Helvellyn by the Edges
I spent a lot of my time as a youngster clambering over rocks. I think it started at some local castle ruins, quite rightly protected by all sorts of preservation orders nowadays. We’d scramble over the structures, reaching precarious ledges before stuffing our faces with sweets.
As a gawky pre-teen, I remember a teacher asking the class about our favourite TV programmes. ‘Neighbours’ was a popular choice in the ‘90s. Some tried to be cool by pretending they liked ‘Eastenders’. A few of the jocks said ‘Match of the Day’. I went niche, telling the class about a really cool documentary I’d seen about rock climbing. I remember the teacher moving swiftly on, making a mental note that I wasn’t like the rest of the class.
I started my ‘climbing career’ soon afterwards, convincing my parents to enrol me on a course at a nearby indoor wall. Fascinated by the ropes and the drama of the overhangs, I was in awe of the wiry folk effortlessly scaling the plywood monoliths. Unfortunately my foray into the climbing world ended after about two weeks, when I fell from the bouldering wall and landed awkwardly. I couldn’t walk for about a month and my ankle was weak for years afterwards.
That event no doubt led me to settle on hillwalking over rock climbing as a hobby. But some of my best hill days were the ones where I’d have to negotiate a trickier section by putting my hands on rock. Without knowing it, I’d discovered scrambling.
Then a poor career choice meant time away from the hills. What time was left for walks became gentle strolls along defined paths. Any thoughts of scrambling up mountains were soon overcome by anxieties of simply getting through the working week. So although 2020 has been an annus horribilis in many ways, at least I’ve rediscovered the joy of scrambling. And if there’s one route which holds a special place in the hearts of all scramblers, it’s Helvellyn by the edges.
A gentle approach
Arriving at the mountains in the dark is always intoxicating. The waters of Ullswater were inky black as I drove along the lakeshore. Campervans were parked in the laybys, their occupants out for the count. Glenridding was fast asleep, the only movement from another walker counting out change for the ticket machine. I crept around in the dark, the sound of the river muffling my clumsy slamming of car doors and donning of boots.
My torch beam cast spooky shadows either side of the path. Thoughts of ghosts and ghouls were soon forgotten when I looked back to see Ullswater bathed in an early morning wash of blacks, deep purples and pale oranges. Today’s forecast was for ‘perfect mountain weather’: sunshine; a cool, gentle breeze; and no rain. Oh, and a temperature inversion. So I was hoping to get lucky with the clouds as the day broke.
Before the scrambling starts, there’s a delightful walk in via Lanty’s Tarn: an oasis of calm where it would ordinarily be rude not to linger. But my appointment with Britain’s most popular mountain meant I wanted to be up and off before the crowds arrived. Helvellyn is best when you don’t have to share it with too many people.
My approach involved a gentle climb across the flanks of Birkhouse Moor: a Wainwright many summit obliviously on the way to Helvellyn from Glenridding. England’s third highest peak remains hidden for the first part of the walk. The bulk of St Sunday Crag across the valley dominates the view, with the chunkier end of the Fairfield Horseshoe entering the frame as you ascend.
Anticipation started to build as I arrived at the Hole-In-The-Wall. This renowned milestone offered a first glimpse of my playground for the next few hours. On this calm day, the chatter of excited adventurers echoed around the deep bowl, like the whispering gallery at St Paul’s Cathedral. Catstycam stood proudly, my gaze drawn from its pert summit along Swirral Edge rising sharply to the summit plateau of Helvellyn. I continued my panoramic sweep to find Striding Edge, its details hidden but the drama already apparent.
The climb to High Spying How rises gently across the side of a wide grassy ridge. To help you find your sea legs, the mountain throws in some boulders and light rocky sections to negotiate as a warm up. But the ridge soon narrows to a natural pinch point where the mood changes. I remember hearing tales of Striding Edge as a youngster: a path three-feet wide, thousands of feet in the sky, with sheer-drops either side. I felt the hairs standing up on the back of my neck as I gazed across one of the finest mountain ridges in the country.
There’s a sobering reminder not to get too carried away as you embark on your traverse of Striding Edge. The Dixon Memorial is easy to miss, nestled on a small platform of rock to the left of the ridge. Set against a backdrop of the slope plunging down to Nethermost Cove, it’s the mountain’s final warning for those with an aversion to heights that now might be a good time to retreat.
