In February 2016, I signed up for a winter skills course with the Lake District Weatherline’s fell top assessor. The mountain we were to learn our skills upon was the famous Helvellyn. It was the first time I had handled an ice axe, the first time that I had donned a pair of crampons and valuable skills were learnt. However, on that day, Helvellyn repelled us with ferocious volleys of spindrift and hail blown in on thunderous winds. Despite four layers, two of which were down-jackets and one a highly recommended waterproof, I discovered what cold was that day. It was a bone deep, juddering cold that left two of my fingers numb for weeks to come and froze the water in my hydration pack. Visibility was almost a whiteout. Needless to say, we did not make the summit, never mind tread on Helvellyn’s famous edges. It was a reminder of the awesome power of nature. I promised myself that I would return to Helvellyn’s stark winter arena.
Fast-forward one year. It’s four thirty in the morning and my alarm is going off. The temptation to rest my head back on the pillow and sleep as if it were a normal Sunday morning is almost overwhelming and it takes a good ten/fifteen minutes to properly commit to rising from the bed. I’m not a morning person so I don’t get up this early lightly. Today, however, I have an objective in mind: Striding Edge, in full winter conditions, all to myself and an un-spoilt Helvellyn summit. The early bird catches to worm, so they say.
But the early worm also gets eaten by the bird. Striding Edge is serious business. Although deservedly popular, people fall from the ridge and there are fatalities every year. I had traversed the ridge three times before. On the first traverse, one of our trio became crag-fast, unused to such exposure. It took a fair amount of cajoling to get along the ridge. On the third traverse, I took a stag party to the arête but we were under resourced and under prepared. It was Easter, there was still lying snow and conditions were damp and windy. We turned back. It was the correct decision. So it’s fair to say that Striding Edge is not for everyone.
But the prospect of a full winter traverse is too enticing for me to turn down on this occasion. Having completed the classic summer scrambles of Blencathra’s Sharp Edge in the Lakes and Tryfan North Face, Bristly Ridge and Crib Goch in Snowdonia and having dipped my toes in winter mountaineering on Ben Cruachan and Glencoe a few weeks earlier, I feel ready to take things to the next level. I am hoping that Striding Edge will give a taste of true mountaineering. I was not disappointed.
The sky is a dull steel grey as I pull into Patterdale. Almost as soon as I exit the car, cold Lakeland drizzle sweeps horizontally across the village. I rummage through my pack and pull on my waterproof and sigh. Was this just a taste of the inclemency that I knew Helvellyn could throw at me? It’s still early and I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy, so I set off sure that the weather will improve.
On the flat walk into Grisedale, I think about the day ahead. If all goes to plan I will not only be summiting Helvellyn but Nethermost Pike, Dollywaggon Pike and Catstycam as well. This possibility has added significance, as Nethermost Pike and Catstycam are the 9th and 10th highest Wainwright peaks and the only summits missing from my top 10. Catstycam, in particular, has always drawn my eye. It has a classic pyramidal structure and its summit Wainwright named amongst the best in England. It was to be a grand climax to what I hoped would be a momentous day.
Back to matters at hand. The climb up the flank of Birkhouse Moor to the Hole-in-the-Wall has commenced and it’s further than I remember. Conditions are fickle: driving rain one moment, blue skies the next. The waterproof is in and out like a cuckoo clock. Despite these distractions, this section of the walk is all about St Sunday Crag. With every upward step, the mountain opposite seems to grow in stature and grandeur, as drifting clouds float in front of its fearsome crags. The Hole-in-the-Wall slowly gets closer and closer.
Passing through the wall is like entering a different world: a world of ice and rock. Imposing, brilliantly white and towering, Catstycam takes my breath away across Red Tarn Beck. The snow-clad path ahead leads up into the clouds and I feel a certain amount of apprehension at the thought of what awaits me there. I am going to learn something about myself today. I will either embrace the challenge ahead or shrink from it. I consider whether or not it is a good thing that I can’t see the ridge.
