ADRENALIN / On the rocks: On the face of it, rock-climbing looks like good character-building fun. Until you start the climb, warns Dolly Dhingra

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The Independent Culture
Despite having lost three friends in climbing accidents, Paul Clark tries to spend as many weekends and holidays in the mountains as he possibly can. When asked why he still continues climbing, he replies, 'Climbing is not homogeneous - each climb has different degrees of difficulty. You wouldn't expect a friend of Ayrton Senna to give up driving to work because he died in a racing accident. I only concern myself with the easier climbs'. I consoled myself with these words as I apprehensively made my way to Betws-y-coed in North Wales to find out the reason for his obsession.

Walking to our destination amid spectacular scenery in the Idwal quarry, I could see coloured dots moving on the mountains. Focusing my eyes, I realised that they were climbers. Just as I was wondering what possessed people to risk their lives like this, I turned a corner to find about 30 men and women attempting the climbs known as Faith, Hope and Charity. Meanwhile, families were sitting around with flasks and sandwiches, watching their friends conquer nature. The climb that we would be doing was so ordinary that it was actually called Ordinary.

After much harnessing and fiddling around with vast quantities of ironmongery, the basics of climbing were explained to me. Clark was to be attached to one end of a rope which would be fed through my hands and a belay device around my waist. By pulling the rope back, I could prevent him from falling.

As he began the ascent, the pile of rope by my side began to diminish. Every so often Clark would secure himself to the mountain, putting the rope through various runners (if a climber falls, he drops twice the distance of the last runner). The runners determined the path I would climb as it was my job to retrieve them. With only a few yards of rope left, Paul shouted from above that a belay had been set up and that he was secure. I could now make my way. To complete the climb, the sequence had to be repeated four times, which took over three hours.

Looking at the vertical rock- face in front of me, I wondered how on earth I was going to manage this first stage let alone the others. Once a climb has been started it is best to complete it, unless you are prepared to abseil down, which not only wastes equipment but also adds further dangers. Leisure by its very nature should be easy-going. I decided that rock-climbing was far too serious to be regarded as a leisure activity - even before I had begun.

In order to complete a single step, the rock-face has to be searched for cracks and bumps on and from which you pull, push, balance and move. There were times when all hope was lost and I was convinced that I would not be able to make the next manoeuvre. Frantically searching, on the verge of tears, I would find a crack that my hand had missed the first 10 times. Paul told me that these cracks were named 'Thank God cracks'. I soon understood why.

To climb properly involves good balance, twisting one's limbs in unimaginable ways and using parts that even Heineken cannot reach. You learn how remarkable the body is, what its limits are, what it is capable of. It requires huge amounts of confidence, faith, a certain degree of luck (you never know when a rock may drop from above) and a strong belief in the old adage, 'What doesn't kill you makes you stronger'.

For courses and club information contact British Mountaineering Council, Crawford House, Precinct Centre, Booth Street, East Manchester M13 9RZ

(information: 061-273 5835)

(Photograph omitted)