Helvellyn to Dollywagon Pike from Swirls

9th December 2017

Winter has arrived on the Lakeland Fells this week with more snow on its way and if the temperatures remain as low as they have been by this time next week the fells could be in full Winter condition. This of course is a great time to be out on the fells but it is essential to pack accordingly and more importantly plan your route, stick to it and don't be afraid to admit defeat should the conditions turn.

The forecast for todays walk was dry and bright from sunrise to sunset and I guess we all had visions of one of Lakelands classic ridge walks with fresh snow underfoot set against a stark blue Winter sky when in reality what we actually got was a world of black and white. This didn't take away from the walk one bit, in fact our mono world only added to the walk, I guess being let down by a forecast is part and parcel of being a fell walker and we are all used to it by now.

Today the gang is back together and initially three walks were suggested one of which was to catch the sunrise from Fairfield summit followed by Rod's suggestion of a traverse of the Dodds returning via High Rigg before I threw in the route on this walk, yes I know Helvellyn ranks high at the top of list for most Winter walks and today that included us only with the added twist of using two cars, it all started at the top of Dunmail Raise.

Wainwright Guide Book One
The Eastern Fells

-Dollywagon Pike

To the west, uninteresting grass slopes descend to Dunmail Raise almost unrelieved by rock and scarred only by the wide stoney track gouged across the fell by the boots of generations of pilgrims to Helvellyn.


Ascent: 3,080 Feet - 940 Metres
Wainwrights: 3, Helvellyn - Nethermost Pike - Dollywagon Pike
Visiting: Browncove Crags - Helvellyn Lower Man - High Crag
Weather: A Bright Start Soon Turning Overcast for the Duration. Highs of 3°C Lows of -3°C Feels Like -5°C
Parking Using x2 Cars Layby, A591, Swirls - Roadside Parking Top of Dunmail Raise
Area: Eastern
Miles: 6.8
Walking With: David Hall & Rod Hepplewhite
Ordnance Survey: OL5
Time Taken: 5 Hours
Route: Swirls - Browncove Crags - Helvellyn Lower Man - Helvellyn - Nethermost Pike - High Crag - Dollywagon Pike - Grisedale Tarn - Grisedale Hause - Raise Beck - Top of Dunmail Raise

Parking Details and Map -Swirls
Nearest Post Code: CA12 4TN
Grid Reference: NY 316 416
Notes: The car park at Swirls is a very popular car park all year around and is owned by United Utilities. There is a toilet block on the car park with easy access onto Helvellyn via Browncove Crags. On the opposite side of the A591 a smaller car park can be found overlooking Thirlmere Reservoir. Parking charges apply at both car parks, however a short distance north (upper arrow) a lay-by can be found where parking is free

Parking Details and Map -Top of Dunmail Raise
Nearest Post Code: LA22 9RS
Grid Reference: NY 327 211
Notes: The A591 splits into two carriageway's across the top of Dunmail Raise where roadside parking can be found on both sides of the carriageway. However, parking is more limited on the left (if travelling from Grasmere) than the roadside parking found on the right, The top of Dunmail Raise offers excellent access onto the Helvellyn and Wythburn Fells which means that despite the ample parking spaces it can fill up quite quickly especially during the Summer months. Parking is free.



Map and Photo Gallery


Browncove Crags and a glimpse of Helvellyn Lower Man north of Swirls -3°C 08:30am
We had arranged for me to leave my car at the top of Dunmail Raise with a meeting time of 08:15am and I arrived around 08:00am which gave me time to kit up before Rod and David arrived just a few minutes after. With my boots laced and gaiters added I throw my gear into Rod's car carefully checking I hadn't forgotten anything before we return to the Layby parking just north of Swirls. It was bitterly cold with only a slight breeze in the air but it felt much colder after leaving the comfort of the cars. Beyond Browncove Crags the pink afterglow of the sunrise raised spirits and I guess we were all eager to get going. Today our packs are clearly full of Winter kit which includes crampons, an ice axe was optional. With a thud I shouldered my pack and we set off up the A591 towards Swirls car park which was starting to get busy with a group of five walkers all ready set off, simultaneously we spotted three more walkers already deep into the ascent of Browncove Crags further ahead.

Looking over Thirlmere towards Fisher Crag, High Seat, High Tove and Raven Crag.