But in good conditions, Striding Edge is a gentle giant if, like any mountain, you treat it with respect and take your time. The scrambling isn’t difficult for the most part. There’s just one awkward climb down a rocky chimney towards the end of the ridge which requires a little thought. There’s always the option to take a number of ‘chicken routes’ if you don’t fancy wandering on top of the ridge. But do be mindful these paths have created ugly scars on the mountain.
After negotiating the first rock pillar, I enjoyed the ride more and more as I hopped, skipped, jumped and shuffled along the apex. Stopping frequently to enjoy the views, I felt like a tightrope walker high up in the sky.
And before I knew it, I’d arrived at the awkward bit. The crowds queuing to tackle it often betray its location but I didn’t have to wait my turn today. In a series of moves akin to lowering yourself down from a wall, taking your time and concentrating on each move distracts you from the plummeting drops below.
The final climb to the summit plateau is arguably the best part of the ridge. There are plenty of routes up the crag but stick to the spine and you’ll soon reach a loose path leading to a large memorial, telling the infamous story of Mr Gough who came to grief on the slopes, only to be found three months later with his faithful pooch perched beside him.
Taking my breath away
It’s just a short stroll now to the summit and being back on solid ground gave me chance to have a good look around. What I saw took my breath away. I’d been so focused on the scrambling that I’d not noticed the barrel of cloud creeping in around me. But not in the usual sinister way that clag so often engulfs you on a mountain. The cloud was like a soft blanket tucking the mountains in and sealing me, the sunshine and blue skies off from the valleys below.
As I neared the summit shelter, I noticed an added bonus of having the place to myself. One of the busiest summits in England and it was deserted. Could it be that I was the only one witnessing this spectacle?
There was no wind and I could hear the distant hum of a quad bike and whistle of a sheep farmer rounding up his flock beneath the thick blanket of cloud. The high western fells peaked above the clouds. Skiddaw and Blencathra were visible to the north. Catstycam enveloped in a fluffy candyfloss. It was one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever witnessed on a mountain. I felt giddy and a little emotional.
And the best bit – I still wasn’t done. People talk about Striding Edge but they invariably include a descent via Swirral Edge as part of the description. Swirral Edge is shorter and less technical but the initial steep descent high above the deep basin housing Red Tarn makes it an exciting scramble in its own right.
The ridge soon levels out and many walkers with two fine ridges under their belts will naturally veer off towards Red Tarn. But they are missing a trick. Although Wainwright lends considerably fewer pages of his Pictorial Guides to Catstycam, describing it as ‘the abrupt terminus of a short spur’ of Helvellyn, he goes on to say that if the mountain stood alone then it would be one of the finest peaks in Lakeland.
It’s only a short out-and-back to the summit and it’s a fine spot from which to survey the morning’s adventure. I sat for a while watching the ants marching along the silhouetted profile of Striding Edge, oblivious to the outstanding meteorological scenes I’d had to myself earlier on.
After the thrill of scrambling all morning, the more pedestrian descent to Glenridding over Birkhouse Moor gave me chance to come back down to earth. The throng of pilgrims panting up the slopes alongside Mires Beck to worship at the alter of Helvellyn prepared me for the crowds in Glenridding below. As I perched on the lip of the boot of my car changing my boots, no fewer than three drivers of cars circling like vultures nervously asked if they could have my space. A busy starting point is the price you pay for taking on such a popular route.
But what a route! It’s hard to disagree with Wainwright – a traverse of Striding Edge is indeed an exhilarating adventure. If you are hillwalker with a head for heights and scrambling in your bones, then Helvellyn by the Edges should undoubtedly be at the top of your to-do list.
Highs and Lowdown
Start / Finish: Glenridding
Distance: 8 miles (12.8 km)
Wainwright count: 3
Navigation: As with any mountain walk, strong map and compass skills are necessary. Good route-finding across rocky ground required on the ridges. Take care in locating the start of Swirral Edge in mist.
Terrain: Rocky ridge scrambling with exposure. Head for heights necessary. Otherwise, good paths on a well-trodden route.
Facilities: Lots of options in Glenridding and nearby Patterdale.
*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.