(The Gear Loop) - The Helvellyn range dominates the Eastern Lake District, forming a huge barrier between the Central Fells and Ullswater region and cleaving the national park in two.
Its famous summit is England’s third highest mountain peak, behind only Scafell Pike and Scafell. However, it is the nation’s favourite, with around 250,000 people ascending to its top every year.
This popularity is due to its wonderful accessibility, stonking views and the drama found on its subsidiary peaks, exciting ridges and in its spectacular coves. There’s something here for everyone, from scenic hiking trails, nerve-shredding scrambles, a small ski club and glorious wild swim spots.
A plane even once landed on the summit, but that’s another story. Here, we detail some of the finest routes to the top, when to go and where to stay.
Undoubtedly Helvellyn’s finest feature is the huge cove found to the east of its summit, a majestic natural amphitheater and a textbook example of how this incredible landscape was sculpted during the last Ice Age, 11,000 to 12,000 years ago.
Nestled at its centre is beautiful Red Tarn, which is guarded by two glacially carved ridges that tower threateningly above the water. These sharp, rocky arêtes are known as Striding Edge and Swirral Edge and boast thrilling ways to the summit. Striding Edge, in particular, is notorious and probably the most famous mountain route in the UK.
The whole range is a natural masterpiece. Running from Clough Head in the north to Dollywaggon Pike in the south, its main spine is the highest continuous ground in the country. Nowhere else in England can you stride out for so long above the 800m contour line and enjoy such a phenomenal panorama.
Need more in-depth UK mountain guides? We've got information on the beast that is Ben Nevis, the stunning Scafell Pike, epic Snowdon and a guide on how to tackle all three in 24 hours by the man who holds the current World Record.
How to summit Helvellyn: Striding Edge and Swirral Edge
For many, the quintessential Helvellyn experience is an ascent of Striding Edge, a visit to the summit and a descent of Swirral Edge - or vice versa. Both Edges are grade one scrambles, pitched perfectly as introductions to exciting and technical mountain terrain. The villages of Glenridding and Patterdale are the usual start points.
In good conditions, there’s nothing overly difficult about the Edges but it’s the feeling of exposure and the drops on either side that can catch some people out. In windy or icy conditions, the Edges are potentially dangerous and have sadly seen several fatalities over the years.
Striding Edge is the lengthier of the two and makes for a spectacular journey across an undulating rocky arête. In reality, it’s more of a walk than a scramble, with just one unavoidable downclimb through a rocky chimney and a steep final pull up to the summit.
There are bypass paths that skirt the crest of the ridge but my advice is “crest is best” for both safety and enjoyment. This is particularly true when late-season snow blankets its flanks, covering the paths. If it’s too windy to comfortably walk along the crest, it’s too windy to be attempting Striding Edge in the first place.
Swirral Edge forms the northern end of the great cove above Red Tarn and links Helvellyn to the striking pyramidal peak of Catstycam, which is a superb mountain in its own right and is one not to miss. The Edge itself is more of an airy walk than a scramble, but becomes steep and exposed in its upper section before the safer ground of the main plateau is reached.
In full winter conditions, cornices can form, both on the edges and on the edge of the main plateau, representing the main hazard for mountaineers. A good level of experience and caution are required in such circumstances.
How to summit Helvellyn: other approaches from the east
As well as the Edges, there are numerous other ways to access the summit from the east. If you’ve already done Striding Edge and are looking for other adventurous ways up.
Nethermost Pike’s east ridge and Dollywaggon Pike via the Tongue are two wonderfully atmospheric ascents from upper Grisedale. These have a much wilder flavour, containing much of the excitement found on the Edges but without the company of fellow walkers.
More straightforward approaches from Glenridding and Patterdale take you past Greenside Mine, the former lead mine that was responsible for both villages’ growth.
From here, you can continue up and ascend via Keppel Cove or make for the crossroads at Sticks Pass. Although longer than options starting in the west, these are the gentlest ways to Helvellyn’s summit, gaining height gradually and allowing you to take in the scenery at your leisure.
How to summit Helvellyn: approaches from the west
Where starting any walk to the east Helvellyn throws out a complex system of ridges, deep coves and long valleys, the west of the range’s green flanks drop steeply to the rift that separates it from the lower Central Fells. The A591 runs along the length of this rift, giving motorists easy access to the number of starting points.
A direct ascent can be made from Wythburn, at the southern end of Thirlmere’s serene shores. It is relentlessly steep for the first mile, before becoming easier and enjoying superb views in its latter stages. The White Stones route from Thirlspot ascends across the rugged Browncove Crags on its way to the summit. Descent via this route has the advantage of finishing at the King’s Head pub. The least strenuous way up from Thirlmere’s surroundings is from Legburnthwaite via Sticks Pass.
