• Neil

Accidental Helvellyn 25-04-19


This post was meant to be about a walk up Loughrigg Fell in the Lakes. It was the first week of the Easter holidays and I had some free time. I spent a good chunk of the first part of the day procrastinating. One minute I was going to the Peaks, the next to Wales, then Cheshire, then the Lakes. I couldn't decide. Its a curse and a charm living where I live as there's so many different places to get to in a short space of time that you end up feeling spoilt for choice, particularly when the weather is good. I looked back over videos someone I follow on Instagram had posted and Loughrigg the deal was sealed for Loughrigg.


Knowing it wasn't too big a fell but having amazing views, I packed light on provisions and heavy on camera gear, even strapping the full tripod to the rucksack. With it being on the edge of Rydal Water I knew part of the trail would take in Rydal Cave so my focus was weighted more towards photographs than challenging terrain.


Normally, I'm up at the crack of dawn to get to places for a walk. The problem with procrastinating and leaving late is that the world has woken up and set about its business. Particularly during the Easter holidays. I knew as soon as I hit Kendal that I was in for a fight for a parking space. And I wasn't wrong. Every car park between Kendal and Ambleside where absolutely full to the brim, so it was no surprise when I got to White Moss car park - where I was planning to start my walk from - that it too was devoid of any semblance of a spot to leave the car.


So I kept driving. On past more car parks full with day trippers and holiday makers making the most of the mild weather and April sun. I found myself nearing Thirlmere. Those who know me will know I adore this place. However, I've done it to death over the past few months. I couldn't bring myself to do another loop. That being said, your route around Thirlmere is currently impeded by United Utilities (who own the land) carrying out maintenance, but helpfully don't inform you of this with handy signs at car parks. You only find this out either by walking round and finding your route blocked, or by checking their website - only with zero signal in that part of the world you need the foresight to have done it in advance. Sort it out United Utilities.


I found myself turning into Swirls Car Park (which was surprisingly empty) and pulling up to weigh up my options. I had two: Turn tail and head back south through the Lakes in the hope of finding a spot to get out and walk, or attempt the mighty Helvellyn which loomed over me.I'd wanted to do Helvellyn for a while, most of that while being through the winter months. I slip on the smallest hints of ice at the best of times walking down the street, so steered clear of Helvellyn whilst it was capped with snow despite my collection of crampons and thermals.I decided to go for it. The skies were clear and sunny and it was quiet (which I found odd) so it was as ideal as it was ever going to get for a hike up there.


Car park was free due to the machines being broken - something else United Utilities needed to do work on - and frustratingly, the toilets were locked (come on UU!). My only concern was the amount of water I had. Normally I'd have at least a 1.5l bottle with me, all I had was 50cl that fit inside my jacket pocket as I'd populated rucksack space with my camera, lenses and drone. I made a silent pact with myself to retreat if it became a problem.

The path out of the car park leads one way: straight up. Its impossible to miss or stray from it. Almost immediately I was getting Scafell vibes from the track. Rather than it being a gravelly path up, it is stone steps. These are invaluable on the way down when trying to find your footing as it is quite steep in places - not so great on the ascent though. Your thighs and calves will take a hammering early doors and will continue right up to the Browncove Crags ridge. Between Swirls and Browncove you gain about 600m of the 950m very quickly. Once you hit Browncove and have a bit of a scramble up, you're over the worst and it plateaus somewhat for the rest of the walk to the summit. I'm now seriously considering investing in a pair of nordic poles.


For most of this walk, you have hill obscuring your view to the left, but to the right you look out over Thirlmere and can see Raven Crag and Harrop Tarn on the hills overlooking it. Beyond that you can see Blencathra to the north, Scafell to the West and down to Grasmere and Rydal to the south. There's plenty of places to stop off on the ascent and take in the views or have a breather (or both!).

By the time I'd hit Browncove I was down to t-shirt as the weather was so warm. Once over these crags you can see the ridge leading up to the summit, which was still laden with a large strip of snow. Its then you are presented with views out to the east. Place Fell, Ullswater, Penrith and the North Pennines are all visible, and more immediately you have Catstye Cam, Red Tarn, Swirral Edge and Striding Edge below you. Had I not equipped myself for a short trek up a fell, I'd probably have prolonged the hike and gone out over one of the edges. I didn't fancy seeing my camera and drone bounce down the side of one of them so I held off and opted for a few photos at the top instead.

