“No, no, no, no, no… and just in case you didn’t hear me the first five times… NO!” she said.
Really? Anybody would think I was suggesting that Jen and I go out on a freezing day in the Cumbrian winter and take our chances on the legendary Lakeland mountain ridge that has, in the last few years, seen more hiking accidents than Everest.
However… time (and possibly the changing seasons) has a way of making her warm to my ideas… 😉
Back in January Jen and I were staying in Blackpool and we took the opportunity to meet up with good friend and Adventures with Heroes boss Anthony ‘Evo’ Evans and his wife Ali. Evo and I have both participated in a few recent hiking weeks in the Yorkshire Dales, the Lake District and Scotland, and he has started to put his knowledge of the mountains, flora and fauna to good use by setting up a new company. Adventures with Heroes offers bushcraft courses for adults and kids alike, as well as taking groups out into the hills on guided, well-equipped and very informative hikes.
Now, I can neither confirm nor deny the source of the seed that led Evo to choose Helvellyn as one of his first major public outings with paying customers. Sure, he and I might have mentioned it over a night-time coffee in the YHA in Borrowdale. I might even have stated the difficulties in getting my more sensible half to agree to such a hike if it involves contending with snow, ice, low cloud or wind at any speed on either of two very exposed ridges. In hindsight, Evo may have made some concessions to good sense by opting for safety in numbers, winter safety equipment and several qualified MLs on hand… and of course enlisting Ali, his wife and Jen’s ally, to join in the adventure.
I may or may not have let slip that I really wanted to go up or down Striding Edge. I might have been informed that Swirral Edge was more dangerous… I can’t quite recall. I certainly don’t recall the
bonus… ermmm… suggestion that we might go up Swirral Edge and down Striding Edge.
However, I do know that Evo is my friend and one should support friends in whatever
lunacy ermmm… great ideas they might have…
I think that’s how I sold the idea to Jen as she unwrapped her non-refundable Valentine’s Day gift: a Lake District hiking day led by Adventures with Heroes!
Yes, I know, I know ladies… I’m just a hopeless romantic!
I guess what I didn’t appreciate is our rather different perspectives. All I’d envisaged was me and my girl together on a mountain peak, enjoying breathtaking views for miles around us, cuddling and admiring the crisp snowline of England’s third highest mountain. However, I think Jen foresaw 600-metre drops, hands-on scrambles along a sharp, exposed ridge, precarious footholds, slippery melting snowlines and perhaps a potential fall leading to almost certain death… I mean that’s crazy right… Jen, ermmm, don’t look down!
Given that context, it probably felt more like being handed divorce papers than a well-meant, romantic Valentine’s Day surprise. In my defence I got one bit bang on correct: yes, she was very surprised! Ermmm yes… anyway…
It was 6am, the morning after my birthday. I’m not known for early rising, but today something other than an alarm clock roused me and I leapt out of bed and headed straight for the breakfast cupboard. Good old porridge was needed in order to get ‘things’ moving and ensure that we left home feeling ready for the big day ahead. We’d both been keeping a close eye on the weather in the
months ermmm day or two leading up to the hike, and it looked like sunshine all day… in fact, dare we say the best day of the year so far?
That morning, for my part, a decision had to be made… Hiking boots or trail shoes? I will be chastised for saying so, but I’m simply not a fan of traditional ankle-hugging boots, as I find them clunky, restrictive and heavy. I like to know what my foot is in contact with, and if scrambling were the order of the day trail shoes would be my preferred choice…
“Taking your boots, hon?” Jen asked.
Often such comments are laden with secondary meaning, and as the porridge bubbles away on the hob, I have a minute to reconsider, weighing up in my head the pros and cons of each type of footwear. I’m on about a 50:50 so decide to err on the side of caution… But wait… “Jen, are my boots in your car?” We both look outside at the space where the car should be, and Jen looks a tad concerned. I however, am relieved that Jen’s car is in the garage for repairs…
Trail shoes it is then! I mean, come on, there isn’t going to be snow on the peaks. Just looking out of the window says it all… I mean would the lambs be gambolling around in the sunshine if there was snow on the peaks, some 60 miles west and 1000m higher in the sky? Course not, don’t be daft!
We pack our daysacks with gloves, down jackets, other warm layers and poles. I will be taking my trusty beacon (PLB), plus first aid kit and emergency gear (90% of which consists of coffee!). We pack food, sweets and protein bars, spare socks and clothes for the way back… We bid our feline companions farewell – they will undoubtedly take full advantage of the sunshine to reinforce their dominance over the local shrew population – and climb into my car.
