Striding Edge minus snow - too easy to bother with? Dan Bailey revisits an old favourite, and is forced to think again.
Most working class Londoners of the 1930s would have been out of their comfort zone on hills. Her honeymoon crossing of Striding Edge certainly left an enduring impression on my Grandma, living on in her memory as a nail-biting mountaineering adventure. It was also a one-off; I don't think she ever climbed another fell. As a wide-eyed teen I followed in her footsteps, and can still recall the thrill of being somewhere so dramatic for the first time, alone in the soft Cumbrian rain. Later I lived for a while at the base of Helvellyn, and it became a regular jaunt.
So it's fair to say I know Striding Edge pretty well, having been along it umpteen times, in all weathers and seasons. But had I become blase about it? Was I allowing familiarity to breed - if not contempt, then at least a certain dismissiveness?
In fine weather it barely feels like a scramble, I could be heard saying to anyone who'd listen, and in recent years I'd made a point of saving it for winter. Of course Striding Edge in the snow has a lot going for it, particularly done in combination with Swirral Edge, giving you England's best winter round. With snow and ice underfoot the edges gain an alpine feel, and earn a winter climbing grade I. Traverse Striding Edge in full winter conditions and you'll be balancing that airy line between walking and mountaineering. But is it equally worthwhile in summer? I had begun to have my doubts.
It's been a funny old winter this year, and in mid February the fells were snow-free under a warm sun. We found ourselves passing through the neighbourhood with an afternoon to spare, and Masa said he'd never been up there. This was an omission we clearly had to do something about. But I cautioned him not to expect too much. Think a smaller CMD arete or a less exposed Devil's Ridge, I said, not something as hands-on as Crib Goch or as tricky as Aonach Eagach.
It was T-shirt weather on the walk-in, with a dazzling low sun. Midweek, mid-afternoon, and the fells were far from busy. It's a bit of a grind from Glenridding, but by the time you reach Hole-in-the-Wall you've broken the back of the ascent. The crags of Helvellyn's Red Tarn Cove grew steadily larger ahead. Cradled between the outstretched arms of Striding Edge and Swirral Edge, this is a perfect example of a post-glacial cirque, a deep symmetrical scoop complete with its own little lake. Thanks to its altitude and easterly aspect, the cove is probably the snowiest place in England, and offers its most reliable winter climbing. All things are relative of course, and today only a tiny remnant of winter clung on, a broken rim of gritty snow like soap scum on a sink.
Playing leapfrog with a couple, the only other walkers who seemed to be still out on the hill this close to sunset, we veered from the flanking path up onto the little summit of High Spying How. This is the start of Striding Edge proper. A sense of airy exposure hits you right away, with a steep flank to the south sweeping into Nethermost Cove, and a rocky slope dropping abruptly north towards Red Tarn. The Edge is the narrow rocky gangway between. The archetypal arete, this must be the most enjoyable half kilometre or so of ridge-walking in the Lake District, and while the hands-on difficulty is minimal it's no wonder Striding Edge has a bit of a reputation in some circles. If this were your first taste of scrambly ridges, I can see why it might feel mildly thrilling. But it should never tip over into truly terrifying, always with the option of a well-used path that weaves along the north flank to avoiding the fun on top.
Striding Edge is well named. We hopped happily along the airy crest, with only the odd scrambling step to break the flow, the rock polished to a sheen by generations of shuffling bums. Masa is no stranger to steep ground, but if I'd worried that he might have found it a little trivial, I needn't have been concerned. Striding Edge isn't about technical difficulty so much as location, and the joy of smooth movement over easy-but-spectacular ground. With a grin spread across his face, he seemed to be taking to the spirit of things.
Just when you think it's almost over, the ridge runs into a little blunt prow, with a drop of several metres between you and more straightforward ground. Known as The Chimney, this short downclimb is most definitely the crux of the route. It is possible, with some backtracking, to circumvent the obstacle, but all it requires is a little care. The ridge now meets the main bulk of Helvellyn, with a final rocky scramble and a short uphill plod soon leading to the summit plateau.
Shadows stretched in the evening sun, and the outlines of the western fells were layered silhouettes, like an east Asian watercolour. As we made our way over to Swirral Edge, I had to admit to myself that I'd been dead wrong. Summer or winter, Striding Edge always delivers.
Grade: 1 Scramble (barely)
Start/finish: Main car park in Glenridding (pay & display)
Equipment: In summer, just hillwalking stuff; in real winter conditions an axe and crampons should be considered essential
Maps: OS Landranger (1:50,000) 90; OS Explorer (1:25,000) OL5; Harvey British Mountain Map (1:40,000) Lake District
Guidebook: The Ridges of England, Wales and Ireland by Dan Bailey (Cicerone)
Fell conditions report: Weatherline
For more details: see the UKH Route Card
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