As we journey from the bright lights of Newcastle (following a somewhat raucous birthday celebration) towards the bustling market town of Keswick, we marvel at the sheer beauty of the English Lake District and the amount of snow cover on the surrounding peaks. It’s Easter weekend and this trip is as spontaneous as it is unplanned. Our next destination is decided as we pull away from the car park near the Gateshead Bridge on Good Friday.
Here at El Camino, hiking always features very high up on the weekly agenda. With no set schedule or any pre-booked accommodation, we journey to the Lake District in search of challenging hikes, sweeping views, and rewarding post-walk pints.
January to March is by far the quietest time to visit The Lakes, but the winter weather dramatically affects the conditions in the mountains and the terrain underfoot. Understanding weather patterns is an essential part of winter climbing coupled with appropriate equipment and mountaineering experience. With a desire to conquer one of England’s highest peaks, we decide to spend the weekend attempting to summit the spectacular and awe-inspiring Helvellyn.
Standing at 3117 feet, Helvellyn is the third highest mountain in England and can be approached by a number of different routes. Keen to navigate the mountain via the steep ascent of Swirral Edge, we call upon the skills and know-how of Lakeland Mountain Guides. At this point, Easter Sunday gives out the best weather conditions with a forecast of good visibility, bright sunny spells, light wind, and no snowfall. We plan a 9am start the following day but in a bid to get our legs warmed up, we decide to spend the afternoon exploring a little closer to home.
Situated just 3.5 miles from Keswick, Cat Bells offers panoramic views of glistening lakes, rolling hills, tree-lined valleys, and local villages. Notably one of the most popular fell walks in the area, we find it to be the perfect introduction to hiking the Lakes. Walking from the centre of Keswick, the short yet rewarding hike takes us along winding country lanes and across cattle grids before scrambling up a short, steep rocky pathway to the summit. It’s easy to see why this route is so popular with families, groups of friends and couples. The hike is easily accessible and we are swiftly rewarded with unrestricted views over Keswick and Derwentwater.
Making our way back, we follow a different route back to Keswick and this time, we hug the edge of the lake. Arriving back to the bustling town filled with fellow walkers and their fluffy friends, we find ourselves stopping off for a couple of well-deserved local ales at The Wainwright Pub. That evening we also eat at The Square Orange Cafe and enjoy a fusion of European-inspired tapas and freshly stone baked pizza. In a bid to conserve our energy, we have an early night to get some much-needed rest before the next day’s adventure.
The following morning we meet our course leader Matt of Lakeland Mountain Guides in the small village of Glenridding nestled on the shores of Ullswater, the second largest lake in the Lake District. We park in the tourist information centre car park and pack our rucksacks with all the necessary winter climbing equipment including crampons, helmet, ice axe, warm layers, gloves, food, and drink. Joined by Matt’s trusty Labrador, the four of us set off on the 6-7 hour expedition.
Passing the Travellers Rest Inn and a series of cottages, we cross sheep filled fields and stone pathways. As we learn of Matt’s climbing experience and his recent ventures in Nepal, we reach the icy shores of Red Tarn lying at an altitude of 718 metres. Formed by a melted glacier, it’s located on the eastern flank of Helvellyn and is one of the highest lakes in the Lake District. Red Tarn is also overlooked by two iconic ridges, Striding Edge and Swirral Edge, the latter being our chosen route to summit the mighty Helvellyn. It’s here we meet other climbers and those touring with skis. The favourable weather conditions and spells of bright sunshine have attracted locals and visitors alike. We admire the crags on Helvellyn’s walls and spot a group to our left climbing Gully 2.
We make our way over to the bottom of the col between Swirral Edge and Catstycam, taking a quick break on a rock to fix the crampons to our hiking boots. It’s here we learn more about the kit and begin the winter skills training sessions. Matt talks us through the equipment, teaches us movement skills on snow, ice and rock, and briefs us on basic navigation techniques. It’s at this point we begin to understand the importance of ice axe self-arrest and how to put the life-saving skill into practice.
Continuing our ascent, we zigzag our way up the col with striking views of Helvellyn to the left. Slowly becoming more comfortable in our crampons, we begin to get to grips with the notion and our climbing becomes a little more fluid. The path we take gradually weaves off to the left and we start to carefully pick our route across the snowy ridge of Swirral Edge. We suddenly become aware of how important each step is that we take, and just how fundamental our ice axes are. Navigating the ridge is exhilarating, and the grandeur of the winter landscape is simply spectacular. We question why we have never done this before. We pass others hiking the ridge from the opposite direction and Matt bumps into an old friend. It’s at this very point we realise you need a good head for heights. The climb to the summit via Swirral Edge is certainly not suitable for those who suffer from vertigo. The friendly chatter does, however, ease any anxiety and we soon forget about the drop beneath us.
As we near the final steps of our climb, the broad and flat summit plateau of Helvellyn awaits us. We stand up tall, drink in the incredible views and feel an overwhelming sense of achievement following our first winter mountaineering experience. Looking over to the west, Matt points out the view of the Pennines and Scotland. We stop for lunch in the stone shelter which protects us from the wind. It’s here Matt decides we should take an easier route down. Initially, we spoke about ascending via Striding Edge but the icy conditions underfoot would make it more challenging than he feels we would be comfortable with.
Having refuelled for the hike back to Glenridding, we set off and take the route via Lower Man and White Side. The track takes a broad path over rolling peaks and it gives us the opportunity to really soak up the fine vistas on offer. The descent then turns back towards Glenridding and we amble our way down the zigzags of Keppel Cove. Before long we’re passing the remains of Greenside Mine, one of the largest mines in the world, and have just one mile to go. A final 15-minute walk down a broken track throws us back into Glenridding where we shed the heavy rucksacks and stiff winter walking boots. We bid farewell to Matt and drive back to Keswick extremely satisfied with our achievement.
We can confidently say, we have a fair amount of hiking adventures under our belt, but winter mountaineering is far more demanding than summer hillwalking. The whole experience was challenging, rewarding and memorable. It is undeniably one of the most unforgettable experiences and we cannot recommend it enough!
You can find the Lake District Small Step here.