I'm not really one for striking a pose at a trig-point to prove I climbed something, but there are plenty of people who are, and fair play it marks the ocassion. No issue there, but what I do have issue with are trig-hoggers. People who arrive at the summit, dump all their gear around the trigpoint and spend the rest of the time on their phone and generally milling about depriving those of the photo opp. There was a gang of such at the top of Helvellyn. It prompted a few couples who were too polite to ask them to move to hang around in the hope they'd pack up and head off. After 20 mins they still hadn't so someone finally asked them to shift. An entire mountain top to choose from and this group had chosen to squat at the one point most people wish to stand at. Rather rude, rather ignorant.

All the while this was happening, I was trying to catch sight of a fighter jet I could hear roaring through the valleys below. Visibility was awesome, but I can only presume the jet was using some kind of cloaking device, as neither me, nor two excited boys and their dad could see it. What I could see though, was the sun glinting off the surface of many tarns and meres over a good couple of miles. It was about 3pm and the sun was high, the entire north lakes was lit up. I had my headphones, so a quick 10 minute mindfulness meditation session seated at the top let me take it all in, before starting on the descent back to Swirls.


I had lugged my drone all the way up to the top, but I'm always mindful of fellow walkers. About 5 minutes into the descent I saw opportunity to send it up to get a few shots (although really, all a drone does at the top of a mountain is gives you a few more hundred feet, which is nothing on top of the 3000 you've climbed). I chose what I thought was a bare patch of land to set it off from. I'd heard skylarks lower down the mountain on my way up, and was conscious it was nesting season. I thought I'd be okay higher up. No sooner had I launched the drone, but could see/hear around 8-10 skylarks alerted by the noise. Straight back down it came and straight back into the bag, although it now felt more like an unnecessary brick being loaded into my bag given it didn't get a chance to have a run out.


The trek down gave more of an indication of why you need to be well prepared in any conditions when scaling Helvellyn. It was bone dry, there hadn't been rain for a few weeks, yet some spots on the way down, particularly over Browncove Crags were a bit hairy. I absolutely swear by my Salamon Quest 4D 3 GTX boots. They laugh in the face of ankle deep bogs I've put my foot in (socks remained bone dry) and their grip on most terrain is outstanding. Wet slippy surfaces though I've found are a definite no-no (I nearly came a cropper in a park in Lancaster of all places walking up a damp cobbled path) so if I'd have been coming down Helvellyn in rain or snow I'd definitely have been worried. You really have to watch your footing at all times coming down. I've recently just had a scan on my left foot which has shown signs of psoriatic arthritis. Clumping down the rocks, particularly over the crag did it no favours, so found myself having to switch over to leading with my right foot coming down (the foot equivalent of trying to write with your opposite hand) putting me doubly on edge - and another reason to possibly get some poles.

As I came down off the mountain, the sun started dropping behind me and dark moody clouds rolled in over Blencathra. It looked like the weather was potentially about to to turn, so I timed it well getting back down. I passed a twitchy looking guy with camping gear clearly looking for somewhere to set up for the evening. Constantly darting off the path and looking round the sides of rocky outcrops for somewhere to pitch up. It reminded me I'm still to attempt this (I've got the location worked out, I just need to pluck up the courage to take the plunge) and also made me quite jealous that he'd be taking in the views as night fell over this corner of The Lakes that I'm incredibly fond of. The brooding clouds over Blencathra didn't bring the rains it looked like it was going to, so he'd have had a decent night up there. Fair play that guy.

Arriving back at the car park, I was pleased with the day. I hadn't planned on going up Helvellyn when I set out the house, but I was glad I did as I couldn't have asked for nicer weather. Not too hot or cold and no rains or winds to contend with. I survived (just) on the small bottle of water I had with me, but was appreciative of the drinks I had sat in the boot of the car on my return. It was only as I sank the second that my eyes caught sight of the padlocked gate across the door of the gents. Tiredly, I got in the car and my quest for finding an open facilities began...


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