Those if you who’ve been following Splodz Blogz for a while know that the Via Ferrata Xtreme course at Honister Slate Mine in the Lake District has been on my bucket list (which is currently getting an overhaul but you can read in full here) for years and years.
We are hugely fortunate here in the UK that we have a whole host of adventurous activities right on our doorstep. Our little island might be small and really quite urban in the most part, but there are some amazing activities on offer that will take your breath away, and provide some amazing opportunities for adventure close to home.
And some of that adventure can be done quite easily thanks to outdoor focused organisations and companies, to which you pay some money in return for an experience to remember. The Via Ferrata at Honister Slate Mine is one such experience; a bucket list tick accessible for just a few English pounds and a head for heights.
This was my third attempt travelling to the Lake District to do the Via Ferrata course here. The was first back in December 2017 was a collaboration with Currys PC World when they sent me to Honister with a GoPro to record the experience for their Extreme Sports Map of the UK. Unfortunately for me, the utterly terrible weather forced us inside the caves instead.
My second was thanks to a gift voucher from family that I used in October 2019, when we did get up onto the course and as far as the bridge, but an unfortunate incident on the mountain meant we had to turn back to provide space for Mountain Rescue to do their thing. I was given a replacement voucher by Honister to come back and complete the course another time, and that’s exactly what I was doing there this time around.
I’m not sure if those failed visits made me even more excited for the experience or not, but thankfully it was third time lucky and I am here writing about the whole experience this time.
Honister Slate Mine
Located at the head of Honister Pass in the centre of the Lake District, Honister Slate Mine offers a range of indoor and outdoor adventures for a range of ages and abilities. Honister is also the last working slate mine in England and home to the iconic Westmorland Green Slate.
And it’s a rather well-known too; this view down the Honister Pass is probably one of the most photographed scenes in the Lakes, and for good reason. Not only is it one of the most scenic drives in the UK, meaning that a long line of cars and motorcycles drive along the Pass on a daily basis, but it also sits within the country’s most spectacular scenery popular with hikers, climbers, and all kinds of other people.
Via Ferrata Xtreme
The Via Ferrata Xtreme course was introduced at Honister in 2012, because the normal course was not considered challenging enough to some… Advertised as having much more mountain edge exposure, vertical climbs, cliff edge ladders, plus a Burma Bridge and a cargo net crossing. I mean, what’s not to like?!
Via Ferrata is an Alpine term for a protected climbing route that uses steel cables, metal ladders, and other fixed equipment to provide a safe route up a dangerous climb. Climbers, including me on this occasion, use a standard climbing harness and carabiners to secure themselves to the mountain and make their way up.
At Honister, a series of exposed scrambles along the mountainside are linked by metal ladders, wire bridges and cargo nets, allowing normal folk like me without rock climbing experience or equipment the opportunity to head up the crag onto Fleetwith Pike.
The Instructor Matters
Naturally the whole thing begins with a thorough briefing, including getting into the required harness. We met Nic at the Slate Mine where she added in a few covid-relevant pieces of information to the briefing I remember from last time, before we jumped on the bus for a short drive up the hill to the base of the course.
On this kind of activity, having the right instructor can absolutely make or break the experience. I reckon Nic, our instructor for the morning, is one of the best outdoor instructors I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. She was absolutely the right combination of knowledgeable, skilled, kind, in charge, and fun.
I’ve been on lots of this kind of experience, these are the things I jump to for my fun, to help me create memories. And while I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad instructor in the sense that they’ve made me feel unsafe, I have certainly had instructors who have seemed bored, fed up, distracted, and keen to get home.
Nic was wonderful; she very quickly got the personalities of the people in the group, providing enough instruction to make sure we were all safe and making progress, but allowing us to work our own way up the mountain on this personal challenge.
After a further briefing on how to use the harness and what kinds of metal fixings we would come across, the first step was to head over a short wall onto a long ladder that took each of us down onto the course. I am not bothered by heights, I trust the equipment and am good at remembering to always stay attached, and so this was not a moment that I dreaded. I’d also done this bit once before, of course.
From there we climbed down, along and mostly up the rockface, following the line of the metal staples that had been fixed for this purpose, reaching, even stretching in some places (I’m quite short!). This isn’t a speedy affair, it was a group of about 12 or 15 people, each with their own level of fitness and ability on the mountain. There was some waiting, but I was fortunate that this was never long or arduous, it was just the nature of being out on the mountain with others and following at that pace.
Most of the course was reasonably easy and straight forward, involving stepping from one metal rung to another to make progress. But other bits were more technical, and not just because the gaps between elements became further apart. Some parts involved having to hold on using the crook of my elbow, or make use of natural hand and foot holds in the rock, or use my core muscles to pull myself up and over bits sticking out.
