METROPOLITAN LIFE: Next weekend...climb the walls

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Indy Lifestyle Online
INDOOR rock climbing is this country's fastest-growing sport; there are now 400 centres, ranging from a converted Victorian fort in Hampshire to a former church in Bristol. At St Werberghs, home to Undercover Rock, climbers can make heavenly progress up the inside of the 40ft high knave, secure in the knowledge that instructors and crash mats are on hand.

The sport, which started as winter practise for outdoor enthusiasts 20 years ago, has come a long way from the days of bricks stuck to the walls of sports halls. Now specialist "plastic rock" is moulded into knots, boulders, nooks and crannies to imitate the natural holds found on the real thing.

Beginners tend to start with something simple such as the "chimney climb" - think of those frightened Victorian urchins who were forced up dark, brick chimneys clutching nothing but a brush for security, and you're close.

Instructors like John Kelly, who teaches at Fort Purbrook near Portsmouth, in Hampshire, make it look simple. He scampers up the 15ft climb, bridging the walls with his arms and legs and inching his hands and feet up the walls.

No matter how easy you try to take things as a beginner, it is hard to relax. On the first few climbs you are likely to try too hard, clinging tightly to the rough surface and crevices with both hands and legs which inevitably leads to the Elvis Presley Syndrome. "It's also known as disco knees and it happens when the muscles that are not used to being used to the stresses and strains of climbing go into spasm and start to shake violently," says John. At this point the only options are to head for the crash mats or continue the climb. No contest: in climbing, the only way is up.

how to get there

Purbrook Activity Centre, Portsdown Hill Road, Cosham, Hampshire, is to be found just off the A27 near Portsmouth (Tel: 01705 321223).

Undercover Rock is inside St Werberghs Church, Mina Road, Bristol (tel: 0117 9413489).

A list of the top 100 climbing walls is available for pounds 2 from the British Mountaineering Council, 117-179 Burton Road, West Didsbury, Manchester M20 2BB (tel: 0161 445 4747). Or you can contact your regional Sports Council office.

who can do it?

Age is no barrier. Climbers have been known to start as young as six - although not all centres accept children. You can keep climbing as long as you feel fit enough to meet the challenge.

No skills are necessary but you must be fairly fit. As most of your body weight will be carried by the hands, the heavier you are the more difficult climbing becomes.

Flexibility will make learning easier but can be improved with time. A lack of strength in the early stages will encourage you to develop a good climbing technique. You will become stronger as you spend more time climbing.

what about equipment?

When starting out, wear trainers and loose, comfortable clothing that will allow you to stretch and twist. Most venues will provide a safety harness, ropes and helmet. The hard-hat is mostly for insurance purposes - the likelihood of being hit by falling boulders on an indoor rock-face is nil.

how much does it cost?

Lessons at Fort Purbrook cost pounds 2.80 per hour at peak times. A sample session at Undercover Rock will cost you pounds 4, or you can move straight on to a beginner's course of four, one-hour sessions for pounds 40. Prices vary between centres but most include equipment hire.

KAREN AINSBURY

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