Rock climbing certainly had to be part of it. My best man, Jim, and I agreed that pretty early on. My stag do would have to involve adventure and I’m a keen climber, plus I had met all of my friends who would be on the trip through rock climbing. However, there were some issues with this idea.
My brother isn’t a climber and had been less than enthusiastic when I had taken him to a climbing wall in the past. My friends also tend to be wall and sport climbers, with little experience of the trad climbing that is more common in the UK. The solution, I thought, was to find somewhere with some easier, single pitch climbs on which I could set up a top rope.
I also thought this would be a great opportunity to try out something I’d been interested in doing for a while – the via ferrata at Honister Slate Mine in the Lake District. I’ve done lots of via ferrata in Italy and I was curious to try out England’s first via ferrata. Climbing on ladders and stemples (i.e. big staples punched into the rock) while attached to a safety cable also seemed more accessible than full rock climbing, while still being a mountain experience and adventurous.
The plan was to do the via ferrata on the Saturday and rock climb on the Sunday. To get round the fact that my friends don’t own tents, we would stay in a yurt. This was something else I’d been interested to try now that there are a few companies providing them as a more glamorous alternative to camping.
In a big estate car, we would drive up to Seatoller (in Borrowdale and just below the Honister Pass) on the Friday night and then be ready to go the next morning.
This was the plan, but plans don’t always go as you expect.
I’d under-estimated how long it would take us to get to Seatoller from London. Even with ACDC blasting from the stereo to power us through the night, rain and traffic meant we didn’t get to Seatoller until about 2:30am on the Saturday.
My relief at seeing the yurts in the field turned to concern as I realised I didn’t know which yurt was ours. All I knew was that it was the yurt that wasn’t locked with a padlock, but that applied to the yurts that were already occupied as well as the one we had booked. We quietly moved between the yurts, looking for a yurt without wood smoke from a fire or other signs of life and trying to avoid having to knock on a door that early in the morning. In the end, we realised that our yurt was in a different field. There were two yurts there and only one unlocked. We threw in our kit, lit the fire to warm us up, made the beds and then fell into them.
The next morning I opened the yurt door to see green fields, trees, a brilliant clear stream and the mountains of Borrowdale. It was a great sight, made all the better by the fact that we were in the wettest part of England and it wasn’t raining.
Back in the yurt, we packed the futons up and tried to get as much heat from the cast iron stove as we could. This was a really luxurious form of camping, with a wooden floor, a skylight, solar-powered lights, gas stove and kitchen equipment. Brian made us omelette sandwiches and we sat there eating them and drinking coffee while we worked out what we were doing with the via ferrata.
The via ferrata at Honister Slate Mine has only been there a few years and the “extreme” addition to it that we were doing had only opened earlier this year. The Mine itself sits in the saddle of the Honister Pass between Borrowdale and Buttermere and the via ferrata makes its way up through the old mine workings to the top of Fleetwith Pike. The Mine has a long history and has only recently redeveloped itself as a tourist attraction as well as a fully functioning mine. (The Mine and the via ferrata are something that deserve, and will get, a fuller post at a later date.)
Our trip to Honister Slate Mine started with a tour of the mine by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide. A bus, that looked suspiciously like the sort of bus you see going around London streets, took the tour party along a steep, single track road to the mine’s entrance further up Fleetwith Pike. We then followed the guide along tunnels into a couple of large chambers. The slate here is sandwiched between volcanic rock and the mine follows this diagonal seam into the mountain. Useless to the miners, this volcanic rock now forms an impressive, slanting roof to the atmospheric largest chamber.
It may not have been a typical choice for a stag weekend, but going into a mine and getting a feel for the lives of the miners of old was interesting and I now have an increased appreciation of what is involved in making a slate roof tile. However, this was just the prelude to the adventure of the day.
The via ferrata
From the minute you start on the via ferrata, you get the full experience of exposure. Descending a ladder and then a run of stemples, you have a sheer drop below you and Honister Pass opened out around you. Traversing around the rock face and stretching out to the next stemple to get past a mini-waterfall cut into the rock, I really felt the fun of moving freely, high on a mountain. Unfortunately, my plan that this would be an easily accessible way for my friends to do some climbing wasn’t exactly working.