How to summit Helvellyn: the traverse
As far as an epic hike goes, a traverse of Helvellyn’s spine is one of the finest in the national park. It is also one of the most iconic sections of the Bob Graham Round, the Lake District’s classic fellrunning challenge.
From Threlkeld in the north to Dunmail Raise or even Grasmere in the south, it is an epic undertaking across the highest continuous ground in the country and at least nine Wainwright summits. Of course, figuring out how to get back to your car afterwards is all part of the challenge.
How to summit Helvellyn: when to go
Like so many of the UK’s mountains, the main hiking season on Helvellyn is generally between April and October, when there are longer daylight hours and favourable conditions.
August is the busiest month, when the mountain becomes the objective of families on their summer break, and you can expect the trails to be busy at weekends throughout the armer months. Rise early or set out late in the day to avoid the masses.
Helvellyn hoards snow greedily during the winter months, showing off its white coat when even the likes of the Scafells can only manage a dusting. This means that for those without mountaineering skills and equipment, the area can be out of bounds for a few months. Even when not covered in the white stuff, winter turns Helvellyn into a beast, with often brutal conditions.
For mountaineers, there’s no guarantee of snow at any given point during the year, so it is advisable to keep an eye on designated forecasts and social media to see when the mountain is ‘in’.
There are even snow sports facilities on the mountain: the Lake District Ski Club operates a tow on the slopes of Raise, a subsidiary top to the north. Sixty days of decent snow is par for a good winter season, they say.
How to summit Helvellyn: how to prepare
Most routes to the summit of Helvellyn contain few technical difficulties and are achievable by any reasonably fit individual.
Both Striding Edge and Swirral Edge are great introductions to low grade scrambling, themselves ideal preparation for slightly more serious ridge traverses like Sharp Edge on Blencathra or Snowdon’s Crib Goch.
If you are unsure how you will cope with the exposure of a sinuous ridge, try the easier traverses of airy ridges like Longside Edge on Skiddaw or Scar Crags on the Causey Pike to Sail ridge first.
How to summit Helvellyn: how to get there and where to stay
Helvellyn’s summit is not as remote as Scafell Pike and starting points are easier to access. The range is flanked on either side by two of the Lake District’s major roads and there are a number of excellent basecamps.
For adventures from the east, including those that take in Striding and Swirral Edges, the villages of Glenridding and Patterdale are ideal.
Occupying enviable positions on the southern tip of beautiful Ullswater, both have plenty of amenities and accommodation options, from basic bunkhouses to lakeside hotels.
Patterdale’s post office has a special place in hillwalking history; it was here that Alfred Wainwright sold his first Pictorial Guides in 1955.
For those travelling by public transport, the best option is to take a train to Penrith and hop on the 508 bus. Those staying in the Keswick region can use the 208 bus service to access the villages.
Ascents from the west usually begin just off the A591, from the eastern shores of Thirlmere, where there are inns, hotels and camping options.
More accommodation and amenities can be found to the north in Keswick and Threlkeld and to the south in Grasmere, Rydal and Ambleside.
The 555 bus service from Kendal to Keswick runs along the A591, stopping at Windermere, Ambleside, Grasmere and Thirlmere en route. Those travelling by public transport can use the West Coast Mainline, alight at Oxenholme and change onto a local train service to Windermere to access the region.
Although technically illegal, wild camping is generally tolerated in the Lakeland Fells if done responsibly. Sheltered from westerly winds, Red Tarn makes for an atmospheric place to pitch up, with the added bonus of quick access to Striding Edge and Helvellyn’s summit for sunrise.
Top tip: Grisedale Tarn, at the southern end of the range is another beaut of a wild camping spot.
How to summit Helvellyn: what to pack
Helvellyn is a serious mountain and should not be taken lightly. Conditions can become extremely challenging up high, even in summer. Your backpack should always be prepared for the possibility of cold, wet and windy conditions.
Always take waterproofs, even if it’s sunny in the valley. The summit will usually be several degrees colder than sea level, so make sure you’ve got plenty of layers, including a moisture wicking base layer and an insulating mid layer.
However, sunny days in the Lakes are more frequent than some would have you believe, so make sure you pack sun cream during the warmer months.
Fit hikers can squeeze a trek to Helvellyn’s summit and back between mealtimes, however it’s always worth taking plenty of high energy snacks to keep you going, such as trail mix, chocolate bars, sweets or energy gels.
The amount of water you take will depend on the length of your planned adventure. For an out and back summit raid, 500ml should suffice, whereas you will need at least 750ml for a longer day hike.
