A sunny, windless day in June was the perfect opportunity for me to tackle a Lake District walk that had long been on my to-do list: Reaching the summit of Helvellyn along the razor-sharp ridge of Striding Edge.
Despite the popularity of this walk, the long slog up the peaceful Grisedale Valley was almost deserted in the early morning sunshine. The path offers wonderful views to the head of the valley and the peaks of St Sundays Crag and Dollywagon Pike.
Much of the way you can see the spot you are aiming for – a gap in an impossibly steep dry-stone wall known, unimaginatively, as ‘the-hole-in-the-wall’. On reaching the hole-in-the-wall, the path flattens out along the ridge and we got our first views of the summit plateau of Helvellyn, flanked by the shear-sided ridges of Striding and Swirrel Edge, with Red Tarn sitting in the basin below.
Pressing on along the rocky outcrop of ‘High Spying How’ we soon approached the beginning of Striding Edge – a good time to take a snack break and contemplate what was to come. Once on the ridge, however, it was not as narrow as it appears from a distance and the exhilarating walk doesn’t present any technical difficulties, as long as you watch your feet! For those who don’t have a head for heights, a less daunting path is available just below the ridge on the right.
The most challenging part of the walk is actually the scramble down the tower of rock at the end of the edge and the following steep scramble on some loose ground up to the summit plateau. Once on the plateau it was a short, flat walk to the summit cairn, from where the view towards Ullswater, which had been to our back throughout the walk, was breath-taking, with Red Tarn and Striding Edge in the foreground.
Turning around, the view in the other direction is no less impressive, with many of Lakeland’s most famous peaks stretching away to the south-west.
Having drunk in the sweeping vistas, we began our decent, this time down the twin ridge of Swirrel Edge. Whilst the first section is steep and rocky and the drops to each side are sudden, having tackled Striding Edge, Swirrel seems like a bit of a stroll in the park.
Coming off the ridge, a short detour takes you to the perfect cone summit of Catstye Cam. It seemed silly not to take it having come so far and the beautiful view over Ullswater on one side and back to Helvellyn on the other made it very much worthwhile.
Back on the main path, we passed close to Red Tarn (which looked perfect for a refreshing dip on a hotter day) to emerge back by the hole-in-the-wall. There are several options for the descent but we took the path along the ridge, rather than returning to Grisedale or dropping into Glenridding Valley. The views across Ullswater were wonderful throughout and a field of English bluebells (still flowering thanks to the terrible early spring weather) created a picture-perfect scene.
Passing little, quiet, Lanty Tarn we took a final detour to the tiny summit of Keldas for a last view of Ullswater framed by pine trees, before dropping down into Glenridding for a well-earned pint.
Start: Glenridding, on the shores of Ullswater.
Parking: There is a large pay and display car park at the Tourist Information Centre in Glenridding.
Distance: 8.5 miles/13.7 kilometres
Ascent: Approx. 900 metres
Walk directions: We used the directions in the Lake District Pathfinder Guide (which are excellent) but there are many versions available freely online. We strongly recommend taking an Ordnance Survey map with you (OS Explorer Map OL5).
Words of warning: Despite its popularity and clear paths, this is a serious mountain and should not be attempted in low cloud or fog. It is easy to get disorientated on the summit in poor weather. You should carry a map and compass, and know how to use them, in case conditions should change while you are on the mountain. Whilst neither Striding Edge nor the final scramble are particularly technical, they are very exposed and only the experienced and prepared should consider attempting them in high wind or winter conditions.
Our other favourite Lake District peaks
Great Gable: Great Gable is regularly cited by many as their favourite peak in the Lake District and its central location means the summit provides awe-inspiring views in all directions. There are a number of possible routes for ascending Great Gable you can begin from either the stunningly picturesque Borrowdale Valley or the wild and remote Wasdale Valley. Whichever way you go, the climb is long and strenuous, but this makes it all the more rewarding when you reach the top.
Haystacks: At only 597 metres, Haystacks is by no means one of the highest Lakeland fells but it offers a real ‘in-amongst-it’ feel, being surrounded by high, looming hills, and it offers picture-postcard views over the twin lakes of Buttermere and Crummock Water. This was one of Alfred Wainwright’s favourite spots and where he chose for his ashes to be scattered.
Fairfield: While not a renowned Lake District mountain in its own right, Fairfield sits at the head of a horseshoe valley, meaning it is accessed by one of the most stunning ridge walks in Britain. The ‘Fairfield Horseshoe’ is a popular route so you are unlikely to have it to yourself but the vast vistas throughout the walk make it one of the Lake District’s finest.
Cat Bells: For those that want the feeling of being on top of the world without having to walk for hours, it is hard to beat Cat Bells. Sitting alongside pretty Derwent Water, a clear path leads along a ridge to the summit, which provides great views across the lake, down the wonderful Borrowdale Valley and over the town of Keswick, with the peaks of Skiddaw and Blencathra looming in the background. Cat Bells is also a good jumping off point for walks into the higher fells of the Newlands Valley.