There is some quality about Helvellyn which endears it in the memory of most people who have stood on its breezy top; although it can be a grim place indeed on a wild night, it is, as a rule, a very friendly giant.
- Alfred Wainwright, famous writer and fellwalker.
At 950m, Helvellyn forms the greatest point of a mountain range that runs for over ten miles right through the heart of the eastern Lake District National Park. While its western side is much the same as any old ridge-bound fell - the routes from the banks of Thirlmere Reservoir are more or less an exercise in gaining altitude - the eastern approaches from Glenridding and Patterdale via a pair of ridges which form a horseshoe around Red Tarn provide beautiful panoramic views, with the walk along Striding Edge being particularly worthwhile.
The Helvellyn Range
The Helvellyn range forms an impressive north-south barrier between Thirlmere Reservoir to the west and Patterdale and Ullswater to the east. The range begins in the north at Clough Head (726m) and runs through Great Dodd (857m), Watson's Dodd (789m) and Stybarrow Dodd (843m) before dipping down to 745 metres at the grassy Sticks Pass. The pass can be used to reach the north end of Thirlmere from the south end of Ullswater provided you don't mind reaching nosebleed height1 in-between. Next comes the formidable Raise (883m), followed by White Side (863m), after which walkers heading southwards along the range can assault the northern side of Helvellyn Lower Man (925m), this being the only way to reach Helvellyn if heading from the direction of White Side. Heading southwards from Helvellyn, only Nethermost Pike (891m), High Crag (884m) and Dollywagon Pike (858m) remain before the ridge ends with a descent to Grisedale Tarn, the peaks of Seat Sandal and Fairfield sitting a short way to the south.
Having said all that, the Helvellyn range is best traversed from south to north. A sturdy pair of legs, correct hiking equipment, a map and compass and a good supply of provisions such as food and water are also needed for such adventures, which are generally the reserve of experienced walkers. For everyone else, just climbing Helvellyn should prove to be enough of a leg-stretcher.
So, what about the mountain itself? In order to provide the reader with a taste of what they will be working for when they aim for the top of Helvellyn, it is probably best to start with a look down from the top of the world before describing the painful struggle upwards.
The peak of Helvellyn is slightly concave around Red Tarn, which sits below the eastern side of the fell. Red Tarn is effectively the puddle that formed once the glacier that carved out this side of the fell had disappeared, although the tarn was dammed back in the 19th Century to provide more water for the Greenside lead mine and is thus a little larger and deeper than it should be. Meanwhile, Helvellyn's peak is disappointingly flat, to the extent that on pleasant days one might forget that they were on top of England's third highest peak were it not for the magnificent views afforded by its altitude. The top is around 500m long running from north-west to south-east and has two summits separated by a small dip, with the more southern of the two being the true summit. Despite this, the summit is marked only with a standard cairn, though the presence of a nearby wall shelter gives away the fact that the walker has finally reached the mid-point of their walk.
A handful of monuments hide amongst the rubble at the top of the fell. Around 40m south of the true summit lies a small stone tablet commemorating the landing of an aeroplane in 1926 - this event made John Leeming and Bert Hinkler the first men to land on the summit of a British mountain before taking off again. At the head of Striding Edge lies the Gough memorial, a stone tablet erected in 1890 in memory of a man named Charles Gough who died while ascending Striding Edge and was found three months later, his faithful dog still at his side. Finally, there is the 1858 Dixon memorial, which consists of a cross hidden away on Striding Edge's High Spying How, overlooking Nethermost Cove to the south2. As if all these man-made objects weren't quite enough decoration, Helvellyn also features a triangulation point (survey monument), which lies halfway between the two summits.
As for other occupants of the summits - the numbers can vary quite substantially depending upon the season, the weather and so forth. On a pleasant day during the peak of the summer holidays, it is best to give up all hopes of a quiet time at the top and instead just do your best to enjoy the view. On the other hand, winter usually turns the fell into a place for quiet but cold respite, mainly due to the fact that only experts, diehards and madmen try to climb the mountain at this time of year.
Views and Ridge Walks
By now, the average fellwalker will probably be quite interested in knowing how to get to the top of the aforementioned fell. However, such trivial matters as the various routes to the top of Helvellyn pale into insignificance compared to the beautiful views and drastic ridge walks available from the summit.
On a clear day, the views from Helvellyn are magnificent; on a cloudy day the top can be shrouded in a cold wet mist that makes a picnic in the shelter followed by a careful descent seem the best option. Looking generally towards the east, you can see the drastic ridge descents along Swirral Edge and Striding Edge; the former runs in clear view to the left to reach Catstycam, and the latter is the series of jagged rocks that lead down from the large abutment to the right, with this ridge eventually leading to Birkhouse Moor. Between the ridges lies Red Tarn, named after the reddish colour of the mountains that are reflected in it. Turning around to look towards the west provides a completely different picture, with the view consisting of perhaps as many as forty or fifty different fells - too many to be named here.
To the north lies the northern reaches of the summit plateau, which joins seamlessly to Swirral Edge. The mountain hiding behind the ridge is White Side, behind which is Blencathra, aka Saddleback. Raise, the next fell in the range after White Side, is obvious as the sweeping lump further to the right which appears to be joined to White Side's hip. The path towards Swirral Edge and on towards Catstycam effectively follows the escarpment and then leaves the top of the fell near the northern summit. Meanwhile, the way towards Thirlspot and Helvellyn Lower Man heads off slightly below the northern summit in a north-westerly direction, with the path towards the Lower Man and onwards towards White Side taking an unexpected right hand turn away from the Thirlspot path3.
