Apart from Dad, everyone else was a stranger. Twelve of us, including our guide, were sat in a decommissioned bus. It shakingly climbed the corkscrew road (‘road’ being a generous word), sides almost over the edge, groaning with every gear change up the Honnister slate mine. Slate slopes plummeted away as the main road shrank. There were no seatbelts.
Dad had found an advert for Via Ferrata, which is Latin for ‘Iron Way’: a route up a mountain ascended on harness, using iron rungs, cargo nets, walkways and cables.
Hailing from the Land of Giants, at 6’5” I’m used to looking down. It’s the drops I don’t like. I always try to do something new when I can, anything that’ll make life more adventurous, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t try to get out of it first.
‘We don’t have to do it if you don’t want to, Dad. Like if you want to do something else instead that’s totally fine.’
‘I would like to try it.’
Like father like son: neither of us admitted our nervousness, though I think Dad was the more nervous.
After the vehicular King Sisyphus had returned to the bottom of the mountain to start again, Dad and I waited at the back of the queue. He stood at the edge, hands gripping the rails, looking out at the view (read: drop).
Our harnesses had two clips. They were to be attached to the safety rope, which was embedded into the mountain at short intervals, and removed and replaced one-at-a-time as we moved along. A red helmet was our only other safety.
I clipped onto the safety rope before lowering myself down a ladder, which was soon replaced by iron rungs. Dad followed. My ankles couldn’t stop shaking. A few short breaths and strong mental words of encouragement (and abuse) changed that.
We went down, along, and up the mountain. Descending was a lot harder than ascending, but the hardest part of the route was a cable that bridged two precipices. Now I have the balance of a seesaw at the best of times, so I used the groves in my walking boots to grip the cable, walking with toes pointing outward. Then Dad stepped on. I have never had the heart to tell Dad that he made the cable wobble like a bowstring. I thought – more than once – I was going to fall. My crossing became interrupted as much from the shaking cable as from under-the-breath curses.
Once clear of the cable, we scaled the mountain with only the safety rope to aid us. I tried to get around a particularly awkward corner; half crouched, half straddling the rock, arms fumbling for the next section of the safety rope. I detached both harness clips to get a better reach. I paused. The next section was as close to me as the Holy Grail was to Indiana Jones, but he had his dad – mine was still quivering the cable. I became aware I was very high up on the side of a mountain and if I didn’t reattach my clips I could fall. All I thought was ‘you slip, you die’ and it became a very real-yet-surreal possibility. I was literally living on the edge. A cliff-hanger would be an apt –