Spare-Time: Rock without the roll

Indoor climbing may teach you the ropes, but how easy is it to translate that skill to the great outdoors? Eric Kendall finds a safe foothold on a course in Wales

Expansive, committed, exposed - stuck. Just a few of the thoughts that can go through your mind half-way up a crag; the valley floor a distant backdrop to the vital drama playing itself out in slow motion, with you the star. OK, maybe not quite, but delusions of grandeur come easily when you're heading for the top of the world.

"Stuck" is by far the most powerful of those sensations, and the most important for newcomers to the sport. Upward progress is the name of the game and going backwards is not just undesirable, it's often virtually impossible, making each positive move a chess-like calculation. Thinking one or two steps ahead may keep you out of trouble on easier climbs, but the grandmasters are probably mentally half-way up the next cliff before they've finished the first.

You can be stuck for only so long. Then you work out the problem, or you fall off. All the while the obvious solution will probably have been staring you in the kneecaps in the form of a foothold that escaped your searching gaze. To your climbing partner belaying you at the foot of the cliff, this hold and a multitude of others are invariably and irritatingly apparent, despite their remote view of the proceedings.

Just how calm you remain, while surveying the vertical and apparently featureless rock around you, is a critical factor. A cool appraisal of your situation is what's needed, but your nerves may tell you otherwise, while your muscles - every single one of them - just scream. Moderate physical as well as mental fitness is essential to climb at any level of expertise; 20-stone bloaters need not apply.

As a potentially hazardous sport, learning to climb has special requirements, with two distinct aspects: the physical ascent, and safety. You can easily concentrate on one and let someone else take care of the other. Go to an indoor wall and climb at every level with no more safety training than learning to wear a harness, tie on to a rope and belay your partner, using ropes run through permanent bolts at the top of the wall. With a bit of care it's about as dangerous as tiddlywinks, and saves the bother of going to the hills, maybe getting wet and cold, and having to fiddle about learning to set up a safe rope system.

This satisfies the needs of some - it's an athletic endeavour that tests skill, strength and stamina, which can provide ever harder challenges; a bit like going to play squash or football on a Saturday, but with racquets replaced by ropes, and studs with sticky-soled shoes. But for others it's a second best, for want of outdoor opportunities - the Peaks, Scotland and Wales are a fair distance from much of the population, the Alps even further. This leaves a group of climbers able to shimmy up colour-coded artificial rock routes, but without a clue how to fix a rope and only a limited feel for what constitutes a viable natural hand-hold.

Touching Stone is the answer to their problems, a two-day course specifically devised to allow climbers of all abilities to transfer their skills safely from an indoor wall to an outdoor crag. It is held at Plas y Brenin, the National Mountain Centre in north Wales, where instructors use surrounding climbs to teach ropework and the use of climbing hardware to set up bomb- proof belays. You also get a taste of the ultimate goal of many climbers: learning how to "lead", placing protection and clipping in a rope along a route as it's climbed, rather than relying on a rope secured from above. It's a step on the way to bigger climbs and the kind of fluency that sets the expert apart.

Speed, grace, agility and confidence come not just with endless training on walls, but out on the crags which provide the thrill of being high and so exposed.

But whatever level you reach, personal responsibility is the key message. Considering the stakes involved, it's an alarming thought that the rope you set up is your sole protection if you fall - but ultimately, who better to trust than yourself?

What you need

True to its roots, climbing remains relatively simple and uncluttered. First-timers can wear whatever clothes they feel comfortable in, though skirts and kilts would be considered bad form.

With sufficient training and abstention, tight-fitting, stretchy, Lycra- type clothing looks the business. Climbing outdoors also requires clothing for full protection from mountain weather, according to season.

Trainers or other grippy-soled, flexible shoes are fine to start with; ideally, smooth-soled rock boots are worn several sizes too small to ensure maximum control and to enhance their astonishing grip on your feet as well as the rock.

Harness, helmet, ropes and hardware are all initially available for use through clubs, at indoor walls or on courses. You should know how it all works before buying your own.

Where to go

About 200 artificial climbing walls are listed in the British Mountaineering Council's (BMC) Climbing Wall Directory which costs pounds 2.50 but is free to members. Write to the BMC, 177-179 Burton Road, Manchester M20 2BB, enclosing an sae for membership information.

Local walls are usually listed in Yellow Pages, sometimes under "Sports Centres". London has several walls, and two dedicated climbing centres, The Castle (0181-211 7000) and Mile End Wall (0181-980 0289). Walls are also a good source of information on clubs and outdoor climbing opportunities and often run courses at various levels.

Touching Stone, climbing outside for the inside climber, is available at Plas y Brenin, National Mountain Centre (01690 720214), Web site URL: