The ultimate guide to walking up Helvellyn via Striding Edge
Our guide to planning a safe and enjoyable hike
At 950m, Helvellyn is the third-highest peak in the Lake District. And climbing it is on many walkers’ bucket-lists. Especially the route via Striding Edge, one of England’s most iconic Grade 1 scrambles. This is an adrenalin-filled day of big fells, big views and what feels like a knife-edge clamber up the ridge. It is not to be taken lightly and should only be attempted by experienced hikers. But to an extent you can choose your own level of difficulty on Helvellyn. There are route variations to suit walkers of different abilities.
The classic route
For an absolute classic day out on Helvellyn, start from Glenridding (where there is pay-and-display parking). From here take the path up Mires Beck via the ‘Hole in the Wall’ stile. This gets steadily steeper until you reach to the spiky ridge of Striding Edge, with fabulous views of Red Tarn below.
For maximum exposure you can take the direct line up over the top of Striding Edge. The ridge is easy to begin with. If you test yourself on it here, you’ll be more mentally prepared for the harder sections further on. Alternatively there is a slightly lower route on the right-hand side. This is less challenging and a little more shielded. The ridge leads to Helvellyn’s top. The views are amazing, with Ullswater and Thirlmere glinting in the sun below on a good day. You’ll also see the memorial to artist Charles Gough, who died here in 1805. His dog watched over his corpse for three months until it was eventually discovered.
The summit of Helvellyn is quite flat and there is not much natural protection from the weather. However, there is a ‘crosswind shelter’ built from stone with low walls in the shape of an ‘X’. No matter which direction the wind is blowing you can find a little respite here. Grab a seat, have a snack and chat with fellow walkers.
To complete the Helvellyn horseshoe, follow the ridge line down Swirral Edge. Though this can be easier said than done in bad weather. The plateau can be disorientating navigation-wise and it’s easy to miss the start of the ridges. Care must be taken. Swirral Edge is generally considered simpler than Striding Edge. But it is still a scramble and you will definitely have hands-on-rock.
After this, retrace your steps back down Mires Beck to Glenridding village.
How hard is it?
Striding Edge is rated as a Grade 1 scramble, which should be doable for experienced hill walkers in good conditions. But it is not a first-timer’s hike. You should build up plenty of mountain experience before attempting it.
Note, there is one small, unavoidable downclimb on Striding Edge that can take you by surprise. Take your time, stay calm and don’t hurry.
Swirral Edge is also a Grade I scramble. It is less extreme than Striding Edge but is still testing, especially when it’s wet, with significant drops on the left into Brown Cove. Indeed, completing the whole horseshoe is a challenge. Despite being only about 8.5 miles long, it’s a big day out. It takes most walkers five to six hours, plus time for picnicking and enjoying the views.
If you’re unsure of your skills there are lots of mountain guides and companies locally who organise trips.
Another way down
Rather than scramble down Swirral Edge, you can continue south from the top of Helvellyn across to Dollywaggon Pike and descend via Grisedale. This is a good option but a long walk of around 11.5 miles, with plenty of opportunities to get lost. You’ll need good navigation skills to walk along the spine of the range.
From Dollywaggon Pike, take the rocky path down to Grisedale Tarn, which is one of the most beautiful tarns in the Lakes. Nestled in the shadow of Fairfield, it is a great place to picnic and dip your toes. Take caution if you are planning a swim as the clear water can be icy cold, even on a hot day. You can then follow Grisedale Beck on the Coast to Coast path back down to Patterdale and Glenridding.
If you want to summit Helvellyn but don’t want to tackle Striding Edge there are alternatives. One option is an easier ascent using the Pony Path. This leads to the top avoiding any scrambling. Instead, the track ascends from Glenridding via steep zig-zags to Keppel Cove, then on to Whiteside and Helvellyn Lower Man. You can return the same way or descend via Dollywaggon Pike and Grisedale. This loop is around 10.5 miles.
The shortest route up is from Thirlmere, via the Helvellyn Gill path, which is about 4.5 miles there and back. This also avoids scrambling, but is a fairly unrelenting climb.
Don’t fancy a full day out on the fells? A trip up the valley a few miles north of Glenridding to see Aira Force waterfall is a good choice. It’s especially impressive if there’s been a lot of rain. You could combine this spectacular waterfall with a low-level walk up Gowbarrow. There’s also a good National Trust teashop at Aira Force that serves delicious caramel shortbreads.
What to take
Wear suitable layers and comfortable footwear with a good grip. Take a compass and map, and have the ability to use them. Navigation on the summit plateau can be difficult in poor conditions. Also ensure you’ve got a full set of waterproofs, a headtorch, emergency whistle and fully charged mobile phone. Carrying at least two litres of water, food and emergency snacks will help you keep your physical and mental energy up.
When to climb
Check the forecast before you go. Pick a clear, calm day, and be aware that the weather can change quickly. For instance, the wind can pick up on Striding Edge and it can feel very exposed. Drop down to the lower path on the right if it feels too much. The scramble over the rock can be tricky when wet. The last grassy bank up to the top of Helvellyn can also get slippery.
Don’t be afraid to turn back if the conditions worsen or you don’t feel up to it. And don’t feel pressured to continue just because other people are climbing. The hill will still be there on another day.
In wintry conditions only attempt the route if you are an experienced walker/climber. In this case full winter kit, including ice axe and crampons, would be needed. Note, there could be ice and snow on the route even in autumn and spring.
What will you see en route?
The main wildlife you’ll see in this area may be other walkers, especially on a summer weekend. The route can get busy and congested in some parts. Out of season or midweek it may be quieter, but it’s unlikely you’ll have these fells to yourself. In winter you may even spot Lake District ski-club members on Raise, next to Helvellyn. The club was founded in 1936 and is still going strong today.
Humans aside, you might spot buzzards soaring over the tarns, a peregrine falcon hunting or, if you’re lucky, a glimpse of a skylark. There are rare arctic-alpine plants on Helvellyn’s summit. And, of course, you’ll certainly see the Lake District’s ubiquitous Herdwick sheep.
We’ve got ideas for hundreds of wonderful walking routes across England, Scotland and Wales, long and short, easy and challenging. Search for routes on our website. Or join a guided walk with a local Ramblers group. Find your nearest Ramblers group and choose a walk that suits your pace, fitness and interests.
All images © Getty
Discover how to plan and enjoy your hikes up and around one of Wales’ most iconic and challenging summits.
What is a Munro? What is Munro Bagging? Why should you want to ‘bag’ a Munro? And where should you begin? Your questions answered.