The ice-axe man cometh : TRAVEL

Even experienced walkers can be misled by the fells in winter. Andrew Bibby joins park rangers in the Lake District to learn how to fall and when to dig in
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DRESSED in a large plastic sack like an outsize nappy, I threw myself face-down on the snow and started sliding faster than I'd expected head first down the mountain side. I must have looked ridiculous. Fortunately, I was surrounded by a group of about 30 other adults, all dressed in plastic nappies, who were too busy tumbling down the mountain themselves to take much notice of my efforts.

We were 2,500 feet up on White Side, just north of Helvellyn, in the care of rangers from the Lake District National Park. It was a crisp, bright winter's day with the sun shining low across the snow, giving the hills a beauty quite different from the kind you see in summer. Just the sort of day, in fact, to tempt inexperienced walkers to go out on the mountains and get themselves into trouble.

The rangers were there to make sure we didn't join the casualty lists. I had joined one of the one-day, ice-axe training courses run by the Lake District National Park Authority. The courses were launched eight years ago after a particularly hard winter had left local mountain rescue teams with an unusually heavy workload.

Clutching my pristine new ice axe in what I hoped looked like 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 storeroom, I headed west with the rest of the party, up Glenridding Beck into the hills and towards the snow.

Walkers get into difficulties in many ways in the mountains, but falling off them is the most popular. Using an ice axe correctly reduces the chance of slipping and helps you stop if you do. But an ice axe is a poor talisman against danger unless the person carrying it knows what to do with it. Like driving a car on ice, it helps to have some advance idea of what is going to happen.

In other words, it helps to go to a hillside like White Side, where the snow covering is sufficiently deep but there is no danger of a serious fall, and practise throwing yourself down the slope again and again. The National Park staff started us off gently - a few lessons in how to swing an ice axe to cut steps up a hillside, then a break for a packed lunch. It was only then that the first brave volunteers were told to get on their backsides and start sliding.

This is where the National Park's plastic sacks proved useful: pulled over trousers, they help reduce friction on the snow and increase the speed of a 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) started to come naturally. Even recovering from head-first, on-your-back falls - perhaps the least comfortable way to find yourself sliding down a mountain side - isn't as difficult as it seems at first. It's essential, though, to have somebody there to show you what to do.

The number of winter walkers in the Lake District has increased considerably in recent years. This isn't surprising: there is a very special exhilaration in being above the snowline on one of the fells, making the most of a short winter day. But the skills needed at this time of year are very different from those of the summer hill walker. Roy Harding, who runs the ice-axe training days, sees hordes of people venture out poorly equipped. At least half the walkers he sees in winter are not carrying ice axes; if they are, they don't make proper use of them.

Last winter was a bad one for accidents in the Lakes. The mountain rescue teams were called out on average once a day during the months of January, February and March, almost double the 1993 figures. Twenty-six people were injured while fell walking on snow and ice, 15 of them seriously. Five died.

So these ice-axe training days, as well as being fun, are a valuable initiative. This year, the Lake District National Park Authority is running them every weekend in February. Demand far exceeds the number of places, however, and the unpredictability of snow conditions means that it's possible to book only on the Friday before each weekend. The lines are open from 11am, and - assuming there is sufficient snow - it's first come, first served after that.

! For further information send an SAE to the Lake District National Park Authority, Blencathra Centre, Threlkeld, Keswick CA12 4SG, marked "Ice-axe courses". Entry fee £6. No children under 16, or groups of more than four.