Helvellyn is the third highest mountain in England, and like all mountains in winter, conditions on its top are much more extreme than as sea level. Before heading out it’s important you have the right kit, the right skills and experience, and have checked the weather forecast before you go. Winter in the Lake District can bring anything from beautiful, benign frost to seriously deep snow, ice and and cornices – so it’s important you know what to expect, and turn around as soon as you start to feel out of your comfort zone.
Before you go, remember:
Check the current conditions. Helvellyn is unique in that it has a daily update throughout winter provided by the Lake District Weatherline (www.lakedistrictweatherline.co.uk) This gives an excellent indication as to what weather conditions are like at the top of the mountain over the past 24 hours, and is invaluable when planning an ascent. Also check the forecasts via the Mountain Weather Information Service (MWIS.org.uk) and the Met Office mountain weather forecast. https://www.metoffice.gov.uk/services/mountain
Snow and ice require special care in the hills. If snow conditions are to be encountered on a mountain you may need extra equipment and skills to negotiate it safely. The best way to learn how to use these tools is a winter skills course; alternatively consider hiring a mountain instructor for the day, who will keep you safe, teach you lifelong skills and make your day much more fun! See the download below on the sort of skills you need to know, and find an instructor at www.mountain-training.org
Make sure you have the right gear for winter.
Ice axes are essential for balance, traction and to arrest a fall if you slip. Crampons are spikes that attach to your boot to give you grip on hardened snow and ice. Stiff 3-4 season boots or 4 season boots are necessary to use these, and also for keeping your feet warm and kicking steps in snow. See the download below on the sort of kit you need for winter, and for summer.
Conditions get worse the higher you go. If it’s snowy at the foot of the mountain, it’s likely to be much tougher up top. And if it isn’t snowy at the foot of the mountain, it doesn’t mean it won’t be higher up. Make sure you have waterproofs, warm clothing, food and drink and a head torch – and always tell someone where you are going. Temperature decreases as you climb, by around 1 degree C every 100m, so climbing a 900m mountain this means if it’s 5 deg C at the bottom it will be well below freezing on the summit – and that’s before you take wind-chill into account! Always pack more clothing than you think you’ll need.
Daylight hours are shorter in winter. Climbing Helvellyn can take upwards of six hours, so depending on what time you start, you may be descending in the dark. Pack a headtorch, and a spare, plus extra layers for when it gets dark.
Mountain rescue are volunteers, and are not a backup for the unprepared. But they would much rather be called out than not called out if someone is in danger. If you are lost, cold or injured, call 999 and ask for Cumbria Police, then mountain rescue. Give them as much information as you can about your location, the number in your party and details of the incident.
Is Helvellyn hard to navigate?
Any mountain can be tricky to navigate if snow is on the ground, or if cloud makes it difficult for you to see what’s coming. Climbing any mountain you should be able to use a map and compass to work out where you are, and where to go. GPS units are fine but should never be a substitute for map and compass, as they can break or go wrong. Phones are useful too, but make sure you have software such as OS Maps or Viewranger with the appropriate OS Map loaded, and a back-up battery supply. Google Maps is no use!
How steep is it?
Depends which route you take! If you ascend from the Thirlmere side from Swirls, it is steep but the terrain is relatively easy and the path is good, making it the quickest (an arguably the last interesting) way to ascend the mountain. If you ascend from Glenridding, you have a number of options. The usual route ascends the side of Keppel Cove, and is on a well-established path. It’s a straightforward with some steep ground higher up, but within the capabilities of most hillwalkers. For the adventurous, some of the Glenridding approaches can take you onto the ridges of Striding Edge and Swirral Edge – and these demand care and experience of scrambling and a good head for heights, as they sharpen to knife edge aretes in their higher reaches. They shoud not be attempted in high winds or if there is snow and ice on the ground, unless you have the skills and experience to handle it. If you are climbing a ridge with a teardrop-shaped lake beneath you and steep ground ahead, make sure you know where you are and where you’re going!
Am I experienced enough to try Striding Edge?
If it’s your first hillwalk, proceed with caution – or maybe leave it for next time. But if you’ve a good head for heights, are fit and the conditions are calm, dry and there’s no snow or ice on the ground Striding Edge is one of England’s greatest ridge walks! The best idea is to take an experienced pal with you, and remember the golden rule – never climb up anything you can’t climb back down again, and don’t be afraid to do so if you feel uncomfortable. The mountain will always be there, the trick is to make sure you are too!
Is there anywhere to buy food?
There are some local services in Glenridding and Patterdale, but nowhere to buy food on the mountain. Ensure you take plenty of high carb, high sugar food and at least 2 litres of water. Ensure you keep some of it back for emergencies.
Where can I park?
In the main car park in Glenridding on the mountain’s west side, or the car parks at Swirls and Wythburn on the A591.
Where’s the nearest pub?
The Traveller’s Rest in Glenridding is the closest you’ll get to a pub on the actual mountain! Otherwise on the east side there is the Rambler’s Bar at the Inn on the Lake, and the Glenridding Hotel. On the west (Thirlmere) side there is the King’s Head on the A591.