Wire in the Lakes – the Honister Slate Mine Via Ferrata

The UK’s first via ferrata is one of the Lake District’s biggest attractions but has also been one of its biggest sources of controversy in the last few years.  How might these controversies, and the quality of the climb, affect your decision to pay to climb this via ferrata?

The gully and the Burma bridge on the Honister Slate Mine Via Ferrata.
The gully and the Burma bridge on the Honister Slate Mine Via Ferrata.

It was probably inevitable that when it opened in 2007 the first via ferrata in the UK would attract some strong opinions.  The system of climbing a mountain using ladders, stemples and occasionally bridges, together with a metal cable to attach to so as to prevent a long fall, could be considered to be more at home in the Alps.  Vie ferrate have their origins in the Alps and they seem more at home among the cable cars and ski pulls that dot those mountains.  Yet a via ferrata had been constructed on Honister Crags to provide a way to climb from a little way above Honister Pass to just below the summit of Fleetwith Pike.

Although the route of the via ferrata goes through disused Victorian mine workings, the land it passes has been deemed ecologically important enough to be declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).  This via ferrata is also a large metallic addition to a mountain in the Lake District National Park, one of the most beautiful parts of England and somewhere held in strong affection by many people.

Fleetwith Pike as seen from the Honister Slate Mine.
Fleetwith Pike as seen from the Honister Slate Mine.

The via ferrata was built by the Honister Slate Mine that quarries and mines Fleetwith Pike.  Together with a café and mine tours, the via ferrata was an additional source of income that it was argued would help this business and so bring much needed jobs to the local, rural community.  It was perhaps to fully take advantage of the business that the via ferrata might bring in, that Honister Slate Mine decided to build an extension to the via ferrata.  It was with its efforts to expand that the controversies really started.

The controversies

The extension to the via ferrata went through the SSSI and Natural England argued that it had damaged the habitat.  In August 2011, the Mine pleaded guilty to building this extension without planning permission and paid roughly £28,000 in fines and costs.

Yet what has really generated hot debate over the last few years has been plans to expand the via ferrata by adding a zip-wire.  The original proposal was for a 1.2km zip-wire that would have run from Black Star crag on the side of Fleetwith Pike to the Mine’s visitor centre at the Pass.  It was suggested that those riding the wire would have reached speeds of 60mph.

The view of Honister Pass from near the top of the via ferrata.  It's from roughly where this picture was taken that the zip-wire to the Pass was planned to start.
The view of Honister Pass from near the top of the via ferrata. It’s from roughly where this picture was taken that the zip-wire to the Pass was planned to start.

Cumbria Tourism, Cumbria County Council and famous mountaineer Sir Chris Bonnington supported the plan.  Those opposed included the Friends of the Lake District, Natural England, the British Mountaineering Council, the Fell and Rock Climbing Club and the two parish councils local to the mine.

Those in favour argued that the zip-wire would bring new (and especially, younger) visitors to the Lake District with resulting economic benefits.  They also argued that the zip-wire would have limited damage to the environment because it would be amid the mine workings.

Those against argued that the former industrial nature of the Pass didn’t stop it being home to an important environment that would be damaged by the zip-wire.  They also argued that the zip-wire would spoil others’ enjoyment of this area and lead to too many visitors in a quiet area.  In addition, they felt that approval would set a precedent that would make it easier to develop the National Park in future.

The visitor centre at Honister Slate Mine.
The visitor centre at Honister Slate Mine.

The Development Control Committee of the Lake District National Park Authority turned down this proposal in September 2011.  They stated that the zip-wire would adversely affect the character of the natural environment and that this outweighed the economic benefits and the unique experience the zip-wire would give visitors.  Despite these set backs, the via ferrata did expand with a harder version opening alongside the original in 2012.

In January 2013, the same Development Control Committee considered a revised plan for the zip-wire.  This involved a 1.4km zip-wire, in two sections, with a lower starting point on the crags and with a different approach to breaking at the end.  The Committee rejected this plan.  This decision prompted Sir Chris to resign as vice-president of the Friends of the Lake District.

Should you climb it?

