What I did today at work…
Gale to storm force winds have blasted Helvellyn for most days in the last three weeks now. Today the forecast was for winds in excess of 110mph later in the afternoon, so I decided to drive around to the west side of the mountain, away from the narrow, rocky ridges above Red Tarn, where gentler slopes give way to the montane uplands of the summit plateau. The winds were in the west, but I didn’t fancy balancing on an icy crest in those sort of blasts.
I parked at the old chapel at Wythburn. Mine was the only car there. I took the route up through the forest, where logging stacks were being made into lumberous mountains as more exotic trees are felled on this once wild hillside. Above the tree line shown on the map, it became clear that the wind was still very much from the south-west, and rather than brave the exposed traverse above High Crag on the usual tourist route, I headed for the hoped-for sanctuary of Whelpside Gill. Here I found snow, lots of it, and a bit less wind than had pushed me around from the more open slopes.
My route of choice was close by the tumbling stream. Here broken fragments of icicles speared the soft snow where they’d plummeted from the small crags above. I moved quickly, but finding the snow deep and hard going. I made for a large boulder, then continued slowly through the deep slush of a thawing white world. It was surprisingly hard work. I reckon I’m pretty hill-fit. I do climb Helvellyn every day as part of my job after all, but slogging up a steep, pathless hillside through knee deep soft snow, taking a couple of steps up then sliding down again, seemed like a tough way to make a living.
Higher in the open cone of the cove, broad slopes of pure white snow filled the dips and bowls, evening everything out. Here, at 650m, the snow started to crunch under my feet. Each step held for a second, then gave. Place the foot carefully, hoping to balance on the hard, icy surface. Transfer the weight, then ‘crunch’ and I broke through up to my knee. Repeat. Again. And again. And again.
Now in the upper cove the wind was building. At least it was behind me, pushing me up the wildest, most forgotten flank of this popular mountain. Then, at 750m, the crunching snow stopped crunching, and my boot soles started slipping. Time for crampons.
Before I strapped these foot fangs on I took a quick wind speed reading. 37mph, gusting to 50.9mph. Not too bad at all. Still, I carefully put my gloves in my pockets, and put a foot on my rucksack in the snow where I’d placed it. These things can blow away only too easily. I took out my crampon bag and put that down on the snow. Then watched as the wind pushed the bag slowly up the hill away from me. I let it go for now, had a quick slurp from my flask, closed up my sack, zipped up every zip in sight on my jacket, put my gloves back on, then cut a line of steps up the snow with my ice axe. My crampons had travelled 25 metres without any help from me. I told myself how stupid I’d been, and that I really should know better. A friend once watched his rucksack blow away in a Cairngorm gale, and I’d once been thrown 16 metres through the air in the Northern Corries by a rogue blast. That is the only time I’ve ever flown without the aid of an aeroplane.
So, I now put my crampons on, and spiked my way up the hill, gaining height quickly, and for the first time today without losing my breath.
There is a slight fork in the stream below Brownrigg Well, and I took the eastern branch as it held the most snow. Height was gained easily now, despite the wind, and I soon came out onto the open tundra-like slopes. The whole Helvellyn plateau was completely scoured by the wind. Frozen solid, with bits of rock-hard turf sticking out of a sea of ice. Across the cove the north-west slopes of Nethermost Pike were absolutely loaded with snow, ready to roll if the thaw should continue.
My plan had been to remove the crampons as soon as I reached the scoured top, but with the ice underfoot it was simply easier, and safer to keep them on. I made slow progress now over pathless ground towards the summit. The wind was increasing to a howl, and I began to wonder just how close to the top I might get. The problem being those huge cliffs and narrow rocky ridges on the east side. It’s all very well being wind-assisted up gentle slopes like these, but not so great if those slopes suddenly plunge over a cliff. 100m short of the top I was blown off my feet.
I sat there on the frozen ground with my back to the wind. If I turned my head ten degrees either way the hood of jacket vibrated noisily and completely blurred my vision on that side, but sitting square on to the wind it felt quite comfortable.
