My decision to tackle Helvellyn via Striding Edge was, I think, made some time in my childhood.
On a family holiday to the Lakes as a young boy, we climbed Helvellyn, possibly from one of the gentler Western approaches – perhaps the old pony route. I’d heard mention of Striding Edge as a fearful way to tackle the mountain, and not one we’d be doing.
Our time on the summit was, as I recall, brief, and shrouded entirely in cloud. We were on the top – no mistaking the sudden, wide plateau of rock after a few hours of ascent – but the thick cloud provided no further clues.
Ever since that childhood walk, I think Helvellyn has stood out in my mind as a mountain I must tackle again, alone, and the allure of Striding Edge had been implanted long ago. If nothing else, its name conjures the kind of activity and spirit I imagined would be necessary to traverse it. Not just walking or even ‘climbing’ this mountain would be enough for me, but striding – along an edge! It had always sounded to me so romantic and adventurous.
The phrase ‘not for the faint-hearted’ is perhaps overused these days. It’s so often attached to things which, really, the faint-of-heart wouldn’t worry too much about. A forgotten book of Lake District walks I’d been using described the ascent of Helvellyn via Striding Edge as just that. It also, I believe, mentioned girding one’s loins at a crucial point. This had given me pause to consider what I had chosen to embark upon, but then I turned instead to Wainwright, who describes this route as:
The best way of all, well known, popular, and often densely populated in summer. The big attraction is an airy rock ridge, very fine indeed. Good path throughout.
Not for the faint-hearted? Wainwright made it sound like a walk in the park. Good old Wainwright.
I’d made it up from Helvellyn YHA so far with ease, before turning back on myself at Red Tarn to join up with the path to Striding Edge. A short backtrack towards ‘the hole in the wall’ afforded marvellous, hitherto unseen views down the other side of the valley. From here, I was walking back towards Helvellyn once more, with this mythical ‘Striding Edge’ somewhere in my near future.
I was left in no doubt of the point at which Striding Edge begun.
My experience of other walks – even other mountains, like Kinder Scout at Edale – is generally that paths tend to be clear, well-worn and sort of nestled in a safe furrow. Even on the edges of sheer hillsides, there is often a fence or some other barrier between path and sharp drop.
Not so, on Striding Edge. Not so at all.
The surface changed quickly from grassy and well worn to a kind of scattering of jagged rocks with smooth faces. And although I’d known I would be traversing a ridge, this was made abundantly clear by suddenly seeing the two sides drop away at my left and right to depths of many hundreds of metres. Even the relative proximity of Red Tarn to my right seemed a formidable drop, but the sheer slope on the opposite side wasn’t even worth considering.
It was at this point that I put my camera away and tightened my backpack straps. Although I’d normally be reluctant to put away my camera in such starkly beautiful scenery, I felt no remorse as I had a genuine need for the use of all four of my limbs. And even the shifting counterweight of my small backpack forced me to re-assess my centre of gravity as I began the scramble.
It was also at this point that I became aware that I was alone. I had been alone all the way up, enjoying a sunlit stroll through meadows and past streams. Now I was beginning to wish for, if not company, then at least some other people relatively nearby. Luckily, casting my eyes back to the hole in the wall, I spotted two distant parties of walkers heading my way. This gave me the reassurance I needed, and I proceeded across the ridge, loins suitably girded.
I’d already scratched a mental pencil line through Wainwright’s proclamations of Striding Edge as “densely populated,” (although in his defence, it was early April), and a “very fine,” “airy rock ridge.” It was indeed an airy rock ridge, though “fine” wasn’t the f-word jumping to my lips as I crawled, crab-like, across shattered boulders, occasionally allowing myself to glance down the sheer drops at either side.
There was indeed a path – occasionally. At times, the rocks naturally gave way to a muddy path or an obvious ledge to follow. At others, the only way appeared to simply be directly up and over the rocks themselves – literally scrambling or climbing up boulders the size of cars.
I also noticed that while there was occasionally a clear path, there were also occasionally clear paths – several options to consider, and no indication as to whether one would be preferable to the other as they always led behind another rock. I also realised that ever since the small cairns shortly after ‘the hole in the wall’, I had not seen any signposts or clear indications of the ‘proper’ route. I reasoned that, on a narrow ridge like this, there really is only one direction you can head.
I somehow made it across the bulk of Striding Edge without any mishap, and I stopped to take stock, catch my breath, and drink some water. But as I looked around, it slowly dawned on me that I had absolutely no idea where to go from here. Nothing like a clear path presented itself, and all I could see between me and the summit of Helvellyn was a wall of shattered rock…