Helvellyn: The Inner Circle


One of the most famous sights in the Lakes
One of the most famous sights in the Lakes

The walk I call The Inner Circle is a shorter, but more dramatic ascent of Helvellyn and its satellite fells, this time including both Striding Edge and the less-famous Swirral Edge.
This time the walk begins and ends in Grisedale itself, which makes parking an issue. A road leaves the main valley road at the north end of Patterdale Village, and goes into Grisedale for a mile but non-residents cars are only allowed in the first 100 yards, parking space for ten cars and no more. An early arrival is imperative for failure to bag a spot means that the car has to be parked quite a distance away, adding to the length of the walk at beginning and end.
Once installed, the road heads into the trees, rising and falling for a cool, shaded mile, before emerging into the sun at the foot of the valley. Follow the road when it turns 90 degrees right across the valley floor but, when it turns ninety degrees right again, leave it at the gate and follow the path across the fields and up a surprisingly steep slope for this end of the day, until a well-established path bears away left to cross the fellside.
This is an old and famous path, crossing the southern flank of Birkhouse Moor, an ungainly fell thrust towards Patterdale, from the spine of Striding Edge. It maintains a fairly consistent, undemanding angle across the fellside, with excellent views for most of the way towards the head of the valley, where Nethermost Pike and Dollywaggon Pike present noble aspects unsuspected from the ridge itself (now you can see why Nethermost Pike is called a Pike in the first place). It’s not until the final, long, steeper section to the Hole in the Wall is reached that the way becomes at all draining: this crosses a sterile, bare section whose attraction is the end.
The Hole in the Wall is exactly that, a wide gap in the stone wall running along the ridge. When I first passed this way, it was an informal name, fellwalkers’ affectionate term for a significant place in the hills, the gateway to Striding Edge, but it’s now been accepted by the Ordnance Survey as the official name of this place.
Helvellyn appears for the first time, its flat rim of crags glowering over the dark waters of Red Tarn. A low depression spreads widely and wetly beneath the outflow of the Tarn, covered with paths going every which way.

                                                             Helvellyn from the approach to Striding Edge

But before the hard work starts, walk back along the wall, rising slowly towards the little peak of Birkhouse Moor. Though decorated by a cairn, the first hummock is not the highest point. Walk on to the second, leaving the wall behind. This is your first top of the walk.
Return to the Hole in the Wall, and go forward, towards the most enthralling part of the day, the crossing of Striding Edge. Experience is welcome on this route, but is not essential. Except in conditions of high wind, or ice underfoot, the Edge is not dangerous to anyone who takes care. The walk to reach it is surprisingly long and much height has been gained before the first pinnacle looms into view. Choose your level carefully.
A simple path avoids the crest, clinging closely to the Edge, mostly about ten to thirty feet below its crest, mostly on the Red Tarn side. Unless experienced at handling rock, it is probably sensible to take this route on your first visit, although if you feel up to it, go for it. It’s narrow, and if you slip you could go a long way, but in good conditions, the vast majority of walkers will negotiate it without difficulty.
The alternative, for the experienced and the bold at heart, is to follow the crest. On my second visit, I set out to do this. I got over the first pinnacle without difficulty, though conscious of what lay (or rather did NOT lay) about me, but though I got to the top of the second pinnacle, I found the descent from it to be too steep for my liking, given the lack of breadth, and I retreated to the path at the side. On the other hand, I have seen people strolling along, hands in pockets, having a conversation and not looking at their feet, so perhaps I am, at the end, too much of a wimp.
Whichever approach you take, there is but one way down off the Edge, and that is via a ten foot tall rock chimney, requiring some minimal climbing. In a world in which rock climbers rate Jack’s Rake on Pavey Ark as Easy, this would be regarded as piffling, and as such is no obstacle to anyone with any experience of scrambling.
Across a short hollow lies the final face of Helvellyn, a wall of crossing and competing paths when I ventured here, perhaps now corralled by the NT to avoid further erosion. Once, I breezed up the face without stopping, starting to breathe slightly heavily after about 15 minutes and considering a breather in the near future, before the slope eased and I found myself on the edge of the summit. Look upwards and imagine that. I was 19, and I’d just been set free of waiting for my family for the very first time: but it still amazes me that I was up there like a rat up a drainpipe so quickly.
Take it more slowly, and don’t look down until you reach the top, not because it looks fearsome, but so as not to spoil the view of Striding Edge from the top. Then follow the hordes upwards, half right, until you reach the windshelter and the cairn and the sweaty millions.
Leave by strolling north, in sight of the edge of the cliffs, until the slope rises slightly to the head of Swirral Edge.

Swirral Edge

In contrast to its more famous neighbour, Swirral is less of an actual edge than a steadily rising rock rib, requiring hands and feet in both directions. It’s a glorious scramble, with a profusion of routes. From above, on a first visit, it will look intimidatingly steep to start down. But handholds are plentiful, and the worst of the slope is only short. Turn round and feel your way down carefully until you feel confident enough to descend facing the route. At the foot of the slope, there is a level section where the path interwinds between outcrops, before curving away right, down towards the broad lands below the Tarn. Before doing so, turn off left to follow the ridge, now on grass, up steepening and narrowing slopes to the compact summit of Catstycam, a well-shaped fell dominated by the wall of the Helvellyn range.
Return to the ridge and descend on the path towards the outflow of Red Tarn. Cross the broad lands and rise to the Hole in the Wall, and take the long path down Birkhouse Moor’s flanks, until back to the car.

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