I recently joined a Facebook group dedicated to the conditions in the UK’s mountains. This is a uniquely British concept; we like to talk about the weather, but this is talking about the weather with added fervour. The changeable conditions that are part and parcel of our little island make such pages ideal for anyone interested in the hills.
Amongst the daft questions often posted along the lines of “Should I fit crampons to my nan’s mobility scooter to get her over Crib Goch in January?” or “I don’t have an ice axe, can I just gaffer tape a kitchen knife to a walking stick?”, there are actually some great nuggets of information on the conditions of specific areas and routes.
I felt vindicated in bailing on a friend after seeing the conditions one weekend described as horrendous, but was also tortured by later images of clear blue sky against cold, white and windless mountains layered with compacted névé snow perfect for climbing.
Following a period of turbo-thaw and winter’s dreaded three W’s – warm, wet and windy – the MWIS (mountain weather information service) forecasts soon began to show a turn towards ideal conditions.
I’m a relatively cool customer, though I have a tendency to panic. I panic-bought a Christmas tree on the 1st of December only for it to look a bit sad and limp by Christmas Day; I daresay I’d be the one pushing aside old ladies in the tinned goods aisle when the apocalypse strikes. The forecast ridge of high pressure over north England made me panic. I had to cram a Lake District trip into the two days I had off – before all the snow disappeared, the mountains crumbled away and we all died.
So desperate was I to snatch a piece of good weather, I chose to leave on the Sunday night which meant missing the Super Bowl. I had been looking forward to this since October last year, and had earmarked two days to recover from the 4:30am bedtime, plus copious beer and snacks. I called my newly unemployed friend Mark and soon enough we were sitting in traffic on the M6.
The next morning on the Fairfield Horseshoe I wanted to complain about the persistent high grey cloud that wasn’t forecast, but couldn’t really bring myself to. The unfamiliar gentle breeze and panoramic views gently reminded me to be bloody grateful for what I had. A quick thought back to what I’d otherwise be doing at work (this being a Monday) made me even happier still.
We detoured to find the elusive Priest’s Hole on Dove Crag. This deep-ish cave is big enough for six cosy campers to nestle amongst the general detritus, sign the guestbook and fight over the resident pair of moccasin slippers.
We spent the night in a queer bunkhouse-cum-hydroelectric substation in Glenridding on a farm run by four dogs and their pet farmer. Three-tiered bunk beds dominated a box room next to what sounded like five washing machines simultaneously on full spin. Completely spanked after the magic formula of six hours driving, three hours sleep, seven hours walking, two pints and one burger, I slipped into a coma and didn’t notice the noise.
Overnight, we received a fresh partner in Rob and the Lakes received a fresh dump of snow. The latter certainly made itself known to us as we toiled through waist deep powder in the gullies of Helvellyn. Five arduous steps yielded the distance of one until finally it gave way to harder névé and ice further up.
Helvellyn is the UK’s most scrutinised, prodded and probed mountain. As well as the frequent Facebook posts on the ground conditions page, there is a dedicated fell-top assessor whose job it is to climb the mountain daily, reporting weather observations, snow conditions and the very British notion of turf temperature. His reports are an invaluable tool but often chastise winter walkers for getting too close to cornices (an overhanging mass of hard snow).
With his stern words ringing in our ears and an overwhelming desire to not fall through or get flattened by a cornice, we treated the edges like massive hot potatoes.
We topped out of Gully No.2 into the Lake District weather I’ve come to know and, if not love, at least begrudgingly tolerate. In next-to-zero visibility we used a pinch of skill, a bit of mobile GPS cheating and a dollop of serendipity to find the top of Swirral Edge to descend.
Rob had hastily thrown the kitchen sink into his car the night before, but forgot the taps – in that he packed a full climbing rack and forgot his harness. The sling clumsily tied around his waist was about as useful and safe as it sounds, so we each soloed up the narrow icy crux of Gully No.1 (something I daresay we would have done anyway). Here, the climbing went from pleasantly straightforward to something that required a bit of thought.
That sensation of both axes ripping out of ice was still fresh in my memory. This was compounded by a recent account of a competent climber performing some unintentional gymnastics down 500 ft of this mountain whilst trying to rescue a stranded walker. My every placement had a testing tug before being fully trusted.
We soon teetered along the edge of one of the UK’s most exceptional ridgelines in its stonking winter coat and got our first view when the day was almost at an end, some seven hours after setting off. The fierce wind continued to pack frost onto my already generously coated face; I realised we hadn’t had the weather we’d anticipated two days before. Such is the nature of the UK’s winter.
I am grateful to the ground conditions group for luring me into the hills for two great days, but still hate them for the beautiful pictures I see while stranded at work. As for the desired optimal conditions, the group paints a picture, but only captures a snapshot in time of something that is constantly changing. This is the farce of the “Do I need crampons/axe?” debate. You may not in the morning, but come afternoon you may well need both and then some.
A wise man once said, “Don’t be put off by bad weather, it’s always sh*t – if you wait for the bluebird day you’ll never do any climbing”. I’m forcing myself to adhere to this wisdom, but with one eye still on the MWIS and ground conditions page. This being said, my next trip is with the man I seem to only ever go out in crap weather with, so I don’t think I’ll bother with either.