For some years I’ve read about Via Ferrata holidays in the Italian Dolomites, and thought how much fun it looks, but never quite been able to pluck up the courage to do it, given that I’m a little scared of heights and dangling off mountains. Booking a week’s holiday and then finding on Day1 that it was all a bit too scary or difficult would be very frustrating. So when I heard that you could do a taster session in the Lake District, I jumped at the chance. I persuaded a couple of friends that it would be fun, which was remarkably easy. “There’s this thing called Via Ferrata they do in the Lakes, do you want to do it?” “Sure, why not? What is it?” It turned out that none of them are particularly scared of heights, so they were up for the challenge. However, it wasn’t until I looked at the website that I saw there are actually two options: the classic Via Ferrata or the super-scary Extreme version, which also involves basically walking a tightrope suspended 1000 feet up in the air between two bits of rock (albeit with another rope to hold onto). Having watched the video, and knowing that I’d previously been pretty scared doing something similar in an indoor activity centre in Wales a few years ago, I was worried that I might freeze halfway round the course and not be able to make the bridge. So I booked the “easy” option for me, and my friend Ann agreed to do that one with me, while the other two did the scary version.
They do warn you that the weather in the Lakes is pretty rainy most of the year round, and they weren’t wrong. The previous day we’d made an ascent of Scafell Pike, where it had been cold enough for 4 layers of clothing, woolly hat and gloves most of the day, and we’d even encountered snow on higher ground.
Although the rest of the country appeared to be basking in sunshine on the May Day Bank Holiday weekend, Honister was bathed in thick mist and drizzly rain when we arrived. An old slate mine is probably not the most welcoming of sights at the best of times, but on this miserable day it looked distinctly eerie and almost chilling.
A party of seemingly intrepid (though more likely, cold, wet and grumbling) walkers set off from the Youth Hostel next door up the hill and were soon sucked into the fog. I had visions of them never re-appearing.
After warming up in the (rather good) cafe with a cup of coffee while waiting for the other two to get through their Extreme Challenge, Ann and I finally got kitted up and were given a safety briefing about the course by our young and super friendly instructor. Clearly he wasn’t scared of heights, or the miserable weather. However, seeing the wide assortment of people who formed part of our group, including a child of around 10, I felt a little reassured that it couldn’t be too bad. We weren’t allowed to take cameras (although it was fine to have a small rucksack with personal items), but our guide took photos throughout, which were available (as a set) for purchase afterwards. A nice little money earner there, though I suspect it was as much for safety reasons that they don’t let you take a camera. Before starting our adventure, a group photo was taken, and I idly wondered if it was in case they needed to later identify a person who had fallen to their death on the rocks.
Needless to say, we all survived, but one person didn’t actually make it past the start as rigid fear took hold of her on the first descent. Our guide told us that it was completely normal that 1-2 people would back out at this point. Pretty brave – or stupid – to even contemplate such an adventure when you’re clearly terrified of heights, but I suppose many people don’t really think these things through properly.
The easiest way to explain Via Ferrata is to look at the pictures. Literally it means “iron way”, and consists of a steel cable which runs along the route and is fixed to the rock every few feet. The idea is to clip yourself to the cable so that if you do fall, you won’t die at least (though you could still incur some pretty serious injuries). In addition, there are climbing aids such as iron rungs (stemples), pegs, carved steps and even ladders and bridges, which makes it much easier than traditional rock climbing, and prevents the need for ropes.
The route ran in all directions: from the initial vertical descent, to a cross-traverse with an overhang, to vertical ascents, to tunnels through the rock.
Given the wet and slippery conditions, even the innocuous looking ladders were challenging, and not just because of how high up they were.
Luckily, the thick fog meant that most of the time, we couldn’t see exactly what the drop looked like!
Although periodically, there were little reminders of the perilous nature of our route.
All in all, it wasn’t actually as scary as I’d been expecting though, although there were a few heart-fluttering moments when I stopped to think too much about how high up I was. It actually didn’t help that there were some very slow members in my group of 12, which meant a lot of hanging around waiting. I suspect this is probably less likely with the Extreme version: my two friends who did it were only in a group of 4 and sped round pretty fast, although the guide did think it was funny to shake the scary bridge while they were on it. I’d have given him short shrift if he’d done that with me on it!
The Extreme version also features a huge cargo net up the side of the mountain, which is not technically difficult, but is quite challenging. A fellow diabetic who’s a summer instructor on the course told me that he routinely needs to eat a Snickers bar after the cargo net, which is a good indicator of how energy sapping it is!
Having experienced the Classic course, and seen the Extreme course first hand, I’m now itching to go back and do the latter, even though I know I’ll be pretty scared on the bridge. After all, my philosophy is all about pushing yourself just a little bit beyond your limits, and that includes the mental as well as physical comfort zone!