Words: Vivienne Crow
Images: Aimee Mcilvennie
Perhaps the most famous of the Lake District’s many mountains, Helvellyn is a hill-walker’s dream. The breathtaking summit at 950m can be reached by a number of different routes, with the narrow, steep scramble of Striding Edge providing the destination for experienced hikers who want to challenge their ability and test their nerve.
In this piece, author and hill-walking regular, Vivienne Crow is joined by adventure photographers Sophie & Aimee Mcilvennie as they take on a circular scramble route to Helvellyn summit under the watchful eye of a Mammut Mountain School guide.
I’ve got my left arm hooked around a slender but solid spike of rock protruding from The Chimney, while the fingers on my right hand scrabble for security elsewhere. “There’s a good hold just above your head over to the right,” says Neil Mackay, a guide with the Mammut Mountain School who is standing just below me. I find the hold, but now it’s time to move my feet from the tiny perches on which they’re precariously balanced. Will they move? No. While one part of my brain tells them to move, the other is saying: “Uh uh! No way! Not with all that empty air below us.” Is this what it means to be crag fast? Frozen to the side of a mountain by fear?
“...the most famous route is the vertiginous scramble along the airy crest of Striding Edge.”
Neil’s been guiding me and Aimee and Sophie of Monkeys Climb Mountains along Striding Edge, one of two narrow spines of rock that lead to the summit of England’s third highest mountain. When we set off, the car park in Glenridding was abuzz with other walkers and scramblers with their sights also set on mighty Helvellyn.
There are several routes on to the 950m summit from here. Some walkers head up the old pony route, used for centuries by packhorse trains to transport goods across the hills. Although steep and stony in places, it’s a straightforward option. Others opt to cross into the spectacular glacial valley of Grisedale for the long, slow ascent to Grisedale Tarn and then on to Dollywaggon Pike, one of Helvellyn’s nearest neighbours. But the most famous route is the vertiginous scramble along the airy crest of Striding Edge, returning via the parallel ridge of Swirral Edge.
“...it’s the perfect introduction for ordinary hill-walkers who want to tackle edgier, more adventurous terrain.”
So, what exactly is scrambling? Any journey across steep ground that involves you having to use your hands is a scramble. But does that make it the same as rock climbing? Well, there’s a fine line between a ‘grade three’ scramble, where you might need to use a rope, and a full-on rock climb. Striding Edge, though, is at the lower end of a ‘grade one’ so, for much of the year, it’s the perfect introduction for ordinary hill-walkers who want to tackle edgier, more adventurous terrain. In terms of gear, in anything but winter conditions, you need only what you’d normally take for a day on the hills – warm and waterproof clothing, map and compass, a torch with spare batteries, food and water, a small first aid kit, a fully charged mobile phone and decent footwear. Neil’s also brought along a rope with harnesses and helmets just in case…
With the cloud sitting low on the tops, there was no sign of Helvellyn’s muscular east face when we reached the top of the Mires Beck path. Normally, from here, the pyramid peak of Catstye Cam would’ve made a sudden and dramatic appearance, linked to the main summit by the graceful arc of Swirral Edge. This is a special landscape, sculpted by glaciers that have long since vanished but still home to rare Arctic-alpine plants found nowhere else in England. As we continued our journey though, there was nothing to see; all was shrouded by a damp wall of fog.
“Fragile curtains of mist swirled around, occasionally parting to reveal exhilarating glimpses of the ground plummeting away to the south.”
The adventure proper began just beyond the Hole-in-the-Wall path junction. While most walkers, avoiding the crest for now, kept to the well-trodden path that traverses the northern side of Striding Edge, we moved up on to the highest ground. “I like to bring people up here first so that I get a sense of how well they handle the more exposed ground,” explained Neil. My heart raced as the fragile curtains of mist swirled around, occasionally parting to reveal exhilarating glimpses of the ground plummeting away to the south. The big grin on my face said it all. “Try to keep to the rock as much as possible. It’s slippery but it’ll be good to get used to it here before the ridge narrows.” The big grin was replaced by a frown of concentration as I realised just how slick the damp rock was. I’d crossed Striding Edge before and loved (almost) every minute of it, but that had been in the summer, when the ground was dry and my boots seemed to stick to the rock. No chance of that today. Neil demonstrated how to use our boots’ heel ridges to anchor ourselves as we moved over the slimy slabs.