With this recent decision, the controversies may have died down for now.  Yet the via ferrata is still there to be climbed and so the question arises of whether climbing it is something that mountain-loving people should do.  I think that there are two aspects to answering this question.  The first relates to how you feel about the via ferrata’s existence and how it has been managed.  The second is whether the climb is a worthwhile experience and worth the money.

Honister Slate Mine and the via ferrata.
Honister Slate Mine and the via ferrata.

If you disagree with the existence of the via ferrata, then it would obviously be contradictory to contribute to its continuation by paying to use it.  I’ve heard and read a few rock climbers express (sometimes strong) scepticism about vie ferrate and I suspect their views are informed by UK rock climbing ethics.  In general terms, these ethics can be divided into two broad sets of rules.  The first sets of rules relate to the importance of preserving the rockface and its surrounding environment.  The second relate to the style of ascent and gives greater merit or value to such things as whether the climber does the climb under his or her own power and without artificial aid (see Jamie Maddison’s article for a good summary of rock climbing ethics).  Vie ferrate sit ill in this system of ethics because they change the nature of the rockface and are a very artificial aid to climbing.

I support this system of ethics, but it’s a rock climbing system and I am cautious and a bit sceptical about how applicable the specifics of it are to a different mountain activity such as vie ferrate.  In addition, there are limited circumstances when altering a rockface or its surroundings is considered acceptable in this ethical system, e.g. by adding sports climbing bolts where trad climbing is not really possible.  This means that I don’t think it’s possible to say that vie ferrate are absolutely wrong for the UK.  Instead, I think the general principles of preservation and style should be part of considering whether other mountain activities, like vie ferrate, are appropriate to the circumstances and whether their benefits outweigh the costs.

Me climbing on the Honister Slate Mine Via Ferrata.
Me climbing on the Honister Slate Mine Via Ferrata.

There are probably few locations in the UK in which a via ferrata would not interfere with other users or change the landscape too much to be acceptable.  However, a mine is probably as good a location as you will get.  Honister Slate Mine has been an industrial site for a long time and shows the scarring of this.  The cables, ladders and stemples of a via ferrata are not really making this much worse.  The impact of the via ferrata and those climbing are also limited to particular lines up the mountain (when you are clipped to a via ferrata, there really is only so far to either side you can go).  The sight and noise of people both going to the via ferrata and going up it are also no more than you get at a lot of rock climbing crags.  I do consider it wrong that Honister Mine built an extension without permission in an SSSI, but they have paid for it.

Me crossing the wire bridge on the Honister Slate Mine Via Ferrata.
Me crossing the wire bridge on the Honister Slate Mine Via Ferrata.

If the zip-wire had been built, that would probably have changed how I feel about this via ferrata.  Vie ferrate do not have to have zip-wires and I would be concerned that the amount of construction require to put the zip-wire up might have notably damaged the SSSI.  I would also be worried that the screaming of people flying down the fells at 60mph would disturb other people’s enjoyment of the mountains.  However, the zip-wire has not been built and so I think it’s a moot point in considering whether to climb the via ferrata.  The idea of building the zip-wire did little to endear the owners of Honister Slate Mine to some people and it may be that some feel so strongly that they want little to do with the place.  For me, the act of trying to get approval for the zip-wire is not enough to justify bearing that sort of grudge.  I think it’s time to move on.

What the Honister Slate Mine Via Ferrata brings is a new way to climb a mountain that has the potential to open the mountains to others who might not otherwise have come to enjoy them.

Is it a good climb?

This leaves the issue of whether the Honister Slate Mine via ferrata is a fun climb.

Me on the Honister Slate Mine Via Ferrata Xtreme.
Me on the Honister Slate Mine Via Ferrata Xtreme.

