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Rec Center climbing wall reopens today, injured climber returns to class

BY QUENTIN MISIAG | JANUARY 22, 2013 6:30 AM

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Spencer Bean climbed up another hold on the Campus Recreation & Wellness Center’s 52.5-foot rock wall. He was about 30 to 40 feet high. Then he lost his grip.

The experienced climber said one thought flashed through his brain after he began to fall: “Oh boy, something is not right.”

“After 30 seconds, I tried to get up and I just couldn’t,” the University of Iowa senior said. “I remember having a paralyzing pain in my back.”

After more than two months recovering from the nearly paralyzing fall on the evening of Nov. 8, Bean will return to classes today. And though the  UI’s popular rock wall will also reopen today — it has been closed since his unexplained fall — Bean still has a while to go before he can return to climbing.

Before the accident, Bean, a rock-climbing instructor at the Rec Center, climbed the structure several times a week. He landed on his back, suffering several injuries, including two crushed vertebrae, which nearly paralyzed him.

Associate Director of UI Recreational Services Wayne Fett said that after the climbing wall was immediately closed, two firms were hired to determine the safety and security of the wall and new procedures have been put into place.

The cause of the accident and cost of the two investigations were still unknown as of Monday evening. Rock-climbing training for Rec Center staff resumed Jan. 18.

Fett said the process was long but fairly simple. Two groups — Entre Prises, the company that built it, and Experiential Systems — inspected the wall.

“They both found that the wall and the equipment were in very good working order,” Fett said. “[That] was certainly not the cause of the accident. [Instructors] generally are big climbers to begin with, and we basically just teach them the process. The primary parts are to learn how to use the harness and belay device.”

According to a UI press release, Risk Management, the UI General Counsel’s Office, and Recreational Services developed policy and procedure recommendations for the climbing wall.

The numerous recommendations include having cameras clearly monitor the climbing area, restricting the use of cell phones and other electronic devices in the wall area, and prohibiting “lax belay techniques,” such as eating, sitting, or participating in other distracting activities while belaying a climber.

With Bean now wearing a back brace, his physical movements are limited to carrying no more than 15 pounds on each arm, and he is restricted from bending. Physical therapy is being postponed until his back heals further. His doctor issued him a list of exercises, including walking on a treadmill, dumbbell curls, and low-resistance elliptical training.

“For me, once I get the brace off, it will signify the end of my recovery,” Bean said. “The hardest part is not knowing when I can return [to climbing].”

Despite unforeseen future risks and complications associated with the fall — mild to somewhat severe arthritis may be one result that could occur in his 30s — Bean is in high spirits and looks forward to the coming semester. He returned to work and staff training Jan. 18 and has continued to stay involved with the Touch the Earth program at the Rec Center.

As of Monday evening, he was still finishing up fall semester work while setting his sights on an 18-semester-hour course load this spring. He attributes his still-planned May graduation with a degree in finance and a certificate in entrepreneurial management to the help and supportive nature of the UI and Rec Center communities.

“The university as a whole just really helped out the process, especially with registering for classes, contacting my professors, and getting my parents a hotel room during a game-day weekend,” Bean said. “[UI officials] cared above all how my well-being was.”

As the wall reopens, some students are excited to return to climbing.

UI second-year graduate student Kathleen Crose has had experience with climbing walls at various rec centers and Colorado’s Mount Elbert, but she has yet to climb the UI’s two and a half year-old structure.

Despite the accident, she said she is confident in the safety of the wall, equipment and recreational facilities at the UI, taking it a step further in saying that she plans on trying out the wall sometime.

“I definitely feel that it’s safe here and [UI officials] do a really good job of keeping things updated,” she said. “I think [the fall] was just a fluke, and I hope it doesn’t happen again. I think a lot of people get enjoyment out of [the wall].”


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