Before long, the arête narrowed and the many walkers who’d been following the side path had little choice but to join us briefly on the more exposed apex. We passed a delicately perched memorial, marking the spot where, in November 1858, foxhunter Robert Dixon fell from the high ground on to the rocks below. He’d been following the Patterdale Foxhounds when the accident happened, and was taken off the mountain alive, but died from his injuries the next day. It was an unnerving but salutary reminder of just how dangerous Striding Edge could be.
“Most of the accidents occur in winter, when Helvellyn becomes a full-blown mountaineering adventure.”
Every year, mountain rescue volunteers are called out to dozens of accidents on this ridge and Swirral Edge, its neighbour to the north. Most of the accidents occur in winter, when Helvellyn becomes a full-blown mountaineering adventure, requiring the use of crampons, to provide traction on the ice, and ice axes to stop any minor slips from turning into potentially fatal falls. As I edged along the top of the precipice, Neil explained that Mammut Mountain School runs winter skills courses to provide summer hill-walkers with the know-how they need to move safely over steep ground like this in snow and ice. But that’s not to say there aren’t accidents up here at other times of the year – there are many. Even today, in the middle of a quiet autumn spell, our trip – one of Mammut Mountain School’s level-two, private-guiding days – would’ve been cancelled if there’d been strong wind or heavy rain forecast.
The side path just below the ridge-top reappeared and, while some people chose to bypass the difficulties, we continued along the more demanding crest, carefully negotiating a couple of knuckles of gnarly rock. “Try to avoid big steps so that you don’t end up on your knees,” Neil said, as I awkwardly clambered up a rock step that was just too much for my little legs. “It’s more difficult to get back on your feet from a kneeling position.” He wasn’t wrong!
“I find myself, glued to the rock, seemingly incapable of lowering my feet into what looks like an abyss.”
When we came to any down climbs, he encouraged us to face into the rock, using hands as well as feet to move safely. I followed Neil’s lead, envious of the ease with which he seemed to glide over the rugged terrain, but totally confident in his guiding abilities. Holding the highest possible level of qualification, from the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations, the 38-year-old is used to taking clients across Alpine glaciers and along snow-covered sawtooth ridges that make Striding Edge look like a stroll in the park. I resisted the urge to bum-slide my way down, a technique with the potential to end in disaster on such slick rock, especially with my rucksack pushing me forwards. I also knew I needed to get some down-climbing practice in as we edged closer to the one section of Striding Edge that I hadn’t enjoyed on my first traverse – The Chimney.
That’s where I find myself, glued to the rock, seemingly incapable of lowering my feet into what looks like an abyss. I tell myself I’ve done it before and, although I didn’t particularly enjoy it, I’d managed it without incident. I also remind myself that I’m no longer on the crest; I’m relatively safely ensconced by rock on both sides. If I fall now, I’m not going to go hurtling several hundred metres down the side of the mountain, and Neil is spotting from below – steering me and braced to prevent any serious injuries. Drawing on what he told me earlier about down climbing, I push my upper body away from the rocks just slightly – enough to provide a better view of what’s below me – and begin to lower my left foot. I can see the foothold. It’s just a little further... a little more... Unfortunately, I miss it and end up inelegantly stumbling on to the ledge below. But the tricky bit’s over, and my relief is obvious from my nervous laughter.
“Some are ashen-faced as they emerge from The Chimney; others are strutting, proud of their achievement.”
Sophie, who’s been moving with total confidence over Striding Edge’s rocky spine while I’ve been clumsily lurching from one bad move to another, opts to rope up and attempt a more adventurous descent of one of the tower’s impressive pinnacles. She and Neil don harnesses and helmets, he preparing to take her weight should she fall; I, meanwhile, enjoy the chance to rest and chat with some of my fellow scramblers. Some are ashen-faced as they emerge from The Chimney; others are strutting, proud of their achievement. “I’m gonna have a break here,” says one woman, looking even more exhausted than me. “Resting’s for wimps,” says her companion and pushes on up the next section.