When the clag closes in and visibility in compromised, it’s quite easy to get lost on the Helvellyn massif.
The sheer size of the range and the number of paths that explore its many nooks and crannies mean that becoming disorientated is a real possibility without proper navigational aids.
GPS units and hiking apps are ideal for pinpointing your exact location. However, such technology can fail and should not be used in isolation. A topographical map and compass should always accompany you in the mountains.
Other essential items include head torches, a spare power bank to keep your devices juiced up and at least one first aid kit in your group.
Now get the gear
From lightweight speed-hiking shoes to a fancy GPS locator gadget, we've suggested a few items to ensure you summit Helvellyn comfortably and safely.
Garmin GPSMAP 66i
Garmin’s high-tech and handheld GPS device is used by explorers the world over, as it has the ability to connect to the outside world long after mobile phone signal has died. What’s more, multi-GNSS satellite support means superior navigation is never far our of reach.
Pre-load maps, keep an eye on weather, download high resolution satellite imagery and get turn-by-turn directions with a battery life of up to 35 hours in tracking mode and up to 200 hours in Expedition mode. It’s all very James Bond, but it could save your skin in the more treacherous climbing months.
- Garmin GPSMAP 66i review: a powerful device that is a worthy companion for the gnarliest of adventures
Salewa Dropline GTX
The Dropline GTX’s are designed specifically for dynamic mobility on the kind of rugged terrain found on Helvellyn, while its GORE-TEX lining gives you durable waterproofing and optimum breathability.
Forclaz Durable Mountain Trekking Trousers MT500
Although not 100 per cent waterproof, we’ve found these fantastic value for money trekking trousers to be some of the best fitting and most comfortable we’ve tried. Weighing less than 400g in most sizes, they are also very light and designed to move with the wearer.
A perfect marriage with Salewa’s Dropline GTX shoes, they make for a lightweight, breathable and quick-drying trouser for those who like to travel fast and light. Yet a durable fabric (207 g/sqm) on areas that need protection from rubbing means they’ll last many summits, too.
Cumbrian brand inov-8’s Stormshell is a jacket designed specifically for fast and light adventure runners. However, its excellent waterproof rating, comfort, weight and packability make it a no brainer for speedy hikers too.
The breathable 2.5 layer Pertex Shield fabric has a 20,000 HH rating, which means it can withstand truly biblical conditions, while it is one of the lightest jackets out there, weighing in at 175g.
Black Diamond Trail Trekking Pole
You can't beat a good set of walking poles, whether it's a little helping hand when legs start to fatigue or the support you need to tackle tough terrain, a solid lightweight set should be hanging from any ardent walker's backpack.
With dual FlickLocks for adjustability to suit the terrain and interchangeable Tech Tips, these high-tech and lightweight poles are a great all-rounder, designed for a multitude of disciplines and terrains.
Meet Steve Scott
Tips from the pros
Steve Scott, Lake District aficionado and a director of the world-renowned Kendal Mountain Festival, shares his tips for a successful adventure on Helvellyn.
Helvellyn is undoubtedly one of the Lake District’s majors and a true classic, especially if you undertake the Striding Edge ascent and Swirral Edge descent, a superb 8km loop. I have spent many hours hiking, running, skiing and even flying high above it on a paraglider, so the mountain is a dear old friend. Helvellyn’s route variety, incredible panoramas and the inherent physical challenge it provides will never disappoint. The time of year will change the level of challenge for you too: summer hikes in blue skies are a dream, however winter conditions can transform this mountain into a monster.
For a steep alpine-style fast ascent, you can park near Wythburn on the southeast side of Thirlmere and head up via Comb Crags and Birk Side, which is a lung burner but brings fast altitude gains. Alternatively take the Northern "High Park Wood" carpark and head up the regular pathway flanking Helvellyn Gill and up alongside the stunning Browncove Crags.
The renowned Striding Edge is best accessed from Patterdale or Glenridding village and should be undertaken with care and a decent level of fitness. Knowing the advanced weather forecast is also a must and there are fantastic weather resources online, so getting caught out is no excuse. Both Swirral and Striding Edges offer spectacular views but also feature a touch of exposure with steep and narrow scrambling sections. These are great fun, but perhaps not ideal for the inexperienced fell walker and are hazardous in winter conditions.
Steve Scott is a Lake District local and has spent his life in mountain and outdoor environments around the world. He is now a presenter and a director of the renowned Kendal Mountain Festival, which is the world’s premier gathering for adventure speakers, industry professionals and outdoor films and culture. He can be found hosting the new Kendal Mountain Tour, which covers 40+ dates around the UK starting in February.