Helvellyn from Swirls

11th November 2023

Poor forecast, work, and last weekends Grisedale turn-around have affected my fell walking for the best part of November continuing into December, and the most frustrating thing is that the best of the weather has been reserved for mid-week bringing a whole new meaning to the word disappointment, but this is Lakeland in winter, and I guess it's only to be expected. It still hurts like hell though.

I booked my last remaining day off a couple of weeks ago on the back of seeing my son's band Spanish Honey play their first hometown gig, which was every parent's dream: being present at a sold-out gig while your son belts out tunes he first heard during road trips, which went on to inspire him to become a guitar teacher. As far as parenting goes, job done, I say.

Proud parent moment over. Let's go back to fell walking. David and Rod braved the rain on Saturday and walked an epic 10 miler taking in Grasmere, Ambleside, and Loughrigg Tarn. I would have joined them had it not been for the gig, so I turned my attention to Monday's forecast, which showed promise for an ascent on Helvellyn. Most of the snow that fell last weekend has already thawed, but that wasn't why I chose Helvellyn. It's been almost a month since I last did a proper fell walk. I was feeling rusty, and in need of a good workout.

Wainwright Guide Book One
The Eastern Fells

Nethermost Pike

Thousands of people cross the flat top of Nethermost Pike every year, and thousands more toil up its western slope. Yet their diaries record "climbed Helvellyn today".


Ascent: 2,872 Feet - 876 Metres
Wainwrights: 2, Helvellyn - Nethermost Pike
Visiting: 2, Browncove Crags - Helvellyn Lower Man
Weather: Highs of 8°C Lows of 3°C Feels Like -3°C
Parking: Layby Opposite Swirls Car Park
Area: Eastern
Miles: 7
Walking With: On My Own
Ordnance Survey: OL5
Time Taken: 4 Hours 15 Minutes
Route: Swirls – Helvellyn Gill - Browncove Crags – Helvellyn Lower Man – Helvellyn – Nethermost Pike – Birk Side – Comb Crags – Wythburn - Forestry Track - High Park Wood - Swirls

Parking Details and Map
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


Views over Thirlmere towards Raven Crag, The Benn, Armboth Fell, High Tove, High Seat and Bleaberry Fell 8°C 9:30am

I left home under starry skies, and it remained that way as I drove through Ambleside and Grasmere, where pockets of ploughed snow still lined the road, which is now under threat of flooding given how much rain the north-west has had. The flanks of Helm Crag and Steel Fell were lit up in morning sun light, which looked beautiful when set against the blue sky, but north of Dunmail Raise, the high peaks of the Helvellyn range obscured the light leaving Thirlmere under cold shade. I parked easily at the layby north of Swirls, finding just one other car that probably belonged to the young couple I drove past seconds earlier. Further north, Blencathra was semi-clad in cloud through which Gategill Fell appeared for a few moments before disappearing again. I'd pulled a lower back muscle on Saturday morning, the result of an old injury that recurs every now and then. I'd like to say I rescued a dog from a burning building, but in truth, I stood up from the sofa and felt the spasm instantly. Crikey, it hurt like hell and the pain lingers for days.

Despite the higher fells being in full thaw, I still packed a pair of spikes, which I have yet to use in anger. It's my second year running now, but I'd rather have them and not need them than leave them in the boot of the car despite the weight they add. With the car locked, I left the layby and walked back towards Swirls, scanning the lower fellside to see if I could see anyone on the hill. Besides the young couple, who were still very low down, I spotted two pairs of walkers and, tailing behind, a solo walker. I passed through Swirls car park, counting just three cars before crossing the footbridge over a spated Helvellyn Gill, then began the slog up the lower flanks of Browncove Crags. By now the young couple were almost catching the solo walker, but he must have hit the turbo button and widened the gap considerably. I was happy holding up the rear in sixth place, and with no one behind me, I ascended at my own free will.

Ascent on Browncove Crags.
I left Helvellyn Gill behind but the sound of cascading water was never far from earshot the thaw from the fells adding to the already spatted becks. Soon after taking this photo two F-15 jets roared over Thirlmere so low anyone on Raven Crag or Fisher Crag would have been looking down on them before they banked vertically between Bleaberry Fell and High Rigg leaving just their wing-tip vortices trailing behind. There's only six of us on this side of the fell and we all stopped to look back on the F-15's

Cloud gathering over Central Lakeland.
There was already pockets of cloud lingering just above the fell tops which seemed to thicken connecting with other pockets eventually forming into a mini cloud-inversion which would eventually creep up on me.

Snow patch below Browncove Crags summit.