It’s getting colder now and there is serious snow underfoot. I strap on my crampons, pull on my beanie hat and gloves and grasp my ice axe. Now I am ready and I take my first steps onto the ridge. As I haul myself up onto the arête, it’s hard to believe I am in England, only an hour’s drive from where I grew up in Carlisle. It feels positively Alpine, an outlook that is aided by virtue of the equipment I am using. I concentrate on making sure I am firmly planting my crampons, using my ice axe as leverage to get over any awkward steps. The first part of the ridge is not particularly narrow, but it is rocky, undulating and care has to be taken in route picking.
Visibility isn’t great. The arête ahead is an ethereal walkway into the clouds and as yet there is no sight of Helvellyn, the hulking giant that it leads to. I can, however, occasionally make out Red Tarn to the right and the drops on either side are ever present. It’s not quite as severe as Crib Goch, or even as Sharp Edge on Blencathra but a fall would still be very serious. But as I progress I realise that I am enjoying the frisson. I am within my comfort zone. A couple of years earlier I had ascended Blencathra by Hall’s Fell ridge in winter, a ridge that is easier and less precipitous than Striding Edge. Without crampons, an ice axe and prior knowledge of what was ahead, I found myself rather nervously making my way up its spine, slightly outside of my comfort zone. Today, on a much more serious route, I am more than happy. I’m ecstatic to be here, alone on the famous Striding Edge. It is good to consider that my comfort zone has expanded and I wonder at what challenge I can pit myself against next.
Striding Edge’s popularity becomes evident as I meet a snowman. Perhaps it is because it spoils my feeling of isolation, or perhaps its just because I’ve got an ice axe to hand and it seems like a funny idea, but I decapitate the snowman and continue. Now I’m getting to the meat of the ridge, the narrowing walkway that leads to the final rock tower. On a windy day, this section can be a little bit ropey but today all is calm and I revel in the traverse. Things seem to be clearing slightly as ahead the wispy clouds part to reveal a wall of ice and rock. It’s the east face of Helvellyn and it looks mightily impressive. I know that a steep climb to the summit is yet to come.
One of the most exhilarating aspects of the day so far is the feeling of complete isolation, of being alone on ridge. This feeling is shattered as I turn back to survey the section that I had just completed and I see another figure making his way along the crest. Never mind. In some ways it’s nice to have the reassurance of someone else up here. His name is James and he hails from Leeds. We have a brief discussion about where we’ve been climbing before and he thanks me for blazing a trail through the fresh snow. I say that, as he has caught me up, he should take the lead. He replies saying that the only reason he has caught me was because he could follow my tracks. Either way, I let him take the lead for a while.
Towards the end of Striding Edge, there is a tricky rock gully to descend. I remember this being difficult and awkward in summer, never mind in full winter conditions. Breaking the three points of contact rule at one point, I manage to lower myself to the bottom. Striding Edge done, now for the climb up the east face.
James breaks trail this time and I follow. I shake my head as all of a sudden the clouds begin to part to reveal the full extent of our surroundings. I glance wistfully back to Striding Edge and wonder what it must look like up there now. From here, it’s undulating crest looks spectacular, towering above Grisedale half a kilometre below. James is making good progress up the face and I hasten to follow. The final climb is a steep pull, which I have to employ my crampons and ice axe fully to complete.
We pass a cairn and realise we are now on the summit plateau. James stops at the wind shelter to pull out his stove and I wish him well for the rest of his day. I carry on up to the true summit cairn and plant my ice axe in the snow. It’s totally un-spoilt snow and I take a certain degree of satisfaction in knowing that I am first to the summit that day. There is no view to be had, the cloud is lying too low for that, but nevertheless the summit is a dramatic place. The cornices hanging off the east face are impressive and for the second time in the day, the whole thing feels more Alpine than Cumbrian.
The summit plateau of Helvellyn is notoriously broad and flat, a real contrast to the narrow, spiky edges that come off it. In 1926, John Leeming and Burt Hinkler landed a plane on its summit, a unique achievement amongst Britain’s mountains. Despite the relatively poor visibility, I set off towards the second summit of the day Nethermost Pike and find myself at its summit cairn not long after. The highlight from here is undoubtedly Striding Edge seen in glorious profile, but in the other direction, the crags of Dollywaggon Pike are also very impressive.
