The main thought running through my mind as I skulk through freezing water clad in a wetsuit at the base of How Stean Gorge? You can’t fall in if you’re already in. Now, gorge-scrambling isn't a natural fit for someone like me who's petrified of slippery rocks and their tendency to cause nasty injuries. However, I'm determined to brave the bruises and give this thrill-seeking outdoor activity my best shot. Why? Because it's by far the best way to see this beautiful gorge in Nidderdale on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales.
The limestone gorge some 1000 metres in length is one of the area's top attractions, with an increasing focus on adventurous outdoor activities. With that in mind, I find myself standing on a bridge 14 metres above the swirling waters about to abseil down. It turns out that was actually the easy part. Lowering myself down slowly and smoothly, I land feet first in cold water within a minute or so. Soon after, I can't feel my feet.
But we must get used to it, because there’s a kilometre of gorge to explore. And so we jump straight in – literally – leaning backwards and keeping our bodies dead straight to flop into a deep pool back-first. After the shock of the impact and the cold wears off (slightly) we swim on, pulling ourselves over rocks and up ledges. We walk three abreast and scare the fish into swirling around us, and use our bodies to damn the flow between two rocks before letting it go, taking us with it down a natural rock slide. We spot frogs, water voles and spiders and point out the numerous tiny fossils in the limestone to each other.
I do not fall in – and soon forget I was ever scared. Water always breaks a fall after all, and our instructor's tip to stick to the green rocks and avoid the black algae-covered ones keeps me upright. My confidence on the up, we turn to tackle our next challenge – the 'Via Ferrata', Italian for 'iron road' – a set of steel cables attached to the rock enabling climbers to access places that would otherwise be impossible. It's the UK’s second Via Ferrata (the first is at Honister slate mine in the Lake District), but this year they've added an extension that really tests the mettle of those brave enough to try it.
I'm not feeling all that brave as we begin with a supposedly easy section. Running along a low rocky edge, it's all about getting us used to using carabiners and ropes, but I'm already struggling. Fortunately, there's plenty of room for error – you only ever undo one at a time, so I'm constantly attached. The first section involves a fairly straightforward balance beam across the gorge and a scramble between overhanging rocks, after which comes the first of many metal hoops. I find it hard to trust these (or maybe it's myself); I can't believe that one leg or arm will reach far enough, and find myself straining every muscle to fix my carabiners to the correct length of steel.
Several times I clip myself to a metal loop in the rock by the extra short rope provided “just in case” and lean back onto it for a rest. This is where the Via Ferrata really comes into its own. Because I'm clipped on, I can climb up the sheer rock walls and reach dizzy heights above the water below. I can also get up into the trees and peer through the foliage at this beautiful landscape, where rushing water gushes over large rocks.
This is also the only way to walk above the gorge itself, and the section zigzags across the water three times on a series of steel cables up to nine metres high. Although I'm exhausted, I find this part somewhat easier: my boots grip better to the cable than they did the rock, and my head for heights finally finds its equilibrium as I gingerly make my way across, holding on to the cable at head height.
After two traverses of the gorge, our instructor makes his way past me and begins pulling on a yellow rope across the water above head height. This he tells me is a Tyrolean traverse. and it will see us safely across the gorge for the final time. I'm clipped in by my carabiners, and sitting back on the ropes, let the pulley system take me out across the gorge. When my momentum slows, I reach out for the blue rope strung across from one rocky wall to the other and use it to pull myself along until I can stand up on the muddy bank that runs alongside the gorge. Finally, all fear is forgotten and I can sit back and enjoy the ride – and the beautiful Yorkshire scenery.
How Stean Gorge in Nidderdale, North Yorkshire offers Via Ferrata and gorge-scrambling.
After a day of adventure, you'll no doubt be in need of some R&R, so why not check out our guide to Yorkshire for a host of accommodation options ranging from holiday cottages and hostels to hotels with spas and pools?