I look ahead to see where he’s going. Although we have, in effect, completed Striding Edge, we’re still about 120 metres below the summit of Helvellyn. It’s not time to celebrate just yet. As on the ridge, there’s a choice of surface ahead: you either go straight up the rock or you avoid it by following the scree path around the side. (Even The Chimney can be avoided if you’ve got a head for heights and the surefootedness of a mountain goat, but a slip from the nasty-looking bypass path to the south could result in a 200-metre fall down steep, rocky ground into Nethermost Cove.)
“The scene is simultaneously enthralling and terrifying…”
As we embark on this final climb, the mist rewards us for our previous endeavours – a tiny, temporary tear in its pervasive grey allowing us a glimpse of what lies below, what we’ve just tackled. The scene is simultaneously enthralling and terrifying – a series of brawny towers lead off into the murk, separated by narrow rock spurs. Have I really walked that? The curtains edge open a tiny bit more, revealing, far below us, the dark waters of Red Tarn, home to an endangered species of fish that has survived here since the end of the last glacial period.
As we finally emerge on the grass of the summit plateau, we pass the memorial to Charles Gough, another of the mountain’s many fatalities. His rotting remains were found in 1805 at the base of nearby crags, prompting both Sir Walter Scott and local poet William Wordsworth to set quill to paper. It wasn’t so much the death itself that inspired them though; it was more the story of Gough’s dog, which remained beside its master’s body until it was discovered three months later. A tale of canine loyalty perhaps? Wordsworth thought so when he wrote the poem Fidelity in tribute. The local newspaper, on the other hand, told a more prosaic version of events, reporting that the dog had torn the clothes from its master’s body and “eaten him to a perfect skeleton”.
After the constrained nature of the narrow arête, the top of Helvellyn feels very spacious. Paths come and go in all directions and there’s a lot of ‘furniture’ up here – a cross-shaped shelter, full of resting walkers tucking into their lunches; a trig pillar; and a massive cairn marking the true, 950-metre summit. Enough room to land a plane. In fact, in 1926, that’s exactly what John Leeming and Bert Hinkler did in an attempt to show how adaptable modern bi-planes were. They landed their Avro 585 Gosport on the plateau a few days before Christmas, Hinkler keeping the engine going at full throttle as his companion leapt out and jammed rocks behind its wheels to stop it rolling downhill. They stopped just short of the lip of Helvellyn’s eastern headwall. A few more metres and their daring experiment would’ve ended in disaster.
“When winter hits the Lake District fells, we wouldn’t be able to venture this close to the edge.”
In clear weather, we’d be able to look out over this precipice, down on to Red Tarn in its cosy corrie, and along Ullswater to the North Pennines in the distance. Not today though. The clag has covered all, and we’re staring into nothingness. Neil explains that, in a few weeks’ time when winter hits the Lake District fells, we wouldn’t be able to venture this close to the edge because it’d be obscured by a cornice, an unstable snow overhang that could collapse at any time.
The impending winter becomes a topic again as we drop on to Swirral Edge, the second of the two ridges that form a cradle around Red Tarn. The ramp of loose stones leading on to this arête, like the exit from Striding Edge, is often choked with ice long after the surrounding snow has receded. It leads many scramblers, looking up at the fells and believing winter is over, to think mistakenly that they can attempt the traverse without crampons and ice axe. That’s when the National Park’s fell-top assessment service literally becomes a life-saver. It involves a team of experienced mountaineers climbing Helvellyn daily throughout the winter and providing reports on the ground conditions including the level of the snowline, the stability of the snowpack and wind speeds. The service, which can be accessed at www.lakedistrictweatherline.co.uk or via the Met Office’s Lake District mountain weather forecast, usually runs from December 1 until Easter and is essential reading for anyone thinking about attempting the routes in winter.
As on Striding Edge, the rock on Swirral Edge is damp and slippery. It’s inclined at a more awkward angle, increasing the chances of slipping, but there are no technical difficulties to contend with. It’s also considerably shorter than its more famous neighbour... After spending what felt like hours on Striding Edge, it seems like we’re on Swirral Edge for only a matter of minutes. I’m disappointed. Exhausted and covered in mud from all the times I’ve ended up on my knees or my bum, part of me is eager for the easier terrain that’ll take us back to Glenridding. The other part of me, though, is on a high, literally and figuratively, and it really doesn’t want to come down...
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