We encountered snow and ice soon after crossing the footbridge over Helvellyn Gill, the snow was fresh and light and posed no threat at all. Even during the Summer months this path always tends to be wet underfoot and any standing, or flowing water for that matter had frozen covering much of the path from the off set. This was easy to avoid by using the sides of the path and any large stones which make up the path, despite this the ice didn't slow us down any, in fact Rod and I were struggling to keep up with David who seemed to be in overdrive this morning after getting over his Man Flu last week.

We could see the three walkers further up ahead who by now were just below Browncove Crags summit around the same time we managed to pass the five walkers we had seen from the car park, it was noted despite how friendly they were not all are dressed, nor geared up for a day on Helvellyn in Winter especially the chap with the carrier bag flung over his back.

Browncove Crags is up ahead.

The ice was mostly confined to the lower part of the path and as we gained height the snow started to get a little deeper and firmer underfoot still posing no problems with good grip for much of the way, however, experience on this path in Winter told us to put on our crampons sooner rather than later just below Browncove Crags summit. We stopped to put our crampons on which allowed the five walkers; most of which had all split up over a distance of about a hundred yards to catch us up. The two ahead pass with a friendly Hi and they asked why we are putting our crampons on and in a nice way we advised them that just before the shoulder of the fell the snow might have compacted hence our decision, we also advised them not to panic as the compacted snow could be avoided and that we were only acting on the side of caution.

One of the walkers then asked about the best way back to Swirls so we advised them on Sticks Pass before being asked what about 'Striding Edge' could we do that they asked? I was still faffing about curling the excess webbing from my crampon back on itself and I think David was too because we had just joked about it, without looking up we both answered, No, if you have no experience of Winter Climbing stay off Striding Edge, the chap looks to his mate and says "no Striding Edge, these guys say no and we must listen to them" and not at all sarcastically, in fact they thanked us before bidding each other 'enjoy your day'

Before we re-shouldered we are passed by two walkers in descent who had camped out on the summit, I never got chance to chat to them but I could only think of how cold it must have been because right about now that light breeze is starting to dish out some serious windchill.

Browncove Crags from the top of the climbers gully.
I guess it was about the time we reached Browncove Crags did we notice how dull it was starting to get and with a wider view now it was confirmed that high cloud was about to blanked not just to the eastern fells, but the majority of the district.

Helvellyn Lower Man, Helvellyn and Nethermost Pike seen shortly after leaving Browncove Crags.

The combination of ice and snow never materialised and from the top of Browncove Crags we had a clear view of the path towards Lower Man and Helvellyn which in some places was snow free with a good scattering across the fell side. It was agreed we may have been hasty adding our crampons but for now we keep them on as we could still encounter ice/compacted snow as we make our way towards the summit.

Who turned off the lights!
We steered towards Helvellyn before I suggested "fancy a quick scoot out to Lower Man" aye why not said the guys so we made the short detour and found some big views.

Looking over Brown Cove towards Catstye Cam with Sheffield Pike and Ullswater in the distance.

A world in mono, here looking towards White Side, Raise, Stybarrow Dodd and Blencathra from Hevellyn Lower Man.

Helvellyn seen over Brown Cove.
From Lower Man we made the slight descent before passing over the top of Brown Cove where we ran into the two walkers we had spoken to while attaching our crampons earlier, it seems they were waiting for the rest of the group to catch up.

Catstye Cam, Swirral Edge and Helvellyn over Brown Cove.

Looking back on Helvellyn Lower Man over Brown Cove.

Looking down on Swirral Edge and Catstye Cam from the top of Swirral Edge.
We made our way towards the top of Swirral Edge right about the same time this chap was just about to top out at the cairn, we didn't hang around and couldn't tell if he was wearing crampons but I suspect he was.

Views over Red Tarn towards Striding Edge.

We had just bumped into the two fellows again as we approached the summit trig point and while I held back snapping a few photos I overheard David correcting one of the guys when he pointed towards Swirral Edge and said "that's the easy one" no David replied "the EASIER one"

It's looking pretty bleak all around at the moment.

Looking back across the summit plateau towards the Trig Point.
There isn't much snow about with the exception of the cornice that's starting to build over the head wall, in some places the cornice overhung just a foot over the edge and at others (closer to the summit cairn) it over hung to around four feet and looked extremely unstable.

Frozen summit cross shelter.
It was here Rod de-shouldered and took out his balaclava while I nipped up my neck gaiter making sure my ears and cheeks were covered such the windchill. David (the man who doesn't feel the cold) just rolled down his sleeves! only kidding, all three of us were feeling the chill right about now.

