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."



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).

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
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.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

    £32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

    Guru Careers: Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Chef

    £27K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Che...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Supervisor

    £24800 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As one of London's leading Muse...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected