There is something primal about thrill-seeking. Whether it’s bungee jumping, abseiling or being rolled down a hill in an inflatable Zorb – putting your neck on the line for kicks goes against the evolutionary grain in a satisfying way.
But most of us aren’t true daredevils. We want the perception of danger, without the hazards that accompany it. For this reason I’ve come to the newly opened Zip World in Penrhyn Quarry, near the town of Bethesda in Gwynedd, north Wales.
Zip wires are the ultimate rush without the risk. For the uninitiated, imagine sliding down a tightly stretched metal cable with nothing beneath you but air. And, at just shy of a mile, the Big Zipper here is the longest in Europe – 400m short of the world record Zip 2000 in Sun City, South Africa. With speeds occasionally beating 100mph, it’s reckoned to be the fastest on earth. If you’ve ever wanted to fly, this may just be the closest you’ll ever come.
At first glance, however, Penrhyn Quarry seems like an odd location for a thrill ride. For starters it’s still a working slate mine: one of the oldest in the world and, at its peak, one of the biggest too. There is an air of serious industry about the place that contrasts noticeably with our light-hearted pursuits. But there is logic to the choice.
“It’s about regeneration,” owner and local Sean Taylor tells me. “The quarry is part of our history, but it’s getting harder for them. What we’re doing is just a different use.” Plus, it’s big. As we ready all manner of shiny new equipment from base camp at the edge of the pit, dirty yellow trucks and men in luminescent worker jackets shrink into the immense hillside before us. I can’t even see the top of the wire. Taylor, an ex-marine parachute instructor, hands me a Top Gun-style jump suit, but I’m too nervous to feel cool. When an ex-paratrooper builds an adrenalin ride you know he’s not going to skimp on screams.
The park opened to the public last weekend; typically the Zip World experience will begin with a quarry tour and a ride on a smaller wire. No such kindness for me. We pile into Land Rovers and head straight to the 700ft summit of Penrhyn.
The view is dizzying: layered terraces of black slate and rubble step up from a dark emerald lake far below. Behind us, Snowdonia national park rises steeply in snow-covered mountains, while in front the horizon disappears in mist to the sea. On a clear day, one can see as far as the Isle of Man. It feels like a good place to fly.
From here I am led out on to a metallic platform on the edge of a cliff and told to adopt a prone position by the opening gate. While most zip wires are seated, Taylor and his team use a horizontal harness adapted from hang-gliding to allow a headfirst, bullet-style ride. It’s faster, smoother and more intense. Think of it like skeletal bobsleigh, without the track. As my back is clipped into the wire, Taylor offers me a last tip: “If you want to go fast, put your arms to your side and concave your chest. You’ll hit skydiving speeds.” I nod, gulp and am released suddenly into the air.
The ground rushes past in a blur. I accelerate towards the edge of a vast drop, my pace increasing as I am funnelled closer to the black rock beneath me. Goggles press into my face, air rushes into my mouth. I am shaking. I am pure speed. The urge to brake is all-consuming, but I hold my nerve until, suddenly, I am over the edge. As I pierce the wide-open space before me, all momentum appears instantly to dissolve. The lake is strangely calm, the world small and distant. Everything feels peaceful, as if gravity has been loosened and I am soaring free.
At this point, one is advised to slow down. Not me. Carried away in the moment I extend one arm, Superman-style, instead, hurtling inelegantly but heroically to the end of the line. I’m still not sure why I did it. Maybe it was something primal? After all, it’s not every day you get to fly.
Aaron Millar was a guest of Zip World (www.zipworld.co.uk; tel: +44 01248 601 444). Prices start from £45 for adults and £36 for children and includes a tour of Penrhyn Quarry and a ride on a smaller zip wire, before taking on the Big Zipper. The writer travelled with Virgin Trains (www.virgintrains.com; tel: 0871 977 4222) from London Euston to Bangor (from £14 off-peak for an adult fare)