By Dennis Hardingham
The Helvellyn range runs north-west to south east, with the attractive features: Striding Edge, Red Tarn, Swirrell Edge and Catstye Cam on the northern side, so the southern slopes tend to be neglected, although there are fine views over Thirlmere towards Great Gable and points west from here.
Parking in the small car park about a mile beyond the Kings Head I set off up the steeply rising rocky pathway. I enjoyed this so much I returned to the car park and did it all again, this time remembering to collect my walking stick from the car boot. An inauspicious start.
The forecast was light mist on the hills but it was apparent from the earlier, horrible drive across Stainmore that heavy fog and low, dark cloud would be the order of the day. My hopes that I would climb above the mist or that the sun would burn off the cloud diminished as the day wore on. The path to the summit is a winding, rocky snake of wet boulders which could have inspired Tolkein for his Cirith Ungol staircase, a seemingly interminable, tiring slog. With visibility down to only a few yards it was easy to believe that I was on some insane treadmill on which I was making no progress at all.
Eventually the track passed through a narrow, rocky cleft and I knew I was nearing the top. It also meant I was climbing free of any shelter provided by the hillside and into a fierce, freezing gale, sweeping the sopping cloud across a bleak, barely visible landscape of broken rock and featureless snowfields.
The actual summit cairn was still some way to the south and I stumbled upon it at last, some time after I had decided I had missed it and was on my weary way to nethermost Pike. The distinctive ‘x’-shaped shelter was only a little way further and I was able to rest, enjoy a welcome cup of tea, and reconsider my position on the advisability of ageing fools engaging in solitary hill walking in such extreme conditions.
It was now bitterly cold and I donned all of my winter gear, including fleece jacket, waterproofs, balaclava, goggles and beautifully warm, quilted gauntlets, for the return journey. I was walking virtually blind, within a few metres of some of the finest views in the country, and could see nothing but dark, wet rock, grimy snow and dismal, sudden drops into roiling cloud.
The rock staircase was unpleasant in the ascent but downright lethal in the descent: I fell frequently and became very voluble and extremely cross at my inability to stay upright. After an interesting four hours I arrived back at the car to change into dry clothes and relive the day. It was not one of my pleasanter walks but I was quite buoyed at having achieved the summit in such horrible conditions. What few photographs I managed to capture, before the camera became too wet to use, will serve to stimulate my failing memories for hopefully, many years to come.