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Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 5 February 2011

IS OUTDOOR climbing in Scotland in danger of being wiped out by its indoor offspring? It seems unlikely in a country with such a rich mountaineering heritage, but a couple of winters ago, in an interview with Scotland on Sunday, the then vice-president of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, Dr Bob Sharp, warned that “within the next ten years, climbing as we know it may well have ceased”.

Sharp was worried that the proliferation of indoor climbing walls and the all-pervasive paranoia of health and safety culture were causing a reduction in the number of people tackling traditional routes, and some veteran mountaineers seemed to share his concerns. In the same article, Hamish McInnes, former leader of the Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team, wryly observed that “the problem is there is no central heating in the mountains”.

Until somebody comes up with some sort of humane tagging system, determining how many climbers are out and about at any one time will remain an impossible task. Driving through Glencoe one Sunday morning last month, however, there seemed to be no shortage of people eager to hit the crags. It was still early but the lay-bys were already busy with cars and vans, many of them surrounded by groups of colourfully clad mountain men, all preparing their kit for a day on the hills. Two parties had already set out, and were winding their way up Coire nan Lochan between the mighty buttresses of Gearr Aonach and Aonach Dubh. If Scottish climbing is supposed to be moving indoors, these folks clearly haven’t received the memo.

Just around the corner from Glencoe is the village of Kinlochleven, once home to a monstrous aluminium smelter, now home to the Ice Factor, the largest indoor ice-climbing facility in the world. Founder Jamie Smith opened the business in 2003, after installing a giant 15m-high freezer and more than 600m² of dry climbing walls in the derelict remains of the aluminium complex. It now attracts an average of 130,000 visitors a year. Smith is a keen climber himself, with more than 25 years of mountaineering experience. He chuckles when I ask him if traditional, outdoor climbing is at risk from indoor centres like his.

“Indoor climbing is not the same as being outdoors in the mountains and nobody would ever say it’s a replacement,” he says. “But what it does do is provide you with a training facility where you can build up core body strength, technique and ability, in a way that previous generations could never do.

“Climbs which previously would have been considered at the upper limits of what was possible, today they’re trade routes – every weekend somebody’s on them – and that’s largely attributable to the explosion of indoor climbing centres.”

Far from reducing the number of climbers heading for the hills, Smith believes places like the Ice Factor are actually helping to build the market: “These are multi-million-pound facilities drawing in tens of thousands of visitors. They help develop the sport, and we see a large number of people who would never have considered mountaineering or rock climbing before going from a one-and-a-half-hour taster session here at Ice Factor through to outdoor rock climbing and winter skills.”

On this particular morning, a corporate group on a team-building weekend are on the ice wall, being introduced to the basics of using ice axes and crampons; next door on the dry walls, meanwhile, aspiring mountaineer Rich from Wrexham is receiving some one-to-one tuition, having spent the previous day climbing on Ben Nevis. Is he finding it easier to learn indoors?

“Yeah,” he says, “in here you can hear what’s being said a little bit easier. Plus, you’ve not got the worry at the back of your mind that you’re going to fall off something and die.”

And has his time at the Ice Factor inspired him to head back outside? Or is he tempted to stay indoors for the remainder of his trip? Rich looks at me as if I might be a little bit simple. “I’ll want to get back outside and give it another shot,” he says. “Obviously.”

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