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On tips and toes to the top

Adrenalin pumping. Breath Taking. Heart Racing. Nail Biting. Life Changing. A description of a parliamentary session at Holyrood? No. This is the bold proclamation of five orange signs on the road that wends its way between wheat fields to the Edinburgh International Climbing Arena in Newbridge, Ratho, 10 miles from the city centre.

Thirty-two S1-S3 pupils from Bell Baxter High in Fife have spent the morning scaling the walls. Thousands of orange, purple, green, blue, yellow, pink and red splodges hand and foot grips help them negotiate their way up. Some larger splodges 12 to 15-year-olds are now gingerly abseiling their way back down, while others are tackling ladders, chains, nets and logs, suspended in harnesses 100 feet above the floor, on the aerial assault.

The centre, which is built into the face of a disused quarry to make the largest indoor climbing arena in the world, was reopened at the end of May after a pound;6 million revamp. It first opened in December 2003, rapidly ran into financial difficulties, went into receivership in March 2004, was bought by the City of Edinburgh Council in 2005 and closed for major works in August last year.

The centre is now hoping to attract school groups as part of its strategy to boost visitor numbers.

"We've attracted local schools but we're really making a sustained effort price and accessibility-wise to accommodate all schools, not just bigger or private schools," says Nic Crawshaw, the manager. "We've had groups of up to 100, but 40 to 50 is more manageable. First and foremost, it's a fun day out. It's active, it enhances their confidence levels. Ultimately, it's to give them a taster of climbing, hopefully to get them hooked into taking it up as an activity."

Seventeen schools visited during June. While most were from Edinburgh, others from across the central belt, the Borders, Aberdeenshire, Highland and Shetland have also visited. There have been special schools and groups of regular truants brought by Careers Scotland.

The climbing surface area is a vast 2,400 square metres, while the floor space is second only to that of the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre in Glasgow, according to Graeme Gardiner, the general manager.

For younger children, the centre has a soft play area divided into zones for babies, toddlers and juniors (up to the age of nine).

The centre also tours schools with a mobile tower that gives children a taster of climbing, for pound;5 per child. It recently appointed a youth development instructor to work with young people.

"If the schools can't come to the mountain, then the mountain has to come to them," says Mr Gardiner.

Eleanor Johnston, principal teacher of guidance at Bell Baxter, says the day trip is about giving the children a fun time. "We offer them a variety of activities at the end of the year as a reward for positive behaviour," she says.

"The kids here are the ones who have chosen to come climbing. It's a boost for them. It's also nice as a teacher being able to bring a group here for the day. It's a superb activity. The ratio of instructors to kids is one to six."

There is a choice of 40 activities for the schools' S1-3 pupils, all 300 of them.

John Allan (S3) chose climbing, he says, because: "I like doing practical things. I've been climbing before, but it can suit different abilities. I didn't do the aerial assault, because it looked terrifying."

Classmate Michael Murray declares: "It's better than maths or physics. It's a good skive. I liked the abseiling."


Climbing costs

A two-hour session, incorporating any or all of the activities, costs pound;15 per child. A minimum of six children is required. The minimum age is eight, but the centre generally attracts groups from P6 and upwards.

A day at the centre, incorporating two sessions of two hours each, would cost pound;30 per child, while school groups bringing their own instructor can spend a full day at the centre for pound;3.50 a head. Ten full-time and 12 part-time instructors supervise the children's every move.

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