We really do have amazing access to places; living in Sedbergh just 5 miles from the M6 motorway means that we can hop on and off pretty much anywhere along the spine of England. However, on this lovely morning we choose the route option that takes us west across Kendal, then north up the Kirkstone Pass on our way to the start point at Glenridding. I suppose it’s normal to be a bit nervous and careful when one comes across ice on the roads; however, apparently one Porsche driver was not so cautious that morning. On one of Kirkstone’s high bends we come across a Landrover Discovery with a rear wheel hanging off, and a Porsche embedded in a dry stone wall on the other side of the road. It’s a rather precarious corner; the wall luckily prevented the Porsche from falling down the mountain. We stopped… nobody was injured and help was on the way, so we crept through the expensive carnage that littered the road and continued onwards.
As we arrived at the car park, 20 minutes early, it seemed that we were the last of the group to get there. People were introducing themselves, and we all headed off for a pre-hike coffee and briefing. The sun was shining, but there was a little more than a hint of white on the, ermmm, snow-covered slopes. I looked down at my trail shoes and sneaked a peek at the well-booted feet of my companions. Yup, I thought… I’m the only fool in the group.
It wasn’t long before we set off. We needed to cover several kilometres to reach the foot of Swirral Edge, our chosen ascent route, and the going was quite slow. Jen and I are not used to hiking in groups, but we mingled, well Jen did… I’m not much good at that, and instead went into head-down, lunge-forward mode, looking back only when I remembered to check I was still on the correct path!
It was a Saturday, which coupled with the glorious sunshine attracted hundreds of people to this iconic mountain. There were volunteers repairing paths, plus members of the elite, average hikers (a group which I’m proud to belong to) and some who seemed outrageously ill-prepared – one woman on the slope looked as though she was lost on her way to a discotheque or something. I felt content to be in the average hiker bracket. I had the peace of mind of knowing that our group probably had enough safety gear to camp for a week if need be, i.e. in the worst-case scenario where all our PLB devices failed and no Helevac could take place. We had ice axes, crampons and ropes, and more than enough practical experience and knowledge between us to ensure safe passage up the sharp ridges to the summit. Or at least, as safe as anybody can expect to be in such an environment.
We made several stops during the ascent, and once Helvellyn’s summit was firmly in our sights we paused for lunch before embarking on the big climb. Snow fights ensue… I say fights… eight versus one is probably a tad unfair. But the one stayed on his feet, still smiling and happy to take on the eight of us who faced him!
We discussed our ascent, subsequent descent and safety plans, and moved off, raising our eyes to the thin snowy track that would lead us up Swirral Edge. We just kept putting one foot in front of the other in the snow, which was so absorbing that when I lifted my head to look around me some minutes later, we had already climbed a good way. Suddenly all I saw was the incredible view of Red Tarn, the body of water that lies between Swirral and Striding Edge… the surprise of it took my breath away! Not least because the water looked black (fear not, I hadn’t actually expected it to be red!).
We regrouped again at the base of the part where forward movement would require us to hold on tight with our hands… when suddenly an elitist arrived, followed by a cameraman and sound engineer. Don’t get me wrong, I can listen for hours to an elitist recounting experiences of summiting the world’s highest mountains, and if I feel I need their advice I’ll happily, and gratefully, take copious notes. But this chap was decked out in as many premium brands as a guy can wear at any given time, and had clearly decided – and voiced – that we were unprepared for the ridges.
Alas, it’s true: I hadn’t spent several weeks in a pricey gym training for this arduous adventure. I hike up mountains on most days and in most weathers in my backyard. It’s also true that I can’t afford to shell out on the elitist brands that would make me look fashionable on a mountain. Indeed, my treasured Berghaus windcheater sports at least two patches of repair tape. I don’t own a pair of Oakleys, nor do I champion any of the premium brands… Rab, Berghaus, North Face, 66 Degrees North, Patagonia, Arc’teryx, Marmot and MosseJaw come to mind (but you can get in touch via the Contact page, folks! Lol). But given my companions’ mountain qualifications and experience, and to be fair, as a pretty experienced hiker in my own right, I couldn’t help feeling insulted. I dare say the fellow was simply trying to warn us of the icy conditions ahead, and meant well, but all the same I thanked my lucky stars that Evo could answer his comments diplomatically.
