NEW YORK -- Portable rock-climbing walls are sprouting up at fairs across the country, offering a quick burst of thrills and a knee-shaking challenge to those who clamber as high as 30 feet on small bumps and ledges.
The structures pose a different challenge for state regulators, who are stepping up safety efforts after a 22-year-old woman fell from a climbing wall and died in Missouri this summer. Prosecutors are pressing a manslaughter charge against the owner for failing to provide proper maintenance.
The death has spurred a nationwide effort by the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission to improve inspections.
The walls are mobile, freestanding structures that let climbers ascend rock-shaped holds, while held by ropes that protect them from falling. When the top is reached, a machine lowers the climber to the ground by slowly playing out cable.
They present very different demands than the real rock that climbers face in places like California's Yosemite National Park and West Virginia's New River Gorge. And they're mobile, unlike fixed climbing walls at gyms and climbing clubs. But they can still prove difficult. And dangerous.
"It's that challenge of looking up at a wall, a summit 30-feet high -- and you're going to climb it," said Pennsylvania inspector Pete Lamont. "If you maintain them properly and use them properly, they are very safe."
Their growing prevalence, however, raises concerns.
"These climbing walls are getting more and more popular," said Jim Barber, an independent inspector who works with the National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials. "You see them at carnivals, at fairs, at amusement parks,"
A few years back, mobile walls were uncommon, said Marion Holloway, director of safety standards for Oklahoma's labor department. "Now, you get yourself a pickup truck, buy a wall, take it around on weekends to parties," he said.
And that opens the door to lax safety.
Some operators don't follow maintenance instructions, said Jeff Wilson, president of Extreme Engineering LLC, a climbing-wall manufacturer in Newcastle, Calif. Some buy used equipment, while still others build their own.
But the biggest problem is that some states don't inspect climbing walls, and others have only recently begun.
"Traditionally it's fallen through because it wasn't considered in the same class as roller coasters and Ferris wheels," Wilson said.
Wilson estimates there are 1,000 portable walls made by manufacturers like him, and maybe 1,000 more that are home-built. State inspectors said the walls are hard to track. States often rely on operators to apply for permits, where they're required. They also check for them at fairs, ballgames, and other gatherings.
Varying regulatory definitions don't allow for easy comparison of state rules. Barber said a minority do thorough inspections; roughly a dozen states don't regulate the walls, while others leave it to insurers to conduct inspections. The rules are "a mishmash," he said.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission also does not track the walls specifically. It said six states have no regulations for "mobile rides."
In Missouri, Christine Ewing of Jefferson City was descending the tower-like structure outside the University of Missouri stadium on July 14 when a safety cable snapped and she fell more than 20 feet. She died of head trauma.
An assistant state fire marshal, Randy Cole, said later that his agency doesn't have adequate funding for the permit program for climbing walls, but it sent out fliers to fair ride operators.
For those who climb real cliffs, portable walls are a conundrum. On one hand, they introduce people to the sport. On the other, they turn it into a frivolous game.
When Nigel Gregory, a climber for 20 years, first saw one, he said: "What sort of twisted kind of thing is it?" The walls fail to teach individual safety or reliance on partners, said Gregory, who works for Outward Bound West, a wilderness education group.
But Wilson, a climber and engineer who claims to have invented the first mobile wall, said it's all about connecting to young people. He built his first wall in 1996 to introduce his then 16-year-old son to the sport.
"How do you get everybody together to go rock-climbing? It's tough," Wilson said. "It's sort of the old adage, Mohammed and the mountain."