I have a habit of putting my weather measuring device in a handy pocket in my jacket, in case it’s too windy to take my rucksack off when I need it. I unzipped and got it out. It’s a nifty piece of kit that measures the current wind speed, average wind speed, and maximum wind speed, as well as the temperature. It then converts the whole lot and tells you what the wind chill is too. It read (in that order) 38.2mph, 36.7mph, 50.1mph, -1.6C. The wind chill was given as -9.7C. Hmm.
My job is to take these readings from the summit. I was 100m short of the top, and knew very well that all those winds speed figures would increase if I continued, and that the temperatures would drop too. I also knew that in extreme weather nobody would expect me to take any risks. I decided to continue upwards. I got to my feet and very slowly placed one cramponned foot in front of the other. Progress was easy, and with the noise the wind was making I could tell when a particularly ferocious assault was on its way. I could now see the small summit cairn and the shelter that is tucked just beneath it on the south side. The wind was appalling, but I was still standing, albeit at an angle. I took the weather readings again. 49.9mph, 53.1mph, 62.0mph, -2.4C, and windchill -12.6C. That seemed more reasonable. Then I heard a sound like a jumbo jet overhead. The wind gusted into me and carried me 4m towards the summit and those cliffs. Time to get out of there. But, just one thing stopped me. I was still a good 50m away from the top. In these winds I had no intention of trying to get any closer, as 50m was near enough even for me. But I knew that that gust of wind had been a lot stronger than 62mph! I sat down and fumbled once again in my jacket for my little device. Again the wind screamed over the fell top, twisting me around. I held on to a small knob of bedrock with one hand, and held my trusty device aloft with the other. Kept it there for a few minutes. Then without even looking at the results, tucked it safely away and made to stand up. The wind pushed me back down again. I tried again, only this time the wind caught me and threatened to blow me over. By now I was very, very glad that I hadn’t tried to get nearer to the summit and that line of cliffs to the east. I couldn’t stand up, so only one thing for it. I crawled into the teeth of the storm, knowing that that was the safest, easiest way off the mountain. Besides, down there was were my car was parked! Progress was not easy. Even clinging to the frozen ground I could feel the wind tearing at me. Then, in a brief lull, I stood and walked for 60m. Another gust bowled me over, and the crawling recommenced. I was lower now, and losing more height by the second. The scouring on the plateau made crawling hard, but now, as I gained lower ground, snow began to cover everything. Fortunately visibility was good – it had been all day. I could see my entire route down to the confluence of streams in the foot of the bowl holding Whelpside Gill. A broad ribbon of easy angled snow led down into the bowl, and I knew that a glissade was the best way forward. This involves sitting or laying on your back, and using the spike of your ice axe to control the speed and direction, simply sliding down a hard snowy slope. Obviously it requires good mountaineering judgement, and a bit of skill, but it’s a safe means of losing height quickly if you can see the whole slope and know that there aren’t any rocks to stop your progress. But first, off with the crampons. I dug a hole in the snow with my axe, carefully took my rucksack off and sat on it in the hole, then removed both crampons and got them under the storm flap of the sack. Then, back on with the rucksack, and axe in hand I slide off down hill, using the spike as a brake all the way. This white ribbon ran out in about 50m, but a short easy walk across the slope led to another of about 70m. This continued, linking long ribbons of perfect easy-angled neve until I landed gently in the flat bottom of the corrie bowl.
A walk back down the narrow confines of Whelpside Gill and this short but challenging day on the hill was all over. Well, almost over. I still had a Ground Conditions report to file for Lake District Weatherline back at the office. But first, what were those final readings taken from the summit of Helvellyn? They read: Time: 12:30. Wind Direction: Westerly. Average Wind Speed: 56.8mph. Maximum Wind Speed: 84.9mph. Temperature: -4.2C. Windchill: -18.7C. Not a bad day at work. I wonder what tomorrow’s weather with hold for me back on Helvellyn.