As I sat puffing on my pipe with wild eyes, half-wishing this gentleman would take a couple of steps backwards and disappear over the edge, Evo asked one or two questions. Or rather, a number of very detailed and intelligent questions, about the conditions on the ascent, that would leave our uninvited guest in no doubt of Evo’s experience and knowledge. Meanwhile, I watched in silence, biting my tongue. And then the man surprised me… He apologised and shuffled off with his crew and we got ready for the ascent.
As for the last part of the ascent, it’s certainly not for the faint-hearted, and possibly a little mad in those snowy, icy conditions with so many people trying to pass us on their way down. It doesn’t feel particularly exposed as long as you keep looking up at your next handhold, but I must say there were places where I’d have liked to feel more certain my foot wasn’t going to slip. That last hundred metres didn’t take us long, even though as a group we took it slowly and carefully. It interested me to see that a number of those coming down Swirral Edge were clearly not enjoying the descent, and I can’t blame them. Evo had definitely made the right choice for us by deciding to walk Helvellyn in the opposite direction from the norm. He did at one point have to pull out his ice axe to cut out a few steps for the last few members of our group, but within half an hour we were all at the summit!
We spent a pleasant few minutes at the top (well, actually I think Jen was more than a little nervous about going down Striding Edge in the snow, and would happily have accepted a lift down in a helicopter!). There was no wind, the sun was still with us, and I was amazed that a handful of people had somehow made it to the top wearing ridiculous non-grip trainers. The only thing that possibly amazed me more was that there was not a single cloud in the sky – here, of all places!
We had uninterrupted views of all the surrounding peaks, sporting similar snow-caps to the one on Helvellyn: Scafell Pike, Great Gable, the Old Man of Coniston, High Street, Fairfield and many, many more.
Anyway, the time had come to think about the way down; a few of our group were heading back down Swirral Edge (brave choice!) but the majority of us would be making our way down Striding Edge. This ridge is the very reason I have wished for so long to climb Helvellyn. It’s a long scramble along a sharp, rocky crest, with at times death-defying drops on both sides. On the other hand, it’s definitely an invigorating hike! An achievement. One that I think Jen and I would have preferred to discover in summer conditions (hmm, yes, now that I think about it, snow was one of her NO WAY! conditions), but highly rewarding nonetheless.
By the time we reached the top of Striding Edge, most of the day’s visitors to Helvellyn were picking their way down Swirral Edge on the other side of Red Tarn. The lake was reflecting the sky like a mirror, and at this point in the day (4pm) there were very few people still climbing up towards us, so we could pick our route with care. I personally loved the challenging descent, and in the end I think Jen did too, despite the snow! There were handholds and footholds everywhere, in large part thanks to the fascinating rock strata that jutted up at us vertically all over the place. The views on all sides were phenomenal, and fortunately neither of us has a fear of heights. Every now and then Jen would stand up straight, gaze around her, grin and exclaim, “Beautiful!” For some in our group, however, this was a terrifyingly difficult descent. This is not a place you’d want to find yourself dealing with vertigo, an unsteady hand grip or worn tread on your shoes. Evo’s calm professionalism in reassuring and assisting those with frayed nerves truly does his company Adventures with Heroes credit. And indeed, he guided everybody down safely.
Time was whipping by and Ali, Evo’s wife, was already overdue to get back to the car and home to collect their son. So she, Jen and I parted from the main group and completed Striding Edge a little ahead of the others, before heading back down to the valley. For the last hour or so we retraced our steps (some pretty steep!) the way we had come, and after spending nine hours walking either up or downhill in rather a lot of snow, the ladies were now comparing notes on their leg aches. For my part, it was my head that felt sore, after all that intense concentration on the ridges.
It had been a long day, and after waving Ali off from Glenridding car park, Jen and I hung on in order to thank the merry band that had formed the group of the day. We too had a reason to get going… for one thing, we needed to protect whatever remained of Sedbergh’s shrew population from our hunter-killer feline beauties who had been roaming around our home valley all day!
It’s not the first time I have hiked in a group, but perhaps for Jen it was. In retrospect, and looking back at the day, I would recommend that anyone who harbours a desire to scale one of the UK’s most challenging peaks, but feels less than qualified to do so safely, might consider being guided by a Mountain Leader for the day. It’s a great way forward in terms of remaining safe and informed, and by the end of the day everyone in the group will have learned lots about the route, the surroundings and also the unseen history of such majestic places.
What an awesome, unforgettable day!
Simon Duringer is an award-winning blogger, interviewer and author. His own books can be found on Amazon too by clicking any of the following icons…