Rope courses are a real test of courage and trust, and not just for sporty pupils. Janette Wolf reports from the summit.
Walk close to the edge of a cliff, or look over a balcony on the fifth floor and you may well be assailed by a wave of dizziness. This is vertigo and it's a fairly common reaction to being somewhere that is high enough to do you some permanent damage if you fell to earth.
Imagine then, standing on a lean pole, as tall as an oak tree and with a circumference little bigger than a dinner plate. How would you feel about that? Vertigo probably wouldn't even come into it as most people would not climb up there in the first place. But one by one, a group of boys from Hilden Grange school in Tonbridge took turns to shin up the pole, balance on the top and then hurl themselves across the void to grab a nearby trapeze. All at a head-swimming height. Why?
Rope courses are a fairly well-established feature of many outdoor education centres. The Outward Bound centre in Eskdale, for instance, has had some form of rope challenge since it opened in 1950. But a new generation of adventure rope courses, rather like the one Hilden Grange was tackling at Venture Associates' Carrotty Wood Centre in Tonbridge, Kent, are appearing across the country.
These structures are colossal, elaborate affairs involving long poles, chunky ropes and zip wires. They resemble the rigging of some fantastic, impossibly huge ship, and they require an extraordinary combination of skills to negotiate.
Outdoor activities normally require a level of physical commitment beyond most people's experience - that's one of the reasons for doing them in the first place. But these sophisticated rope courses demand an even greater physical and mental resourcefulness.
Bob Rushton is the team leader at the Outward Bound Centre in Eskdale. He says that because of the courage required to do it, "we don't tend to put this at the beginning of a course. It requires a lot of determination and self-discipline".
But squaring up to a fear of heights is only one part of the challenge. Martin Hughes, director of Adventure Rope Course, believes rope courses are "a tool for self-empowerment, not a test of someone's courage. It is not a case of having to succeed, we would rather people just had a go".
This is reinforced by the way the courses are used. At Carrotty Wood, the instructor stresses the importance of teamwork - the course requires absolute trust between group members. To make sure this message gets across, the children are not allowed near the course until they complete a number of trust-building exercises. These include falling into someone's outstretched arms without moving a muscle - a more exacting task than it sounds. What if they drop you? Then there is mutual support. The instructor tells them solemnly: "We have a contract. If someone is a bit nervous, we are not going to take the mickey out of them. Next time it could be you..."
Hilden Grange's PE teacher Nick Young, whose feet are firmly attached to the ground as his charges begin to scale the upper reaches of the course, is surprised by the way the group embraced this support ethic, and began to encourage weaker members in a way that they would not have done at school. But its main advantage as far as he is concerned is that the sporty ones are not automatically the ones good at it: "Because there is a wide spread of activities, they all get a chance to shine at something," he says.
Although it sounds perilously scary, rope courses are actually one of the safest and most manageable of all outdoor education activities. Every one on the course is attached to a safety line at all times, and instructors can monitor groups from the ground.
Martin Hughes attributes the growing popularity of rope courses to two things: a higher demand for adrenalin activities with low risk. He also believes the courses are ideal for outdoor centres because of their accessibility. "You don't have to travel miles off-site," he explains. "People spend so much time in a mini-bus - you may have travelled five hours to get to a wilderness area."
His company is currently putting the finishing touches to the first dedicated adventure rope course. Based in Shropshire, it will cover 14 acres. School or youth groups will be able to go for the afternoon or for a week, and sample a landscape of the most vertiginous challenges short of climbing Nelson's Column. And they will learn far more than how to look down without wincing.
Adventure Rope Course Knighton House, Church Street, Ruyton X1 Towns, Shropshire SY4 1LA. Tel: 01939 261122 www.adventurerope.u-net.com Carroty WoodHigham Lane, Tonbridge TN11 9QX.Tel: 01732 363995 Outward Bound Professional Eskdale Green, Holm Rook, Cumbria CA19 1TE. Tel: 01946 723281