Helvellyn Route

Recommended Maps Ordnance Survey Maps:

Outdoor Leisure Map 5 - North East Area (1:25,000)

Land Ranger Map 90 - Penrith and Keswick (1:50,000)

Total Distance:

19.5 kilometres (12 miles)

Duration:

8 Hours

Maximum Height Achieved :

950 metres (3117 feet)

Total Ascent :

1403 metres (4603 feet)

Background

Helvellyn is a mountain located in the English Lake District, the apex of the Eastern Fells. At 950 metres (3,117 ft) above sea level, it is the third tallest peak in both the Lake District and England. The summit of Helvellyn is the highest on the north-south ridge situated between the Thirlmere valley to the west, and Patterdale to the east. This ridge continues northwards over Helvellyn Lower Man, White Side, Raise, Stybarrow Dodd, Great Dodd and Clough Head, and in the south leads to Nethermost Pike and Dollywaggon Pike. The east side of the fell is geographically the most spectacular. Two sharp arêtes lead off the summit, Striding Edge and Swirral Edge, on each side of Red Tarn. The knife-edged Striding Edge provides one of the most well kown scrambles in Lakeland, while the Swirral Edge ridge leads to the conical summit of Catstye Cam.

The peak of Helvellyn takes the form of a broad plateau about 500 metres (1,640 ft) long. The tallest point is denoted by a cairn and a cross-shaped dry stone shelter; to the north is an Ordnance Survey trig point, a little below the summit at 949 m (3,114 ft).

Striding Edge begins at Hole-in-the-Wall and then goes on for over a mile to the Helvellyn summit plateau. The first part of the ridge is relatively rounded and has a good path running along the right hand side. This changes upon reaching High Spying How which at 863 m (2,831 ft) is the tallest point on the ridge. At this point a narrow path continues closely to the top of the ridge which in turn becomes increasingly narrow. Scramblers however will move to the summit of the ridge and walk at the very top of the arête.

The side path continues until almost at the end of the ridge where it switches to the left hand side. Scramblers are forced to climb down a short gully to the last tower on the ridge. At this point the ridge joins up to the main Helvellyn massif. All that remains is a walk/scramble up loose rocky terrain to reach the summit plateau which is located about two hundred metres from the summit. Typically a cornice will form here in the winter and this represents the most dangerous part of the hike.

Striding Edge is a notorious accident spot for both hikers and scramblers. Conditions on the ridge at the start of 2008 were described as the worst in 30 years by top fell assessor Craig Palmer. Two walkers died after falling from the ridge in two separate incidents in the following weeks. Another walker died after falling from Striding Edge in Spring of 2008.

Starting Point - Patterdale Hotel Car Park

The walk starts at a Car Park across the A592 from The Patterdale Hotel, although there are usually numerous places to park in the village. To the South West of the road is the Patterdale Hall estate and a lane leads South West along the estate just where Grisedale Beck crosses under the road.

Section 1 - Patterdale to Hole-in-the-Wall

Distance: 2.36 miles (3.8 km)

Height Gain: 1866 ft (569m)

Take the access lane along the boundary of the estate towards some kennels. When the lane bends round to the right, pass through the gate ahead for the path uphill through the field. At the top of the field, pass through another gate and then turn left on an obvious, well trodden path that steadily climbs across the slopes of Birkhouse Moor. Although never particularly steep, this is a long steady but energy sapping climb out of the Grisedale valley that should not be underestimated. You first see Helvellyn as you reach the ridge of Birkhouse Moor. Ahead is the fine horseshoe you are about to undertake. To the left of Helvellyn the craggy crest of Striding Edge, whilst to the right Swirral Edge links the summit plateau with the shapely peak of Catstye Cam. Follow the wall south-west to the quaintly named "hole in the wall". As you stride out, the next two or three hours of your walk become clearer, perhaps making the adrenaline flow as you recall the stories of daring and high adventure associated with Striding Edge.

Section 2 - Hole-in-the-Wall to Dollywagon Pike

Distance: 2.56 miles (4.1km)

Height Gain: 1130ft (344m)

From Hole In The Wall the route starts to unfold in front of you, with the knife edge ridge appearing ahead and Red Tarn making its appearance down to the right.as you climb over Bleaberry Crag. From Low Spying How to High Spying How the ridge climbs steadily, with a choice of route between the ridge top itself or a less exposed option down to the left.

