Or: How to Enjoy Helvellyn whilst avoiding all the crowds (mostly)
1. Start Early (or late).
Actually, I didn’t start that early, but I was parked up and walking by 9, and in the Lakes that generally means before most other people are out and about.
2. Start on the west side.
Helvellyn presents huge scooped corries, shattered crags, tarns and narrow ridges on its eastern approaches. On the west, there are mainly featureless convex slopes. For obvious reasons then, everyone starts in Patterdale. Start on the other side and you at least have the advantage of quieter footpaths. I’d driven up through alternate patches of mist, fog and sunshine, and then parked in the lay-by near the top of Dunmail Raise, where there was, at nine, one other car. I climbed beside Raise Beck….
…in the shade. As I climbed the shadow retreated down the hill-side towards me, so that as the gradient eased and I approached Grizedale Tarn, I also emerged into the sunshine.
3. Stay away from the beaten track.
My hastily conceived plan was to drop down the other side from Grizedale, so that I could head up into Ruthwaite Cove from…well, that part of my plan wasn’t at all clear. Probably a bit of contouring, or something, I’d vaguely thought. Now that I was at the pass, the idea of descending again didn’t seem so attractive. Far better, I reasoned, to climb Dollywagon first and then head down from there, before reascending. But not by the dull path which I could see zig-zagging up the steep slope to my left. Instead I took a rising line up and across to meet the edge of Tarn Crag and then followed the edge, admiring the views down Grizedale to Ullswater and Place Fell and the intimate glimpses into the impressive gullies on St. Sunday Crag. Pretty soon I was above Falcon Crag….
..from where I could look across to see three ridges extending eastward: the Tongue, Nethermost Pike’s east ridge and Striding Edge.
I turned to follow the rim of Cock Cove to the summit of Dollywagon Pike and then headed down the Tongue…
It’s not an narrow ridge, but its a good walk. The descent off to the left into Ruthwaite Cove was steep and loose and required a bit of care.
I was heading for Hard Tarn. It’s a small tarn which sits on a rocky bench beneath Nethermost Pike. This is Ruthwaite Cove…
…Hard Tarn is above the lower of the two sweeps of slab which are just to the right of centre in this photo. And just to the right of centre in this photo too….
The tarn isn’t deep enough to swim in, but hardy types will take a dip anyway. I wasn’t feeling quite that hardy on this occasion. I wasn’t feeling quite that hardy last time I came this way either. Frankly, I may never feel quite that hardy. I’ve discovered that I’m comfortable with my inner wimp.
My original idea had been to traverse out from the tarn, round to the foot, or thereabouts, of Nethermost Pike’s east ridge. But whilst that looks fine on the map, I could now see that would entail crossing a seemingly endless boulder-field. Going straight up looked to necessitate picking my way through some crags, but it didn’t look too challenging so I opted for that.
In the event, it was even easier than I had anticipated and could probably have all been done with hands in pockets. The only difficulty I did have was when I made the mistake of venturing onto a patch of scree rather than going down and looking for a way around. As soon as I committed my weight on to it, it all started to slither downhill. A boulder which was about the size of a breeze block, but I suspect much heavier, surfed down over the smaller ball-bearing sized scree and came to rest against my shin and I had an awkward moment whilst I tried to figure out how to extricate myself without sending the whole lot flying.
From that point, it was a steep but comfortable climb up to the top of the ridge. Once up I watched the queue of tiny figures tottering along Striding Edge….
…before walking the short distance to the cairn which marks the top of the huge plateau of Nethermost Pike.
4. Don’t go to the summit (and stay off Striding Edge).
On Nethermost you’re in easy striking distance of the top of Helvellyn. But up until now I’d met two other walkers on the summit of Dollywagon and two walkers sweating their way up the Tongue. And that was it. I had the summit of Nethermost to myself since the main path bypasses all these glorious edges as it makes a bee-line between Grizedale Tarn and Helvellyn summit. Predictably, the summit of Helvellyn looked to be the venue for one of the lesser late summer festivals. I couldn’t actually see any burger vans, but…
I chose to turn the other way and complete a circuit of Ruthwaite Cove, following the edge over High Crag back to Dollywagon Pike. I probably met a dozen or so other walkers coming the other way on this section.
Dollywagon Pike and High Crag.
Looking down on Hard Tarn.
Dollywagon Pike again.
Back along the edge – High Crag and Nethermost Pike.
From Dollywagon Pike I went off piste again – cutting down across the curiously named Willie Wife Moor, which, yes, was tussocky and a bit damp, to follow a small stream which brought me neatly back to Raise Beck…
…and then the car. Predictably, I didn’t see anybody else between the summit of Dollywagon and the busy main road over Dunmail Raise.
Distance: not much. Say…five miles..ish.
Up: 3200 feet. Or thereabouts.
Down: about the same, makes life awkward otherwise.
Walkers encountered: less then 20.
Dogs encountered: 2. Dog walkers generally hang out in the the Northern Fells, obviously.
Time according to Naismith: 3 hours ish.
Actual time: 5½ hours (I didn’t want to walk with Naismith anyway – he’s always in such a dreadful hurry.)
I felt in very fine fettle. I haven’t managed to squeeze in as much hill-walking this year as I did last, but I felt fitter than I have for quite some time. Perhaps I have a modicum of haemoglobin coursing through the old veins for once.