Heaven, and Hell, on Helvellyn


Ears assaulted by a thousand steam trains screeching past; body bashed by wind doing its utmost to topple us off the slippery snow-covered path; waterproofs whipping and crackling; eyes and face scoured by sandpaper-rough snowflakes and visibility closing down rapidly to a few yards. We have about a kilometre to go and 150 metres of height gain before we reach the top; Debbie's getting slower, I'm getting chilled waiting. Shouting a few feet apart is the only way to communicate.

We head back down, out of the clouds, to where mist-softened greens, browns, oranges, auburns, are a relief to see. A sheltered spot by Highpark Woods for some homemade soup, coffee, sandwiches. A bittersweet slice of early Christmas cake seems to match the mood; our first attempt on Helvellyn in winter has failed, but it feels good to be so exposed in this most favourite of places.

The English Lake District, an ancient mountainous heaven carved by glaciers; imposing, brooding, joyful, playful. Dairy farms; sheep farms; working families; feel and live the rhythm of the seasons; elemental work for life. 

Sunday, a new day. A glance backwards and Blencathra's already hiding as the winter cloak of cloud descends; again. We shrug a philosophical shoulder and press on, a short quick stroll to Thirlspot where we pick up the bridleway into the hills. A few white flakes fall, kissing cheeks as gently and silently as a fairy. 

We lose then find the footpath to take us over Brown How and start to feel anxious; but the path remains fairly obvious. As we gain height, show falls faster, visibility closes down, but the brutal wind of yesterday is gone. It's almost serene; just the low hum of the main A591, lost in the murk below us, disturbs. And the sound of our footsteps, now clearly visible as white footprints, breaking virginal snow. A quick photograph as we reach the top of an anonymous mound; cairns now mark the way, navigation is more by pilotage than map reading, though map and compass are readily and frequently consulted. 

The white grey blandness is breathtaking. Utterly silent now, other than for our own Gortex rustling and swishing. The occasional tinkling Gill tickles the ear, sometimes near, sometimes further away. Boots crunch through a thin layer of ice, sometimes sinking into underlying sludge, as if we are walking across a muddy crème brulee. 

Voices. Shadowy figures crossing from right to left in front of us. A large Gill to cross. We've reached the intersection of our footpath and Helvellyn Gill path, below Browncove Crags, where we were yesterday, where we could not pass. A surge of confidence hits us as we are exactly where we thought we would be. Half a dozen walkers and it feels like we're now in amongst rush hour traffic, but soon they leave us behind. Debbie's leg, still not fully recovered from massive Achilles' tendon injury from a few years back, slows her down. But we're in no rush today, we will top out.

Hard going over Browncove Crags. Steep, irregular steps. Snow and ice slippery. Astonishing swirls of hoarfrost create hypnotic patterns against the black rock. Squeeze between boulders; it's almost a scramble; and suddenly the steepness lessens, the jagged edges become rounded, the zigzags straighten. The feel and mood of the climb has changed. Although we're still in cloud, everything feels gentler, less harsh. 

We chat with an ice-axe and crampon equipped party. We don't have the gear or experience to tackle Striding Edge, and ask about alternatives. I don't fancy White Side as this would mean walking directly into the wind, from which we are temporarily protected by a ridge. We follow the white rock road, clear and distinct even now, to the top; the triangulation point marking our triumph. But no photograph; it would be featureless and pointless in the soft, all enveloping, whiteness.

Fifty yards back down and the clouds are suddenly, magically, dispelled to reveal majestic white topped mountains, spectacularly, bindingly lit by the fresh, wonderful, life-enhancing sun. So crisp and clear we can see walkers miles away, moving dots contrasting against the bright white background. Blue sky in one direction, ironing-board flat underside of clouds in another. Everywhere the mountains, like a herd of unimaginable primordial creatures gathering; for what? 

We pass other walkers going up, and pass on our experience when asked for, like seasoned pros. A young couple with no map, Doc Marten boots, out for a Sunday walk. We urge caution. A young family with 6 year old daughter, used to hill walking; the girl had done Helvellyn before, but not in snow. All have good gear and we bid them farewell, confident they will have a good time.

The low-level walk back to Stybeck Farm is a classic Lake District joy. Streams zig-zagging crazily down, through plunge pools, under bridges, carving out a path. Auburny-orangey-brown bracken set against green wild grass. Red berries; green-blue rocks under crystal clear water, multi-coloured grey rocks above and dry stone walls. To our left, Thirlmere the cold, dark, liquid descendant of the glacier that formed this valley eons ago; the steep rise of the hills on our right. 

The farm. Muddy shy sheep run away from our approach, though the odd one or two bolder ones stare at us as if to say "Who the hell are you?". Boots off. Warm dry clothes. Coffee; fresh, hot, aromatic, relaxing before the long M6 slog back home.