Striding Edge is an arrete between Nethermost Cove to the south and Red Tarn to the north. The highest point on the arrete is High Spying How. In places there are significant drops on either side, but nowhere on the ridge do you need to suffer exposure that makes you feel uncomfortable. If you are in the mood, you can stay on the top of the ridge. In many ways it is easier than following the many paths at lower levels. However if you feel uncomfortable drop down to a lower path and keep within your limits. The only tricky section is the bad step -a clamber down ten or fifteen feet with good hand holds, which can be avoided on the left by using a path.

Having successfully negotiated Striding Edge the final ascent onto the Helvellyn plateau is probably the most tricky section of the whole walk. A steep climb on badly eroded ground make this a very uncomfortable ascent. In hindsight it is probably better to tackle it head on, although the path to the right does eventually lead to easier ground. After a quarter of an hour of cursing you finally reach the summit and are rewarded with excellent views in every direction. However the most rewarding is the retrospective view along the length of Striding Edge, which looks even more impressive from this elevated position. The summit Cairn of Helvellyn in just a short walk along the plateau to the North.

Anybody climbing Helvellyn in winter needs to take care to stay well back from the edge as helvellyn is notorious for snow / ice cornices overhanging the rock face. Those seeking solitude are unlikely to find it at the top of England’s third highest and most popular peak. It is worth wandering around the summit to seek out the Gough Memorial Stone and also the plaque commemorating the first mountain top landing by an aircraft in the UK before heading past the oft photographed viewpoint of Striding Edge on the way towards Nethermost Pike.

Leaving the summit of Helvellyn, our route follows the path via Nethermost Pike and Dollywagon Pike. Whilst walking this ridge, there are a series of spectacular views back down Grisedale to the left and some care is needed with the navigation to avoid taking one of the paths to the right that will lead down to Thirlmere and a very expensive taxi ride back to Patterdale.

Section 3 - Dollywagon Pike to St Sunday Crag

Distance: 3.3 miles (5.3km)

Height Gain: 1607ft (490m)

The descent from Dollywagon Pike needs to be treated with care – some areas are still badly eroded, others have undergone a footpath maintenance programme. This is effectively installing a stone stair case but the stones can be lethally slippery when wet.

From the foot of Dollywagon Pike, take the track to head West around Grisedale Tarn. From the tarn, there is an excellent path back down Grisedale as an escape route back to Patterdale for those starting to run low on energy. For those who want to continue, we climb away from the tarn towards Grisedale Hause and the looming slopes of Fairfield.

From the hause on a clear day you are afforded spectacular views to the West across Grasmere Common, the Langdale Fells and to the Scafell Massif beyond before setting out on the unrelentingly steep ascent of Fairfield’s Western slopes. As well as being steep, the path is also rocky with loose scree in places. Care is needed when navigating the route off the summit of Fairfield, especially in mist, as there are marker cairns in just about every direction you look.

Leaving the summit of Fairfield, you need to take the path on a grid bearing of 350 for a steep and rocky descent of Cofa Pike to Deepdale Hause before climbing the path on the other side of the hause up the South West shoulder of St Sunday Crag. Although there is a clearly defined path across the brooding bulk of St Sunday Crag, it is often worth meandering a little along the top to take in any number of a wealth of superb views.

Section 4 - St Sunday Crag to Patterdale

Distance: 2.75 miles (4.43km)

Height Gain: -2297ft (-700m)

After starting the descent of St Sunday Crag, look out for a grass path leading off to the right from the main track at grid ref NY375142. Take the grass path and follow across moorland that can often be wet underfoot to take in the secondary summit of Birks from where we descend East through the crags to pick up a path leading around Trough Head and Hag Beck then up to Arnison Crags.

Although the lowest summit on the route, the views from here are worth the effort. A clear path descends from Arnison Crags through Oxford Crag alongside a wall to eventually meet our outward route where we turn right to return to Patterdale at the end of a tough day amongst some of the best Cumbrian mountains.