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The ice-axe man cometh
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in The Independent on Sunday, 12 Feb 1995
Dressed in a large plastic sack like an outsize nappy, I threw myself face down on the snow and started sliding head-first rather faster than I expected down the mountainside.
I must have looked ridiculous. Fortunately, I was surrounded by a group of about thirty other adults, each dressed in their own plastic nappies, who were too busy themselves tumbling down the mountain to take much notice of my efforts.
We were on White Side, about 2500 feet up in the Lake District just north of Helvellyn, in the care of rangers from the Lake District National Park. It was a crisp winter's day, one of those bright days when the sun shines low across the snow, giving the hills a quite different beauty from the same scene in summertime - just the sort of day, in fact, to tempt inexperienced winter walkers to take to the mountains and get themselves into trouble.
The national park rangers were there to help ensure that we didn't join the casualty lists. I had joined one of the one-day ice-axe training courses which the park authority has been running for about the past eight years, ever since a particularly hard winter left the Lakes mountain rescue teams with a more than usually busy workload. Clutching my pristine new ice-axe in what I hoped looked a suitably experienced manner and dressed in my warmest winter walking gear, I turned up early one Sunday morning at the national park centre at Glenridding on Ullswater. Issued with a helmet and sack-nappy from the store room there, I then headed with the rest of the party west up Glenridding Beck into the hills and towards the snow.
There are many ways in which walkers can get into difficulties in winter in the mountains, but falling off them is probably the most popular method. Using an ice axe correctly, we were told, both reduces the chance of slipping and help you stop if you do. The problem is that an ice-axe is a rather poor talisman against danger if the person carrying it doesn't know what to do with it. Like driving a car on ice, it helps to have some advance idea of what's going to happen.
In other words, it helps to go to a hillside like White Side when the snow covering there is sufficiently deep but where there's no danger of a serious fall, and then practise throwing yourself down the slope again and again. The national park staff started us gently - a few lessons in the right way to swing an ice axe to cut steps up a hillside and then a break for packed lunch, before the first brave volunteers were encouraged to get on their backsides and start sliding.
This is where the national park's supply of plastic sacks proved useful: pulled over trousers, the sacks help reduce the friction on the snow and increase the speed of the fall. In a surprisingly short time, the right way to use the axe (held across the body, axe-head braced against the right shoulder ready for the pick to be used in the snow) began to come naturally. Even the technique involved in recovering from head-first on- your-back falls, perhaps the least comfortable way to find yourself sliding down a mountainside, isn't quite as difficult as it seems at first, at least when there's somebody there to show you what to do.
Lake District National Park authority staff like Roy Harding, who runs the ice-axe training days, have seen the number of winter walkers increase considerably in recent years. It's not surprising: there's a particular exhilaration in being above the snowline on one of the Lakeland fells, making the most of a short winter day. But clearly the skills needed are different from summer hillwalking. Roy Harding talks of people who venture out poorly equipped, and says that a least half the walkers he sees in the winter are not carrying ice axes or, if they are, not making use of them.
Last winter was a bad one for accidents in the Lakes, with the mountain rescue teams being called out on average once a day during the months of January, February and March, almost double the 1993 figures. 26 people were injured whilst fellwalking on snow and ice, fifteen of them seriously. Five died.
So the ice-axe training days, as well as being fun, are clearly a valuable initiative. Roy Harding and his team have two problems, however. The first is one of success: although the courses are not widely advertised, the demand for them usually far exceeds the number of places. The second is snow, or the lack of it - in previous years, too much good weather has meant that courses have had to be cancelled. Booking a place, therefore, is possible only on the Friday before each weekend; the lines open at 11am, and - assuming that there is sufficient snow - it's first come, first served thereafter.