One Minute Mountain: Helvellyn

It's high time our bite-sized intros to Britain's best hills got to England's third highest summit, and the fell recently voted the nation's favourite walk. Alex Roddie makes strides for Helvellyn...


Helvellyn and Catstycam  © gsum
Helvellyn and Catstycam
© gsum, Jan 2007

Height: 950m

Personality: Dramatic and complex. Helvellyn is the highest point on a long whaleback ridge, sculpted on the east side by several high combes – or 'coves' as they're often known locally. It's a well-loved peak and one of the most interesting in the Lake District.

What's in a name? Helvellyn is the name given to both the highest point, and the entire massif. The name has no generally agreed meaning although many sources now point towards a Cumbric origin: hal ('moorland') and velin ('yellow'). It's thought this might refer to the colour of the upland grasses at certain times of year.

Best route: The round of Striding Edge and Swirral Edge takes some beating. These sharp arêtes provide one of the best walking routes in the Lake District, hence the world, and parts of Striding Edge in particular just about qualify as a Grade 1 scramble if taken direct. It's a well-deserved classic. With little in the way of genuine commitment, you get to experience a hint of an exposed Alpine ridge – but it still deserves to be taken seriously, and should not be underestimated. In full winter conditions this becomes a superb but challenging mountaineering route of grade I, and needs competent use of axe and crampons.

Striding Edge from the east face of Helvellyn  © Si Withington
Striding Edge from the east face of Helvellyn
© Si Withington, Nov 2013

Accident blackspot: Striding Edge is the scene of numerous mountain accidents. It's attractive for walkers of all abilities, and sometimes people take it on without the necessary experience or equipment – or sometimes they just get unlucky. Mountain Rescue callouts for people in difficulties on Striding Edge are a regular occurrence, especially in the busy summer season, and sadly there are fatalities on this route most years. Another similarly dodgy spot is found on the exit from the summit plateau onto Swirral Edge. This steep slope can be icy and/or corniced in winter, and numerous incients involving ill-equipped walkers have been recorded here.

Famous fatalities and Romantic martyrs: On the way up Striding Edge you may notice a small white plaque commemorating an early victim of the route. It reads:

'In memory of Robert Dixon of Rooking Patterdale who was killed on this spot on the 27th day of November 1858 following the Patterdale Foxhounds.'

An even earlier (and better-known) fatality took place in April 1805 when Charles Gough, an early Romantic artist touring the Lake District, vanished on Striding Edge along with his dog, Foxie. Gough was described as having a 'venturesome' personality and had a penchant for taking crazy risks, which is why he did not hire a guide for what in 1805 was seen as a dangerous ascent. Three months later, the dog was discovered next to the skeletal remains of her master – having given birth to a puppy, which subsequently died. Although the dog probably survived by devouring the body, Gough's death was elevated to a Romantic myth by his fellow artists and poets, who saw an echo of the sublime in his lonely and careless death. There is a large plaque in memory of Gough at the top of Striding Edge.

Early Morning on Striding Edge  © Christophé.S
Early Morning on Striding Edge
© Christophé.S, Apr 2017

Other worthwhile routes: Many other walking routes that make a beeline for the summit are possible but few are as good as the two Edges. For those with limited time, the steep pull up from The Swirls on the eastern bank of Thirlmere is the quickest and most direct route to the top for walkers.

Ultimate challenge: Looking for a big day out with lots of peaks? Helvellyn is merely the highest point on a long north-south ridge. The complete traverse from Dunmail Raise to Threlkeld is about 20km in length, and involves around 1400m of total ascent. Not big enough for you? Start from Ambleside, maybe take a tent, and add Red Screes, Hart Crag and Fairfield on at the beginning!

Why do climbers flock to Red Tarn Cove? This crag, situated above Red Tarn and between the two famous Edges, is one of the most reliable cliffs for winter conditions in the Lake District and is a Mecca for ice-axe-wielding gully fiends. Classic routes include several easy (Grade I-II) snow gullies – often guarded by cornices at the top – and harder routes such as V-Corner III** and Viking Buttress IV,5**. If you aspire to get into winter mountaineering and climbing, it's hard to think of a better square kilometre anywhere in the Lakes.

Is it true that the same guy climbs Helvellyn every day of the year? Well, not quite. The Lake District National Park has a Fell Top Assessor programme in which a small team of professionals report daily on conditions on the ground through the winter season. It is an invaluable safety resource, and the nearest thing in the Lake District to Scotland's SAIS avalanche reports.

Helvellyn   © Mechanical orange
Helvellyn
© Mechanical orange, Jan 2018

Summit view: On a clear day the view from the summit covers most of the Lake District and, to the east, the high ridge of the North Pennines. Although the Scottish hills can be seen to the north-west, the bulk of the Coniston Fells hides any possible view of Snowdon, and the Isle of Man is also hidden. The summit plateau of Helvellyn is so smooth and flat that an aeroplane successfully landed there in 1926!

Where to stay? Grisedale Lodge offers B&B and self-catering accommodation in Patterdale. There's basic camping available at Side Farm.

Local pub: The White Lion Inn, Patterdale, is known for its selection of real ales and distintive chequerboard architectural look.


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