I’d read in a book of Lake District walks that the ‘bonny peak’ of Catstye Cam* was not to be missed when tackling Helvellyn. At 890m, it’s a pretty sizeable fell, and it has a rather wonderful shape to it. As Wainwright wrote, “if Catstycam stood alone, remote from its fellows, it would be one of the finest peaks in Lakeland.” Praise indeed from the man himself.
* On the naming: Catstye Cam seems the most common, but Wainwright favoured Catstycam, while also citing Catchedicam.
The ascent of Helvellyn from Glenridding is very much in Catstye Cam’s shadow. Indeed, for much of the route up, Helvellyn itself remains hidden behind its lower relative, and only reveals itself when turning the corner to the wide plateau on which sits Red Tarn.
Once on the summit of Helvellyn, Catstye Cam’s presence is unmistakeable. As one tends to do when on the top of a mountain or big hill, your eyes cast around for recognisable landmarks: lakes, valleys, other distant peaks. But there, right in front of you, along the narrow, rocky ridge of Swirral Edge, is a bonny peak indeed.
It’s a lovely sight, sat on Helvellyn’s top, to see this pudding bowl scooped out by glaciers – the centre of which filled by the waters of Red Tarn – and both sides, sheer and craggy, providing adventurous routes to the top. On one side, the formidable Striding Edge, and on the other, the mildly less hair-raising Swirral Edge.
It’s Swirral Edge that leads the walker to Catstye Cam, and this stone staircase – don’t lose your footing on the smooth rock – takes a bit more concentration than you’d perhaps expect. It’s partly to do with that unexpected realisation that the descent can often be as technically challenging as the ascent. But it’s also because, as you tentatively place one foot beneath the other and lower yourself down, your eyes and attention are relentlessly swept upwards by the views: all distant hills, lakes and sheer fellsides slipping away.
For the walker who maintains their footing down Swirral Edge, Catstye Cam is mere minutes away – although the conical peak, which looked so neat and achievable from atop Helvellyn, is now rather more impressive as it once again towers above.
But progress is steady as the worn path climbs Catstye Cam’s grassy slopes. Even if the fell’s shape wasn’t such a pronounced peak, you’d still feel yourself closing in on the summit as the grass gives way to rock, from which point it’s a brief scramble to the top.
Those who choose to include Catstye Cam in their dealings with Helvellyn are treated to a small cairn and panoramic views – the sharp peak of the fell providing, as Wainwright says, “no doubt,” as to the highest point.
If you’re lucky enough to have Catstye Cam to yourself, it’s wise to take a few minutes to drink in the scenery and appreciate the plucky little peak. Back up Swirral Edge, dots move along Helvellyn’s summit as walkers converge from the various routes up. The dark waters of Red Tarn sparkle in the sunlight, looking rather like an oasis amongst sharp rocky crags and the various greens, reds and browns of the surrounding vegetation. And, a long way down the valley to Glenridding, Ullswater is seen snaking its way between sheer fellsides.