, but thicker). I left about a foot gap between the bottom of the wall surface and the start of the foam flooring so that you can still use the low foothold t-nuts. I laid out the border of my flooring area and snapped chalk lines to define it, and then used a hilti concrete nailer to attach 1×4’s to the floor around this border. I then laid out all of my foam inside the border, double-taping every seam. I had a piece of carpet custom-seamed to fit the space, rolled it out over the foam, trimmed it where needed, and cinched it tight to the floor by sandwiching it between the 1×4 Hilti’d to the floor (Below) and another piece of 1×2 (above) and screwing them together. This keeps the foam underneath from shifting around and creating dead spots. I added a piece of 4” velcro on top of the carpet along the seam line to back it up strength wise so it wouldn’t split. The floor was expensive, but has surpassed my expectations and I have fallen on my back onto it from the top quite a few times with no problem. I also have a 12″ thick 4’x8′ softer crash pad that we move around when there is a chance of falling on your back or working high move that are getting fallen off of a lot to soften the catch further if need be. Could probably cut down the cost a bunch if you got lucky and got some closed-cell foam cheap from a gymnastics club, and maybe open-cell from upholstery places or something… I would be wary of having too many seams from piecing together scraps though.
How do you handle friends and neighbors who want to climb? Free frawl? Waiver?
Greg: This is a concern for sure. I have had a bit of a fiasco with this. Obviously with a wall like mine you want to share it with others, and others want you to share it with them. Because of the value and replacement cost of my wall, I felt that I had to include it in my home policy and increase my outbuilding replacement value. When I asked about this I got a “You have WHAT!? in your garage?” type of reaction from my insurance agent. So I had to switch providers to another company what was ok with me having a climbing wall at my house at all, and there was a rise in premium just to have it for personal use. Not every insurance company will deal with you if you have a climbing wall, and the ones that will tend to be the more expensive ones. It is also important to read each company’s wordings for their definition of “personal use”, does it mean just you, or any non-commercial use including friends is fine? In my case they compared it to a swimming pool, it is an additional liability risk that is assumed to be used by the owner and friends. As long as the owner does due diligence, the company will provide liability coverage. So I have a significant cost involved with the switch to an insurance company that is ok providing liability coverage for the climbing wall.
The solution I came up with is I have a donation jar in the wall that people can toss a few bucks in if they come to climb. There is no mandatory fee structure in place because if there was it would be considered a commercial enterprise and would not be covered under my policy. The basic understanding is that if enough money shows up in the jar to cover the ongoing costs associated with operation of the wall, then we don’t have a problem. If it turns out I have to pay a bunch out of pocket for others to use my space, then I have to reconsider the arrangement. I don’t currently have a waiver in place for the use of my wall, but am in the process of drafting one, as advised by my insurance agent and it will be in place by February. My advice to others on the subject: If your wall is big enough, valuable enough, or dangerous enough, consider insuring it, but be aware that it likely will not be cheap. If you are using it for personal use only, or are not sure if you want coverage or not, either avoid bringing it up to insurance companies or choose your words carefully, at least with your current policy holder. In my case the mention of having a climbing wall and the need to change insurance companies nearly doubled my premiums and there was nothing I could do about it, although I am trying to do further research into my options regarding this.
What tips do you have for aspiring wall builders?
- Try to design a wall that maximizes the space available, and will be fun to climb over the long term. Give a lot of thought to your design and even if you think your first idea is a good one, visit some other ideas to confirm this.
- Simpler walls are easier to build, but try to think of a way to keep them from being boring.
- If you are building a more complex design, consider the amount of material waste involved and budget accordingly.
- If you can, build your full wall project in one go. If you plan on building part to start and add on later, or revisit things, it may never happen. If you do have to do it this way, make sure you plan ahead so that Phase 2 & 3 can be built on to seamlessly flow together with your existing structure. The better your sections of wall connect to each other, the more versatility you will have in terms of route setting. Think about your wall not just in terms of inches and feet, but in the number of moves you can create in any given direction.
- Consider building a bunch of volumes to add variety and modularity to a relatively simple design.
- Measure twice, cut once.
- String lines can be a great tool to visualize angles and transitions before committing to a given wall shape.
- Put in LOTS of t-nuts. I used an 8″ grid, but if I did it over again I would probably do a 6″ grid with an additional random assortment of additional t-nuts, around 200 per sheet. I like having the grid for setting system patterns or mirror-image problems designed to work your body equally, but for creative routesetting the more t-nuts the better, and in random spots. Since I can access the back of my wall I can add a t-nut if I really want one in a certain spot without too much trouble, and have done this a few times.
- If your wall is tall, explore landing zone options. If you are climbing alone you want to have confidence in falling or you won’t necessarily be trying your hardest.
- Be nice to your wife (or husband, etc.), everyone has to buy into your grand scheme!
- Get your climbing friends involved in the design and building process. Always having beer around helps to keep their interest.
- Buy more t-nuts than you think you need, and then you can add them where they make sense when sheeting, replace bad ones later, and have them kicking around for putting in the volumes that you will make out of all your scrap sheeting material.
- Take pride in your work and take your time to do a quality job. If you are not the best carpenter don’t be too hard on yourself, that is why they make silicone and filler. I do not know anyone who has regretted doing the finishing work and painting their wall.
- Be realistic with your budget, and allow enough cash for holds to put on this thing! It’s better to have a bit smaller wall with more holds than a big blank wall.