Next we leave Helvellyn and descend slightly towards our next summit of Nethermost Pike.
The crampons aren't essential from here on in but they are helping maintain grip over the frozen ground so we decide to keep them on until our pathless descent of Dollywagon where I'm sure they'll come in handy...It was also mentioned that we might need them too during our descent of Raise Beck it being particularly wet and boggy all year around, how true our thoughts were about to become but more on that later.

A close up of Striding Edge and High Spying How seen over Nethermost Cove.
Those with a keen eye might be able to spot the three walkers on Striding Edge.

Striding Edge.

High Crag, Dollywagon Pike and Fairfield from Nethermost Pike summit.
After crossing over the top of Nethermost Cove we took in the slight ascent and summited Nethermost Pike, its stone cairn like the ground around it frozen and bleak. Looking back cloud had now drifted over the top of Helvellyn summit and the summit cross shelter faded into a world of white. There was still no sign of the brightness returning with the exception of a slight afterglow from within the cloud and the slightest hint of gold over Morecambe Bay.

Dollywagon Pike seen over Ruthwaite Cove.
You are given the choice to flank or summit High Crag and today as with all previous visits we summit and spend a few moments catching a fleeting glimpse of the shafts of light before they disappeared again. All the while the summit of Helvellyn is still shifting between cloud but minute by minute little chinks of blue sky are starting to open out in the distance and above our heads.

Looking back over Ruthwait Cove towards Nethermost Pike, Nethermost Pike East Ridge, Hard Tarn and Striding Edge.
Hard Tarn on a day like today blends seamlessly into the snowy background, in fact if you didn't know it was there you could miss it completely.

High Crag over Ruthwaite Cove.

David walks over to Dollywagon Summit cairn.
Despite the great conditions (albeit a naff forecast) the fells had a feeling of emptiness today which we all agreed on, just as they would during a midweek Winter walk and not what would be expected for a Saturday, I suspect with more snow on its way and the disruption of travel may have put some folk off which is fully understandable I guess.

Wowzers where did that come from!

Seat Sandal and Grisedale Tarn from Dollywagon Pike.
I guess it was from the summit of Dollywagon Pike where we admired the views the longest while studying the long distant view through the Grisedale Valley towards Place Fell and Ullswater, if we looked closely we could see one or two walkers on St Sunday Crag summit and more heading towards Fairfield from Great Rigg before making a slight descent towards the familiar steel post from where we'll begin our descent towards Grisdale Tarn and hopefully a spot of lunch.

Fairfield, Cofa Pike, Great Rigg, Grisdale Hause and Grisdale Tarn.

Lunch with a view.

The crampons worked a treat during the steep descent from Dollywagon Pike and we agreed to make our way towards Grisedale Tarn where we broke out lunch at a familiar cluster of boulders. Despite being out of the windchill stopping under such wintery conditions the chill soon starts to set in not helped when eating freezing cold rice and cherry tomatoes but not to worry because for afters I have a frozen sausage roll too.

I hadn't taken in too much fluid mainly due to my bite valve freezing despite blowing back after sips, as had Rod's but the juice was starting to filter through between the ice and I was able to get a few gulps before we made our descent via Raise Beck.

Raise Beck descent.

As mentioned the descent of Raise Beck had been raised earlier (sorry for the pun it wasn't intended) and we soon got our answer as we started our descent alongside Raise Beck. I guess if we needed our crampons at any stage during todays walk it was going to be during this descent where we endured over 800ft of iced glazed path with no break in between, despite wearing crampons I don't think I have ever concentrated on staying upright and trusting ones footings when walking over sheer ice as I had during any this descent.

It sure got the adrenalin pumping and was it was great fun too.

Steel Fell and the top of Dunmail Raise from Raise Beck.

The sound of Raise Beck accompanied us the whole descent and often we would stop to admire the waterfalls set against the snowy bleak background before carefully continuing our descent. The air warmed up and soon all three of us were taking layers off starting with hats and gloves before the steepness levelled and the ice and snow turned to slush as the A591 widened into view. Across the way cars are parked up and the sound of childrens screams bring us back to reality as they sledge down the lower reaches of Steel Fell.

Green grass poked out though the top of the snow which is getting less and less the further we walk towards the road and upon reaching a large boulder we all decide to take our crampons off which had earned their stripes not on the ascent of the districts third highest mountain but during the descent of Raise Beck. I don't know about anyone else but I'm kinda reminded of those few moments when as a kid, your feet feel like their walking on air after taking your roller skates off.

Until next time...


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