If you’re thinking, “Ooo – I could just fancy a nice English mountain,” Helvellyn might get your juices flowing. Now, other countries’ mountains (with the possible exception of Holland’s) often come in larger sizes, but England does have some fairly serious lumps of rock and Helvellyn is one of them. At 3,117 feet (950 metres), it is England’s and the Lake District’s third highest peak, easy to get to, provides interesting and varied scenery, exhilarating views, the magnetism of the infamous Striding Edge…and is not to be trifled with.
Helvellyn is part of a mighty range of ancient peaks all more than 1,900 feet (600 metres) high, running about 6 miles from north to south. The rocks in these parts are known to geologists as ‘the Borrowdale Volcanics’, and were spewed forth in molten magnificence before your grandmother was born 450 million years’ ago. The west slope of this range rises relatively steeply and inexorably from Thirlmere, but the eastern aspect facing Patterdale and Ullswater is (arguably) far more interesting - a product of the last Ice Age, sometime between 26 and 10,000 years back. Here, deep U-shaped valleys have been carved with arêtes either side (sharp ridges left by two parallel glaciers), basins have been scoured out to form corries filled with glacial melt water known as tarns, brooks babble their way down hill across peat and over coloured stones and you can, with precious little effort, imagine that the 21st century is a very long way off. Having said that, Helvellyn is a popular climb, particularly from the east – so if you crave total solitude, set off early or approach it from another direction.
The routes from Patterdale via Grisedale, or from the more touristy Glenridding, are along well trodden paths – to a point. Depending how fit you are (and if you’re concerned about fitness, then maybe it’s better to read ‘Wainright’s Favourite Mountains’) the trudge to the top and back should take anything from 3 – 6 hours. To describe this as a walk is, in fairness, a little misleading. From Grisedale, once you’re off the valley bottom it is, quite frankly, a relentless slog up cut steps to your first named feature, Hole in the Wall – actually, a series of scattered rocks and a stile. The route from Glenridding is marginally kinder on the lungs. The views all the way are immensely rewarding. From Hole in the Wall, you start a gentler, but more challenging, stagger up onto Striding Edge, a narrow spine some half a mile in length. Striding Edge must be treated with considerable respect. It is not for the faint-hearted and, if you have no head for heights, do not try it – though you can work your way along the northern (Red Tarn) side, with care. However, what look like paths are rabbit runs that can come to dead-ends at sheer rock faces and, in places, a slip can be fatal. If someone is nervous, don’t hassle them, and keep both children and dogs under control.
As you begin the ascent from Hole in the Wall, Red Tarn will come into view on your right and you’ll see the brooding mass of Helvellyn beyond. The tarn is in a horseshoe, formed by the arêtes of Striding Edge and Swirral Edge. Once off Striding Edge, you’re immediately confronted with a scramble, mostly on hands and knees, up jumbled rocks the height of several houses to the top of the mountain. The slope seems vertical at times, but is probably a gentle 45 degrees.
Helvellyn is not a classic inverted V-shaped mountain: the top is a broad plateau where, in 1926, someone actually landed an aeroplane. And it is on the plateau that you may come across several memorials. The most famous is to Charles Gough, tourist and artist, who disappeared on the mountain in 1805. His skeletal remains were found three months later, by a passing shepherd, where he had fallen. Trixie, his faithful (and presumably well-fed) dog still guarded what was left of her master’s cadaver.
But don’t dwell on that. Provided the summit isn’t shrouded in cloud, wander about and enjoy the stunning views. Your way down is along Swirral Edge – not as daunting as its sibling on the opposite side, but still to be treated with care – skipping is not advised. Once you’re back at Red Tarn, pick your preferred path back to civilisation and, possibly, a well-deserved pint.
Conquering Helvellyn is an immensely rewarding achievement. Take a camera, a picnic and enjoy yourself. But it does claim lives and even experienced hill walkers can get into trouble. So, do not undertake this walk without suitable preparation, clothing, equipment and supplies. I have seen stupid people on it wearing casual shoes, shivering and without a map (you probably need Ordnance Survey North East English Lakes OL5). Conditions can change very quickly and it is easy to go astray. Unless you’re very experienced and well equipped, or tired of living, on no account attempt Helvellyn in bad weather or mid-winter.