Christmas Eve on Helvellyn

24th December 2019

I'd been keeping my eye on the Christmas Eve forecast which, in the middle of an otherwise damp week appeared dry and bright, as you know such forecasta are a rarity given the time of year so I set myself up to climb Helvellyn from Swirls. Any rain that had been falling at valley level was falling as snow above 1,800 feet which meant I'd not only be walking one of my favourite routes in sunshine but I'd be doing it in snow too, sounds too perfect doesn't it.

My alarm went off at 05:30am and after I'd hit the snooze button I checked the forecast one last time and to my disbelief only the south western area's of the park would be bright, the east was forecasted to have broken sunshine which was still good enough for me.

It looked like I was in for a full winters day walking with gusts predicted to reach between 40-50mph over exposed areas which meant I'd be encountering fierce spin drift so I packed my goggles, crampons and ice axe ready for a full on winters walk on Helvellyn.

Wainwright Guide Book One
The Eastern Fells
-Via Helvellyn Gill It is unremittingly steep for 2,000 feet.

Ascent: 2,872 Feet - 876 Metres
Wainwrights: 2, Helvellyn - Nethermost Pike
Visiting: Helvellyn Lower Man
Weather: Overcast With Some Bright Spells. Strong Winds Across The Summits. Highs of 2°C Lows of -15.4°C Max Wind Speed 48.2mph Rec on Lower Man
Parking: Layby Opposite Swirls Car Park
Area: Eastern
Miles: 7
Walking With: On My Own
Ordnance Survey: OL4
Time Taken: 4 Hours 10 Minutes
Route: Swirls – Helvellyn Gill - Brown Cove Crags – Helvellyn Lower Man – Helvellyn – Nethermost Pike – Birk Side – Comb Crags – Wythburn - Forestry Track - High Park Wood - Swirls

Layby Opposite Swirls Car Park, Thirlmere
Nearest Post Code: CA12 4TW
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 it is free to park.


Map and Photo Gallery


Browcove Crags from the lay-by North of Swirls car park 08:45am 2°C

The layby was quickly filling up when I reached it just gone 08:30am. As I kit up I am joined by another car whose owners reverse right up to mine before being greeted by a young ish couple and 'mornings' are shared. While the girl kits up alongside the passenger door I get into conversation with the chap and we share our routes where as it turns out we are walking the same route. Despite arriving later than me the couple are soon ready and along with their dog they set off as I struggle lining up the Velcro on my gaiters.

With a laiden pack that left a reasurring 'thud' as I swung it onto my back I left the lay-by and joined the A591 for a short while before passing through the Swirls car park where I overtook the young couple "you leading the way" they smiled "I reckon we'll switch a few times" I laughed.

Looking down on Thirlmere towards High Rigg, Dodd, Skiddaw and Blencathra.
Helvellyn on Christmas Eve is a popular walk and from the footbridge over Helvellyn Gill I could make out a steady stream of walkers ascending towards Browncove Crags, there was a few in descent too. I broke away from the couple who were never far behind who would easily catch me up as I stopped to take photos, their dog I was told was confused and thought I was walking with them who would often be found walking along side me.

High Seat and Bleaberry Fell above Thirlmere from the shoulder of Browncove Crags with Bassenthwaite Lake and Skiddaw seen right.

Passing the two walkers in descent both of whom were wearing crampons and had goggles fixed atop their hoods confirmed I was in for full winter conditions once the shelter of Browncove Crags was left behind. I had encountered ice from as low as 1,200ft which was quickly becoming unavoidable, it was here the couple turned back for a walk around Thirlmere instead.

I continued until I reached the cairn where a narrow footpath forks east alongside Helvellyn Gill which ten minutes earlier I had watched a solo hiker take. It was here I decided to add my crampons which was about 700ft lower than a area of rock I named a few years ago as 'crampon rock' where I'd normally add crampons.

A sunlit Blencathra from Browncove Crags summit.
With Stybarrow Dodd, Watson's Dodd and Great Dodd over on the right.

Central Gully, Browncove Crags.
By the time I reached Browncove Crags summit I was fully exposed to the strong gust which was making standing, let alone walking difficult. I managed to 'point and shoot' a few photos looking down Central Gully but the wind was so strong once the picture had been taken I stepped back. There could have been an army of climbers ascending the gully and I wouldn't have seen them.

Helvellyn Lower Man from Browncove Crags.
It make look surreal but it was anything but, the wind between Browncove Crags and Lower Man was some of the strongest I'd ever experienced.

Looking back on Browncove Crags.

There was a real walking camaraderie not just here but all over the mountain. Even if it was just the lift of a hand, or a simple nod gesturing that you are ok. The concern of the wind was etched across everyone's faces.

White Side.
Time to take on Lower Man.

Distant views of Dodd, Skiddaw and Blencathra.
If the wind was making things difficult here on Helvellyn the likelihood it will be much worse on Skiddaw such its exposure.

White Side and Hevellyn Lower Man.
The good news is despite the strong winds the cloud is clearing from the summits.

Peering down into Brown Cove.
With White Side seen left with a splash of sun light over Raise east ridge while White Stones while Catstye Cam north ridge can be seen over on the right.

Looking back on Helvellyn Lower Man and White Side over Brown Cove.
Such the severity of the wind on Lower Man I didn't stop to take any photo's but that didn't stop the two fell runners who posed and even shot a short film using their phone.