To the south lies the escape route towards Nethermost Pike, although the major path in this direction is that to Wythburn on the shore of Thirlmere Reservoir - this forks off to the right and stays with the contour of the fell before descending via Birk Side. However, those looking for an interesting walk who just happen to have mounted the fell in dry, calm and generally pleasant weather may wish to head south parallel to the escarpment to find the Gough monument, which marks the head of Striding Edge, and thus marks the most direct route down towards Patterdale and Glenridding.
Trailing off from the southern end of the peak, Striding Edge is almost as famous as Helvellyn itself. The ridge is wholly unsuitable for those wearing trainers and flip-flops4, and should generally be avoided in any sort of inclement weather whatsoever. You have been warned.
The lower end of the ridge begins at a point known as the Hole-in-the-Wall, a small stile in a drystone wall where the path over Birkhouse Moor meets up with the lower path up from Patterdale. Here, it is possible either to head up Striding Edge towards the top, or to head off towards Red Tarn and thus on towards either Swirral Edge or the path back down the valley alongside Redtarn Beck.
The first section of the ridge seems easy enough, but soon enough walkers are presented with the choice of either heading over the narrow top of the ridge or taking a side path which runs on the Red Tarn side of the ridge. Another choice comes before High Spying How, the rather large lump that blocks the path towards the final ascent. Another side path runs on the side opposite to Red Tarn (the left side when ascending) and allows walkers to avoid having to scramble down a gully on the western face of High Spying How. Once the How is out of the way, walkers need only master a long rocky scramble followed by the loose-stone path which leads to the summit.
In contrast to Striding Edge, Swirral Edge is rather rounded and simple to walk along for most of its length, although it does become more difficult towards the end, where a stony staircase must be mastered. The top end of the ridge is easily found at the northern end of the summit of Helvellyn, while the other end is joined to the summit of Catstycam - those wishing to head up along the ridge from Red Tarn must climb up the southern side, a task which sounds more daunting than it really is. From the top of the ridge can be seen both the Lower Man and the valley between it and the ridge, previously home to a tarn/reservoir known as Brown Cove Tarn that has since burst through both the dams that once held it in5.
Routes to the Top
All right, so you want to know how to get to the top. While this Researcher would love to list every single route to the top, they don't quite have the nerve to do so and will refer readers to Book One of Wainwright's Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells. Routes such as those along the ridge from White Side or Dollywagon Pike are omitted here.
However, the following routes will be included here - all these routes should be planned with a map, such as Ordnance Survey Explorer OL3 (Lake District - North East), and followed using a map and compass plus or minus fancy GPS gadgetry, hence the parentheses containing grid references to help you plan your walk.
From Glenridding: from the car park, cross over the river and walk up the road past the shops. This leads to a fork (grid reference 384168) offering paths towards Mires Beck and Lanty's Tarn - take the seemingly downward path on the right towards Mires Beck. After eventually turning off the road and walking uphill by the drystone walls, you'll pass through a gate (grid ref 376167) in a wall heading along the contour. Here, the path uphill is blocked for conservation purposes - the replacement can be found a short way to the left. The path off to the right which follows the wall around the mountain leads all the way up to Red Tarn via Glenridding Beck and Redtarn Beck, and thus leads to an alternative way up to Helvellyn via Swirral Edge. However, assuming you take the path straight up the hill alongside Mires Beck, you'll reach a wall with a style (grid ref 372161) in it. Crossing the style cuts across to the path up from Patterdale, while turning right and heading up alongside the wall - a replacement path heads away from the wall further up, but don't worry - takes you up to Birkhouse Moor (grid ref 363160) before heading to meet the Patterdale path at the Hole-in-the-Wall (grid ref 359155). This may sound like more work, but little height is lost between Birkhouse Moor and the Hole-in-the-Wall. From here, you can either head over Striding Edge, or descend to Red Tarn and then climb Swirral Edge.
From Patterdale: wander along the road up the Grisedale valley until you reach a path heading off to your right (grid ref. 383157) that crosses the valley before heading up the side of Birkhouse Moor. The path is reasonably easy to follow and leads all the way up to the Hole-in-the-Wall (grid ref 359155).
From Thirlspot: start at the King's Head and take the path uphill, opting at the point where the wall turns away (grid ref 321178) for the path that heads straight uphill. Though steep at first, this route soon curves to the right to head along the gradient, eventually heading upwards over Browncove Crags before passing right of the Lower Man on the way to Helvellyn's top. An alternative to this route is to start at the car park a mile south, taking the path across the footbridge in the middle of the field (grid ref 317168) before taking a right turn once above the forest. This leads up next to Helvellyn Gill to meet the path from Thirlspot.
From Wythburn: start at the car park (grid ref 324136) a short way north of the southern end of Thirlmere and then take the well-trodden path up the hill.
Fellwalking can be a serious undertaking, especially if the mountain you're climbing is anywhere near as big as Helvellyn. Walkers should always wear proper hiking boots and bring warm clothing6 and waterproofs regardless of the weather. A good supply of food and water (think 1.5 to 2 litres of fluid and a healthy packed lunch for each person, plus emergency chocolate rations) is essential, as is a map. This Entry is designed to act as a rough guide only - what you really need is a 1:25,000 OS map, a compass, and Book One of Wainwright's Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells. This Entry doesn't pretend to give advice on the safety of any of the routes in mist, but instead reminds walkers to be cautious and use their best judgement instead of pushing on regardless. Oh, and watch where you're putting your feet - it always helps.