Britain's First Via Ferrata (Iron Ways)
By Tony Keates
I recently tried out Britain's first Via Ferrata, which has been set up at the recently re-opened Honister Slate Mine near Keswick, Cumbria. It was featured in a recent BBC "Countryfile" programme, with Julia Bradbury tackling the challenge.
Via Ferrata (or "Iron Ways"), which are particularly common in the Dolomites, consist of a system of iron ladders and rungs fixed to rock faces, and were used to get around the mountains during the First World War.
At Honister Slate Mines there are two versions - a standard Via Ferrata and a Via Ferrata plus Zip Wire. I chose the latter.
On arrival the mine, I had to sign two forms - one accepting that I took responsibility for the equipment hired to me and that I was liable for any losses, and the second basically stating that I undertook the trip at my own risk. I was then introduced to my guide, Zara, who would lead me along the route.
I was then issued with my safety equipment—a climbing harness, to which were attached by short webbing slings, two spring-loaded karabiners, and a safety helmet and lamp. For the Zip Wire I was also issued with a pulley system which would clip to my harness and also to the Zip Wire. Fingerless gloves or mittens are also recommended to protect your hands from abrasion. Then we were off!
After an initial walk through the mine we arrived at the start of the Via Ferrata. Here I was shown how to clip on to the safety cable with the karabiners. It was also emphasised that whenever I came to a bolt where the safety cable was fixed to the rock, I had to unclip only one karabiner at a time and clip it to the cable on the other side of the bolt, before doing the same with the second karabiner. This ensured that at all times I would be attached to the safety cable by at least one karabiner.
The route more or less follows the external incline which extends diagonally across the entire face of Honister Crag, from bottom left to top right. This was constructed during the 19th century to give access to the slate mines and to carry an overhead cable system which enabled the slate clogs to be transported to the valley for further working. An incredible achievement!
The first section of the route follows the outside edge of the incline, with quite exposed scrambling pitches, before reaching the first vertical iron ladders and rungs. The route then becomes steeper, with a combination of rock scrambling, ladders and rungs, which lead to the piece de resistance - the Zip Wire!
At this point you are some 500 feet above the valley bottom and the views are fantastic! Zara then informed me that before I could tackle the Zip Wire, I had to do some more serious climbing to make sure that I had the right frame of mind to cope with the Zip Wire. The reason for this is that once across the Zip Wire there is no turning back, whereas from this point it was possible to follow the standard route instead.
This involved stepping down, round the very exposed corner of a deep gulley called Bull Gill, on to a series of iron rungs traversing an overhanging rockface, before climbing an overhanging iron ladder to the top of the gulley. This was definitely the hairiest part of the route - the exposure was tremendous - not only was I about 50 feet above the base of the gulley, but the hillside is incredibly steep and plunges 500 feet or so to the valley bottom! Once safely arrived back at the top I was ready for the next challenge - the Zip Wire! This is about 200 feet long and very airy! My guide showed me how to attach the pulley system to my harness with one karabiner, while the second karabiner is clipped to a second zip wire for extra safety. She then gave me a push and away I went. The views down to the valley bottom from the Zip Wire were fantastic and all too soon I reached the other side - well almost. I stopped about 10 feet short and had to haul myself hand over hand along the wire until my feet were safely on solid ground again. Unclipping from the wire and re-attaching myself to the safety cable, I waited the arrival of Zara. From here there was more scrambling and ladders before reaching the top of the incline.
Once at the top, all that remained was to walk to the summit of Fleetwith Pike. The views were fantastic - Buttermere, Crummock Water and Loweswater stretched ahead, with big Lakeland peaks like Pillar and Great Gable all around. A fitting conclusion to a very enjoyable trip. The day finished with a walk back to the mine down the old access tracks.
Anybody with a head for heights and a sense of adventure would enjoy this trip. Participants must be at least 10 years old and have a minimum height of 1.3 metres. However it is not cheap - the charge is £25 per person for the Standard Via Ferrata and £35 for the Zip Wire version. Nevertheless I feel it is well worth the money. Each trip lasts between 2 and 3 hours, depending on your fitness and ability. Give it a go and see for yourself! Now I feel ready for the real thing in the Dolomites!