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?
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
UPDATE: 3 August 2019 – The planning approval process for a 1km at the Honister Slate Mine has now ended, and the zip wire will now be built. There is a good news article about this on UKClimbing.