Stark warnings9th February 2009
While out on a trot from Langdale to Ambleside on Saturday, I spotted a stark notice on a gate. It was on a path leading towards the Langdale Pikes and issuing a strong message that ice axe and crampons were needed above 300 metres in height; I myself was staying low with plenty of hillside bereft of snow while the white stuff made itself plain to see at higher altitudes. Of course, there have been fatalities on the "Pikes" so the strong wording was not without good cause. It was also reminder of similar unfortunate outcomes in Wales and Scotland. I can’t say that I have heard of anything like this from Ireland but something tells that full winter conditions must be blanketing those hills too.
The trouble with official warnings is that we have seen so many that could be termed an overreaction that heretical thoughts begin to percolate into your consciousness not long after you have seen the warnings. Some issue shrill warnings without they being truly needed, acting in a manner akin to the shepherd boy who cried "Wolf!" in the Aesop’s fable. This time around, I am inclined to think that the "wolf" is real and have gotten to moderating my usual questioning. This is for a number of reasons. First, the warnings are coming from mountain rescue folk and they didn’t overreact to events around the time of the OMM in Cumbria when a deluge came from the heavens and caused raging roads to turn into rivers. The other chastening observation in support of that suspension is that there have been those serious accidents and fatalities.
Another factor in all of this is that we have been spoilt with the milder winters of late. Apart from the shorter days, the occasional spell of snow and ice or a storm, winter walking became perhaps no less accessible than at any other time of year. In contrast, this winter is a sharp reminder that what we have enjoyed of late isn’t always the case and preparedness for winter walking can be another matter entirely. The whiteness is attractive but there’s a certain "here be dragons" element lurking too, particularly with inexperienced folk being drawn out to enjoy the prettiness. That could be the reason behind the advice given by the head of the Lake District National Park last weekend, particularly with the school half-term holidays and their bringing more folk with many perhaps without the requisite equipment, knowledge, skills and experience (the LDNP is between a rock and a hard place: in these trying times, they need the visitors but safety remains vital too).
Speaking of experience, assessment of conditions is a big part of it and any disparity between those on high and those in the lowlands makes it tricky unless you have some experience of being up high in the first place. For instance, snow coverings among the hill country lining the Cheshire-Derbyshire boundary are measured in feet while those on the Cheshire plain are inches in thickness if they lie at all. Increasing the height differential can only exacerbate that sort of difference and entrap the unwary. Saying that, it doesn’t take much to realise that whitened hills look very different to the green valley bottoms with their icy patches due to paths having turned into stream beds; that was very typical of the Langdale that I encountered on Saturday. Mountains and hills do make their own weather and it seems that winter conditions bring that into sharp relief.
The warnings and the fatalities can make one feel that they are on the outside of a different world looking into it. They certainly challenge any perception of readiness for winter conditions and set you to thinking, particularly about those who have been left behind by those deaths. That certainly is the case for me but barriers should be overcome carefully rather than allowed to stop you in your tracks. Even so, the mountains won’t melt away overnight even if the snow does.
Update 2009-02-10: It now appears that winter conditions have gripped some of Ireland’s hills too. In fact, the Irish public service broadcaster RTÉ has a report on two men lost on Lugnaquila, Wicklow’s highest mountain with a height of above 3000 feet, after dropping their map in foggy conditions. They have been out all night and mountain rescue teams are searching for them but there is a glimmer of good news: mobile phone contact has been maintained throughout. Let’s hope it all ends well.