Rupert Isaacson has a fear of heights. So he was surprised to find himself earlier this year clinging to a sheer rock face in Wales
When I was 12, my family took me to visit some friends in Oxford. While showing us round , they suggested we climb a 200ft medieval tower sticking up from the centre of the city. "The view's amazing," they said. "Only problem is it's a little narrow on the actual parapet." I should have known better - I had never liked heights. But I set off up the steep stairway with as much bravado as I could, stepped out onto the narrow platform at the top ... and froze. Completely and utterly. My mother had to coax me back inside as if I was a nervous animal. Other tourists looked on sympathetically, but I was humiliated. After that I avoided anything over the height of a step-ladder.

Imagine my surprise, then, at finding myself, this year, clinging to the sheer wall of a South Wales quarry. When a friend invited me on the day's introductory climbing course I had at first flatly refused. But after repeated cajolings I gave in and, swallowing my fear and cursing my friend, next day I was hauling equipment up a Welsh forest path to the rock wall in a light winter drizzle, following a perky instructor called Paul, who looked maddeningly nonchalant about the whole thing.

"Don't worry," he said, his initial briefing done. "All climbing starts with your feet firmly on the ground." Paul then took us through a long lesson on how to find hand and footholds, walking along the foot of the rock wall and feeling for them where he pointed them out. Then we did it again just a foot or, two up. Then again, until we could all do it without touching ground. The next step was harder: to climb a 60ft face using rope and harness. Yet the change was not as abrupt as I had feared. After an hour spent finding hand and footholds close to the ground it felt natural to start climbing, looking upwards, and pressing myself to the rock. However, after a minute or two I reached an apparent impasse, with no way up. Suddenly I was the frightened schoolboy again. I froze. But Paul was watching. "Trust the rope!" He yelled. "You can't fall, there's a handhold just to the left, no the left. That's right."

I breathed deeply, consciously relaxed, and found that I could go on. The sense of achievement, on reaching the top was almost overwhelming. I had conquered one of my demons. I raced back down the gentler slope on the farther side of the cliff to rejoin the others. "Can I do it again?" I pleaded. "Right now." I was afraid that my new-found confidence might evaporate as quickly as it had come. But not a bit of it. Up I went again - several more times in a row, choosing slightly more difficult routes each time.

After lunch, elated and beaming, I lined up on top of the cliff with the others for instruction in abseiling. Though technically easier than climbing - it's just a matter of playing the rope a certain way and kicking out from the rock face as you go down - abseiling turned out to be more of a confidence test than climbing had been. You have to actually step backwards and out into the void. But again Paul made me trust the equipment. And I did it, stepped backwards over a cliff and abseiled down almost 100ft of sheer drop. As before, the sense of achievement was almost overwhelming.

Now, writing from the sweet safety of flat earth, I don't see myself ever taking up climbing seriously, but that day allowed me to lay one of my many fears to rest, something I will always be grateful for. As a confidence-booster climbing is hard to beat.

8 Rupert Isaacson is the author of the "Action Guide to Britain" (Harvill, pounds 12.99).

rock climbing factfile


Black Mountain Activities, PO Box 5, Hay-On-Wye, Hereford HR3 5YB. Telephone (01497) 847897.


Only children over 10 years of age may climb. Clients must also provide their own travel insurance.


All river guides trained in first aid and water rescue.

Affiliations: British Climbing Union, Welsh Tourist Board.


A day's climbing costs pounds 40 per person, including lunch, equipment, and instruction. Advance booking essential, as trips are increasingly popular. Full tariff must be paid with booking. Late bookings accepted if space allows.


Year round.


Black Mountain assembles clients at a central pick-up point for transport to the launching site by mini-bus. Maps of how to reach the pick-up point will be sent on confirmation of booking. You will need your own car to reach the pick-up point.