AS Britain braces itself for what experts fear could be the coldest winter for a decade, two men will pit themselves against the elements for a daily mountain marathon to protect thousands of lives, reports Ruth Lythe.

Global warming and its impact on Lake District snow levels are adding an extra dimension to one of the country's most bizarre jobs a trek to the top of 915 metres (3,018ft) Helvellyn to check out conditions for a crucial weather service used by 200,000 callers a year.

Unreliable and unpredictable winter conditions are now presenting dangers for climbers and walkers. In recent years, some of the biggest dumps' of snow happened long after the winter Weatherline season finished at the end of March.

From December 8 two hardy souls will take it in turns to work a seven-day shift to scale the Lake District's second highest peak, each carrying equipment-filled rucksacks weighing 40lbs. Every week sees the them climb the equivalent of a trek to the summit of Everest.

Weatherline, which celebrates its 31st birthday in December, is a Lake District National Park Authority service and is available online for the first time this winter.

Fell top assessors Pete Collins and Liam Scott even work Christmas Day and are passionate about safety on the fells. In his fourth season, Mr Collins says conditions have become consistently more inconsistent.

"The pattern now tends to be for short periods of intense cold weather, closely followed by very mild periods, stripping snow and ice from the hills and leaving no lasting base of snow to build up," he said.

"People are not getting experience of true winter conditions and are not building up any expertise. Also, walkers are not expecting snow and ice and are setting out without proper equipment. When ice axes and crampons are needed, less than half the people I come across either have them, or the skills to use them."

Mr Collins says he met two men last year out in full winter conditions, who thought the best way to descend a steep snow slope was sliding down on their backsides'.

"We're just asking for some good old common sense and we encourage people to enjoy the hills safely. Last year, on Christmas Day, I met a very well equipped, knowledgeable couple in their late seventies on Helvellyn's summit. The lady had been through two hip replacements and was enjoying every moment of a very special, and safe day out."

Weatherline (local call rates) operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week on 0870 055 0575, or log on to