NEWS- Off belay: Child falls from Boar's Head climbing wall

Climbing walls have gone from a niche novelty to mainstream athletic component at many sports clubs in recent years. The newly installed wall at the Boar's Head Sports Club reflects the popularity of climbing– and its dangers. The climbing wall there had been in operation barely two months when an eight-year-old girl fell 15 feet to the ground on March 15.

The child was attached to an auto belay during the club's regular hours for kid-supervised climbing when the device failed around 5:15pm.

"It's a shock, it really was," says general manager Jorg Lippuner. 

The girl was taken to the hospital and diagnosed with a minor fracture to the top bone in her foot. "She was back in school Friday," says Lippuner, who declined to release the child's name.

Meanwhile, the manufacturer, Pyramide, and the company that installed the $100,000 wall, Kjellstrom and Lee Construction of Richmond, are trying to figure out what went wrong.

"We have a very good safety record," says Evan Scott at Pyramide's sales office in Leesburg. Officials at Kjellstrom and Lee declined to speak to the Hook, referring a question about its experience installing climbing walls to the Boar's Head. 

The auto belay portion of the system was manufactured by Colorado company MSA, which voluntarily recalled 783 devices in 2005 because of three reports of injuries, including a cracked vertebrae, bruised ribs, and a sprained ankle. According to a U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission alert, a faulty bearing caused the brakes to fail. When that occurs, wall climbers risk rapid descent with no braking capability.

The Boar's Head GM cautions against speculation. "When something like that happens, you want to know why it gives and what happened," says Lippuner, who estimates it will be about two weeks before the climbing wall is available for use again. "We want to make sure everything is safe before it's back in operation."

Bill Thompson, who owns Rocky Top, another local climbing facility, says it's not unheard of for automatic devices to fail. "It has never happened here," says Thompson, who has owned Rocky Top for five years.

Fortunately, the child landed on a hefty eight-inch pad. "The reality is, if it happens outdoors and somebody screws up, people die," says Thompson.

A faulty auto belay sent an eight-year-old girl plunging to the ground at Boar's Head Sports Club.