Two attempts at Helvellyn
by nigheandonn » Sun Jun 15, 2014 11:19 pm
Wainwrights included on this walk: Birkhouse Moor, Catstyecam, Helvellyn, White Side
Hewitts included on this walk: Catstyecam, Helvellyn, White Side
Date walked: 07/06/2014Register or Login free to be able to rate and comment on reports (as well as access 1:25000 mapping).
So this trip was carefully planned, with Friday afternoon booked off work so that I could get down to Glenridding that night and not have to carry everything up one of the edges. The basic plan was to do Birkhouse Moor and then down to Red Tarn and Catstycam and Helvellyn, and along to Sticks pass, since I think Striding Edge is probably beyond me.
And then the weather got involved. From about a week before the forecast was cycling round various kinds of bad - sometimes only heavy showers, which isn't so bad if you can dry off in between, but sometimes heavy rain all day, and as the time got closer fairly strong winds, which is more of a problem - but generally it seemed a bit pointless if there wasn't going to be any view.
So everything was a bit undecided, but by the time I got to the hostel on Friday night, the MWIS forecast was looking not as bad as it could have been - cloud over the tops by late morning, heavy rain for a few hours from noon, and the wind rising, before it all cleared to leave a clear and reasonably calm evening - and the revised plan saw me setting out as early as I could, straight to Catstycam and Swirral Edge, with the option of coming down either the Keppel Cove zigzags or Sticks pass, depending when the weather broke - and then drying out and going back to Birkhouse Moor in the evening.
I left the hostel just after 8 (I'd paid for my breakfast, so it wasn't going to be any earlier), and set off past the old mine buildings up the path towards Catstycam. It was cooler than the night before, but calm, and the feeling of the weather about to break had grown. It was also unnaturally quiet - I had read that the paths to Helvellyn were always busy, so it was slightly unnerving to find myself entirely alone.
It's an easy path up the valley - maybe everyone else had taken a more exciting route - quite steep in bits, but always a good path, with Catstycam dominating the route ahead. I've got a definite soft spot for that hill, since it seems to be a bit unloved.
Above the footbridge I finally met some other people coming down - they seemed to be orienteerers or similar, as they were shouting about a sign labelled WF on the waterfall.
I'd meant to go up Catstycam by the shoulder, but it looked steep and rough, and there was no obvious place to leave the path, and I took the lazy decision that it would be far easier to go up to Red Tarn and turn back on myself from the Swirral Edge path.
Helvellyn eventually came into view, looking more impressive than i had expected, and very symmetrical. It never really stands out from a distance - it's just the bit joined on to the peak of Catstycam - but up close the cliffs towering over Red Tarn definitely give it a character of its own.
I headed up the path and turned back on myself towards Catstycam, and a few minutes later I could feel the wind for the first time - whether it was getting up, or just that I was finally high enough for it to get to me over Striding Edge.
A few minutes later, the wind was trying hard to move me across the ridge, and with it blowing towards the steep drop down to Brown Cove, I just wasn't happy. With the summit so close, I made one more attempt to go on, but I knew it was daft, and dropped back down the path towards the tarn.
I thought about it, and decided I really didn't want to face the unknown on Swirral Edge either, with the wind blowing hard across it and the weather obviously closing in, so I turned back towards the tarn and up to Birkhouse Moor, stopping along the way to cover everything in appropriate waterproofs as the rain came on - of course it immediately stopped again. Looking back, I could see a man who had gone up past me to Swirral Edge, but I still didn't think it was for me.
I didn't find any hole in the wall, just a ladder stile over it - but there was plenty of wall - and plenty of rain, as it finally came on in earnest. I followed the wall along to where a smaller path leaves it for a summit cairn.
Of course, I realised afterwards that this was the wrong summit - it must be the only time I've known Wainwright take an obscure highest point over an obvious but slightly lower summit. But if the wall crosses the real highest point then I presumably passed it too...
Coming down off Birkhouse Moor I discovered where all the other people were - toiling uphill in the rain. I must have passed at least 50, so I suppose I must just have started too early for them. I'm sure most of them made it to the top, as well - but it wasn't comfortable for me, and I still think I was right to turn back.
It was a long way to the bottom - I was quite amazed to look back up from the village see how far I'd come. The rain was on solidly by then, having been on and off all the way down, and I pottered round for a while - coffee in the coffee shop at the hotel, visiting the shops, and buying stuff for a packed tea, then lunch - before going back to the hostel and stretching out on a couch for a couple of hours.
The forecast was for things to dry up by 'early evening', so I decided that 5 would be a good time to startt again - it was still grey and a bit drizzly as I set out, but the first patch of blue sky had appeared by the time I got to the footbridge.
If I had to walk the same path twice in one day, this was a good one to choose - easy enough for the repeat not to be a horrible thought, but interesting enough not to get dull. There was one obvious change, as well - the downpour had left the waterfalls all around running fast and white, and where it had been a case of just walking over the stones in a stream crossed by the path earlier, they were now well underwater and it meant hunting round for a place narrow enough to jump.
It felt odd to be heading onto the hills so late in the day, but with the June light, and a decent forecast, there was really no reason not to - it was just engrained conventionality!