I managed to overtake the two pairs of walkers, two of whom lingered below this snow patch, allowing the solo walker to pass before I arrived. The snow lay directly over the path and had frozen over night, but with the help of spikes it could be negotiated easily. They were only a young couple, novice, and polite, as I tested the snow with the tip of my walking pole, finding that it was indeed almost solid. Boot holes from previous walkers were firm, and to gain the upper hand, all that was required was a firm kick in each hole, or spikes could have been added.

I didn't hesitate and went for it, kicking solidily and finding the snow firm. "Give the snow a good kick; it will hold, and you'll be fine" I added. By the time I'd passed over the snow, I looked back to find the young lad on his hands and knees, his partner struggling behind. With nothing to arrest a potential slip, he couldn't have been in a worst position and I felt like sinking my head into both hands. I watched until they both cleared the snow patch before continuing on.

High enough to be in direct sunlight now.
Don't let the patches of cloud fool you which soon thicken.

Helvellyn Lower Man from Browncove Crags.
The sunlight was a blessing with summit temperatures lingering around freezing and with little to no wind it felt quite mild as I took in the views towards Lower Man wondering if I'll make its summit before the cloud arrives.

Ascent on Helvellyn Lower Man.
I didn't beat the cloud but I'm not complaining either.

Looking back on Browncove Crags and a host of Central and North Western fells.
Taken during a brief null between the cloud.

Looking North Easterly.
Within minutes I was back in the cloud layer here looking towards Glenridding and Ullswater.

The cloud thins out revealing...
...Stybarrow Dodd, Great Dodd and a distant Clough Head.

Time to leave Lower Man.
I arrived at the summit of Lower Man the same time as the solo walker who I greeted with a 'morning' but only got a grumpy 'morning' in return he clearly didn't want a chat about conditions so I left him to it.

Still within the pocket of cloud.
The four walkers I'd overtaken had now passed me with the solo walker just up ahead. While they all ascend via the main path I keep to the Brown Cove side over on the left.

Magnificent cloud peeling over from Brown Cove.

Broken Spectre over Brown Cove.
I've been lucky enough to experience around half a dozen broken spectres; todays will be the third from the same spot over looking Brown Cove.

Arriving at Helvellyn summit.
The main cloud layer parted leaving a brief window where I could take in these dramatic views across the summit plateau.

The view over Striding Edge towards St Sunday Crag.
I counted four climbers descending the chimney who's faint figures you can see just above this text.

Back to the summit.
Two of the walkers I'd been following (and overtaken) headed back towards Browncove Crags while the younger pair passed me a few minutes after taking this photo with the words 'made it' they look really pleased with themselves and I nodded a genuine 'well done guys'

Red Tarn and Striding Edge.

Helvellyn summit.
While the solo walker remained at the summit two more appeared from the direction of Nethermost Pike. I was still in my element not quite believing the conditions. It felt like I'd waited so long for this feeling a world away from all of those un-recorded summits of Winter Hill during the wetter weekends.

If conditions couldn't get any more dramatic.

Here I take in the view towards Nethermost Pike as cloud spilled over the top of Nethermost Cove.

Striding Edge and St Sunday Crag from the summit cross shelter.
Feeling like a kid in a sweet shop my summit time was kept brief as I began my descent towards Nethermost Pike.

Descending towards Nethermost Pike.
Instead of keeping to the path I veer towards the top of Nethermost Cove seen far left.

Cloud spilling over the top of Nethermost Cove.
Like watching steam slowly rising from a just boiled kettle.


Striding Edge.
Looming from the cloud.

Descending via Birk Side.
It's starting to cloud over now but it's still relatively mild and much less icy underfoot as the midday temperature rises.

Thirlmere from Birk Side.

Fisher Crag, High Seat, High Tove and Raven Crag from the Forestry Path.

It had clouded over incredibly fast, the bright blue skies replaced by grey cloud elongated by shafts of light before the cloud dispersed once more to be replaced by high cloud and large pockets of winter blue. I had made a quick descent, passing two solo fell runners on the Birk Side zigzags before the ground levelled where the rough terrain slowed me down until I began to descend Comb Crags via the stone steps with Comb Gill and Whelpside Gill drowning out the noise from the traffic below. I passed one last walker who was drinking from a Starbucks cup and as soon as I had passed him, the thought had already left me. I was slowed down once again as I descended through the woodland above the main foresty track, where a mix of pine needles and wet, greasy rock created havoc underfoot.

By the time I'd reached the forestry track by sheer frustration I was overheating, and I promised myself two things: lunch on the go and to de-layer my beanie and mits. It was incredibly mild walking back along the forestry track where my ears were overpowered by the sound of cascading water over or underground. I rinsed the tips of my walking poles in a pool besides the path. I left the cascades behind replaced by streams pouring down the fellside over and under crag before flowing into Thirlmere below.


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