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Hourly weather data could help protect rare alpine flora on Helvellyn – and will help you check if climbs are in nick

A new winter conditions monitoring system has been established on the Red Tarn Face of Helvellyn, providing hourly temperature data to help winter climbers assess conditions before tackling the crag.

The British Mountaineering Council (BMC)  has been working on the project since last summer with the support of Natural England, the Lake District National Park Authority and the John Muir Trust.

The Helvellyn massif, because of its height and north-facing aspect, often bears the brunt of severe weather conditions ahead of other parts of the Lake District. That makes it a popular location for winter climbing.

The climatic conditions and the craggy terrain provide a niche habitat for unusual  plants, including three extremely rare alpine species. These are vulnerable to damage by crampons and ice axes when the ground is not frozen solid.

The new facility will provide conditions-specific information to help winter climbers plan ahead and make sure they are suitably equipped to keep safe and protect plant life.

Rare and precious plant life on the Helvellyn massif includes:

  • Alpine saxifrage, Saxifraga cespitosa, which in England is unique to Helvellyn;
  • Downy willow, Salix lapponum, a low-branching dwarf tree, again only found on Helvellyn;
  • Alpine meadow grass, Poa alpina, which grows in only four locations in England.

The good news is that on solidly frozen turf, axes and crampons can be used without fear of damage. The bad news is that using this equipment in marginal conditions can tear unfrozen turf from the crag and remove the habitat needed for these plants to take root and survive. It takes many years for soil to develop depth on ledges and in cracks, so removing it can be ecologically disastrous.

The Lake District White Guide provides all the information you need for winter crags in the area with sensitive habitat which require careful consideration of conditions before climbing.

At the end of 2017, the John Muir Trust signed an agreement to manage Glenridding Common, which includes Helvellyn. A draft management plan for Glenridding Common (still under development) can be viewed here.

Image courtesy of the John Muir Trust