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Hiking Striding Edge – Helvellyn’s Famous Ridge Walk

Britain recently voted the hike up to Helvellyn as its favourite walk, so it would not be a wild leap to assume that Striding Edge could be Britain’s favourite ridge walk. There are more dramatic and challenging ridges in these fair isles, but there is something about Striding Edge that keeps bringing you back and helps make Helvellyn such a popular ascent.

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The first time that I did Helvellyn and Striding Edge was the day after my birthday on a crisp November morning. It had snowed heavily the night before and the route up from Thirlmere via Raise, and White Side was hard going as the snow was shin deep in places. What kept us going was the deep blue skies above us which would prove to be a surety of glorious views once we got to the top.

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Helvellyn’s height and central position within the Lake District is part of its popularity and on a clear day you can see everything that there is to see; to the north is Blencathra and Skidaw with Basenthwaite creating a channel which allows a view to Scotland and Dumfries and Galloway. Next is Grisedale Pike and the fells north of Buttermere. Then there are the mighty peaks of the Scafell range, Bowfell, the Langdales, Coniston Old Man and Windermere to the south, with Fairfield, St Sunday Crag and finally High Street and the rest of the Eastern Fells completing the panorama.

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Despite the magnificent panoramic tour of the Lakeland peaks on offer from the summit of Helvellyn the best view is the one down to Striding Edge. There is something aesthetically pleasing about its triangular lines and there is a reason that it makes its way on to postcards and the covers of so many Lake District walking guides. It is like an elongated pyramid or a slightly curved giant Toblerone that tempts adventurous walkers to test their mettle on the sharp edged ridge.

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So, what’s it like to walk across? Well on my last visit on a beautiful summer’s day it was largely straightforward and it is achievable for anyone sure-footed who does not mind putting their hands on rock occasionally – and most of the difficult sections can be circumnavigated. It was certainly a lot different from my first crossing and moving across the ridge in snow and ice is an altogether different proposition. As usual with any trip to the mountains do make sure that you are prepared and do your research. Sites such as the BMC website are good places to start to make sure that you are well prepared.

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The most popular routes start from Glenridding with the classic Helvellyn horseshoe also taking in the short ridge of Swirral Edge on the way up or down from Helvellyn depending which way around you chose to go. An early morning start from Glenridding is my recommendation. The first advantage is that you get to stroll down to the shores of Ullswater to see the early morning mist and the Steamers moored up before they start ferrying people up and down the lake.  The other benefit of the early start is that you may have the ridge all to yourself which is increasingly a rare pleasure as it can be incredibly busy.

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I love the Lakes and I love walking here. The walk up to Striding Edge has all the classic Lakeland elements; a lovely little village with shops to procure walking snacks from and post walk sustenance, a beautiful lake, paths that cross over mountain streams before heading uphill and eventually climbing above the tree line to reveal fabulous views back towards Ullswater and Place Fell.

As Ullswater starts to become more distant behind you, the cirque of the Helvellyn horseshoe starts to come into shape in front of you. To the right, the often overlooked but handsome peak of Catstye Cam rises from Swirral Edge. Most people will miss this out as they head on the more direct route up to Helvellyn via Swirral Edge but there is probably no finer view of Helvellyn than from this peak.

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The start of Striding Edge becomes obvious as the rocky ridge rises to the left. As you edge up onto the ridge proper the views to the south open. St Sunday Crag dominates the view to the south east and this is another recommended walk out of Glenridding. It is also home to the much more technical scrambling route of Pinnacle Ridge which is a tremendous but much trickier route. Behind this is Fairfield and then the peaks of Nethermost Pike and Dollywaggon Pike which can be done as part of the Helvellyn walk from the Thirlmere side.

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To the right is Red Tarn and the steep screes of Helvellyn where the body of John Gough was found in 1805 after falling whilst walking across Striding Edge up Helvellyn. Gough’s body was found 3 months later with his dog Foxie still alive sitting by his side. Both Sir Walter Scott and Wordsworth wrote poems of Gough’s demise, and there is a monument at the top of scramble up from the Striding Edge to Helvellyn commemorating Gough and his faithful, yet remarkably well-fed dog.

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The best bit about Striding Edge, especially in good weather, is that you can pick your own line across it to make it as challenging as you like. Most difficulties can be avoided and as general rule if you are unsure then keep to the Red Tarn side of the ridge where a path will usually help you avoid most difficulties. The direct route across the apex of the ridge is where the most fun is to be had. The ridge does narrow in places, and there is some exposure especially to the south side where the steep sides plunge down towards Grisedale valley. There is some mild scrambling as you manoeuvre across larger boulders, but the route is largely straightforward and within the ability of most hill walkers.

The one difficult section is the crux at the end of the main ridge where it joins the steep path up to Helvellyn peak. Here there is a tricky down climb of around 5 meters or so, but this can be negotiated by most if you move slowly and with great care, or alternatively you can back up and find your way back down to the path on the Red Tarn side.

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On my last trip my early morning start meant that I had the whole of the ridge to myself. Blue sky, sunshine, no sound, no people, and just the ridge stretching out in front of me. Mornings don’t get much better than this. After scrambling up to Helvellyn and enjoying the magnificent lakeland view from the summit my intention had been to descend via Swirral Edge. However, after spending some time staring back down to Striding Edge it worked its magic and convinced me that there was only route I was going to take back so off down I went to do it all again.

Written by Paul Taylor

I love travelling, walking, hiking, and climbing up mountains in the UK and abroad. The highest I’ve been up is Kilimanjaro, but my favourite is the very small, but beautifully formed Loughrigg Fell in the Lake District.

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