X-treme: Getting on top of it

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"There's absolutely no way you can fall," centre manager, Mike Lamb says. At the Castle Climbing Centre in Stoke Newington I'm standing at the foot of a 12 metre man-made rock face, about to start my first ascent.

Ten minutes earlier I'd had my first taste of "bouldering", which involves climbing on a bulbous man-made rock face that stands four metres high.

"Your legs are so much stronger than your arms, so you use them to support your weight when you're on the wall," he says. "It's not about strength as much as technique and planning, so try and think ahead to your next hold."

Climbing has been described as "mental chess"; brute strength will only get you so far. Successful climbers are supple and strong but more importantly they need to be mentally agile, thinking three and four holds ahead.

It can be quite difficult adjusting to the "correct" method of climbing. No one teaches kids how to climb trees (which probably explains the amount of broken limbs), it's an intuitive thing, but now, instead of feeling something solid under your feet, you're encouraged to rest the sole of your foot against almost flatsloping rock for support.

The Castle Climbing Centre teaches climbing and self-motivation for climbers of all standards. It now has 25,636 registered users.

"We have all kinds of people here, from road sweepers to lawyers - everyone is equal on the wall," Mike says. "There's a strong community feel and we also have qualified female instructors which some women respond to better. In the past climbing has had a bit of a macho image but that's changing now people realise that it's about balance, not strength - that's why dancers usually make excellent climbers."

Standing beneath this huge 12 metre wall, climbing shoes and a belay harness is all the equipment I have - I have no dancing experience.

I'm tied to a rope while Mike stands below belaying (the process of turning "live" rope into "dead" rope) as I climb.

"Your climbing shoes are specially designed to create friction against the rock face. It's the same kind of material used in F1 tyres - the more friction and heat that builds up the better they grip."

I start to climb. The rocks that will support my weight range from large stones, that fit comfortably in my hand, to tiny slates the size of an ice hockey puck. The stones are colour-coded denoting routes of varying difficulty but I'm using everything available. My fingers, hands and arms strain with the effort and then I remember Mike's advice to find a strong foothold and straighten your legs.

Breathing deeply the panic subsides a little and I look up for a new route. Mike tells me to relax and look down for a better platform. As my mind clears I look again and see another rock lying a couple of feet to the left.

Tentatively, I continue to climb until I'm about three-quarters of the way up the wall, then I'm stuck. After years of inactivity my forearms are in uproar and I'm weary, frightened and desperate to quit but the summit is only a few metres on.

The rock that will take me onto the next level is just a few centimetres beyond my reach - I'll have to jump.

My heart is in my mouth, a fear of falling washes over me. I tell myself that it's only a couple of inches, and jump. I feel the rock beneath my eager fingers and I'm there.

I'm desperate to rest now and hug the wall tightly in the hope that it will rotate 90 but reaching for my next hold I slip. For a split second I expect to plummet to the ground but instead I'm floating in mid-air.

As I slowly abseil down to the ground I can't wait to have another go ... just as soon as the feeling returns to my forearms.

For additional information on rock climbing contact the British Mountaineering Council on 0161-445 4747