The bridge is marketed as one of the highlights of the course. It is high up, long, and very exposed. There is an art to getting across a bridge like this without giving yourself too much of a wedgie, or becoming too unstable, and that is to push the cables out either side of your body to create as big of a triangle as you can manage. Which is fine if you are strong, but I’m not, so I did the best I could. It got more than a bit wobbly, the wind picked up, and so I was very grateful for that that lack of worry over heights and trust in my equipment!
Atop Fleetwith Pike
The final element of the course is a huge cargo net, which was also the hardest part in my opinion thanks to the constantly moving ropes and steep ascent. This wasn’t helped by the fact I’d used most of what my muscles had to offer by this point and so I was really squeezing out the last of my breakfast calories to get me to the top.
I should say, though, that with my very middle-of-the-road level of fitness it was all completely doable, I was able to muster enough strength to enjoy what I was doing without running out of energy. I certainly ached for the next couple of days, and did sport a couple of reasonably impressive bruises on my legs and arms, but that was all very satisfying.
That cargo net, and a short walk up the final part of the mountain, brings you out to one of the finest views the Lake District has to offer; from the top of Fleetwith Pike.
On a good day, and I had a good day, you can see Buttermere, Crummock water and Loweswater, all framed by Haystacks, Alfred Wainwright`s favourite Fells. We had time at the top for the obligatory photos and to congratulate each other (from a distance) on completing the Via Ferrata Xtreme course.
Honestly, it is utterly beautiful up there. They say views mean more if you’ve worked for them, and while the Via Ferrata didn’t quite wear me out to the point of exhaustion, it was a very satisfying place to celebrate ticking this particular item off my bucket list.
From there it’s a 15-20 minute stroll downhill back to the Slate Mine reception to get rid of the kit and pick up your photographs. I don’t normally buy any of the add-ons at these experience days, they’re normally very expensive for what they are, but I decided to spend the money on the USB stick of images here because Nic had been so great at taking a few here and there along the course.
What to Wear
It was a rather lovely sunny morning for my experience of the Via Ferrata Xtreme, but remember that you are heading up the side of a mountain to the summit and that you are in the Lake District… dress for cold (and wet) weather! I wore my puffy coat with my waterproof jacket over, and it was very easy to regulate my temperature by zipping/unzipping the front. I worked up a sweat in some places, but was very grateful for the layers when on the mountain side. On my legs I wore walking trousers that provided me with flexibility, protection and warmth.
You really will want “decent” shoes or boots to be comfortable on the Via Ferrata Xtreme course. You certainly don’t need mountain boots for this, but you’re going to hurt your feet in flimsy trainers as they will bend on the metal rungs and dig in (and maybe even ruin your shoes). I wore my hiking boots, which seemed to be a very common choice, we were in the Lake District after all.
When I went this time, Honister Slate Mine provided all participants with gloves as part of their covid-safe measures. These were compulsory; you were not allowed to remove them while you were wearing the harness, in order to help keep everything as clean as possible.
These are grippy but thin, and certainly did the job on the mountain, but when I asked about putting my own gloves in the car (normally participants have to provide their own gloves) it was suggested I kept them to put over the top of the provided ones if it got cold. I therefore kept them in my pocket.
If you are wanting to take your phone or camera up on the mountain remember that the instructors ask that you don’t stop to take photos on the course; not only are you risking losing your device down the mountain, but you’re also likely to force others to have to wait, which is just a bit rude.
I chose to take my phone, which I kept stored in my zipped chest pocket on my coat; you’ll not be able to use your hand pockets once your harness is on. As mentioned above, I bought the photos taken by our instructor on this occasion, but I also was able to get a few when I wasn’t attached to the course on my own phone.
A Bucket List Experience?
The question I often ask when I write about my experiences is “is this activity worthy of a place on my bucket list?”, and the answer here is most definitely yes. It was honestly and genuinely an excellent way to spend a few hours.
I had an absolute blast on the Via Ferrata Xtreme course, it was utterly brilliant and well worth the two previously failed attempts. In fact, I would go again in a heartbeat given the opportunity; it’s probably a good job I don’t live any closer!
I would highly recommend this Via Ferrata course to anyone who thinks they might fancy it; I had a great time on Fleetwith Pike with a small group of others and our fabulous instructor Nic.
Via Ferrata in itself is an activity I could certainly do again and again – where to next?! The Dolomites, maybe…
If you could recommend just one adventurous activity or bucket list experience here in the UK to someone like me, what would it be? Comment below.
Find out more about the Via Ferrata Xtreme on the Honister Slate Mine website. I booked direct.
This is not a sponsored or gifted post… just something I’ve been wanting to do for years.