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Explore this amazing peak..
Sandwiched between the lakes of Thirlmere and Ullswater sits England’s third highest mountain. The name Helvellyn applies not just to the peak itself, but also to the wide ridge which stretches north-south half the length of the Lake District. Much of the ridge is broad and grassy, but here and there the effects of the ice ages can be seen in the gouged corries and narrow ridges that give the eastern side a completely different feel from the west.
The name Helvellyn is thought to mean ‘yellow moor’, due to the swathes of pale matgrass which dominate the slopes. Though the mountain is grassy, the lower slopes on all sides have patches of woodland and conifer plantation, and other common plants such as rushes and bracken. In recognition of the geology and ecology of Helvellyn, the southern area including Fairfield is a Site of Special Scientific interest, managed sustainably to protect it for plants and animals, and for future generations.
There are a number of ways to climb the mountain. The trails starting in the west next to Thirlmere at Swirls and Wythburn are steep but non-technical and simply require a good pair of legs. The car parks are easy to get to from Keswick and Ambleside, and the route finding is not difficult. These may be the simplest ways up, but the quick gain in height is excellent in giving an immediate view south over Thirlmere, the central fells and Skiddaw. Though Thirlmere isn’t as admired as the other lakes due to it being a reservoir and therefore off-limits to boats and swimmers, it’s still beautiful and nearly completely surrounded by forest.
Approaching the summit from along the ridge is a good way of spending as much time as possible up high. The southern route from Grizedale Tarn benefits from the dramatic surrounding of the tarn itself, enclosed on three sides by Fairfield, Dollywagon Pike and Seat Sandal. After the ascent of Dollywagon Pike, the approach to Helvellyn over the bouldery plateau of Nethermost Pike gives an interesting perspective, and good views of walkers making their way over Striding Edge. To spend more time on the north side of Helvellyn, consider walking up to Sticks pass and then turning south over Raise and White Side, where the steep slope up to Lower Man is an excellent final push to the summit.
It is the eastern side of Helvellyn however where dramatic scenery brings the adventurous walker. The two ridges of Swirral Edge and Striding Edge reach out like arms offering a fatal embrace, with the still calm of Red Tarn between them waiting to swallow you if you fall. Striding Edge is the more popular way up of these two ridges as it’s the longest, and ends with a steep loose climb to the top that’s much safer on the ascent. It is a spine of undulating rock where walkers can alternate between the top of the ridge and an easier path alongside. The views on both sides are spectacular, and the summit of Helvellyn is visible all the way along. Swirral Edge is short but steep, and a descent along it can continue to the satellite peak of Catstye Cam.
As with all mountains, the summit is only part of the journey, and if you’re looking for the best view of the mountain, you could do far worse that the summit area of Birkhouse Moor, one of the routes towards Striding Edge. From here both eastern ridges reach towards you, and between them the great east wall of Helvellyn stands vast and uncompromising, hiding the gentle summit plateau and the western paths; from this angle it’s definitely a mountain.
You can join a guided day walk along Striding Edge and to the Summit of Helvellyn by visiting our dedicated Helvellyn page here…
Author: Alex Kendall
Alex is a freelance mountain leader and writer who works all over the UK and abroad. He currently lives in Cardiff where he likes running, planning winter mountaineering trips, and orienteering. His favourite place is Snowdonia, and he is trying to write a book.
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