Saturday, 26 September 2015

Helvellyn & Catstye Cam via Striding Edge and Swirral Edge

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Route: Glenridding, Rattlebeck Bridge, Mires Beck, Birkhouse Moor, Hole-in-the-Wall, Bleaberry Crag, Low Spying How, High Spying How, Striding Edge, Helvellyn, Swirral Edge, Catstye Cam, Keppel Cove, Glenridding Common, Greenside Mine, Greenside Road, Glenridding

Date: 26/09/2015
From: Glenridding

Parking: Greenside Road
Start Point: Glenridding
Region: Eastern Fells

Route length: 7.8 miles (12.5 km)
Time taken: 03:30
Average speed: 2.2 mph
Ascent: 974m
Descent: 966m

Wainwrights on this walk:
Birkhouse Moor (718m), Helvellyn (950m), Catstye Cam (890m)

Other Summits: High Spying Howe (863m)

Other points of interest: Striding Edge, Swirral Edge, Keppel Cove, Greenside Mine

A bit of a rarity this one; a free weekend coinciding with a spell of fine, settled weather thanks to the high pressure that's draped across the country at the minute. It feels more like mid-summer than early autumn and I was keen to make the most of it. We've just returned from a trip abroad where it's fair to say eating and drinking were in abundance so I was feeling a little out of practice - all the more reason to get some miles back into the legs.

With the fine weather comes a lull in the wind and a certain stillness greeted me as I arrived in Glenridding, the kind of stillness that makes a crossing of Striding Edge a no-brainer. Striding Edge is Helvellyn's famed arête, one of the single most popular routes in the Lake District and for good reason. Tackling Helvellyn via the edges is an absolute must for anyone interested in hill walking or just walking for that matter. It is sensational.

For me, this would be my second crossing and a chance to see whether I've gained the necessary head for heights required to walk right along the top. The route is obvious as Striding Edge can only really be started from the Patterdale side of Helvellyn so it was in Glenridding where I left the car to set out in pursuit of some excitement.