I did the Xtreme version on my stag weekend towards the end of last year.  After picking up helmets, harnesses and lanyards from the visitor centre, you are driven up to the mine entrance by the sort of bus I usually see on the suburban streets of London.  Entering the mine, I followed a tunnel until it brought me out on a slanting terrace on the mountain face high above the Pass.  From there, there were several lines of stemples and ladders to follow that moved up, down and across the crags.  Although a lot of the climbing was straightforward, there were a few interesting moves and plenty of variety in what you were climbing, with several ladders and a fun descent over a slight overhang into a gully.  The sweeping views and the crags were dramatic and it was fun moving above long drops above the Pass.  The 100m Burma bridge had plenty of this exposure but the challenge of it really came from how strenuous it was trying to keep upright and going forward as I tilted one way and the other.  I imagine that the effort of this and climbing into the gully might make the Xtreme version unsuitable for some people.  Thankfully, this bridge was followed by some easier slab climbing before a finish up a rope cargo net.  There was then a quick walk to enjoy the view of Buttermere from the 658m summit of Fleetwith Pike before the walk back down.

Me climbing off the top of the cargo net.
Me climbing off the top of the cargo net.

Anyone trying it should not expect this to be like a European vie ferrate.  In the Alps the ladders and stemples are usually an aid to climbing and there are sections of climbing rock.  There was hardly anywhere climbing on the Honister Slate Mine via ferrata were I was not holding onto, and standing on, metalwork of some description.  Another difference from the vie ferrate I have been on elsewhere in Europe is how the ladders are managed.  In the Dolomites the cable just runs straight next to the ladder and may have no intermediate pins between the top and bottom of the ladder.  This potentially means a long fall if you come off.  At Honister they have dealt with this by having loops of cable at intervals to clip in to.  It’s a neat safety touch.

The view of Buttermere from the summit of Fleetwith Pike.
The view of Buttermere from the summit of Fleetwith Pike.

Accompanying you on the via ferrata is a guide (although not a qualified mountain guide) and the one I had was a nice bloke who was helpful when one of my group felt a bit unnerved.  This guide takes photos of those on the via ferrata which you can get on a DVD for £15 once you have finished the climb.  The Mine has a rule that people don’t take photos on the via ferrata.  This may be to prevent people falling off as they focus more on taking photos than on climbing, but I suspect that it is also about making money.  Like the nearly £40 fee for an adult (nearly £30 for a child) to use the via ferrata, I find it hard to believe that the charge reflects their costs.  It’s also a bit annoying that the quality of the photos you get depends on the guide’s photography skills (which weren’t amazing in my case).

From speaking to people, it is often the price that seems to put them off this via ferrata as well as a feeling that something that is predominantly free in the Alps is charged for.  However, if you don’t mind the cost, then I would recommend the Honister Slate Mine Via Ferrata Xtreme as a fun and different way to climb a Lake District peak.

22 thoughts on “Wire in the Lakes – the Honister Slate Mine Via Ferrata

  • This is a very considered view of a controversial development in the Lake District. Perhaps the argument is also because this via ferrata may set a precedent and encourage others to be created in the national park.

    • Thank you.

      The reaction of some people to the Honister Slate Mine Via Ferrata might be because they fear it will set a precedent for others. It’s possible that there might be an attempt to put another via ferrata up in the UK now that one has been around for a few years. However, I think that the difficulties in expanding that the Honister Slate Mine has experienced might make any future developer think long and hard about whether and where to build a via ferrata. Somewhere outside a national park would probably present any developer with fewer hassles.

      Best wishes,
      Robin

  • I think the Honister via ferrata is a great idea as an introduction to this type of activity, but for anyone who’s an experienced rock climber or scrambler you’re going to have a much better time going abroad and doing it for real. I don’t think I’d pay to do this unless I was taking someone along with me who hadn’t done anything like this before.

    • I agree that you are much more likely to get a better via ferrata experience on the Continent than in the UK, but I think that an experienced rock climber or scrambler can still have a fun half-day at Honister. I just think it will be a different experience than in the Alps.

      Best wishes,

      Robin

  • Robin, I enjoyed your blog. It covers the issues very fairly. In my view, the vf at Honister is really just a bit of fun on the rock, albeit expensive for what it is. It doesn’t compare with the whole Dolomite vf experience. I have to say that many climbs in the Dolomites do go through some protected environment where there are opportunities to spot rare plants that would not be seen in any other way. Diverting the Honister route (and the fine) was a unfortunate necessary response to an unnecessary bit of bureaucratic restriction.
    Also, having a guide as well, whats that all about?

