Shortly before the devastating floods that hit Cumbria in early December, Ed spent a day on Helvellyn with Fell Top Assessor Jon Bennett
Photography by Stewart Smith
I’ve not been very lucky with the weather while I’ve been writing articles for The Great Outdoors. My overnight kayaking adventure was blown out of the water in the first couple of hours.
My attempts at landscape photography were obscured by fog: not even misty/moody fog, just “in the way” fog. And my contribution to filming Terry Abraham’s Blencathra movie saw 50 grands’ worth of aerial photography drone grounded by high winds. Seeing as I seem to attract bad weather, it seemed like a good idea to go out with one of the fell-top assessors from the Lake District National Park’s Weatherline service.
That way I could watch while the awful weather that follows me around was quantified and logged by a professional. I arranged to meet fell-top assessor Jon Bennett at the Information Centre in Glenridding. After a classic bit of missed connection shenanigans involving me standing around outside the information point wondering where Jon was, while Jon sat inside the information point office with our photographer, Stewart, wondering where I was, we decided to drive up to the Youth Hostel car park and begin our ascent of Helvellyn from there.
It was the start of the winter season for Jon and his fellow assessor, Graham Uney. From the beginning of December they climb Helvellyn daily to record the wind speed, temperature and, most importantly, the snow conditions so that prospective walkers and climbers can make an informed decision before heading out.
Jon has climbed Helvellyn about 450 times, which utterly blows my mind. As a man who is fond of peak-bagging and tick lists, the idea of expending that much time and energy on the same mountain seems like folly. He could have done all the Wainwrights twice by now! Jon is more philosophical about it. He’s fond of Helvellyn and, as the weather changes, each time you climb the mountain, it’s a different experience.
Today’s experience could best be described as “wet”. It looks highly unlikely that there will be any snow conditions to assess once we summit, so the whole adventure just becomes a chance to test the water-repelling abilities of our gear. Even when I’m looking for bad weather, I get the wrong type of bad weather. Murphy’s Law states: “Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong”. This extends to Murphy’s Law itself. If Murphy’s Law can go wrong, it will go wrong. That is to say, you can’t make it rain by washing your car, and you can’t make it snow just by climbing a mountain in December.
The term “bad weather” is quite subjective, as Jon explains. People who use the Weatherline service do so mainly to and out if there’s a lot of snow up there. For many, the presence of snow and the inherent dangers associated with it – like collapsing cornices and whiteouts – will discourage them from climbing and so they’ll stick to a low-level walk. However, for just as many others, finding out there is no snow on the peaks will be a disappointment. Personally, I find walking in the snow, although very pretty and photogenic, can be utterly exhausting.
Speaking of exhausting, I have to hand it to Jon. He’s got a good 10 years on me but I’m struggling to keep up as we approach Red Tarn. I console myself with the fact that he walks this hill constantly while I haven’t been out since September. Still, as we get to the bottom of Swirral Edge, my legs feel like jelly and Jon hasn’t broken a sweat. As we climb up Swirral Edge we come across a pathetic and dirty little patch of snow.
I suggest that Jon perform all the usual measurements he would normally do but the spoilsport can’t be bothered. As such I shall report it was wet, about 3mm thick, reducing to 0mm thick when stepped on.
Having satisfied myself that the square metre of snow we’ve encountered has been susufficiently assessed, we press on for the summit. In the absence of snow there really isn’t much for Jon to do except measure the temperature, wind-speed and wind-chill. He does this with a handheld device I have never seen before but have instantly put on my Christmas list.
The wind is some 40 miles per hour which pushes the wind-chill down to around freezing. I ask what the strongest wind he’s recorded has been and he tells me that it was just over 80mph. Forty miles per hour feels uncomfortable even leaning against the trig point so I can only imagine that 80mph would make you feel positively out-of-sorts.
In order to make it feel like a proper walk we press on across the windblown summit and down Striding Edge before cutting across the hillside and down towards our starting point. On the way down Jon tells me how hard it can be to quantify the beneficial impact of the service. Mountain Rescue know how many call-outs they have a year but the benefit of Weatherline, although undisputed, is less tangible.
I suggest they close it down for a year and then track the corresponding rise in Mountain Rescue call-outs. Obviously it’s a joke but I can tell from Jon’s wistful look that he’d be interested to find out.
We descend, drenched but pretty happy with how our gear held up. I pop into the office at the information point and watch as Jon inputs the data gleaned from our rain-spattered sojourn. It’s impossible to tell just how many lives have been saved or injuries avoided by the information on snow conditions provided via Weatherline, but it’s an undoubtedly valuable service and I urge people to make good use of it any time they’re thinking of venturing out.
The following day I go for a hike near Grasmere and get even more soaked by an even bigger deluge. As we descend Helm Crag we are struck by how the footpaths are becoming rivers and the rivers becoming raging torrents. We cross a footbridge that has the river flowing through it rather than under it. As we return to our car, Grasmere is starting to show signs of minor flooding. There are sandbags dotted around and business owners have Wet Floor signs pressed into service.
A few days later the devastation of Storm Desmond is laid-out for all of us to see. Homes flooded, businesses ruined and livelihoods destroyed. Suddenly my grumbling about my walk being ruined by the rain seems like the spoilt whining of a petulant child.
When I see that the spot where I parked my car is underwater, the shop where I bought my ham and cheese sarnie is flooded, and in particular, the information centre where Jon maintains the Weatherline service on an old desktop computer in a little back office, has all but been destroyed by boulders carried down the hillside by the unstoppable might of the floodwater, I am, for a change, speechless. I hope, over the coming months as people return to normal, that answers are found as to why the damage was so widespread and what can be done to prevent it being repeated. In the mean time, I have made a promise to get back to Cumbria as soon as possible, stay in their hotels, drink in their pubs, shop in their shops and, of course, walk on their hills.
From February 2016.