Hang on for sheer life
If you want to test the theory that fear increases with age, take a group of teachers and their pupils to a cliff and invite them to climb. "We take groups of children as young as nine and they tend to be the most fearless. The teachers are more wary. They often develop mysterious injuries or bad backs," says climbing instructor Alan Wilson at Edale Outdoor Youth Hostel and Activity Centre.
Even for more reluctant children, though, overcoming their fear brings rich rewards. Often they are surprised by how they cope with the challenges, discovering things about themselves and their friends which are not evident in the classroom.
"A sense of achievement, a real feeling of satisfaction, that's what rock-climbing gives you," he says.
The proof of this comes when children reach the top. One boy among a group of 13-year-olds scampers up the 50-foot rock face as if it were a flight of stairs. Most people inch their way towards the summit, urged on by their friends.
Some celebrate by whooping and punching the air. Some give themselves a sly grin and a nonchalant shrug. Others need a good 10 minutes to recover from the ordeal before the colour returns to their cheeks and a smile breaks across their faces.
"I thought I'd be a lot more scared than I was," says a relieved-looking girl. "But you're concentrating so hard on finding the next foothold or handhold that you forget how high up you are. It's like doing a giant jigsaw puzzle."
"If they're unsure we let them work the ropes," says Mr Wilson. "That gets them involved and when they see that it's safe they usually end up having a go."
The most common problem is when climbers find themselves on a comfortable lede and decide to stay put.
"Usually if they get stuck we can talk them into making the next move, but in extreme cases we have to rig another rope and go and rescue them."
The first climb is friendly-looking enough, with some obvious footholds and handholds, but by the end of the afternoon the group is tackling seemingly smooth slabs of rock with overhanging ledges. The instructors demonstrate techniques which might come in handy but, when the pressure is on, most of children resort to ungainly scrambling.
As the children work their way up, instructors Dave and John offer a mixture of advice and encouragement, suggesting possible footholds and exhorting nervous climbers to trust the rope.
"I know what it's like to be scared," says Dave. "I used to be terrified of heights. A friend took me rock-climbing specifically to try to cure me. The first time I did it I was sweating and shaking all over. But knowledge overcomes fear. These ropes would take the weight of a minibus full of people."
It is avoiding ropes and helmets that, in some cases, makes the sport more dangerous than it should be. John pointed down the crags to where a group of young men were climbing without the use of either. "Sheer stupidity," he says. "Someone was killed on these rocks just a few weeks ago climbing without a rope. It gives the sport a bad name."
u The YHAis offering schools the chance to win an all-inclusive trip worth pound;6,000 to one of its centres. See page 16 in this week's Friday magazine for entry details.
Edale Youth Hostel and Activity Centre, Roland Cote, Nether Booth, Edale, Hope Valley S33 7ZH. Tel: 01433 670302; e-mail: email@example.com Schools book up to two years in advance for the busy times, May to July and September. A man-made climbing tower is available in severe weather.