My brother, Giles, was moving slowly and his knees were jigging up and down. Brian was also telling me that this reminded him of why he had given up outdoor rock climbing. This concerned me as I wanted them to have fun and I stayed close to Giles to offer encouragement. However, my brother is very tenacious and despite clearly being unsure about the concept of via ferrata, he was pushing on and getting faster. I was really impressed with how tough he was. Brian was also racing ahead of us with the confidence and ability of a man who had always been a natural rock climber.
By the time we got to the section where you descend a slight overhang and then do a Burma bridge, Giles was clearly tired and could see that the next section required a lot of effort. He decided to finish the via ferrata using the non-extreme route while the rest of us carried on.
Giles’ decision was sensible. Descending an overhang and then traversing one side of a gully by a series of stemples was fun, but the exposure was high and the climbing strenuous. At the outside edge of the gully was the Burma bridge – three cables strung out across the mountain. Getting over this bridge was one of the most strenuous things I have done in a long while. The first twenty metres or so were great fun. I enjoyed edging along, feeling content at the simple movement of a climb and looking at the view below my feet. Then, as I moved closer to the middle, the bridge started to wobble. As Brian and I rocked from side to side, I tried to push the cables out to steady the bridge, but all I seemed to achieve was to get more tired. After an age of edging along, I got the other end with exhausted arms and looked back at the others.
As with lots of things that a bit difficult, it’s not pleasant when you do it, but funny when you watch someone else trying. I spent a while trying to stop laughing as I watched Jim and J edge along the Burma bridge. Somehow they moved in time in such a way that the bridge pitched them from nearly thirty-five degrees in one direction to nearly thirty-five degrees in the other almost continuously. They saw the funny side too, once they had got off it.
I think we were all tired, but all smiling, by this point as we ascended a blunt arête by numerous stemples and then finished by climbing a cargo net. We walked to the top of Fleetwith Pike for our summit photos and then walked down the mountain. It had been good fun and a memorable experience.
I woke up cold on Sunday morning. Jim had tried to keep the stove going in the night, but the fire was dead and my breath froze as I breathed out. I was coming to the view that renting a yurt in October might not have been the best idea. However, I would later find out (from the instructions for the stove, which we hadn’t read because we hadn’t realised there were any) that we could have kept the fire going longer if we had restricted the air intake through the vents. With the fire stocked up and burning, plus more clothes, we got coffee in us and then got going under brilliant blue skies.
The plan was to walk from the yurt to Glaciated Slab, above Coombe Ghyll, and do some low grade climbing. However, this plan founded a bit because I hadn’t counted on how tired my friends would have been from the day before. I also hadn’t realised from the limited description in the guidebook that the last bit of the approach to Glaciated Slab is an uphill slog with some tricky patches of scree. Brian decided to go for a walk instead. He had a nap on a rock for a while, before a sheep bellowed in his ear, and then walked back to the yurt. The rest of us struggled up to one of the loveliest little slabs I’ve ever climbed on.
Glaciated Slab makes up one side of a promontory of rock that gives views across Borrowdale and as far as Keswick. This nicely curved slab has a mix of cracks with juggy holds and almost blank faces with fingery edges. It made for some really entertaining and varied climbing and we had a great time playing around on the rock while being warmed by the autumn sun. Giles was our official photographer and Jim and J stormed up the routes.
The walk out saw us navigate a stream crossing and a farm with ten (thankfully, friendly) sheep dogs. We found Brian relaxing on a futon back at the yurt. After a pub dinner and another night trying to keep the stove going, we headed back to London. It was a fantastic stag trip and I want to thank my friends, brother and best man for making it happen.
UPDATE: the Honister Slate Mine Via Ferrata has attracted some controversy since it was opened. How this controversy, and the quality of the climbing, might affect your decision to climb this via ferrata is something I’ve explored in a later post.