After a fair descent and then a rocky pull up to the summit, Dollywaggon Pike is an unexpected delight. Its summit juts out over the termination of Grisedale superbly before falling away down a ridge known as The Tongue. This is a route of ascent to try another day and comes highly recommended by those in the know. Across the col containing Grisedale Tarn, clouds gather moodily over Fairfield, another of the Lake District’s highest summits. Further round is the familiar shape of St Sunday Crag and, in the distance, beautiful Ullswater. Back the other way, Helvellyn can be seen rising above Nethermost Pike. It is a breathtaking panorama.
I retrace my steps all the way back to Helvellyn’s summit. It’s longer than it seemed on the way out, owing to the fact it is now mostly uphill. Now my attention is focused on the second ridge of the day: Swirral Edge. Not as long or narrow as Striding Edge, Swirral Edge still commands respect and demands caution. The initial descent onto the crest is easier than I remember from summer ascents. I consider that, in some ways, the snow is making it easier as any line can be followed as long as there is enough snow cover. A principle difference between Swirral and Striding, is that Swirral traverses slightly below the very crest, so there is rarely a drop on both sides. Neverthless, it is a gorgeous route in these conditions and the spectacular mountain at the end of the ridge spurs me onwards.
Catstycam fills the horizon. It is a mountain of simple beauty. Soaring lines meet at a shapely summit in the classic pyramidal form. Were it more isolated from its parent mountain it would surely be considered with higher esteem amongst the mountains of Cumbria. Halfway along the ridge, I turn back to see Helvellyn’s east face scowling back. The clouds have parted even more now and there is blue skies overhead for the first time today. Tiny shadows can be seen against the blue backdrop on Striding Edge, slowly making their way along the arête.
As chance would have it, I cross paths with the instructor from my winter skills course the year previous. He’s leading a group up Swirral Edge, which is further than I got last time around. We have a brief chat and he points me out as an example to his students: “Here you are, you are doing it!” he says.
The climb up Catstycam is straightforward and much quicker than I expected. I’m delighted that I am up there alone on one of the smallest summits in the whole Lake District. The view back to Helvellyn, Red Tarn and the Edges is majestic and I take a few moments to imbibe it all. To the north, White Side and Raise look enticing – two high summits upon which I have not yet trod. And east is the southern tip of Ullswater and Place Fell. It’s a grand viewpoint.
I descend the same way that I came up and descend to Red Tarn. As the altitude lessens, the snow becomes sludgy and a graveled path becomes apparent. It is with a heavy heart that I remove my crampons and strap up my ice axe. The mountaineering is done for the day and I have a train back to London this evening. It’s early March and soon it will be properly Spring. I may not have need of the axe and the crampons again for a while. I take once last longing look back towards snow covered Helvellyn before I step back through the Hole-in-the-Wall and enter a world of grass, sheep and normalcy. I make quick work of the descent back to Patterdale and before long I’m back in my car, heading for Carlisle.
A winter ascent of Striding Edge is simply magnificent and something I can not recommend highly enough. It is an obvious benchmark in terms of mountaineering. This was more than just a winter walk. I suppose the next logical step up would be a winter ascent of Sharp Edge on Blencathra but that will have to wait until winter comes back around once more. For now, I’ve got my sights set on more Munros in Scotland, particularly the great ridges in Glencoe, the Mamores and the CMD arête on Ben Nevis.
In a recent online poll by Trail Magazine, Helvellyn came out as 2nd, behind the wonderful Tryfan, in the UK’s top mountains – putting it as the most popular in the Lake District. Whilst it is undoubtedly a superb mountain, I can’t agree with this ranking. For Helvellyn to top all the mighty mountains found in Scotland is plain absurd. Crib Goch and Snowdon would also have an undoubtedly strong case for superiority. There is no doubt that Helvellyn is amongst the best in terms of the Lake District’s mountains, alongside Great Gable, the Scafells, Bowfell, Pillar and Blencathra. Blencathra, for me, is still the superior mountain of this group, with its exciting ridges and undeniable charm. But Helvellyn, mostly by virtue of Striding Edge, can not be said to be far behind. If you are looking for an adventure on one of the highest mountains in England, there are few better than this.