  • Hi
    Please watch tales from the national parks episode 1 – Zip wire in the lakes, with Mark Weir, the late owner of Honister. It is touched on about the prices they charge and one of the reasons for the zip wire (not the main reason by any stretch) is because, before Mark bought the mine it was derelict and he breathed life into the place, creating jobs and attracting tourists, But the many hundreds of years old mine could not be sustained by the slate itself, hence the visitor shop, the cafe, mining tours and later the Via Ferrata and ideas for a zip wire. They haven’t installed these purely for monetary gain for themselves, but to keep open the last working mine. Keep the people who work there employed and provide an ‘adventure capital’ for people of all ages to enjoy.

    • Setting a price for any unusual product can be a bit tricky and I would assume the via ferrata is no exception.

      Honister Slate Mine needs to be a viable business if it is to be sustainable and contribute to the local economy. To do that, it has had to maintain and develop its income and I agree that diversifying (including the tours and the via ferrata) was a good way of doing this. The question for some people seemed to be whether the zip-wire was an appropriate way of expanding the business, even if the goal was to the worthwhile one of keeping the mine going.

      I suspect that the vast majority of customers don’t know how much it costs to provide a product and so don’t make judgments on the price on that basis. I admit that I don’t know the costs associated with taking a group on the via ferrata. However, like most people, I can perceive a price to be more than the costs associated with delivering the product. For example, I find it hard to imagine that £15 is a reflection of the costs associated with bulk buying blank DVDs, doing a large print run of the card wallets, taking the photos and loading them up. This doesn’t mean that I think that Honister Slate Mine are trying to increase profits for personal gain rather than to keep the business viable, but I do wonder if some parts of the business are being used to subsidise other parts.

      When setting a price every business needs to be aware of both its costs and what price the market is willing to bear. My point was that some customers may raise an eyebrow at the prices – some will buy anyway (such as myself) and some won’t. If, over time, there are still enough customers to make things economically viable, then that may not be too much of an issue for Honster Slate Mine.

  • If you do the VF in a large group exchange email addresses and pool your money so you only have to buy 1 CD of photos.

  • I’ve debated about whether I want to do the Honister Via Ferrata or not – I’m pretty scared of heights but I do climb (as a second) as, when I’m on the rope, I trust it completely and feel safe. I would be worried about the anchorages of things bashed into the rock though.

    I was totally against the zip wire and am very surprised Chris Bonington was in favour. He lives in a very quiet part of the Lakes indeed and appreciates the quietness of the northern fell near his home so I’m amazed that he thinks it would be acceptable to have screaming folk all day around the honister fells! I think zip wires are more akin to, and more suitable for, theme parks and should be located somewhere like Blackpool They could have one from the top of the tower…

    A quick ‘criticism’… your photo appears to be from Honister Crag rather than Fleetwith Pike summit as the latter has an unobstructed view straight down to Buttermere lake from the ridge-end summit.

    Great post though and pretty helpful in helping me to try to decide whether to do the via ferrata or not. I’m sure my friend would love it!
    Carol.

    • Thank you. I’m glad that you liked the post. It’s fun experience and I suspect that you would enjoy if you’ve had enjoyed climbing before.

      Thanks as well for the tip on the view in the photo. It’s sometimes a challenge in retrospect to remember/identify exactly which bit of a mountain you were on when a particular photo was taken.

      • Most VF’s in Europe are free accessible. In Norway and GB one has to pay for this (because a guide is ‘needed’. Paying for a VF has nothing to do with safety, but only with making money. A pity, especially as a family….

        • True and it would be good if all via ferrata were freely accessible.

          I think the difference is really the business model that is used. In Europe via ferrata are generally built and maintained by local guides, alpine clubs and/or the local community as a way of bringing visitors to the area and so generating money for the local community (e.g. restaurants, hotels). That’s how the costs of the via ferrata are indirectly met. The business model used at Honister (and some other via ferrata operators in Europe) is to recoup the cost of building and maintaining the via ferrata more directly by charging users. That probably still brings money to the local community if it increases visitor numbers to the area.

          Best wishes,
          Robin

          • Yes, you are right. Still a pity, since we (as a family) have our own VF-gear and would like to visit Wales and do the Honister VF…. Well, maybe another time….

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s