“Via ferrata. What’s that?” I nervously chirped when I was told to pack my bags for the Lake District. “Oh, you’ll love it,” I was told. “It’s climbing, with clips and stuff…” Instantly I gauged what was up – there was a new activity that looked a bit scary, and muggins here was being sent to try it out. Well, I was happy to. I thought I had tried my hand at most adventure sports but I am embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t even heard of via ferrata. In my defence, it was with good reason – until this one started in Cumbria, there were no official via ferrata routes anywhere in the UK.
As the name suggests, via ferrata has its roots in Italy where it literally means ‘iron road’. It started in the First World War as a means of getting troops safely over the Dolomites. A permanent cable was fastened to the mountains and the soldiers clipped themselves on to ensure they didn’t fall. Difficult sections were bridged and permanent ladders put in place strategically to make the route easier. After the war, the cabled routes became popular climbing spots because they enabled less experienced climbers to access areas that were technically beyond their skill level, without the need to take ropes and specialist equipment. Now there are hundreds of via ferrata routes around the world and teh one at Honister Slate Mine, high up on Honister Pass in the Lake District, was to be my introduction.
The day started, quite naturally, with a safety briefing. We queued up to get our helmets and harnesses as our guide Simon told us his top tip – if someone shouts “below!” then don’t look up as it means they have just dislodged a rock and it might be coming your way. OK then. Maybe I was right to be nervous. But Simon soon put my mind at rest by explaining that whereas many via ferratas in Europe can be quite tricky, even involving crossing chasms upside down, this one was much gentler.
“In fact,” he said, “keen climbers and more serious walkers generally find it quite easy, but for many people it’s an introduction to something completely new and that is what makes it so fun. But even those who find it easy love the experience because it is so unique.”
After that, I couldn’t wait. We were a group of around 10, ranging in age from 11 to 60, and excitement was in the air as we walked up to the start of the mines from the visitor centre. The first section wasn’t climbing at all but was still great fun – we journeyed inside the mountain to the lower mine workings. With head torches on, we followed the mine cart tracks through dripping tunnels connecting a succession of vast chambers where Victorian miners toiled in the dank conditions.
Eventually we were led out to the start of the climb proper – the route the miners would have followed to the higher mine operations – and our first duty was to clip our carabiners on to the cable that was fastened to the rock at waist-height. There were sturdy bolts fastening the cable to the rock at regular intervals and every time you got to one you had to unfasten your two clips in turn and refasten them the other side of the bolt, one at a time.
The first major obstacle to cross was a bridge that consisted of a group of metal poles that had been laid on their side to span a gorge. Everyone took their time to shuffle along, trying not to look down. There then followed a continuous uphill climb to the top. Some of it resembled the sort of steep hillwalking you would encounter anywhere in the Lake District, but it had the added danger factor and excitement of being right on the side of the mountain with hundreds of feet separating you and the ground.
Some sections of the climb were technically much more tricky, involving carefully positioned foot and handgrips to haul yourself
over a stubborn lump of rock. Even so, everyone in the group managed fine. It was amazing to think that the miners had travelled this route daily without the safety net of the cables.
There has been evidence of mining slate at Honister since Roman times, but it was the Victorians that saw the most intensive use of the site. Eventually production slowed in the 1980s and it finally shut down. Then, in 1997, businessman Mark Weir was taking his grandfather on a flight over the lakes and the older man pointed down to the abandoned mine and recalled his youth as a slate miner there. Mark couldn’t believe it had closed and instantly bought it, opening up operations once again, as well as mine tours
and then, more recently, putting in the cabling for the via ferrata. And it’s been a huge success.
After about 40 minutes of thrilling climbing we were past the higher mining operations and at the top of the mountain, Fleetwith Pike, and what a view we were rewarded with – we could see past Buttermere to the Solway Firth and Scotland beyond.
The experience was as breathtaking as it was fun. If I am honest, I thought the climbing section was going to be a bit more demanding – though since I went Mark has been adding an extra section for the hardened climbers – but for families and less experienced climbers, it was a perfect day out.
All that remained then was a gentle stroll down the other side of the mountain, back to the visitor centre for hot drinks and to reflect on my adventure.