Why we all want to climb every mountain

With its demanding peaks, Britain is at the cutting edge of this thrilling sport, and more and more people are taking part. Matthew Brace reports

CLIMBING BECAME hip a few years ago. Grey sea cliffs and mountain flanks were painted with garish, fluorescent stretch-pants as more and more people took to the rock in trendy garb. Magazines dedicated to the sport were launched and indoor training-walls opened all over the country.

Some rock-climbers became celebrities and went to great lengths to impress us with their Spiderman antics. Alain Robert, a Frenchman with a penchant for climbing buildings, scaled the Canary Wharf tower in London's Docklands, to the astonishment of office workers inside and the chagrin of the security guards and police who arrested him when he reached the top. Not satisfied with conquering Europe's tallest office block, he later went on to brave the pigeons and shin up Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square.

In Yosemite National Park, in California, they climb a giant body of rock called El Capitan at night, using headlamps. From the valley below, all you can see are specks of yellow light, as if rock-dwelling monks have lit remembrance candles.

But climbing does not have to get this adventurous. I have always been a lazy climber and get more of a thrill trundling up easy routes with a couple of manageable scrambles, stopping for sandwiches and a flask of tea on a ledge to admire the view, than scaring myself so much my legs turn to jelly and I start shouting obscenities across the valley. It should be challenging but not harrowing.

Before climbing became cool, many outdoor-pursuit clubs had to coax people out for weekends to North Wales or the Lake District in foul weather with the promise of adventure and a sense of personal achievement. Many from my university club turned their noses up, saying there was football to watch, shopping to do, or hangovers to nurse. Now, people flock to rock faces to be in with the in-crowd.

The British Mountaineering Council's National Officer, Andy MacNae, estimates that 150,000 people in the UK are climbing regularly, and a Mintel survey, conducted in 1992, recorded that 700,000 had at least tried it. "The true figure lies somewhere between the two, but the survey did identify climbing as Britain's fastest-growing sport," said Mr MacNae. "Every city has an indoor climbing-wall now, which gives people a very accessible entry point to the sport."

More women have become interested in this previously male-dominated sport, and the male-female ratio of club membership has started to balance out. The BMC, which represents all mountain activities, from hill-walking to extreme climbing, has 27 per cent female membership among its younger climbers, and the figure is rising.

One of the joys of climbing is discovering that you can do the impossible, you can defy gravity. Of course, you are held on by safety ropes attached to a colleague at the top of the climb and, when training, you will be directed by experienced instructors, but you are still scaling vertical walls of rock - impressive whatever the circumstances.

It is physically challenging and demands equal amounts of strength and stamina. Not only are you heaving your body-weight upwards - sometimes by your fingertips - but some climbs can be longer than they look and can sap every ounce of energy from you. There is another factor which surprises new climbers. It is as much about mental agility as physical.

Climbers are often in a harsh environment so they have to keep alert and they must work out puzzles for the body. They spend a lot of time craning their necks to look upwards, tracing an imaginary path through chimneys (vertical crevasses) in the rock or working out the safest way to conquer an overhang. Can I squeeze through that gap without ripping my ropes? Will that outcrop hold my weight?

One of the most valuable lessons new climbers can learn is that there is almost always more than one way up a rock face, even if the alternatives are not immediately apparent. Some surfaces that appear flat and featureless will offer up previously hidden hand or toe-holds once the climber begins an ascent.

Another valuable lesson is falling off. Any fall should, ideally, be less than a couple of feet before the rope tightens and holds you. It is frightening at first and may result in a bruised knee but it will give you more confidence in your fellow climbers holding the end of the rope at the top of the cliff. Keep in mind that some experienced climbers deliberately climb without ropes. They are among those who have put Britain at the cutting edge of rock-climbing. "People in the climbing world look to Britain with a great deal of respect and admiration. We have produced some of the best climbers in the world and have some of the most adventurous routes in Europe," said Mr MacNae.

These climbs include Long Hope Route on the west coast of the island of Hoy in the Orkneys, Divided Years in the Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland, The Big Issue, a sea-cliff climb on the Pembrokeshire coast, and Parthian Shot, a gritstone rock face near Burbage in the Peak District. All are ranked E9 or E10, the hardest grade. E is for extremely severe.

"The experience climbing gives you is the same for someone on their first rock- climb as someone who is at the peak of their form climbing an E9," said Mr MacNae. "It's always a thrill."

FACT FILE

rock-climbing

First steps

There are four main routes for anyone wanting to get started in rock- climbing: join a local climbing club - a list is available on the web or from the British Mountaineering Council; join the BMC; visit a local climbing-wall (many run introductory courses); or book yourself onto an outdoor course (advertisements can be found at the back of climbing magazines). To join the British Mountaineering Council, write to 177-179 Burton Road, Manchester M20 2BB (tel: 0161-445 4747), or find its web page at www.thebmc.co.uk. Membership costs pounds 15 for a year (including personal insurance). The BMC also provides a New Climber's Pack (free to members, pounds 6 for non-members).

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