I suppose it was inevitable that Helvellyn would come out as one of my favourite fells. My first mountain experience took place there, and it’s my most visited fell (jointly with Skiddaw). Now Helvellyn is not what I call a beautiful mountain, (although individual parts of it are), and it’s mainly the quality of the walks on the mountain, and its close neighbours, that propel it to a high spot on my list.
I’ve now “done” Helvellyn from all 3 “sides” – first from the Thirlmere side, then along the ridge, and finally from the Glenridding side. And each time the experience has improved upon those that have gone before.
The climb from the western side is the least interesting, although on my first ascent, seeing Thirlmere first appear as I got above the tree line and then gradually retreating into the distance as I climbed higher still, is one of my most vivid outdoor memories. That day was just a straightforward up and down from Wythburn, and content with my “achievement” I didn’t venture near the hills for over a decade.
In 2005, the year I properly started hill walking, I visited Helvellyn again. The 3 Peaks in July had been the catalyst for converting what was then a one-off challenge into what is now a continuing hobby and obsession. So much so that I returned to the Lake District in October of that year for a long weekend of walking. One of those walks was Helvellyn.
This time though, we got a bus from Keswick to Legburthwaite and climbed up to Sticks Pass from Stybeck Farm. The autumn colours were out, and I noticed the terrain much more than on my previous ascent. We nipped up onto Stybarrow Dodd for lunch, before continuing onto Raise, White Side and Helvellyn Lower Man. Then the summit of Helvellyn itself, which was shrouded in mist so that I couldn’t repeat the view of 13 years before. We finished the walk along to Dollywaggon before descending in the rain, slipping and sliding to Dunmail Raise and a bus back to Keswick. That day was my first ridge walk, and introduced me to the concept of getting high and staying high as I picked off several summits in succession.
While we were on the walk it seemed quite miserable hard work and consequently I don’t think we really took the opportunity to enjoy what is one of Lakeland’s finest walks. So my second day on the mountain is memorable mainly in hindsight, and because of repeating the ridge part of the walk, in reverse, last year.
My first day on any mountain, back in 1992, also put in front of my eyes something remarkable – when I looked down from the summit to the east of the mountain. I’d loved geography at school, and especially the part on glaciation. So to finally look down into a corrie for the first time and to see what an arête actually looks like was something else. At no stage on that day did I ever expect, or have any real desire, to walk on any of those features. At that time, it seemed like a big thing just climbing a mountain. There was no further ambition.
Nineteen years later, however, and I did just that, ascending the mountain from the Glenridding side, stopping off at Red Tarn, before climbing up to Birkhouse Moor and then continuing along Striding Edge to the summit of Helvellyn. And I threw in Swirral Edge too in an out and back trip from Helvellyn to Catstye Cam. I then continued along the ridge to Sticks Pass, returning to Glenridding via Hart Side, Sheffield Pike and Glenridding Dodd. This was one of the most special days I’ve ever had in the mountains – partly because of what it represented in terms of my hillwalking journey, partly because the weather was great, but most of all because it’s just such a great walk.
So I think it’s fair to say that there are several reasons why Helvellyn is special to me. But despite this, it’s unlikely to ever reclaim the top spot as my most favourite fell, although I expect it to remain highly placed nonetheless. This is because it’s just too popular, and I’ve evolved into a fell walker who hates the crowds. Even Striding Edge, one of the Lake District’s most extreme features, suffers from this, and the combination of having to queue and have loads of people watching your inefficient scrambling technique doesn’t appeal. I was lucky when I did Striding Edge last year that I was out and about early and only shared the experience with 3 or 4 others, none of whom were members of the “flip-flop brigade”. In any event, whilst clearly one of the seminal experiences that can be had in the Lakes, I don’t think Striding Edge I quite as good as Jack’s Rake or Sharp Edge.
But this certainly doesn’t mean I won’t be returning to the mountain – just that I’ll pick the conditions, route and timing carefully to maximize the things I enjoy about walking in the hills. Which are principally about having the place to myself as much as possible and being able to have a good view whilst I’m there. I think the next visit is likely to be an attempt to complete the whole ridge from Clough Head to Dollywaggon, as I need to redo the northern end of the ridge due to the rules of my Wainwright round. But I will definitely be back…