NW England - Cumbria - Lake District National Park
Up Helvellyn in the snow
Climbers tackle Swirral Edge
- Start time: 10.30 am
- Finish time: 3.30 pm
- Route length: approx. 7 miles
With Christmas been and gone with the last of the pudding and having seen off the tail end of a rainy January, I was feeling in need of a challenge and a bit of exercise.
The forecast for February 1st was for clear skies, and knowing the tops of the Cumbrian mountains were covered in snow I decided to climb Helvellyn, a mountain I have visited before and am reasonably familiar with.
After investing in a new alpine jacket and ice axe, I arrived at Glenridding and started to kit up. In my rush to get there I had forgotten my walking boots - a heavy duty pair - and had to buy new ones from a shop nearby or face turning back. My new £50 boots were a bit light for the conditions I expected but would have to do.
The start of the walk is a relatively easy stroll up Greenside Road, which turns into a track past the Travellers Rest pub on the way up to a Youth Hostel. From here the footpath is clearly marked to Red Tarn and Helvellyn and the terrain becomes more rugged.
The summit of Helvellyn looking north from near Striding Edge
Walking up alongside Glenridding Beck, snow and ice started to litter the ground and the clear green water of the stream contrasted with the snow covered peak of Catstye Cam to the south-west.
After a gentle introduction the next part of the walk up to Red Tarn was harder. The ascent is steep for a mile or so, with soft snow on the path and large patches of ice. Hard enough as it was, the lack of grip from my new boots meant a lot of wasted energy and I realised I lacked fitness.
It was a relief to reach Red Tarn, iced over and deep blue, and stop for a breather and some food. Others had done the same, including a school group with their climbing instructors and a couple of hardy souls with tents who had obviously been there overnight. The backdrop of the sheer white face of the mountain and the bright blue sky was spectacular.
Up till now I had been fine walking in a fleece as the exercise alone kept me warm enough. To get ready for the top though, I put a pair of snowboarding pants over my trousers and donned my down jacket. What had seemed a faintly excessive and even humorous amount of kit back at the car suddenly just seemed like common sense.
View from the top of Helvellyn, looking West
Cutting across from Red Tarn to the start of Swirral edge, the snow was deep and I trod in the footprints of previous walkers to save energy.
Swirral edge is one of two ridges leading to the flat, table like top of Helvellyn. In some ways it is easier to climb than the long slow slog to Red Tarn, as the sharp rocks and boulders need a bit of thinking time and slower more careful placement of feet, hands and ice axe. The main feature of the ridge is the dramatic falling away on either side, especially to the north. The drop can appear very steep and sheer, and although it isn't perhaps quite as bad as it looks, the sense of potential danger does a fine job of focusing the mind on the task in hand.
The final few steps to the summit were up an almost sheer face of compacted snow-drift, tackled by kicking my toes into it to make steps as I went. A few more kicks and I was up on the top, with fantastic views of snow covered mountains for miles around in every direction. It was 1p.m. and the temperature was -6, not counting wind-chill. Lunch time.
I had planned to go back via Striding Edge, the longer of the two ridges which helps cup the tarn at the foot of the mountain. I walked along the summit to where I had stepped down onto it one September some years ago, but could not see a way down. The lip of the summit was covered in a thick blanket of drifted snow overhanging the edge of the mountain, and any clue as to where a safe entry point might have been was completely obscured.
Helvellyn - steep in places
Not wanting to risk it I decided to take a different route back. I had noticed an undulating, plateau like descent to the north, with a track curving back round to Glenridding clearly visible in the bright sunshine. I decided to follow the other, sensible walkers, back down the mountain.
The descent was gentle but complimented by strong abrasive blasts of wind and spindrift - tiny frozen particles of snow which sting the face like cold sand. I noticed a huge solitary Raven, almost static, soaring above the ridge. To the north was a mass of mountain with brown sides and a snow covered top half. To the east, Ullswater was visible in the distance, framed by the steep white sides of nearby peaks. Before long I started going up again, to the top of Whiteside Bank, before turning east, traversing the slope, and then zig-zagging down through deep snow to Glenriding Beck and back to Glenridding.
Verdict: Not for the faint-hearted of the unfit. If you're not sure, don't attempt it. Be prepared, and don't forget your boots.
- Equipment: Long-johns, 2 thermal base layers, over-layer, fleece, goose down insulated jacket, corduroy trousers, insulated snow-board/ski trousers, 2 pairs socks, walking boots, ice axe, hat, 2 pairs gloves, map and compass, sunglasses, food, small thermos of hot tea, camera, backpack.
- Tips: Crampons may have been useful in addition to the ice axe. Be flexible and prepared to turn back or change routes. Take high energy food, fluids, and allow time for rests.
- Map: Ordnance Survey OL5, 1:25 000 scale
Mystery Traveller, 2nd February 2012