Graham Hoyland helps turn mountains into molehills
Outdoor types, it seems to me, fall into two camps: those who rope up and those who don't. In the latter category we have sturdy walkers, all fibre pile and Wainwright's guidebooks, and in the former we have ice and snow gladiators, who wear spiked crampons on their double plastic boots and carry cruelly curved ice-axes. Walkers climb hills; climbers climb mountains. In my boyhood, as I scrambled across the Arran hills with my father, I heard fabulous tales about those men and their adventures in the exotic Himalayas, and how they were often killed in pursuit of their arcane hobby. My father's brother had been one who had died, on Mont Blanc, and that was why we never tackled anything for which we should have had to be roped up.

Later, while walking in the Himalayas, I encountered one of these gods who had just descended from one of the nearby summits. I have never seen anyone more glamorous. He was Japanese, and his face was sunburnt under the goggle-marks as if with a flame-thrower. He clumped around camp with enormous, brightly coloured boots, and he casually flung down a bright yellow rope.

This was clearly something I had to do, but how to begin? First, you don't have to be super-tough. I went to see what happened at the International School of Mountaineering in Leysin, Switzerland, where total novices can end a two-week holiday ready to tackle a minor Himalayan giant. Ropes were introduced, together with the idea that they're there to make you feel safe about walking along a cliff, not actually to pull on. We were taught three easy knots (which is all you need until you're on a level with Chris Bonington) and abseiled down cliffs until we trusted the ironmongery attaching us to the rock.

Alpine Start is not a form of cereal; it's when you all get up at four in the morning and crunch across a snow-covered glacier wearing crampons for grip. These inch-long spikes strapped to your boots necessitate a strange, side-swinging stride; otherwise you puncture your legs. They give the most incredible grip: this is four-wheel drive for humans. Kicking up vertical ice-cliffs, using a small ice-axe held in each hand, is far easier than it looks, and exhilarating fun.

We climbed up to a lofty ridge leading up to one of Les Dents du Midi, to be greeted by a stupendous dawn, with the Matterhorn steepling in the far distance. Fog swirled around us, and we were told that if the leader fell off the ridge unseen in the fog ahead, you had to guess which side he'd fallen and jump off the ridge on the opposite side. Presumably, you both then dangle in perfect balance while deciding what to do next.

Reaching a summit is always a special moment, and for this group of students tucking into their packed lunch I could see that they now considered themselves to be climbers.

The next stage is to go on a proper expedition. This is when a group of you goes off with the aim of climbing a very high mountain. Nepal is a convenient country for climbing, not least because it has the highest mountains in the world. However, the authorities charge vast sums just to attempt to climb one of the bigger ones. Everest's peak fee is pounds 10,000 per person. But there are 18 "trekking peaks" which provide a cheaper alternative. Meru Peak, the tallest of the 18, is higher than 21,000ft, seriously bigger than anything in Europe. This climb would be graded as a 1, which means you don't have to use your rope, and costs around pounds 2,000 for a three-week holiday.

All these expeditions are led by qualified mountain guides. At base camp you get a refresher on the knots. Also you're reminded how to do a "self- arrest" with your ice-axe: a snow slope with a gentle run-out at the bottom is selected, and one by one you fling yourself down the hill as if on an invisible toboggan. Wearing the obligatory Gortex you gain speed rapidly, and clutching the axe across your chest you slowly roll on to it, forcing the sharp bit into the snow. Usually what happens next is that the axe is snatched from your hands and you plummet helplessly downwards. Soon you get the hang of it, and you're ready for the attempt on the summit.

If after climbing Meru Peak you felt confident, you could attempt Island Peak, which is a bit smaller and a bit harder, graded 2. I found that it had sections that needed some familiarity with crampons and ice-axe, and certainly you would need the rope to protect you if you slipped off its airy summit ridge. Up there, though, gazing down at one of the world's most beautiful, flower-strewn valleys, you feel the simple joy of the mountain-climber. And if you turn your head to the north, to the world's highest mountain towering above you, you can feel what draws them on.

Himalayan Kingdoms Expeditions (0117 987 9444) runs guided expeditions around the world as well as UK rock climbing courses. Martin Moran Moutaineering (01520 722361) runs Alpine climbing courses between June and August and also organises an expedition to the Himalayas once a year.