Thursday, 25 April 2013

Honister - I had to do it, and so do you!

I didn't want to go. I'm not a mining type of person. It's cold and wet and dark underground, not my idea of a good place to be. I prefer warm, dry and comfortable. When I agreed to visit and review attractions I specifically insisted upon joining the museums and historic houses department. As for the idea of climbing a rock face with a thousand foot drop, and precious little between you and the ground the best part of 1,000 feet below, well you can forget it. I don't do high adventure. Birds are meant to fly overhead, not people. When you look down and see our feathered friends soaring majestically 500 ft below your feet you know that you are either in a very bad dream, or hanging from a parachute.

No, there was nothing at Honister that I would consider to be the slightest bit appealing, which is why, when asked to go, I tried my very hardest to get out of it. But the big boss man was otherwise engaged. (I say big, he's five foot five!) So I put my prejudice to one side, bit the bullet and did what I had to do for the Cumbrian Tourism industry. (Double pay for the day and an extra day off also helped swing it!)

It is, I think, the first time that I have ever got ready to go on an attraction visit wearing clothes that are normally reserved for the wettest of walking days, but then the Honister web site advises that you wear waterproofs and strong boots, so, kitted up like a hiker preparing to ascend Scafell Pike, minus the ruck sack, I set off.

I had booked an all day pass, or rather I'd had it booked for me. Had I booked it myself it would have been different. It consisted of a mine tour, which was fine, lunch, which was the one part of the day I was really looking forward to, and a climb of Fleetwith Pike via the Via Ferrata. And due to my not booking the day myself, I very soon found out that the Via Ferrata was to be the Extreme version. Oh how I wished I'd pulled a sickie.

OK, so the only thing to do was take the whole trip one step at a time, and look for the positives. As I drove up Honister Pass, I followed a couple of cars full of tourists, enjoying a memorable day in the Lakes. When we got to Honister both the cars in front of me carried on, over the top of the pass. Oh, how I envied them.

As I got out of the car and looked around at the views I was surprised at how good they are. I've lived in the Lakes all my life, and been over Honister more times than I can remember, but until now I've always been going somewhere else, usually walking around Buttermere or heading for Loweswater. This was the first time I had actually got out of the car and taken a good look around. The scenery lifted my spirits. After spending too long gazing up at Fleetwith Pike, I decided it was time to do what a girl had to do, and headed inside.

I'm not going to describe the mine tour in great detail. A mine tour is a mine tour. I've been on them before and in my opinion the difference between an enjoyable tour and a dull one is the quality and enthusiasm of the guide. You are either left with a sense of what it must have been like to be a miner there, or you stay in the dark. Luckily our guide was not so much boring historian, more enthusiastic dramatist, bringing the lives of the Victorian miners to life in graphic detail.

The cavern that has been carved out of the rock over the centuries may not be in the same league at the show caves of Cheddar, but when you consider the sweat and toil of the men and boys that created it, then it becomes even more impressive, especially when you consider that they were working virtually in the dark!

The mine tour is supposed to last an hour and a half, and when we emerged from the mine after what seemed to be only a half an hour or so, I was a bit disappointed. Until I looked at my watch that is. We were actually running five minutes late! I don't know whether it was the fact that, once in the mine we became so absorbed in the tour that we just lost track of time, or whether it is the case that, underground, time really does stand still ...... and no one can hear you scream.

Lunch was good, well worth looking forward to and over all too quickly, and there was time for a browse around the gift shop and visitor centre before my fear inducing Via Ferrata expedition. As I stared at a display of slate house names, I found my mind wandering back into the mine, to a vision of a small boy,  struggling along on all fours in the dark, clutching his pick axe, his dirty knees bleeding, all to hack into the mountain side so that I could have a nice "Dunroamin" sign beside my front door.

Of course, children do not work in the mines any more, and they have used electricity to power their tools and light the way for many years, but it still makes you think about where something as simple as a slate sign actually comes from.

My browsing time was over all too quickly. The hour, or rather three hours, that I was absolutely dreading, was upon me. I could, I suppose, have made a run for it. Raced off in my car, waving gleefully at the Via Ferrata victims struggling up the mountain as I careered down the pass to the ice cream shop at Buttermere. But no. I did not want my fellow Ferrateers to sense my nervousness, especially as there were only a couple of females in the group. I've never been one to let the side down, and I had no  intention of starting now.

For me, the Via Ferrata was not about climbing the mountain attached to a steel cable fixed very securely to the rock. Nor was it about the obstacles that turned that simple mountain climb into a heart stopping adventure. From a purely personal point of view, it was about conquering something far tougher than a lump of rock, or a rope bridge or cargo net. This was about defeating my fears, overcoming my prejudices and lack of self confidence, emotions that have always threatened to hold me back in life. I was about to try to achieve something that I simply did not believe was possible. But I had to give it a try.

So how can I best describe the experience that is Via Ferrata Extreme? Well I could offer you a detailed description of the route, the obstacles that we had to overcome, the views that we saw, and the fact that the weather closed in and we ended up getting really quite wet. But it really would not do it justice, because describing the route gives no indication of what it actually feels like. The Via Ferrata is not a just a mountain climb combined with an assault course, it is an experience like no other. The emotions that you feel are a heady cocktail of fear and exhilaration. At one point I looked down to my right to see the cars driving down Honister Pass towards Buttermere. But I couldn't hear them. They were too far below. All I could hear was the wind and the sounds made by the rest of our group as they moved forward.

I heard the cry of a raptor, possibly a falcon, on the wind, and several birds, jackdaws I think, flapped frantically away from the rock face about 100m below. I had a sense of being in a different world, a real world, natural and alive, and excitingly dangerous, as opposed to the supposedly safe artificial one that we humans have created for ourselves. Now I understood why rock climbers get so addicted to their sport.

The best moment came when, just under 3 hours after setting off, we reached the summit. Despite the fact that by now it was raining steadily, with a stiff breeze whipping across the mountain tops, the sense of achievement that I experienced that afternoon will live in my memory for ever. I had done it. I had crossed the rope bridge, climbed a sheer rock face, scrambled over the cargo net and made it all the way to the top. I had conquered my fears. My prejudices lay in tatters. My self confidence was no longer lacking. I took a huge lung full of the fresh Lakeland air, and wished that I could have preserved that moment for ever. Put simply, I didn't want to come down, and once down, all I wanted to do was go back up again.

On a practical note, it is probably the case that not everyone will get as much out of the experience of the Via Ferrata as I did. It is not for couch potatoes. A good  level of fitness is required and if you have real problems with vertigo then the fear may well take over as to say that some parts of the route are very exposed is an understatement. Of course, in reality you are probably a lot safer on the Via Ferrata than you are crossing the road. The people at Honister know their jobs. All the necessary safety equipment is provided and in good condition, and you get a lot of instruction in it's use, both before you set off and whilst on the ascent. A guide accompanies each group,  and now I have been I think that it would be a brilliant job to have. Helping others to achieve the same level of exhilaration as I did would be wonderful. For now, all I can do is to say that, if, like me, you think that Honister has no appeal, then think again. I can't wait to go back!

You can get more information about Honister Slate mines and the Via Ferrata here ....

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