Looking down on Swirral Edge, Catstye Cam, Red Tarn and Birkhouse Moor.
Instead of following the main footpath towards the summit trig point I followed the ridge line which after a short while ascends towards the top of Swirral Edge. By no means had the winds calmed but they were nowhere near as fierce as I'd encountered between Browncove Crags and Lower Man. As you can see Swirral Edge is in full Winter condition as is Striding Edge over on the right.

Swirral Edge, Catstye Cam, Red Tarn. Striding Edge and Birkhouse Moor.
Spot the two climbers below.

Swirral Edge close up.
In all her Winter glory.

Looking across the East face of Helvellyn towards the summit.
Time to head over to the summit.

Striding Edge with Red Tarn below.
I couldn't spot anyone on Striding Edge but I was soon to be proved wrong.

Helvellyn summit plateau.
Making sure I steer well clear of the cornice seen on the left.

Approaching the summit trig point.
Now fully exposed to the wind again it sounds like there's a machine gun going off right next to my ears, the chap seen left seems fixated on Red Tarn below.

There was no time for summit posing today...
...well not for me anyway.

Swirral Edge close up.
One of the two climbers I'd spotted earlier can be seen towards the left while two more appear over on the right.

Nethermost Pike from Helvellyn.

The summit cross shelter was busy with walkers seated on the west facing side rather than the brutality of the east side where you could pick your seat! No thanks I muttered it's best to keep moving such the dip in wind chill. From the cross shelter around half a dozen walkers approach having traversed Striding Edge one of whom was wearing regular tracksuit bottoms and trainers, I was mortified at what I was seeing, what on earth goes through these folks minds before setting off for an ascent on England's third highest mountain in full winter conditions wearing nothing but what you'd put on to nip to the shop.

Moving on.

I'd been exposed to the fierce winds for the best part of ten minutes but I talked myself into heading over towards the top of Striding Edge mainly because the sun was starting to poke through and at the time Striding Edge was aglow in lovely light but after just a minute I was forced to retreat as the gust had gotten the better of me.

Striding Edge and Birkhouse Moor.
I rejoined the footpath at the plane landing memorial plaque and started the slight descent towards Nethermost Pike as the clouds continued to break, I'm not sure why but I had a gut feeling I was missing out on something so I left the path once again and made my way towards the top of Nethermost Cove.

Fairfield, Dollywagon Pike, Black Crag and Nethermost Pike.
I just couldn't believe my luck, the cloud was clearing revealing a strong Winter sun pushing through.

Striding Edge over Nethermost Cove.
With Birkhouse Moor, St Sunday Crag and Loadpot Hill beyond.

Nethermost Pike and Dollywagon Pike.
With Nethermost Pike east ridge and Dollywagon Pike Tongue seen over on the left while over on the right the distant Coniston group.

Heading towards Nethermost Pike.
By continuing to follow the upper contour of Nethermost Cove.

Lad Crag on Helvellyn and Striding Edge.

Lad Crag on Helvellyn and Striding Edge.

Hevellyn and Lad Crag.

Helvellyn, Catstye Cam, Birkhouse Moor and Striding Edge.

Peering down into the Grisedale valley.
With Nethermost Pike East ridge seen right, Birks and St Sunday Crag beyond.

Fairfield, Morecambe Bay and Dollywagon Pike from Nethermost Pike.
Seen as I approach the summit, the light right now is heavenly!

Cofa Pike, Fairfield, Great Rigg and Seat Sandal.
Taken from the Nethermost Pike summit cairn.

Red Screes, Hart Crag, Cofa Pike, Fairfield, Great Rigg and Seat Sandal from Nethermost Pike.
Less exposed to the strong gusts I am able to appreciate the glorious views unfolding before me, I'm in heaven.

A golden Morecambe Bay warms the soul on a otherwise brutally cold mountain day.

Winter sunshine, Nethernost Pike.
No matter how beautiful my setting is at some point I will have to leave, I spot a walker heading my way.

Dollywagon Pike from Nethermost Pike.
I reluctantly start to make my descent to join the footpath bound for Birk Side.

Descending towards Birk Side seen right.
The path was busy with walkers heading up through the deep snow all of whom pass with a wide smile and Happy Christmas.

Thirlmere, Harrop Tarn, Standing Crag, Armboth Fell, High Tove and High Seat from the top of Comb Crags.
It's hard to believe it's the same day.

Forresty Path below Middle Tongue/Comb Gill.
Encountering ice for much of the descent from Birk Side into Comb Gill my crampons remained on until I reached the wall just above the tree line. It was here I pass four people all of whom are not equipped for Winter walking two of whom are carrying carrier bags "is it icy up there" one girl asked? I looked down at her trainers and polity nodded "very" She looked so disappointed so I suggested they explore Comb Gill instead "we will. thanks" she replied.

Lunch with a view.
That's Birk Side seen just above the trees which was my view as I stopped to eat lunch while sat on a log just like the ones in the photo.

Forestry Track back to Swirls.
It may be only 2°C but it feels much much warmer in the midday sunshine.

Exposed views over Thirlmere.
Towards Fisher Crag and Ravens Crag.

Looking back on Dunmail Raise with Steel Fell seen over on the right.

Of course Helvellyn and Nethermost Pike were both my objectives today but if I'm allowed a third it would be the fantastic walk back to Swirls via the Forestry Track, it's been some years since I used this route and today distant memories came flooding back from yesteryear and given that today is Christmas Eve I couldn't have found myself in a better place than if god had placed me here, that's what Lakeland does, it's not just about the climbing or the views, it's about how it makes you feel, I have lifelong friends here, sometimes they are silent and sometimes they speak more than words can say.

Happy Christmas everyone.


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