Sheer skill marks the rise of Britain's women climbers

'CLIMBING is like ballet,' said Safina Meah, who represents Britain in the Grand Prix international competition. 'You have to work out the sequence of movements. You cram your feet into small shoes so you can feel the rocks with your toes.'

'You fall off a lot and have to overcome that fear and learn to trust the rope,' said Ruth Jenkins of the British Women's Sport Climbing Team, before swinging gracefully away up a sheer, 40ft indoor wall. She gripped the tiny ledges with fingertips and toes; the rope is only there to catch her if she slips.

The modern face of climbing is far removed from its traditional, heavy-booted image, and more and more women are taking up this form of vertical gymnastics. Flexibility and lightness are advantages that have made the British Women's Team a force to be reckoned with, though they will have to cope with the loss of Rachel Farmer, ranked 15th in the world, who fell to her death from a mountain path in the South of France last month.

The team's home city is Sheffield, where Europe's largest permanent indoor climbing wall is housed in a converted steel foundry. Since the club at The Foundry opened 15 months ago, it has attracted 16,000 regular climbers, including 4,000 women, to its state-of-the-art climbing surfaces.

Its cavernous, chilly interior is like a sci-fi film set, with towering, grey-and-yellow walls, cratered with different climbing routes. Even on a cold weekday evening the walls are swarming with people clambering towards the roof. For pounds 3 - pounds 4 at weekends - plus pounds 5 equipment hire, you can climb for as long as you want, provided you have been instructed on safety procedure.

The Women's Team are strikingly petite; Ruth is 5ft 1in, weighs under seven stone and wears size 2 shoes. 'The ideal is to have thin legs and strong upper bodies,' explained Anne Arran. Brawn is not an advantage. 'It's a question of power-to- weight ratio,' said Safina.

National standard can be reached in as little as two years, though the schedule is punishing. Safina moved to Sheffield to keep up her four or five four-hour sessions every week. 'It's addictive,' she said. 'I'm studying psychology and I'm supposed to be writing a dissertation at the moment, it's 12 months overdue.'

Competitions may be outside or indoors, and test either speed or skill - who can climb the furthest along a difficult course without dropping off. 'There is more prestige in difficulty competitions,' said Anne.

Ruth and Anne both work as instructors at The Foundry. 'We had a lady of 82 in last week who made it to the top,' Anne said. This was heartening to hear as I put on lightweight slippers with soles of sticky racing-car-tyre rubber to try one of the easier 10m routes. Anne fastened me into a nylon harness, and knotted my rope securely to the front. The rope runs through a metal snaplink called a karabiner at the top of the wall, and is held at the other end by a partner, in a figure-of- eight-shaped piece of metal called a belay. Friction through the belay absorbs much of the shock if the climber falls, so that the belayer can support up to 15 stone of dangling deadweight.

Clutching too hard at the rough red supports, I scrambled ungracefully from foothold to foothold. Ten metres didn't look terribly high, and my route had no overhangs or outward-sloping sections, but I was exhilarated to reach the top, with no worse mishap than a broken nail. To descend, the climber abseils, supported by the partner - and if your rope has not been properly knotted, this is where you can end up in a heap at the bottom.

'If someone forgets to tie their knot properly and it fails, they could fall the distance of the wall,' said Hugh Harris, manager of the Foundry. 'But accidents are down to user error.' Rachel Farmer was not climbing when she fell. 'She was walking on a path above a drop and she slipped. If she had been run over it would have been the same level of unfortunate accident.'

Harris feels climbers suffer from a bad press. 'You hear that eight climbers have been lost up a mountain - well, you don't go climbing in an eight. Those are walkers. Rock climbing is about vertical movement, it's not about going for a walk up a hill.'

(Photograph omitted)

people And here is why...
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
voicesBy the man who has
Arsene Wenger tried to sign Eden Hazard
footballAfter 18 years with Arsenal, here are 18 things he has still never done as the Gunners' manager
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
The new Windows 10 Start Menu
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson star in The Twilight Saga but will not be starring in the new Facebook mini-movies
tvKristen Stewart and Stephenie Meyer will choose female directrs
Arts and Entertainment
Hilary North's 'How My Life Has Changed', 2001
books(and not a Buzzfeed article in sight)
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete today
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedyFirst national survey reveals Britain’s comedic tastes
Arts and Entertainment
Twerking girls: Miley Cyrus's video for 'Wrecking Ball'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Sheeran performs at his Amazon Front Row event on Tuesday 30 September
musicHe spotted PM at private gig
people'I’d rather have Fred and Rose West quote my characters on childcare'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

QA/BA - Agile

£400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are currently seekin...

PPA Supply Teachers

£121 - £142 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Early Years, KS1 & 2 Prima...

Primary Supply Teacher

£121 - £142 per annum: Randstad Education Luton: Early Years, KS1 & 2 Prim...

Primary Supply Teacher

£121 - £142 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Primary supply teacher Hertford...

Day In a Page

Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?