I could feel the wind from much further down the valley this time, but it didn't feel nearly so strong, which confused me a bit until I really that it had swung round - it was coming at me right down from Catstycam, not from across Birkhouse Moor.
Up on the ridge I could feel it a bit, but not nearly as badly, and in spite of the dismal feeling of having failed once, I didn't mind as much with it now blowing toward the gentler drop to Red Tarn. A few minutes later I was on the nice stony summit of Catstycam, looking out over Ullswater.
Helvellyn was close, but still a long way up, and although its top had been clear all the way up, cloud was just beginning to creep over it now.
I couldn't exactly say I was nervous about the edge - not at the Having To Talk To Myself stage - but I could just feel about in the pit of my stomach that I wasn't quite sure about what I was doing. And I'm still not sure how I felt about it - halfway along, I said out loud 'never again', but I suspect if I did do it again I'd openly enjoy it - I think the not knowing if something worse was coming next was far more difficult than any of the immediate surroundings.
(I climbed Pen-y-Ghent on a beautiful day in April and found it hard - a month later in pouring rain it was easy. I did have a smaller bag the second time, but I don't think that was all the difference.)
But in the physical sense I got along it easily enough, winding my way through and over the rocks, and up the steep slope to the summit area of Helvellyn. The cloud was sitting on the summit properly by the time I arrived, and I arrived to see the cairn at the top of the ridge, and absolutely nothing else.
It took a moment to sink in, and then I realised that I had actually got over 3000 feet - it may be an easy hill, but everything has to start somewhere.
Looking around, the trig point appeared from the mist, looking about as tall as a giant for a moment before the cloud cleared properly and it returned to its proper size.
I seemed to have achieved a miracle - the summit of Helvellyn to myself. Not that I grudge it to anyone else, but it was nice to avoid the crowds, and all it had taken was a bit of lateral thinking. I made my way along to the summit cairn, and then to the top of Striding Edge, where I met the only other people I saw that evening, a man and two boys who came up that way and asked me to take their picture.
I went back to the shelter to eat my tea, but I kept getting distracted by the views - the clouds were still piling over the summit and off again, so that sometimes I could see for miles, and sometimes nothing - and just the sheer excitement of being up so high - higher than anything I could see (except the clouds, and the moon), since the Scafells were in the cloud all the time I was up there.
The views spread out all around, and more to the west than I had ever seen before - Coniston and Morecambe Bay, Thirlmere, which I had never seen before, Wythburn, the Northern Fells and Bassenthwaite Lake, and High Rigg dividing the valley in front of them, and a whole jumble of hills to the west.
Having explored the summit, I realised it was time to move on to the Lower Man - even more cheated out of its glory than Catstycam, since it's a nicely shaped top in its own right - and along towards White Side. I would have liked to make it as far as Raise - my original plan beforehand had been to go down by way of Sticks pass to Sheffield Pike and Glenridding Dodd - but I had decided on 9pm as the turning point, and it won't be too difficult to tag it onto the Dodds another day. Given the way the forecast had looked the previous morning, I was pleased to have done as much as I had.
It was really very tempting to stay up there, because I could see that there was going to be a beautiful sunset over the northwest - but I was planning another early start, and beer and bed were calling, and although I knew the path was good, I still didn't really want to try it out in the dark.
There are a lot of zigzags on the way down - somewhere near the top I decided to bet myself that I would get down in 1000 steps - it kept me going, since I have a tendency to drift to a stop going downhill, and stand looking instead of walking - but it was 2050 steps later that I finally arrived on the track in the valley. I'm not sure what I won or lost, but I followed the track down the other side of the burn, parallel to my earlier route, past various remains of the mines and back to the hostel by quarter past 10 for a well earned rest.
So a very good day overall, and nice to have time for pottering round, as well!
by AJNicholls » Mon Jun 16, 2014 6:02 pm
I only did Swirral Edge last month and found the scrambling to be on a fairly broad ridge. If you get round to doing the not-particularly-famous Prison Band (between Wetherlam and Swirl How) then I would say Swirral isn't much tougher than that, just higher. The exposure isn't too bad as the ridge is broad enough to be comfortable.
Good views from Catstyecam and Helvellyn too, thanks for sharing and well done on bagging a Furth.
by nigheandonn » Tue Jun 17, 2014 11:53 am
I loved the way up Rough Crag to High Street - probably my favourite walk so far - so my comfort zone obviously lies somewhere in between - but it does seem to depend a lot on my mood.
It was a gorgeous evening - amazing after the afternoon it had been. There's something nicely subversive about walking from 5-10pm, too - I approve of June
by AJNicholls » Tue Jun 17, 2014 12:04 pm
Rough Crag was a fine scramble too. Nothing particularly terrifying (not that I seek that out,) but a worthwhile bit of Hewitt-bagging.
I like the way you're approaching the Wainwrights, one area at a time from the looks of things. Where are you heading after you finish the Eastern Fells?
by nigheandonn » Tue Jun 17, 2014 12:19 pm
I haven't seen anyone else taking that approach, but I like it - I really just started off in the easiest bit to get to by train and went pottering round, but there are always places nearby I still want to see.
by AJNicholls » Tue Jun 17, 2014 12:32 pm
Hope you enjoy the Wainwrights, I've had a great time wandering around them!
by nigheandonn » Tue Jun 17, 2014 12:35 pm