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Helvellyn's fell top assessors share their expertise
EVERY year thousands of tourists and locals brave the Lake District’s inclement weather to ascend its stunning mountains and fells. Sadly, some do not return and many find themselves seriously injured in hospital after mishaps. Reporter TOM MURPHY meets one of the men, Jon Bennett, who provide daily, and in some cases life-saving, weather reports by scaling one of Cumbria’s most dangerous peaks.
THE eyes and ears of the Lake District, fell top assessors Jon Bennett and Jason Taylor, take it in turns to climb the colossal Helvellyn to record weather conditions for walkers and climbers during the winter months.
The energetic duo battle driving rain, snow drifts and wind chill temperatures of minus 16C to check conditions underfoot and any risks, including avalanches.
Nearly four decades old, Weatherline – a phone and online service provided by the Lake District National Park Authority – helps protect thousands from conditions that can change rapidly and fatally on the Lakeland fells.
Working alternate weeks, the reports taken from England’s third highest peak are a lifeline and add a ‘boots on the ground’ dimension to the 365-day a year Met Office forecast. Scaling the 950-metre mountain during a seven-day shift is almost equivalent to reaching Everest’s summit.
Ambleside’s Jon Bennett, a winter mountaineering weather buff, has been doing the ‘dream job’ for seven years after leaving behind a job in hospitality.
“I got to the point where I wanted a change and this fell into my lap,” said the former manager of the Waterhead Hotel, Ambleside. “The interview involved walking up a mountain which was a bit surreal but perfect for me.
“I knew I had the skills and ability to do the job, but had no outdoor qualifications so almost did not apply.”
Originally from the South, Jon got his first taste of the outdoors in the 1970s and has not looked back since.
“I love being outside,” he said. “Since I moved here 20 years ago the majority of my spare time has been spent in the fells.
“Doing so much exercise means I can eat as much chocolate as I want, probably too much!”
From the summit the pair measure the temperature, wind speed and wind chill. They also provide a summary of the general conditions on the mountain and advise on what equipment would be necessary for a safe journey. Daily reports appear online and are viewed by tens of thousands of people.
“People are very grateful for what we do,” said Jon. “I was once thanked by an elderly man in the middle of Ambleside who said he loves our daily pictures. There are picture perfect photos of the Lake District everywhere, he said, but ours often show the fell in a less than flattering light which he loved.
“There’s even a woman who uses it to decide if she should put her washing out or not.”
Walking alone can be lonely but most days the assessors come across fellow walking enthusiasts – and often stop to offer advice.
“We aren’t the mountain police,” said Jon. “But we will talk to walkers and share our experiences with them to keep them as safe as possible.”
During the summer Jon spends his days steering a tourist boat for Windermere Lake Cruises.
“It’s the exact opposite of this job,” he said. “In the summer I’m on the lake looking up at the fells and in the winter I’m on the fells looking down on the lakes.”
Despite making the trip nearly 400 times, Jon has only ever not made the summit a few times due to low lying mist, too much loose snow or strong winds. He said the pair deployed a safety system so somebody knew their intended route and always travelled with the necessary equipment.
Fellow assessor Jason is a former world travel trailblazer and has visited destinations as far-flung as Bhutan, Bangladesh, Iran and India. He is in his fifth season and with a second baby due in January, the mountain leader and navigation trainer from Kirkby Thore is expecting a ‘hectic winter’.
Visit www.lakedistrictweather line.co.uk to find out more about the service.
FOR those venturing out to the Lakeland fells this winter here is a handy checklist for what equipment you should take and general advice for staying safe.
* Warm, suitable clothing is essential.
Clothes should be comfortable. Do not be afraid to ‘layer up’ and ensure you have a decent water and windproof outer jacket, hat, gloves and spare warm clothing. Several thin layers give good insulation and can be adjusted for different conditions. Boots should have a good sole pattern – trainers are definitely not suitable.
* Taking the right amount of equipment for the conditions is also necessary.
Food, water and a warm drink are top of the list, plus a whistle, torch, first aid kit, map and compass. GPS or mobile phones are not ideal as they can be lost or run out of power. Some extra energy-giving food and emergency rations are also recommended. During the winter extra warm clothing is essential, as well as knowing the number of daylight hours, the length of the walk, and if at high altitudes, how to use an ice axe.
* Before the walk choose a route suitable for all group members which can be changed if weather worsens.
Do not be over ambitious – allow extra time for stops for rest and food and leave clear details of your intended route and estimated time of return. If any accidents do occur give any casualty first aid, make sure their breathing is unobstructed; dress wounds to prevent bleeding; keep them warm, sheltered and safe from further injury but also remember to protect yourself. Send for help by calling 999 and ask for police. Tell the operator that you need mountain rescue and give them as much detail as possible, including grid reference if possible and the nature of the incident.
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