- Look for deals on things like foam padding, scrounge lumber for framing, use leftover paint from other projects, etc. to save a bit of money so you can spend it on the important stuff like good sheeting and holds!
What should a new wall builder avoid?
- Don’t try to cram a lot of complex angle changes into a small space. Build volumes instead to simplify construction and be able to change the shape of your wall later!
- Don’t try to build something complicated without knowing how to make it work and be strong enough for your purpose. Make a solid plan as to how you will do each step of the framing and sheeting, and in what order, before you start. If it is too complex for your skill level, ask a pro for advice, or change your design. Complex framing when in over your head can be a very time consuming and frustrating process with a lot of wasted material. If you are trying to do this remember the measure twice (or 3 times), cut once rule, and take your time.
- Avoid putting your wall in a “multi-use” space. If you have to move a bunch of crap every time you want to climb, you simply will not climb as much.
How can someone with a lot less space make a great wall? Any tips?
Greg: First off, I think that every home wall is pretty great. Just taking the initiative and committing to building your own wall and following through is a great achievement, and deserves props and respect! If you have a small space to work with there are a few things you can do. Really think about ways to maximize the amount of space you have. Be realistic about what your purpose for the wall is (specific training, goofing around, kids, etc.) and build a wall more suited to that purpose instead of trying to do it all. The less space you have, the more specific you will have to be. BUT you don’t need to have a huge space for a decent wall. My 2nd wall was in a 12’x14′ room with a 9′ ceiling. By building my wall on the diagonal I was able to incorporate 3 different angles, a nice arete, and a good number of moves traversing, while avoiding the 90 degree inside corner that plagues a lot of home walls. Obviously the steeper the angle, the more climbing distance you can achieve with a limited ceiling height, but if you climb mostly vertical outdoors and would benefit most from terrain that you can practice your technique and footwork on, then why spend your offseason building power and pinch strength on a 50 degree wall (besides that its fun of course)?
Favorite holds? For someone just getting started, what holds would you recommend?
Greg: There are a ton of options out there for holds these days. I have accumulated mine a bit at a time through the years. For getting started look online to try to find deals on used holds. Many companies also offer deals on cosmetic second that climb just fine but they can’t quite sell at full price due to a small defect. Almost every company out there these days has some great offerings so I won’t mention any specifics company names, but for my own home wall I tend to favour relatively simple shapes that have utility on many different angles that are ergonomically friendly and do not have too coarse of a texture. While huge feature sized holds have a good “wow factor”, they generally take up too much real estate to be really beneficial on a small home wall, but if you have a large climbing surface you might consider them. Personally I stayed away from the larger more expensive shapes until I had a pretty big supply of smaller basic staple shapes. I also have made many of my own holds out of wood, real rock, and most recently urethane. Making some simple holds yourself can help you increase the hold density in your home wall, which is critical if you want to have a large number of options in a small space. I would recommend planning on having at least 1 hold per square foot of climbing surface if you want to have a good hold density (this will still fill less than half of your t-nuts on an 8 inch grid, and is a good starting point). You can of course do it with much less but I have found this to be a good guideline and in my experience the greater the hold density, the better the home wall. Another thing to consider is if you have not set routes before or climbed at many gyms with a variety of angles, it can be hard to tell when ordering holds which ones will be workable on what angles for your skill level. If this is the case it is probably best to stick with a lot of basic shapes and starter sets that are good for most angles until you can see what you need more clearly, and then fill in the gaps in your hold supply in future hold orders. Nothing worse than a $50 sloper that your wall is too steep to hang it on. That’s a pretty expensive foothold!
Any good stories or memories happen at your wall?
Greg: When building the wall, I decided I needed to remove the garage door since the guide rails protruded into my precious climbing space too much. I’m a mechanic, and knew roughly how those things work, and that you needed to relieve the return spring tension before removing it from the door frame. So when the time came one afternoon to do that job, I got to it. A couple friend were coming to help me that evening to work on the wall, and I’d be well ahead if I got the garage door off ahead of time! So I backed off the spring tensioning screws as much as I could and removed one of the two ⅜” lag screws that was holding the return spring mount in place. I then loosened the second lag screw a bit and double checked to see that the cables were not under tension, and I could freely move the entire assembly without any noticeable resistance since I had heard some horror stories about people messing with these things. Just then Kirby and the kids came down to see what I was up to and she was like, “Hey you know what you’re doing there?”
“Oh yeah, no problem, just about done, this might be a better three person job, good thing I’m so tough!” I joked, and removed the second lag screw. Well there was apparently some stored energy in there still because the entire assembly sprung off the wall and the spinning mount bracket caught my arm and spun through it. Twice, and deep. Lots of blood. Luckily my wife and kids were right there watching so it was easy to gather them up to go to the hospital! Real proud moment. Anyways I got mended up real good, with 3 layers of stitches, one in my forearm muscle, one in the underlying tissue, and one in the surface skin for a total of about 45 stitches. The bracket miraculously missed major arteries, and tendons (my pinky tendon was about ¼” from the gash). Lessons learned here should be pretty obvious. This story is only humorous because I recovered quickly and was able to climb in my wall then it was completed about 8 weeks later.
Final thoughts on building a home climbing wall?
Greg: If you are on the fence about building a home wall, DO IT! Best thing for personal and family fun and fitness! Dream big and go for it!
A few more pics to wrap up and a huge thanks to Greg Stokes for sharing!
Want to discuss what it would take to pull-off a home climbing wall build like this? Post a question in the comments or in the Home Rock Climbing Wall Forums.
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