Travel: Whatever you do, don't look down

Prince Harry caused consternation this week when he went abseiling without a helmet. So what's the right way to tackle heights? Simon Calder finds out
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The Independent Culture
BY THE end of the two-hour session you feel you have conquered Everest, or at least a mountain as meaty as nearby Snowdon. No matter that you are a mere 40 feet above a foam mattress: you feel a sense of triumph, along with the security of knowing you are in good hands.

On Sunday, the News of the World revealed the cavalier attitude to safety demonstrated by two young members of the Royal Family, abseiling without a helmet or a safety line from the top of a remote Welsh dam. On Monday, I took no such chances, by signing up for a climbing and abseiling session with the National Mountain Centre at Plas y Brenin in Conwy, North Wales.

The centre is housed in a former hotel in the lakeside village of Capel Curig. The surroundings are superb - the highest peaks in England and Wales are reflected in water tickled into a shimmer by a light breeze. But on the climbing and abseiling taster course, there is no chance of enjoying the great outdoors. You are here to sweat and learn, entirely within the confines of the National Mountain Centre.

Before you are allowed to reach any altitude at all, you have to be properly kitted out: a rather fetching pair of blue climbing boots, looking like suede winklepickers and enlivened by a pair of yellow laces; a helmet; and a harness.

This last item gets to see no action at all for the first hour, which you spend in a room decked out with bumpy walls at peculiar angles, which resembles a cross between a padded cell and Fred Flintstone's front room: this is the beginners' climbing chamber.

While the instructors, Helen and Becky, ran through the theory, the 10 of us who had signed up for the session looked nervously at each other. Not that anxiously, though; it became clear that the first part of the course involved skirting around the walls at, well, skirting-board height. The correct technical term is "bouldering", but the outcrops on to which you are trying to cling are really the size of pedals. They have been thoughtfully bolted to the wall to provide hand- and footholds, of sorts, to help you edge your way around the room.

Within a few minutes, we resembled a colony of lizards crawling along the walls. Well - half of us were. Safety is paramount, so that even at an altitude of 2 feet, your own two feet are watched over by your "buddy". Participants - ranging from eight to well over 40 - are matched by size; I teamed up with a fellow six-footer, Alan from the Isle of Wight.

We became pals very quickly, mainly because on the second circuit of the Flintstone lounge the climber was told to keep his or her eyes firmly shut while the minder called out directions to keep flailing limbs on course.

Plas y Brenin has been planted in the middle of Snowdonia for two decades, a centre of excellence for mountaineering in the midst of some excellent mountains. It was established by the Sports Council, but since last year has been run by the Mountain Training Trust, an amalgam of the ruling bodies for teaching climbing.

Everything from boots to hats is stencilled "pyb", which perplexed the two Russian lads on the course no end; the acronym for the centre corresponds precisely to the Cyrillic abbreviation for roubles. You do not need too many roubles to sign up: just pounds 8 gets you two hours of expert tuition. You learn to use the strength in your legs, keeping your hips in intimate proximity to the wall. Arms are mainly used, in a horizontal fashion, to stop you falling off. When you need to use them to overcome gravity, particularly on those tricky overhangs, you keep them straight.

Satisfied that we posed no further danger to ourselves or society, Helen and Becky moved us from the padded cell to a much grander climbing-cavern, which struck me as what the inside of a giant bouncy castle might resemble. The floor was bouncy, but the walls were hard. Rock hard. We put on our harnesses, in the awkward manner of handling a particularly tricky piece of surgical equipment.

Until Monday, I had thought that a karabiner was an above-averagely stylish and/or brutal Italian policeman. It turns out that the mountaineering variant is the crucial hoop that keeps you (or, more accurately, your harness) hooked up to the safety rope. Helen taught us which bit to squeeze to check its integrity, then demonstrated how three of us at bouncy floor level would keep the climber safe.

The idea is that you can be the worst climber in the world (and I would be first to volunteer) but you will never get hurt. When you slip, three people and a friction loop will keep you on the straight and narrow rock face.

Happily, it works, as a couple of youngsters demonstrated early on by losing their grip and dangling from their ropes like a pair of errant pendulums. My effort was even less elegant, but in a triumph of humanity over gravity, the ground team enabled me to scrabble to the "summit". At the top, you grab the rope loop, launch yourself backwards into the void and trust that everything, and everyone, will hold. This is like indoor parachuting, I mused, as I drifted down rather than fell to earth, having conquered a fear of height and an ignorance of rocks in 120 minutes flat - or should that be vertical?

Do not try this at home - try it at Plas y Brenin.

Simon Calder paid pounds 8 for a two-hour "taster" session at the Plas y Brenin National Mountain Centre, Capel Curig, Conwy LL24 0ET (01690 720214). This includes loan of equipment. Other activities are canoeing and dry- slope skiing. Taster sessions take place three times a day, Monday to Friday, until the end of September