Helvellyn’s Ridges with James

A few weeks ago, mid DnD game, James spontaneously changed the subject from issues of corrupt nobility and an evil black dragon to say “Bob, you do lots of outdoorsy stuff right? I’m getting into walking and I was thinking we should go out and do an exciting walk”.

2019-08-03 09.42.18Ever one to leap at an opportunity for a Quality Mountain Day I cheerily agreed and we started making plans to rendezvous in the Lake District next time we had a free weekend. Come the time everything lined up and we were going to have a day of really clear weather.

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2019-08-03 11.37.24This seemed like the perfect time to tick off the big two famous scrambles on Helvellyn, as I’d heard a tonne of good things about them. So I picked up Scrambles in the Lake District North (surprisingly lacking in useful information) and Wainwright’s relevant guide (Faaar more useful) and planned a short but exciting walk. Basically this was the “traditional” tourist route straight up Striding Edge, then descent via Swirral Edge. Changed it up a little by including Catstycam (might as well, since it’s there), before dropping down into the valley and heading back to Glenridding.

I haven’t done a lot of proper scrambling before. I’ve done plenty of things which in retrospect are probably scrambles, but I doubt you’ll find many of them in a Best Scrambles in Region guidebook. Mostly they’re lower elevations, and largely the result of “shortcuts”, “adventures”, or a keen desire to look very closely at an interesting rock. Almost always improvisational, never planned, and if they had names I never learned them. Doing some of the “classics” seemed like a very good way to rectify this. Any short list of top scrambles in the Lakes always recommends Striding Edge, so it’s the first on my list.

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James and I stayed in Blakebeck Farm Camping Barn (website down at time of writing) which, at £11/night, worked out inexplicably cheaper than camping in a more central lakes location. That’s the way of the Lake District of course, a place of dense natural beauty and expensive tourist traps. I can heartily recommend the camping barn though – cheap, cheerful and everything you need for a base in the lakes.

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Helvellyn via the edges doesn’t start off as the most exciting walk in the world. A reasonably steep gravel track leads up and out of Glenridding, climbing out of the glaciated valley above Ullswater and up onto the hanging valley above. I’ll be the first to admit that my fitness level isn’t what it should be at the moment – a situation I’m trying to rectify – so I found the climb up more than a little miserable.

All that changed when we reached Striding Edge. Wainwright calls it “the finest ridge there is in Lakeland”, and I think it’s fair to defer to his authority on the subject. The ridgewalk is wonderful. Depending on where you start counting it’s about 1.5km of undulating rocky ridge, never particularly difficult or scary, but with glorious views in every direction. Photos really can’t do it justice (or at least not with my limited skill and the iffy camera post-processing of my LG G7), the openness and exposure of it demand the ability to turn and take it all in.

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The scramble itself is very easy in clear weather, with very forgiving paths to either side of the ridge itself. Sticking to the highest point on the way along makes for the most exciting walk, but at no point does it feel dangerous. A few parts are a bit polished, and the whole route is covered in the tell-tale scratches of walking poles. Despite being an avid wielder of poles these days (on downhills and flats at least) this baffles me – I’d much rather have my hands available on this route than use poles, but whatever works for you.

The only part which presents much of a scrambling challenge (i.e. requires use of hands) is a small chimney towards the end. This is well protected on both sides (being a chimney), but you do need to be careful to descend in a controlled manner and avoid the steep scree slopes a few feet beyond. The holds are juggy and plentiful though, so even  someone unfamiliar with climbing can descend safely. One steep gravelly path later and we were on the top.

We didn’t hang around long though, as the top was pretty mobbed with people eating their lunches. We did the obligatory trig point tap and then dropped straight down onto Swirral Edge. This was fun, although not quite as magical as Striding Edge.

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On the way down we bagged Castycam and contemplated a dip in Red Tarn before deciding instead to get a move on downhill. It was a hot day and we were both keen to get back and cool down. Not before taking a few minutes to soak my feet in the stream though. By this point I’d finished all of my water (1.5L hasn’t been lasting long in this climate change ravaged summer) and was increasingly keen to get to a place with beer.

I briefly considered refilling from the stream, but given the sheer numbers of people we’d seen on this hill, as well as a good friend’s recent case of Giardia, I decided that maybe this wasn’t the best idea. Since this trip I’ve finally bought myself a water filter, I’m a sweaty boy and seem to want to drink about 3L+ of water a day when I’m out and about at the moment. Since I absolutely refuse to carry that much, I’m hoping that this filter is going to make my life much more pleasant – especially on some planned future hikes.

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Our plan for Sunday was to do Blencathra and Sharp Edge, just to complete our best lake district scrambles weekend, but we elected to skip it due to threatened thunderstorms and some chafing complaints from James. Satisfied by our labours James dropped me off at Kirkby Stephen train station and we headed our separate ways.

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