What else can you do while suspended precariously above a 1,500 foot drop, with your legs and arms shaking and wobbling, while white-knuckled fingers grip slender strands and your feet tentatively balance on a one inch thick steel cable, except scream!

I am not sure that AW would have approved of our technical ascent of Fleetwith Pike. He may have muttered something incomprehensible while pushing in ear plugs and seeking the nearest rock to sit behind. But the Via Ferrata provided us with an alternative, although incongruous ascent of the mountain – our 48th Wainwright – and a great way to enjoy Hannah’s 11th birthday.

I watch the fell walkers on Hindscarth Edge, while checking, for the third time, that both of my karabiners are locked over the wire. I am sure they are watching our goings-on. Maybe nodding their heads disapprovingly, in the same way they might as a military jet blasts below them 200 feet above the valley floor. Then again, they may be watching enviously, and making a mental note to do this sometime.

We are climbing with a group of men from Oxfordshire who have come to the Lakes for the weekend. They walked over Great Gable yesterday, emerging into the afternoon sunlight out of a wild and wet morning.
“It was fantastic, a great end to the day,” one said. “So today, we thought we would try something a little different.”

I look down at a group of people standing by their cars on the road, I am sure they have binoculars, probably wondering what all the shouting is about. Hannah’s screams could send sheep running, but hopefully not over the side of the cliff.

Our ascent is a mixture of rock climbing and scrambling, the exposure is just the same, the excitement is nearly the same, the gripping fear of falling is virtually absent, the route is fantastic and it is safe. We have been instructed in the techniques by our guide Adam. Even in the very rare possibility of a cable snapping, which, looking at the high tensile half-inch diameter steel rope, is almost inconceivable, we would not fall far. “The only thing to remember,” he said, “is not to unclip both karabiners at the same time, that can be very messy. Although we have not had anyone do it yet,” he smiled, reassuringly.

Smugglers and slate miners

Hannah and Georgia on the Via Ferrata

Hannah and Georgia on the Via Ferrata cable bridge

The adults don’t scream. They quietly admire the views, the exposure, the image of death staring them in the face holding up both karabiners, one in each hand, and the exhilarating route up through the crags where smugglers masqueraded as slate miners back in the 1800’s. A high-level path that skirts Great Gable is named after a certain Honister character called Moses Trod, whose hobby, when he was not dragging tons of slate on his pony-drawn sled to Wasdale, was to supply Cumbria with moonshine. A ruined hut high on Gable Crag is reputed to have been one of his stills. He was never prosecuted, perhaps the wee dram or two wet the lips of the judges enough for them to overlook his misdemeanours.

As ever, Hannah and Georgia were shouting for a snack stop. “Is there a cave, where we can stop for a drink?” was Hannah’s cry to Adam. “There is a cave,” he replied. “There are many caves. The miners used to sleep in them at times, rather than having to descend and ascend each day.”

Hermits and recluses

The history of the Lake District is littered with stories of recluses and hermits that have been immortalised in folklore. Saint Herbert of Derwentwater lived on an island in the lake during the 7th Century. In the 1860s a fellow called George Smith, became known as the Skiddaw Hermit. One of the most famous was a man called Millican Dalton who lived in Buttermere during the end of the 19th Century. The priest’s cave below Dove Crag near Fairfield may never have sheltered priests, but a ruined Catholic shelter just below was certainly used as a place of refuge. I don’t think much asceticism was practiced in the slate mines though. The life was tough, and involved dragging tons of slate down on sledges. It was back-breaking work.

Last week spring had recoiled back into winter. The first few days saw people walking around in shorts and t-shirts, basking in the sun, while sipping coffee outside Nero’s and Costa. Kendal had a mediterranean feel about it, everyone was looking forward to summer, then back came the winds, the rain, and the temperature dropped noticeably. The jackets came on again!

Fleetwith Via Ferrata

After a really airy traverse across a gully wall with sheer drops below our feet, we start the cable bridge crossing. Thankfully, it is not windy. A fall would see us rolling to the feet of the people by the road. Hannah forgot about her snack rest, as the adrenalin pumped through her body, while she gripped the steel cables and performed first position ballet steps along the wire, good training for her dance lessons.

Summit team on Fleetwith Pike

Summit team on Fleetwith Pike after completing the Via Ferrata

The next few climbs were testing, especially on the upper arms; they all overhung by about 20 degrees. They were probably, along with the wall traverse, the best parts of the climb. The metal rungs drilled into the rock wall seemed secure, although they were unnervingly springy at times.

Above us stretches the final part of the climb: the rope ladder. A 50 foot commando-type assault straight up the face of the crag. I try to shake Hannah off it. Again the valley echoes with her screams. I am not sure what the walkers on the summits thought of it all, although I half-expected to see a search and rescue helicopter hovering above the crag.

We climb off the rope ladder, walk through a mine tunnel, and emerge into sunshine on Fleetwith Pike. The views, after spending two hours or more on the crag, are fantastic. The picturesque Buttermere valley stretches away before us to the sea. Its waters deep blue, reflecting the sky. The majestic bulk of Great Gable dominates the horizon and to our left Scafell asserts its position as the king of the English mountains. We will be exploring theses mountains over the next few months as we head out into the Western Fells, drawn on by summer, long days, high-level camps, and big mountain challenges.

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