The guidebook warned – “not for people who suffer vertigo”. I’ll say!
Our first hike in the Lakes District was a trek to the peak of Helvellyn. A beauty of a mountain, distinguished as being the favorite hike of William Woodsworth, the romantic poet. Two days before our hike we sat at Adam’s sun room table, fresh pints of English ale within arms reach, carefully studying trail maps. We had 2 full days to explore the wonders of the Lakes and Adam recommended that we make two hikes: Helvellyn and Great Gables. The hikes were expected to take between 4 and 6 hours each. We checked the forecast and the weather promised to be beautiful during our visit. It’s not advised to hike during inclement weather, which I completely understood after we were on the trail!
On the day of our ascent, we started our hike around 9 am, half expecting to get in another hike in the afternoon, on the advisement of Adam who indicated we could cover the trail in a few hours…. 7 hours later, as we hobbled down giant stone steps, our only destination was a shop to acquire a few hard-earned cold British beers and meat pies. But I’m getting ahead of myself, here’s the rest of the story.
We parked in the lovely village of Penrith and asked a local where we could locate the trail head. This is much easier, by the way, in England, where everyone speaks (some version of) English. A brief instruction, “walk up that road, look for the sign” and we were on our way.
Our first encounter was with a friendly couple who spend all their vacations hiking in the Lakes and sleeping in their caravan – the British term for a camper. Genuinely friendly and upbeat people, we had a nice chat as we began our hike and they reconfirmed our path to the peak. They reassured us that we could certainly make it up the striding edge. As we walked, the terrain almost immediately was nearly completely vertical, or at least that’s how it felt to me, and I silently thanked my lucky stars for my months of stair climber training over the winter. We shed our outer layer as our body temperature climbed with the elevation.
Half-way up the first hill, we reached a livestock gate and they split left as we continued up, now moving slightly laterally and a little less steeply up the mountain.
Our first destination was “the hole in the wall”. A curious name, I thought, “why do they call it that?”. Well, actually, because it is, literally, a hole in the stone wall!
The area is crisscrossed with beautiful hand-built stone walls used to separate pastures which are grazed by sheep. Luckily we arrived on the tail-end of lambing season and our soundtrack for the duration of our visit was the bleats of sheep. Such a lovely sound!
After we climbed across the “hole in the wall”, we marveled at our first views of the peak of Helvellyn – hugging a lake called Red Tarn.
We paused for a bit to ask a chap to snap a photo of us.
Then we reciprocated by taking a photo of him for his wife. He had lived in the area for over a decade and was hiking the infamous mountain for his first time. We talked about our impending encounter with the striding edge, and he expressed he was also a bit worried… this did not help!
After a stroll across a high mountain meadow, we were suddenly on the striding edge. Which is basically, a ridge ascent where you climb across rocks with, ocassionally, nearly shear drops that it is best to avoid looking at, if you know what I mean. In the beginning, it was easy going.
Then, the path narrowed and we began hand-over-hand bouldering, if you will, at great height.
The most challenging part came when we came down the backside of a rocky ridge requiring quite a bit of triceps and careful foot placement. This is where we met a chap in his 50s who was on his last nerve. We helped him down and he decided he would not continue. It was sad, because we’d met him on our way up the first mountain ascent and he was excited to be finally hiking the mountain after considering it for years. But, as he made the decision to bail out and literally slide down the gravely backside of the mountain mere feet from the summit, my husband and I reflected on the power of intention. When we first met him, he said that he was going to “try” to make it but he wasn’t sure he’d be successful. We, on the other hand, perhaps foolishly, certainly boldly, never doubted our ability to make the ascent. And, you know what, we did!
But first, after we completed the rocky ridge grappling, we needed to make one final push. I’ll admit, seeing a grown man bail out, got to me a bit, so I focused my attention on quickly pushing up the ridge to the peak. Here the trail became more vertical and more of a scramble with lose rocks and not as much solid footing. We charged up quickly, and suddenly we reached the peak.
It was time for lunch and some fellows were rising to continue their hike. We grabbed their spot on the rim to savor the view as we refueled with salami and blue cheese sandwiches. Yes, an admittedly strange combination, which turned out to be delicious!
After our lunch we spent a bit of time on the peak taking in the views of Ulswater in the distance.
We read a monument to a hiker who died on the mountain and his skeleton was later found because his dog stayed by his side for 3 months! Quite a tale of loyalty, or desperation (she allegedly consumed his flesh), you take your pick.
Fortunately, this was not our day to die, but we weren’t quite certain of this yet. We had ahead of us the descent down the Swiral Edge. Not quite as steep as the striding edge, but challenging, nonetheless. A group of college kids skipped across the rocks and we watched in wonder at their nimble steps.
We found ourselves wondering, where is the trail? Seriously, y’all, I have never encountered such trails in America! It was rather invigorating and felt like a real adventure!
Clouds passed overhead, altering the colors of the landscape moment by moment. As we descended, I snapped photos of the changing scenery.
We paused for a moment on the banks of the tarn to admire the reflection of the mountain in the water. Then we continued our descent.
For a bit, we climbed out and back, basically up to the hole in the wall. This is where we needed to make a decision – go back the way we came, or take a looping path back to Glenridding. Of course, we went for the loop, we always go for the loop option. The first portion followed the rock wall along the ridge, then made a descent down what could best be described as steps for giants. Huge rocks which basically formed a stairway. By this point we were a bit tired and our feet began to complain about the pounding on the rocks.
We persisted, occasionally stopping to admire the views and say hello to the sheep.
After what felt like a very long time of walking down giant steps, we re-entered the valley. The first person we met was a boy and we asked him the way to Penrith. In the most delightful Lakes District accent, he informed us we could either walk up the hill (my legs cried: “please, no more hills”) or along the beck (the local word for river or creek) in to town where we would find a store and then turn right and follow the road to Penrith. We opted for the Beck path and happily soaked in more scenery.
A stop at the market to assess supplies confirmed they had a good selection of beer so we pushed on to our car and then drove back to stock up. We ended the day with beer and reheated meat pies as we soaked up the sunset over Ulswater.
Such a lovely day! We were filled with a sense of accomplishment and a bit of worry about the chap who bailed and went down the side of the hill. We wondered if we should have taken his number to call and make sure he was ok. We also wondered how he felt after bailing halfway and were grateful for our convinction and ability to persevere in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges.
As often happens on a hike in the woods. Once again, the mountain was our teacher and reminded us that a prepared body, supported by a sound mind, can accomplish any challenge.
It was one he** of a day on Helvellyn!