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)

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