The path climbs out of Glenridding alongside Mires Beck following the course of the stream right up the fellside. This is the territory of Birkhouse Moor, a fell often overlooked by those with their sights set on Helvellyn. The climb up is fairly uninteresting though is not so steep as to make it unpleasant. The view of Ullswater gets better and better every time you glance behind you to see how far you've come.
Heading to Rattlebeck Bridge, Birkhosue Moor and Little Cove are ahead
The path alongside Mires Beck to Little Cove
Looking back to Glenridding
A cluster of hazy Far Eastern Fells
Around halfway up, the path emerges from Little Cove, bringing St. Sunday Crag into view, and turns to follow a drystone wall in direction of the summit of Birkhouse Moor. I had noticed on the map a mention of a cairn, away from the summit and overlooking Glenridding so I set off to see what I could see.
Panorama of Glenridding, Patterdale and Grisedale
St. Sunday Crag rises up across the valley
In truth, having made the minor detour, there wasn't anything remarkable about the cairn, the view was a bit lacklustre given the gentle slopes all around. I'm sure, if I could have been bothered, a trip further towards the edge may have been more rewarding. That said, the scene of Helvellyn and Catstye Cam that dominates to the west is a touch distracting so my attention was probably drawn to that instead.
View from the cairn on Birkhouse Moor
Looking to Helvellyn and Catstye Cam
A path follows the drystone wall across Birkhouse Moor, passing the summit as it does so and drops a short way to Hole-in-the-Wall, the meeting point of a number of paths rising up from the valleys below. Interestingly, there is a wall with a stile crossing but no hole. The flanks of Striding Edge is clearly visible but the dramatic ridge only really comes into view once you reach Low Spying How, the first of a number of rocky turrets along the ridge.
The summit of Birkhouse Moor
Catstye Cam, White Side and Raise above Keppel Cove
Catstye Cam
Helvellyn and Red Tarn
Striding Edge from Low Spying How
Panorama from Striding Edge
Here you can savour the magnificence of the ridge, arguably one of the most dramatic ridges in the Lake District - certainly of those accessible to regular walkers. Between Low Spying How and High Spying How, the ridge is actually quite broad, relatively speaking and only truly becomes an arête after High Spying How. This short section typifies Striding Edge, seemingly narrow enough to straddle and enough to set the heart thumping a couple of beats faster.
Striding Edge
Striding Edge
Another Striding Edge panorama
Looking back to High Spying How
It was the perfect day for Striding Edge without any hint of wind and, as it was still mid morning, I led the charge of walkers across the top. I think it's worth pointing out that Striding Edge, in my opinion, doesn't actually feel as narrow as it looks once you are on it and the subtle curve of the ridge before it falls away certainly dispels any fears of imminently falling off. True, this would be much more of a challenge on a rainy, windy or icy day but today, it was walking perfection. I must add though, Striding Edge does require your full care and attention as a fall would be fatal. There is an excellent guide to tackling it on the aptly-named StridingEdge.net - you can find it here.
On what is probably the narrowest part
Striding Edge
The Chimney - an awkward final scramble
Red Tarn
Crossing Striding Edge, though generally slow going, doesn't take too long and a final scramble down The Chimney at the Helvellyn end mark its termination. Now you are faced with a 100m or so climb/scrabble up onto Helvellyn itself which lends to some imperious views back to Striding Edge and Nethermost Cove.
Nethermost Cove
Looking back along Striding Edge
Striding Edge
The climb emerges onto the summit at a large memorial to Charles Gough - Helvellyn's first recorded casualty whom you can read more about here. A short distance away, on the path bound for Nethermost Pike, is a much smaller memorial to the intrepid Bert Hinkler who landed a small biplane on Helvellyn in 1926. There's also the oft-busy summit shelter, the summit cairn and an OS trig pillar to investigate so plenty to see once you arrive at the top.
Charles Gough memorial
Memorial to Bert Hinkler
Summit shelter on Helvellyn
Looking down to Red Tarn from the summit
After phoning my whereabouts to Sara, it was time to leave Helvellyn behind and make for Swirral Edge, the shorter, steeper neighbour of Striding Edge. Swirral Edge is much less narrow than Striding Edge but presents its own difficulties, especially the steep, scrambling descent. It is often Swirral Edge rather than Striding Edge that claims lives in the winter seasons. It is still possible to remain on the ridge top which provides a quieter alternative to Striding Edge which was covered in people by now, forming a continuous (and satisfyingly uniform) line across the top.
Swirral Edge
Swirral Edge
Looking back up Swirral Edge to Helvellyn
Red Tarn and Striding Edge
Walkers on Striding Edge
Helvellyn and Swirral Edge
Up ahead is Catstye Cam, the quiet sentinel that overlooks Glenridding Common, a place often of solitude compared to the crowded Helvellyn. It's an easy climb up to the summit which has a magnificent view all around, especially back to the mighty Helvellyn. It was here, away from the throngs on Helvellyn, that I decided to pause for a bite to eat and few moments contemplating the best way down and back to the car. I decided to descend Catstye Cam's north west ridge to Keppel Cove and investigate a bit of Lakeland's mining history.
Catstye Cam's summit
Helvellyn and Swirral Edge once again
The north west ridge
The descent is steep but an eroded path follows the ridge all the way to the bottom, meeting the dilapidated Keppel Cove dam. The dam, appearing robust and complete when viewed during the descent, actually has a rather large hole in it and is one of two failed dams in Keppel Cove. The other was built up to hold back water from Keppel Cove tarn but collapsed after intense rainfall in 1927 resulting in great damage in Glenridding. The concrete dam was built as a replacement but was breached in 1931 though stayed largely intact, avoiding another disaster. Keppel Cove tarn is now nothing more than a marshy depression.
A near aerial view of the dam
Glenridding Common
One last view of Swirral Edge
Keppel Cove dam
The warning sign on Keppel Cove dam
The breached Keppel Cove tarn
The breach in the concrete dam
Being an area of historic mining, a wide track leads from the breached dam right the way back to Glenridding and is, in all honesty, a bit dull, despite the looming presence of Catstye Cam. The route leads to the disused Greenside Mine, one of the largest and most profitable mines that existed in the Lake District.
Catstye Cam
Glenridding
The mine was open until 1961 before it closed having excavated over 3 million tonnes of ore. Interestingly, the mine lived on for a few years after closure under the watchful eye of the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment - testing the theory of disguising explosions in large underground chambers by muffling the sound of the explosion using the rock. A number of explosions were tested and the results proved conclusive. After just one short year, the mine was handed back to the Greenside company.

Swart Beck
Ahead is a further long walk along Greenside Road, the track that links the old mine to Glendridding though I was fortunate enough to be offered a lift by a passing driver whom I had had a brief chat on the summit of Helvellyn with earlier in the day. While not one to usually jump into cars with strange men, it was good to shave half an hour off the walk ahead of the drive to Keswick and the campsite.

I know I've used the term 'classic' before but this is probably the iconic Lake District walk that encompasses everything that's great about the National Park. It's accessible; it's exciting; it visits one of the most revered mountains in the District; it's not too long and perhaps most importantly, it's great fun. I would wholly recommend a visit to Striding Edge, just make sure you're aware of the risks that are associated with it.