Helvellyn at sunrise
After days of rain, I’d planned a trip to Thirlmere during a short window of more settled weather. While I’m enjoying my Lakes of the Lakes challenge this year, I’ve been craving some higher ground before Winter sets in. By heading up later on Friday, I could tackle the Thirlmere Loop, camp over and sneak in a sunrise jaunt up one of my favourite mountains – Helvellyn.
A bit like a specific trip to see the Northern Lights, sunrise walks have expectation written all over them. Get to the top, witness an incredible light show and capture the perfect photo is what most people are out to experience.
But mountains are fickle creatures which don’t care about your expectations. The weather can change in minutes and cover the landscape in mist. You might arrive later than you’d hoped. You might simply have been too ambitious.
If you go expecting blue skies and Instagram-ready photos every time, you’ll be disappointed. If you truly love the mountains, you don’t mind when the weather’s not on your side and you have to change plans. It’s enough being in their presence. It’s a visceral feeling – one which draws you back time and time again.
“Perseverance and resourcefulness are rewarded with very special moments, sooner or later!”
Hillwalking The official handbook of the Mountain Training walking schemes, Steve Long with contributions from PyB staff (third revised edition)
Rain on canvas
At 5am, I woke to the sound of rain on canvas. It soon passed as the inviting stillness coaxed me from the warmth of my sleeping bag. Only the sound of my roaring stove boiling up some porridge oats broke the pre-dawn silence.
The easy paths up the Western flanks of Helvellyn are perfect for a sunrise expedition. The intoxication of walking in the dark turns this relatively pedestrian trudge into a proper adventure and, as my head torch beam pierced the blackness, I tuned into the sounds of the valley: water thundering down the slopes; the dawn chorus tuning up for their daily recital; early-morning delivery drivers speeding along the A591 below.
I had the place to myself as the pre-dawn glow began to illuminate the surrounding peaks. I watched the mountains turn from black to inky blue to vivid greens to gold.
While only a two-mile hike to the summit, there’s over 700 metres of ascent to negotiate. Described by Wainwright as ‘unremittingly steep’, one of the benefits of walking this section at night is only having to focus on the short patch of illuminated ground ahead. All that’s left is to concentrate on the rhythmic act of putting one foot in front of the other.
The hard graft doesn’t last for long, as the path opens up and you reach the summit plateau. As if sensing my presence, the mist descended, the temperature dropped and the wind picked up. I took a seat in the wall-shelter and slurped coffee from my flask. Still convinced the fog would lift and I’d be treated to clear views across Ullswater, I huddled in my jacket and settled down to watch the show, camera at the ready.
The anticipated picture-postcard sunrise shot never came, but rather than disappointment, I felt elation at having the summit to myself. Helvellyn is probably the most popular peak in the Lakes and it’s rare not to have to share the shelter with others. I’d also achieved something I’d not done before – a night walk in higher ground.
Confidence boosted, I noticed the drama of the mist swirling around the spiny silhouettes of Swirral Edge and Striding Edge. The opportunistic crows soaring overhead. The shelter from the dry-stone wall. The cold air. How good the coffee tasted. The thrill of starting the climb in the dark. The scene was perfect.
Perseverance and resourcefulness
It didn’t matter that the dramatic views to the East were obscured by cloud. Letting the mountain decide what it’s prepared to offer that day and immersing yourself in the experience is what counts. I’d forgotten any nagging worries I’d arrived with and was loving every minute of it. I lingered a while before the cold got the better of me and began my descent.
As if to reward my ‘perseverance and resourcefulness’, the clouds lifted to reveal an extensive panorama to the North, West and South. I thought of returning to the summit to tick off the views to the East but it didn’t feel right. If I’d returned, I’d no doubt have seen countless brightly-coloured jackets shuffling along the crest of Striding Edge, instantly shattering the illusion that I was alone up there – just me and the mountain.
As the clock struck 9am, I began to meet the first walkers ascending this well-trodden route. Yes they may have ultimately had clear views from the summit and will have been blissfully happy I’m sure. But they missed the solitude, the atmospheric mist and the changing hues of the landscape as the Lake District woke up for another day. They missed Helvellyn at sunrise.
Moments like these are infinitely more special, and that’s what draws me back to the hills time after time.
Nearly a year later and I find myself on Helvellyn again; this time with the most awe-inspiring cloud inversion…
Highs and Lowdown
Start / Finish: Swirls park off the A591 on the eastern shore of Thirlmere
Distance: 4 miles (6.5 km)
Navigation: In the day – easy. There’s a clear track all the way to the summit. Just follow the crowds. At night, you’ll need a decent head torch and sound map and compass skills to ensure you don’t venture from the path but it’s safe if you stick to the route.
Terrain: Excellent underfoot. Well-maintained paths throughout. Steep.
Facilities: I stayed at the nearby Castlerigg Farm Campsite, which was excellent. There are plenty of options too in nearby Keswick and Grasmere. Toilets in the car park (not always open). The King’s Head pub in Thirlspot is a short walk away.
Notes: although it’s a popular route, Helvellyn is a proper mountain and should be respected. The summit is wild and windy and temperatures can drop at any time of year. Carry appropriate kit and know how to use it. Lecture over, get out there and enjoy it!
*These routes and descriptions are only ever intended to be a personal record of my adventures, which may inspire your own. Hillwalking involves a degree of risk, so please make sure you are properly equipped and prepared if you choose to follow them.