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Peak practice

Mt Everest may be the inspiration, but Rheged has what it takes to motivate pupils to face challenges - and it's all on their doorstep.

Douglas Blane hangs out in Penrith

Like glow-worms inching up a garden wall in the dark, three climbers ascend a rock face using hand-holds picked out by pools of light from their headlamps. To reach the summit of Mt Everest before nightfall, they have started before dawn. It looks like madness. But they make it.

Others are not so lucky. The images on the giant screen at Rheged, Europe's largest grass-covered building, in Penrith, Cumbria, convey with stunning effectiveness the majesty of the world's highest mountain. But other aspects of the awesome challenge - thin air, bitter cold, altitude sickness - are left to the words of the narrator and the chilling statistic that "one in 10 people who climb Everest die".

The youngsters from St Ursulas convent school in Wigton, Cumbria, who are taking part in Mountain Environments, one of many educational packages offered at Rheged, are fascinated and a little over-awed. But almost half the group of seven to 11-year-olds say they would like to climb Mt Everest, even when education officer Claire Porter illustrates the difference in scale to their own Lake District mountains.

"Has anyone been up Scafell Pike, the highest mountain in England? Well, this is the top of Everest," she says, turning to a snow-capped peak on the wall behind her. "If it was the top of Scafell Pike, the bottom would be here." She draws a line with her finger a few inches below the summit and the children laugh in surprise.

For St Ursulas teacher Sue Hellier, the Rheged visit is much more than a fun day out: "They are well-travelled children and are familiar with mountains. Several go to the Rockies or to the Alps skiing, so it's good to take them somewhere local, to open their eyes and let them see that there's much more to Cumbria and their own country than they realised."

Back at school, the pupils will reflect on what they have seen and heard at Rheged. "We'll ask them to write about today, do some poetry, get them to empathise with the climbers and their loved ones back home. This is my first visit to Rheged. There is much more to it than I realised," says Sue.

Next on the agenda is a fact-finding tour of the Top of the World exhibition, which contains models, interactive displays, information panels and equipment from several Mt Everest expeditions.

"It's very good," says Thomas Gill, eight. "I especially like how they've done this part," indicating a model of a crevasse with a ladder across it surrounded by ice. "It makes you feel like you're there."

Chronological sequences of boots, ice axes, pitons and oxygen bottles vividly illustrate the march of technology - the newest looking much more dependable than their older counterparts. But no matter how modern the equipment, tackling Mt Everest comes down, in the end, to courage, endurance, mental strength and, perhaps, a little insanity.

In a glass case set too high for the youngest to see inside, 10 frostbitten toes testify to the price the mountain, known to Tibetans as Chomolungma - mother goddess of the world - exacts from her admirers.

Finally, before the youngsters are allowed a wander among Rheged's shops, Claire Porter delivers an interactive session on the outdoors, with the help of the contrasting contents of a walker's and a climber's rucksack - the latter having been carried up Mt Everest on British mountaineer Chris Bonington's back.

Other educational visits to Rheged, designed by teachers, accompanied by education packs and linked to the curriculum, include "Restless Earth", "Reflecting on the People of Everest", and "Step into Rheged". Each features a movie on the giant screen, a themed tour and an interactive workshop. There are educational days on business, marketing and sustainable tourism aimed at older pupils, while new films and packages are being prepared.

According to Claire, "Step into Rheged" is based on a journey taken by one of their Celtic ancestors. "We do a workshop where they each take on a character, so they can look out for themselves during the movie.

Afterwards, they make a Celtic talisman. The kids absolutely love it."; tel: 01768 860016; email: Educational packages, such as Mountain Environment and Step into Rheged, last three hours and cost pound;5.25 per child

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