It was an early train and a short wait around at New Street railway station before getting underway on the road North, back to The Lake District. I had been a while since we last got together, but James and I had managed to plan another day out into our respective schedules. We had discussed the idea of Snowdonia aswell, hitting Snowdon itself via the quieter South Ridge but on a spur of the moment choice, went with Helvellyn. The weather must have been checked a couple of times a day in the week leading up to the hike, and both areas had the same forecast. Warm enough but pretty cloudy, especially on the summits. The draw of Striding Edge won out though.
So, on the drive up the M6 the temptation set in to check the weather again for both of the suggested routes, even though we had commited to the more northenly by now. Bright and sunny in Snowdonia, rain and low cloud in The Lakes. Fantastic. MWIS did suggest that it may brighten up a little bit later on, and that the cloud may lift at around 3pm so not too disheartening until we drew closer, and the fells came into vision. Even the lowest was shrouded in clag. Still, we had commited ourselves now!
It had been a relatively slow start and was easily lunchtime by the time we got to the carpark in Glenridding. Its a nice little village, a few shops and places to eat and drink. We decided to grab a bit of lunch at the local shop next to Catstycam Outdoor Shop, after James had nipped in and had a nose around at the gear. It’d be rude not to. The chap working in the local shop that day seemed a little aggrieved at my suggestion I’d need to use a debit card, but then the home made pasty was a bit on the pricey side. Worth it, though. After filling ourselves, and our packs with food and drink – it was time to crack on. Striding Edge was calling. One of us experienced in scrambling, the other; not so. It always reads as a good route for both first timers and experienced heads, or feet perhaps?
The walk started fairly gentle really, heading generally westward past the campsite at Gillside and onto the path that leads up to Birkhouse Moor. Its a steep path, and can kind of knock the enthusiasm out of you sails straight away if you let it. Turning around and casting your eyes on the view that opens up quickly with the ascent spurs you on though, it has to be said. You can see Ullswater begin to show itself, and the big mass of Place Fell across from you. It seems huge, at only 657m. If either James or myself needed any encouragement, the views made sure we kept going.
As we climbed, the cloud seemed to be doing the opposite. Closing in on all sides as we reached the 700m contour of the map. Our visibility was down to about 20m, perhaps 30m at best. We passed a couple of people that were on their way down, commenting on how unfavourable the weather was towards Striding Edge and certainly on the summit of Helvellyn itself. We reached a wall that heads in the direction of Red Tarn, and is an easy handrail until you find the ‘hole in the wall.’ It’s a wonder we found it at all with the amount of fog that was around. It did seemed to have thinned out a little, but only to make room for the rain that began in its place. Somewhere between fine rain and a heavy downpour, it was persistent and did its best at making tackling the ridge a questionable idea. The rock had begun to loose its ‘grippyness’ and James did begin to have creeping doubts. It can be unnerving, knowing there is a big drop to either side of you that you cant see for weather. Sometimes worse than being able to see it. Having done the CMD Arete onto Ben Nevis myself, and a few other more difficult Grade I’s such as Striding Edge is – I tried my best to keep his spirits up.
Once we arrived at the start of Striding Edge, the cloud was in and out around Red Tarn although it was standing firm over Striding edge, Swirrel Edge and everything above. We decided to get out of the rain for a little while, and sit in the storm shelter we had brought. It seemed quite a novel idea, not least of all because I usually refer to them as emergency shelters. A big orange bag, that would likely draw attention while keeping you out of the elements until help arrived? Well, storm shelter is most certainly a fitting moniker! Now sat in warmth, and shielded from the rain that had persisted now for long enough to saturate softshell trousers we began to decide where to go from here.
After a sandwich or two, the decision was made to plough on but sticking to the easiest and most well trodden section of path across Striding Edge to reach Helvellyn. The cloud was definitely making things difficult. In all fairness, there is not much to challenge navigation on a ridge in the general sense of the word, but picking the most sensible route with the least potentially slippy obstacles was not easy. About 15 minutes had passed of weaving in and out of rocks when the view cleared up a little to our backs and a tiny bit of blue sky poked through. “Probably the only bit of blue sky on offer today!” James laughed.
A strong gust of wind picked up and, suddenly; as if it had never been there – the cloud completely disperesed. The sun was now beaming down from a faultless blue sky and Red Tarn, Swirrel Edge and the plateau of Helvellyn were all in plain sight. Stretched out in front of us, like a more firm, rocky and exhilarating red carpet (although the number of photographs taken along it matched up), was Striding Edge. It looked incredible. A couple of people that must have been sheltering now peeped out from behind the rock in front of us, and we all laughed and joked about what had just transpired. Within the space of a couple of minutes, what looked like probably the greyest and most miserable mountain day had completely transformed into glorious sunshine, clear skies and nothing but an excellent scramble ahead and James no longer needed kind words. In fact, he took the lead.
The views at every point that we rested, were some of the best that I’ve laid my eyes on in recent trips. Looking down on Red Tarn, back in the direction of Ullswater, over to Catstycam or in the other direction to Nethermost Pike – every direction needed a good few minutes to take in. The scrambling along the ridge is pretty straight forward, though in places hands are definitely necessary. It’s not a good idea to be complacent on Striding Edge, as it would be pretty easy to take a tumble quite some distance down either side. The most challenging part comes towards the end of the route, where you drop down a chimney before climbing upwards again to attack Helvellyn and push to the summit. With a little bit of sensible forethought and some stretching, it is more than negotiable. Enjoyable is the way I would describe it myself.
We bumped into a local just as we began our final ascent to the summit. He told us that the rock was loose underfoot on the way up. Something to do with some work that had been done recently to the path. Whether it was to create one or cover one that had been inadvertently worn away, we couldn’t tell. But did find ourselves having to tread carefully. A ten to fifteen minute push onwards and we had finally made it to the plateau. Once at the top of Helvellyn, the weather was still holding clear and bright. James and I congratulated each other, and looked back at the route we had taken along Striding Edge. It had been a really good way to get to where we were now sat, and James was beaming with satisfaction and admiration for what he had just done. Fantastic!
It was only a short while after sitting down next to the cairn shelter that it seemed to be suggesting a turn back to grey and potentially wet. We had enjoyed our break in the weather, and now it was time to get back to Glenridding it seemed. Time was getting away from us in any case, and a long drive home awaited.
Swirrel Edge is alot shorter in length than its neighbour, and provides a few challenging moves when coming down it, if you choose to follow them. But, similarly to Striding Edge, it seems easy enough to choose an easier path if you wish. Passing under Catstycam, we began the long slog back to Glenridding and it seemed to drag on for an age. Our adrenaline had long subsided after the excitement of such fantastic weather we had been given for an even better route onto England’s third highest peak. We decided to follow Red Tarn Beck back towards Glenridding and arrived back after some whinging about sore feet but the image of the sudden break in weather replaying in our minds, and it continued to do so all the way back down the m6.