Helvellyn sounds warrior-like to me. It sounds as if it is daring you to conquer it. Its name conjures images of majesty, rebellion, struggle and victory….in my mind anyway! This mountain is special and has a mystical appeal to many walkers, myself included. It is 950m high, standing proudly at the tallest point of the Helvellyn Range in the Lake District. It is the third highest peak in England and can be approached from many varied and interesting routes including the infamous arete of Striding Edge.
The scenery from the summit is spectacular but it’s not all about the destination. The hike up to the top is a joy. At some point during your journey on whichever route, you will observe cascades and waterfalls with splash pools, deep glacial coves, arêtes and tarns which formed when the glaciers that chiseled and sculpted the eastern side of Helvellyn melted. A total of five ridges sprout from the main north-south ridge of Helvellyn, with the most famous being Striding Edge leading down to Birkhouse Moor and Swirral Edge leading to the conical and iconic Catstye Cam. The main south ridge continues the main ridge over Nethermost Pike, High Crag and Dollywagon Pike to Grisedale Tarn. Views of Thirlmere, Ullswater, Windermere and Bassenthwaite can be seen at various points along the plateau. Added to that, the actual feelings and emotions experienced as you climb this mighty mountain cannot be put into words. I had tears in my eyes on my last visit. With being so high up, it seems that you see this part of the world from another dimension.
My first trip up Helvellyn was in 2012 over Striding Edge. This trip prominently marked my return to great health following gruelling chemotherapy, radiotherapy and pre/post cancer surgeries. It was love at first hike. The route up this mountain was my goal and signified the point at which I was me again. I felt as though I had won going over the arête and making it to the summit was a massive achievement, when 6 months previous I couldn’t physically get up Walla Crag due to the pain I was in.
It was utterly thrilling going across the pointed ridge. Although the future is never promised to anyone, the mountain had a profound affect on my well-being and restored my sense of determination and allowed me to put the past firmly behind me where it belonged! You can read about ‘My Story’ if you would like to! From that point on, I knew amongst all the other Wainwrights I wanted to ascend that I would be back to Helvellyn every time I needed a reality check, a kick up the arse or just to remind myself of what can be achieved when you put your mind to it.
My next trip was with my daughter who was 10 years old at the time and really interested in the mountains of the UK. She was enthusiastic about her walking and loved to go to school and ‘show and tell’ her classmates and teachers about her adventures. I must admit, I did not want to go over Striding Edge and I wanted to try a different, gentler route. Instead of approaching from the east, we came from the west where the slopes are more gradual and not as challenging. We walked from Dunmail Raise over Willie Wife Moor via Reggie Knot, then across to the summit of Helvellyn returning via Nethermost and Dollywagon. The day was glorious and the photographs highlighted the beauty of the landscape, that has been millions of years in the making and at times, seemed other-worldly. I was so happy to have introduced Rebecca to this fascinating peak and to let her form her own views about what the mountain meant to her. She marvelled at the sights of the spectacular scenery surrounding her and the sun shone on the summit while she scoffed her sandwich! She actually ran up to the summit she was that excited to be there! You may have met her on the fells. She talks to EVERYONE! I don’t know where she gets it from!
My third trip up was very recent and even though I love the raw challenge of Striding Edge I wanted to try yet a different route for some variety. What a way to bring in 2019! We set off again from Dunmail Raise (free parking on A591) but this time walked along Raise Beck and up the gorgeous waterfalls until we got to Grisedale Tarn. The Winter sun was beating down but it was not warm enough to melt the ice on the pathways in places. On all walks, I think it is important to stop and look back every twenty minutes or so. Looking across the valley towards Wythburn Fell, it was obvious how much ascent we were making as each time we looked, another layer had been revealed that we couldn’t see previously. The tarn itself initially sparkled with a lovely shimmer across the water and as a cloud scattered above us the reflections in the water made it appear as though the sky was actually inside the tarn. After a quick brew and snack we walked along the north of the tarn and started the steep ascent up Dollywagon via the zig-zags. This bit is a slog, but great exercise and worth it! Once you reach Dollywagon Pike, the rest of the walk is fairly gradual and several Wainwrights can be ‘bagged’ along the plateau simply by taking a slight deviation from the route. The views to the west are particularly special from here. You can see the Scafell Range clearly, the Gables, Bowfell, Brandreth and High Raise. Continuing on to the summit, the panorama is thrown wide open. You can see as far as Kentmere and the Pennines in the east, to Morecambe Bay in the South, The Solway Firth looking West and looking North towards the instantly recognisable Blencathra. My favourite view is looking towards the Scafell Massif. But, more special in my opinion are the closer views of the range itself. For example Striding Edge, gorgeous and pointed, with a peppering of little silhouettes of people all balanced (seemingly) precariously along the top.
After cheese butties (the best!) and a hot brew (much needed!) we headed back south and took the path down towards Birk Side and Comb Crags and on into the plantations. We then took the log-track towards Birk Side Gill and after crossing the water at Raise Beck we found ourselves almost back at the car. I felt restored, refreshed and ready for the New Year!
Helvellyn’s etymology is not clear and is quite a mystery. According to the sayings of some internet sites it means ‘pale yellow moorland’ which is quite a world away from the meanings I had imagined! In books it says that Helvellyn has not yielded the secrets of its name and according to Joan Lee in her book ‘The Place Names of Cumbria’ it is Celtic in origin and could mean hunting ground. Whatever its meaning Helvellyn is so truly special to me and many others that grace its tracks and footpaths. It has so much to offer each individual hiker due to its variety of routes, accessibility, altitude, ridges and peaks. It just does not fail to please.
I am lucky that I have never had a bad experience on any of the Helvellyn routes other than going on my backside a couple of times. It is so important to plan ahead and choose a route that is suitable for your experience and the weather. You can book a guided walk if you are completely inexperienced with several guides in the Lakes and you can also check the conditions daily by using the Fell Top Assessors website and they will also give advice about what to wear and any equipment you may need. Do not underestimate the mountain.
This walk was 3 hours up and 2 hours down including stops for lunch, snacks and photos. I don’t know the exact distance as my tracker broke but I reckon it’s about 11km looking at the map with an ascent of 3118ft to the summit.
OS Explorer Map – North Eastern Area OL5
Wainwright Book 1 – The Eastern Fells
‘The mountains are calling and I must go…’