The Sunday Times, March 8, 2015pdf_icon

WOULD YOU DESCEND TO THIS?

We sent DUNCAN CRAIG down a mine in Wales – to try out the UK’s newest, and scariest, assault course

When people start counting down, that normally means they’re not going to do it.” I stop on the “f” of four and flash Pete an angry look. “Just saying,” says the affable guide.

My hesitation is perhaps understandable. I’m staring into the abyss — and not in some abstract, Nietzschean way. In front of me is an indeterminate drop wreathed in the sort of all-consuming, phobia-twanging blackness that you only find deep, deep underground. And I’m being invited to hurl myself into it.

I’m here in Snowdonia National Park to sample Zip Below Xtreme. Go Ape meets the Flintstones, it’s a three-mile circuit 1,300ft down in Cwmorthin, an abandoned Victorian slate mine near Blaenau Ffestiniog. There’s abseiling, climbing, plenty of cold-sweat-inducing traverses, a sequence of zip wires — including the world’s longest underground — and this lunatic free-fall jump.

I am one of the first to try the all-day experience, which opened last week, and I’m pretty sure this isn’t necessarily a good thing. It’s not conventional caving, by any means — at no point do I find my face wedged into someone’s buttocks, or have to squeeze my head through a hole with a name like “the letterbox”. Quite the reverse. The rapacious mining that happened here more than a century ago created great subterranean cathedrals, enormous spaces that echo and dwarf and confound.

Efforts have been made to preserve this heritage. The only light comes from head torches, and the walkable tunnels connecting these cavernous spaces are lined with rusting wagons, frayed cables and bridges worn to kindling by hobnail boots. At one point, Miles — whose company, Go Below, is behind the attraction — manages to light an old animal-fat candle he finds on a ledge. A smell like badly burnt bacon fills the damp air. “Not bad, considering it hasn’t been lit for 120 years,” he says.

Which is fascinating, but not really why I’m here. It’s more about the thrills, and they don’t take long to materialise. After passing through the ominously caged entrance, we have been walking for less than 10 minutes when the tunnel abruptly ends. My head torch can just about make out the rocky floor, some 80ft below. Bolted to the sheer wall on one side is a 40ft rickety wooden ledge, little wider than a windowsill. A “catwalk” or, to use the modern vernacular, death trap. My pre-match swagger dries up immediately.

It’s the longest underground zipwire in the world – not a particularly crowded field, admittedly

Two arm-length ropes ending in carabiners hang from my harness. I’m to clip each in turn onto the safety rope that loops its way in sections along the route of the catwalk. Shimmy along, clipping, unclipping, one carabiner always in contact. “We’ve had commandos crying their eyes out at certain traverses,” says Miles. “And young girls who just throw themselves into it.” I can’t decide if he’s consoling or goading me. I take my time, trying to ignore the creaking of the wood beneath my feet, and reach the end, sweaty-palmed but quietly elated.

We follow former wagon tracks down a couple of “floors”, fat droplets falling from the roof. (In Wales, it even rains underground.) Waiting here is the first of nine zip lines on the route. It’s a shortie, not much more than 25ft, and follows the route of a collapsed bridge. Pete clips on, runs a few steps and is gone in a satisfying zip. I follow, my tentative shuffle just convincing enough to get me across the chasm.

These zip wires are horizontal, relying on momentum. Goliath is another matter entirely. At 420ft, it’s the longest underground zip wire in the world (not a particularly crowded field, admittedly). But it’s the angle that’s most striking as you approach. As far as I can make out, it’s close to 45 degrees.

Let’s hope there’s a crash mat. I strap myself into the seat-like mechanism, mumble something about being ready, then I’m hurtling downwards, with glistening, sharply angular rock faces rushing at me out of the gloom. The faint speck of light by my feet gradually brightens, the decelerator kicks in with a jolt and I’m eased in to land — gurning with boyish delight.

And so the day unfolds, the satisfaction mounting with each obstacle overcome. Miles and Pete are reassuring presences, but they refuse to mollycoddle. Self-reliance is the key. The mine proves a surprisingly agreeable environment to spend time in. It’s mucky but largely dry, and relatively mild. It’s well ventilated, too. No need to use canaries here to test whether something is safe or not.

Not when you have journalists. Ah, yes, that abyss jump — the climax of the circuit. I’m strapped to what looks alarmingly like one of those wind-out extension leads, but which I’m informed is a free-fall device. Once I reach a certain velocity, its mechanism will kick in and slow me to a firm yet non-pulverising landing 50ft below. Big thing to take on trust, that. Which explains my dithering. I do eventually jump, the darkness consumes me, then I’m striking the floor, whooping and throwing high-fives like an imbecile.

As we trek back up the tunnel and out into the first daylight we’ve seen for five hours, I have plenty of time to reflect that — pound for thrill — this might just be the best-value day out in the UK.

THE BRIEF Duncan Craig was a guest of Go Below. A day at Zip Below Extreme costs £79; over-18s only; www.go-below.co.uk