VIDEO: ‘Sky walking? I usually take a plane’
Last updated at 21:04, Thursday, 26 July 2012
“Have you ever done sky walking before?” asks Honister Slate Mine’s Barry Surtees as I arrive to have a go at the new Via Ferrata Xtreme.
On the rare occasions I venture into the sky I tend to do it in a plane, and I’m not overly keen on that.
Tom Kay, our photographer, can’t wait to get out on the iron walkways, along the wire bridge and up the scramble net.
I, however, have seen photos on the Honister website, picked out a few key lines from the safety info (“a fall could be fatal” was my favourite) and I am wondering what possessed me to volunteer.
So Barry shows us a video of people on the sky walking bridge, clinging on as it wobbles from side to side.
I make a quick call home to check that my life insurance policy is up to date.
“That’s about 1,700ft up,” says Barry.
“It’s higher than The Shard in London.”
“Oh good,” I think.
“I feel really reassured now.”
It’s been about six weeks since the Via Ferrata Xtreme opened and, although it hasn’t had an official launch, about 1,000 people have already had a go.
Via Ferrata means “iron way” and is a series of iron hand and foot holds set into the rock face.
At Honister the system was originally used by Victorian miners to negotiate the cliffs during their daily work.
The original part of the current system was introduced in 2007 by the late Mark Weir, who revitalised the derelict mine.
It allowed people to experience the thrill of clinging to the cliff edge without needing to be experts at rock climbing.
More than 27,000 people have had a go since then, and that success led Mark to create a deviation route for people who wanted an extended experience.
But that landed the mine company in hot water as it did not have planning permission and was fined £15,000 in August last year, five months after Mark’s death in a helicopter crash, for damaging protected land.
When it came to the new Via Ferrata Xtreme route, Mark’s partner Jan Wilkinson, who took over the mine after his death, made sure the proper process was followed.
The fact that the Via Ferrata won the silver award for being best tourist experience in the Visit England 2012 awards shows that Mark’s vision was successful.
We are introduced to our guide Adam Hocking, and kitted out with helmets and harnesses.
Adam, who lives in Keswick and has 18 years climbing experience, shows us how to clip ourselves to the fixed cable using two carabiners.
I feel totally secure clipped to a fixed cable sitting on a rock and admiring the view across the fells of Borrowdale.
It turns out there’s more to it than that, though, and I take the most difficult step of the experience – climbing onto the first ladder to begin my initial descent.
The technique of climbing and remembering to move the clips along the cable comes naturally after a while, and soon we’re unclipping, re-clipping and clambering along the course like there’s no tomorrow (less fearful, now, that I may actually have no tomorrow).
Then comes Bull Ghyll, a steep gully where the cliff face leans outwards.
Apparently I just have to climb down a bit and follow the path round, and then I’ll be at the start of the wire bridge.
I’m not sure which is worse, knowing I have to climb down the cliff face while leaning slightly backwards or knowing I am about to walk what seems like miles (actually 230ft) across what feels like an abyss on a small wire.
People always say it’s best not to look down - but I do it anyway; it is an awfully long way down.
The bridge is different to anything I’ve done before.
I go first, attached to a pulley so I can’t fall, and I’m having a great time with a great view.
Then Tom and Adam join me on the wire, things get a bit more nerve-wracking as it starts to sway.
Reaching the rock face, there’s still the scramble net to go.
It’s good fun, albeit a bit wobbly, clambering to the top of that.
Then we walk through a tunnel and finish with a stroll to the top of 2,126ft Fleetwith Pike. The sense of achievement is immense.
Back at the mine base Mark’s brother Joe tells me how things are going at Honister.
Mark’s death, the court case and having to take down the deviation route all took their toll on team Honister, which had another knock back last year when Mark’s plan for a zip wire from Fleetwith Pike was kicked out by planners.
Mine bosses are still in talks with the Lake District Park Authority about that proposal.
Joe adds: “It’s been a tester for everybody but we seem to be coming through it.
“It felt a lot better once we got the Via Ferrata Xtreme opened. It felt as if the place was alive again.”
There are exciting things in the pipeline for Honister, Joe and Barry tell me.
They won’t say what or give me even a tiny clue.
But Barry says: “We never stand still. Innovation - that’s the key to it all.”
First published at 19:25, Thursday, 26 July 2012
Published by http://www.timesandstar.co.uk
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