Striding Edge, Helvellyn. Seeing a photograph of this iconic ridge in the Lake District as a young boy pinpoints the exact moment which sparked my interested in mountains. I remember being dragged on a walk on a family holiday, when my dad told the tale of a ridge, high up in the clouds, where the path is only three feet wide, sheer drops into oblivion either side of you.
I didn’t believe him, of course, my only experiences of Lake District mountains to date being the relatively pedestrian Catbells and a trudge up the mighty Skiddaw. But then I saw a photograph and that was it. My life-long obsession with the mountains had begun.
I remember gazing at that image for hours. Hungry for more, I grabbed books from the shelves to seek out drawings, descriptions, anything I could about Striding Edge. Everything from the seemingly endless slopes either side of the ridge, to the rocky towers along the route, captured my imagination.
Stories of people falling from the precipice made it seem all the more menacing. I thought my dad was actually Chris Bonington for a while, as he regaled me with stories of his first traverse of Striding Edge with an old climbing buddy of his. How he had to use a rope in one place and the ever-present exposure.
Over the years, I’d built up such reverence for this mountain that I needed to see it for myself. The long summer holidays at University proved ideal for regular trips to the Lake District and after ticking off some iconic peaks, the time had come to meet my hero.
I remember being a little coy with my parents about our plans for the day. We’d admitted to going up Helvellyn but until the question was asked about our intended route, we’d kept shtum. This was with the best intentions, of course. I didn’t want to worry them. But I think they recognised I had the mountain bug and I played up the fact I was going with a friend who was in the Mountain Rescue!
We parked the car in Patterdale early and began our hike in. The gradual increase in height builds anticipation and we craned our necks at every turn in the path to catch our first glimpse of Striding Edge.
And suddenly, there it was:
I still remember the excitement as we saw the spiny ridge standing high above Red Tarn for the first time. We raced towards its base and admired its impressive profile, safe in the knowledge that we could always retreat if it was too intimidating for us.
Together, Striding Edge and its little brother Swirral Edge, as well as the prodigious mass of Helvellyn create an impressive amphitheatre around Red Tarn. The air was cool in the shadows cast by these mighty cliffs and we scurried up the rising path like ants towards the start of Striding Edge at High Spying How.
The excitement at stepping on to the spine of this Stegosaurus-like part of the mountain was palpable. The scene was atmospheric, as a large mass of cloud had settled in the valley to our left, shielding the long drop from view.
‘Shall we do it, then?’ I asked, as we reached the point of no return. A silent nod was all I needed and we began our traverse.
‘This isn’t so bad’, I remember saying, as we tackled our first scrambly bit of the walk. The drop down to Red Tarn was ever present but with a blanket of fluffy cloud to our left, we felt confident as we skipped along the ridge, oblivious to the run off below.
Just as we reached the halfway point, the cloud lifted to reveal the majesty of the drop to the valley floor. Our respect for the mountain intensified as Striding Edge revealed itself in all its glory. ‘Wow’ was the only word we could utter, as we tried, unsuccessfully, to capture the extent of the drop in photographs.
The ridge continues over a series of rocky towers, the descent from the final one being the most challenging part of the route. Once you’ve found a safe way down, you are left with a not-as-bad-as-it-looks climb up a rocky ridge to reach the summit plateau of Helvellyn. By this point, we felt invincible and positively skipped up the last scramble to look back on our conquest.
This triggered a sudden flashback to that first image of Striding Edge I saw in short trousers all those years ago. There it was, exactly as I’d remembered it. The rocky spines along the ridge. The narrow path draped like a ribbon across the top. The steep slopes either side.
Meeting my hero was everything I expected and more. Not as frightening as I’d built it up to be; in fact, the descent of the first part of neighbouring Swirral Edge is arguably more nerve-wracking. Despite the friendliness of the ridge, it left me with a deep respect for the mountains. I’ve since looked up at the Edges from Red Tarn on a Winter’s day, where they become different animals. This is when people are caught out and, unless you know what you are doing, you should only attempt a crossing on a fine day.
Back in Ambleside for a pub lunch, we reflected on our day’s walk. A friendly walker came over to share his scrambling stories and told tales of Jack’s Rake on Pavey Ark. Despite being another iconic scramble in the Lake District, it didn’t capture my imagination as much as Striding Edge had.
So, this Bank Holiday weekend, think back to what sparked your enthusiasm for the mountains. Why not make that pilgrimage and meet your mountain heroes? If your experience is like mine, you won’t be disappointed.