A Hel of a walk

A couple of days ago I got back from my summer holiday in the Lake District. It didn't feel all that much like summer for most of the time but it was in the month of July so I'm duty bound to call it that. Weather aside I had an excellent time: great friends, good food (including one of the best meals I have ever eaten), lots of fun, plenty of photos, and fell-walking. It's the story of one of those walks that I want to tell you.

On day two of the holiday we had driven up to Keswick and climbed Cat Bells. Despite a bit of scrambling here and there, and thinking we'd arrived at the summit twice before we actually did, it was a pretty easy walk. So we set our sights on higher things: Helvellvyn (hence the lame gag above, sorry).

If we could climb Cat Bells (1,481 feet), then surely Helvellyn (3,117 feet) would be little more than just a longer walk. To persuade one of the party to come, we renamed it 'Smallvellyn'. We're stupid. Looking through the writings of the great fell-walker and writer Alfred Wainwright, we chose a route that looked pretty exciting and dramatic. We're really stupid. We parked in the village of Patterdale at 10.55 am, and set off confidently. It would be seven hours before we saw the cars again.

The first hour or so of the walk involved getting soaked. It was raining and the path was pretty steep so we were soon sweating and being rained on - a rubbish combination. We eventually reached what our map called "Hole in the wall". Being townies we were surprised to find a gap in a wall rather than a cash machine; we took another rest break. Sitting under the wall's protection from the wind was good, shivering because we were cold was not. We set out again with me confidently expressing that we were "at least half way" (see photo above for where we really were). Speaking confidently about subjects I no little about is one of my weaknesses, and it was exposed hilariously here.

We were approaching Striding Edge, a famed scrambling route. As we did so, clouds that we had been walking ever closer to now surrounded us and soon we could see no further than about 50 yards in front of us. Which meant that what happened next was a rather unpleasant surprise.

The route had become more of a suggestion than a track when we found ourselves with no other option than climbing on the top of the ledge itself and scrambling along it. This was High Spying How, which is 2,831 feet above sea level. In retrospect I'm glad I could only see about 20 of those feet because I was nervous enough already. I don't really have much of a head for heights, but the poet in me has always declared that I felt much safer on heights God had made than those man had. I would like to take this opportunity to revise this opinion: I don't care who made the heights I don't like them much. I totally trust God, but I also know that nature shows us something of His wildness. One of the amazing things about this whole walk was how easy it was to get yourself into a really dangerous situation; there were no warnings, safety barriers or anything like this. The much-mocked health and safety champions have not reached Helvellyn, and this is definitely, despite my fears, A Good Thing. This photo (right), taken by one of my friends, gives you something of an idea of what it was like. I was way beyond the photo-taking stage at this point, I was focusing myself exclusively to crawling/walking along this ridge and getting off it at a place and speed determined by me.

With varying degrees of enjoyment, all six of us got across. "You're going to love what's next" the guy at the front said. He was lying. (And he works for a church, you know!) We now had hard scrambling up and down and over jagged rocks and scree. I usually quite like this sort of thing, but my nerves were jangling. For what seemed like a very long time I was completely focused on where my next footstep would be and trying not to think about where it could leave me ending up. And then we were there: the summit. Everything was flatter and it was completely underwhelming! Wainwright had said that the top didn't reflect the majesty of what lay beneath and he was right. Worse still, the wind and rain had picked up and the visibility was as bad as ever. For me, the whole point of climbing a mountain was the view that it gave you - and there was nothing! Disconsolately shoving lunch down my throat as I sat in a shelter that didn't give me much shelter, I thought about the journey home. I didn't know how we'd do it, only that after many hours I would be somewhere better. It felt even longer than the journey up. The geology of Helvellyn is such that you can make a circuit from Hole In The Wall, along Striding Edge, up to the summit, down another edge (Swirral) and get back to the Hole. We had already planned on doing this, but the trauma of Striding Edge meant that none of us (even those who had enjoyed the journey thus far) wanted to face going back the same way. So we set off in the wrong direction.

And it was at this moment that things began to improve. Wind began to sweep away the clouds, and suddenly we began to get glimpses of the panorama that lay around us. Two of us saw a couple of F-15 fighter jets buzzing along a lake 'below' us. The energy in my lunch began to kick in. I added my last dry layer of clothing. The force of the wind began to dry us out. We took another wrong turn but the clouds were being shoved out of our way and we were on a wide crest: I could see for miles and it was wonderful.

Swirral Edge, though tricky, was nothing like Striding, and we descended the summit of Helvellyn (often on our backsides) with a lot less anxiety than we had ascended. Exhilarated by the view, we found ourselves facing Catstycam, looking just like a mountain should (smooth sides, pointy top). We discussed climbed it too as we were so high up that we were only a couple of hundred feet from the top. Having learnt nothing from my earlier fattuous comments I stated that it looked "easy". To be fair, it did. Because we couldn't see the wind. On the way to the summit, three of the party were blown off their feet, and all of us were unsteadied. Sheltering amongst the rocks at the top, we could Scotland across the Solway Firth to the north, Morecambe Bay to the south, and the Pennines to the east. Sated, we headed back to the Hole, from where another hour's walk brought us back to the carpark. It was the best thing we did on the whole holiday.

Why do I say that, given how whingey some of the above sounds? Because it was worth it. To have climbed something that was (for me) so high and so hard, to have felt wet and weak and weary and without a view from the top but then suddenly to have had miles and miles of glorious creation revealed to me was a phenomenal experience. The views from the top of mountains are incredible but you have to work hard to get there. And that's part of the reason they are so wonderful, so magnificent - because they're not easy. It's been said that nothing that is truly worthwhile is easy. For something as trivial as climbing a mountain that is certainly true, and I suspect that is the case for a lot of the rest of life too. We live at a time where entertainment panders rather than challenges, is laid on for us rather than created by us. And so it rarely makes us feel alive. At various moments in that day I would have rather swapped what I was doing for a comfortable sofa and a TV, but now, having finished it, there is no way I would. Even though I've been amazed by mountain views I've seen on TV, I have never felt so exhilerated as when I stood on a summit and saw them for myself: sweating, aching, slightly scared, but full of joy.

And on top of all that, having written this rather than seen a trauma therapist, the whole thing was free of charge!