Daniel Groves

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A Night on Helvellyn

Published: 24 September 2017 · Tags: bikepacking, microadventure, cumbria

Spending a night in a bivvy bag on the summit of Helvellyn

After spending the previous week in the Lake District National Park I decided to end the trip with something a little different. Armed with a basic overnight kit I left Glenridding at just gone 16:00 — when most people were heading back down — for the summit of Helvellyn, a 950m mountain which features a large and rocky summit with a small wind break on the summit: and it was this wind break I had my eye on to provide shelter for the night.

I headed up past the youth hostel towards Red Tarn where others were already setting up their tents for a night under the stars. At 820m I still had over 100m of ascent left before I’d reach my home for the night. I was coming up this route simply to cut the weight I had to haul with me: I’d need water for my dehydrated beef stew dinner, as well as to drink once on the summit where there is no water. I’d have to carry everything I need, so I stopped here to fill my Platypus and Nalgene bottles with 3 litres of Red Tarns finest mineral water, to which I quickly added a few chlorine tablets for safety.

 alt: Looking down towards Red Tarn just a few meters from the Helvellyn summit shelter.
Looking down towards Red Tarn just a few meters from the Helvellyn summit shelter

Continuing my ascent I now headed along the path back towards the hole in the wall, before doubling back along the start of Striding Edge, a knife-edge ridge approach onto the summit of Helvellyn with steep sides which could result in severe consequence in the event of a fall. There was only a gentle breeze so I was happy to commit to the 1.5km ridge having previously completed it, despite my heavy pack.

Taking it steady I made my way along the ridge carefully navigating the features as to not slip or trip — something which could be fatal at the best of times here. The entire ridge was just as I remember it from when I last completed it a couple of years back.

Reaching the summit I dropped my bag on the bench in the wind break (simply marked as “shelter” on OS maps at grid NY342150) before looking around at the evening light falling over the hills all around me. The views were absolutely stunning; the next couple of hours were spent running around with the camera.

 alt: Evening light settling over Swirrels Edge (my intended descent) and Catstye Cam.
Evening light settling over Swirrels Edge (my intended descent) and Catstye Cam.

As the sun set I spread my bivvy bag out on a bench and settled down to make some dinner and coffee before getting my head down the the night.

Anyone who’s spent any time in mountainous regions will be aware of how quickly the weather can turn. The sun set at 20:10 and by 22:00 the wind was starting to pickup. It wasn’t too big a deal where I was behind the wind break – well sheltered from the southwesterly wind.

Around 2:00 I woke up feeling like my face was being sand-blasted. The wind was now hitting the shelter and blowing their debris off the top of the wall straight onto me; slowly piling it up on my face.

At 5:00 I woke again. This time I couldn’t open my eyes the sediment had piled up so much in the night. Sitting up in my sleeping bag I wiped it away and opening my eyes saw the colour starting the develop in front of me — a faint orange smudge against an inky blue sky. I pulled my down jacket on and my waterproof over the top to keep the wind out and clicked the JetBoil into life to make a coffee to help me wake up while I started thinking about packing up and shooting the sunrise. Even inside the wind shelter I was being buffeted by the wind so I wasn’t keen to leave the protection of my sleeping bag and bivvy bag quite yet.

 alt: Settled in for the evening listening to music with the JetBoil working away next to me on the bench in the Helvellyn shelter.
Settled in for the evening listening to music with the JetBoil working away next to me on the bench in the Helvellyn shelter.

As 5:30 loomed up I had 40 minutes now until the sun would peek over the horizon for the first time; I reluctantly left my sleeping bag and set about stuffing everything back into my rucksack as quickly as I could. When I’d left the night before I’d thought about packing everything into a smaller rucksack, I was now grateful I could just stuff things in with no concern for how well packed it was, this wasn’t a time where careful packing would be easy.

Leaving the shelter I was almost blown off my feet; I carefully moved towards the summit of the mountain again, hoping that I’d be able to find somewhere with enough shelter to setup my tripod and shoot the sunrise. Helvellyn’s summit has a small ledge above the sheer drop down to Red Tarn about a foot below the main top, and a foot wide and it was here that I found enough shelter to setup my tripod using my heavy rucksack as a counterweight to help battle the wind. Everything was vibrating as I tried to shoot different angles from this position without moving more than I had to.

The light was amazing as the sun approached a small gap in the clouds briefly lighting up the entire scene and the plumes of clouds coming off some of the other summits around me.

 alt: First light over Red Tarn (center)
First light over Red Tarn (center), Catstye Cam (left) and Striding Edge (right).

With the light fading the wind seemed to be picking up still, so I threw my camera gear back into my rucksack. My original plan had been to descend via Swirral Edge, a small knife-edge ridge that runs down the other side of Red Tarn to Striding Edge. The wind meant that would be impossible, so instead I made for the longer route down which goes over Whiteside, but with the major perk of having no sheer drops off which I could get blown. I knew until I lost height I was not going to find any shelter from the wind now; I set off pushing as fast a pace as I could.

After 2km I finally stopped for a few minutes, in the shelter of Catstye Cam which was blocking the wind from reaching me. At this point I stripped off a lot of layers; walking in a down jacket is hot work in any weather. Heading off again I found myself walking into Glenridding around 8:00, just as the first walkers of the day were making for the start of trails around the village.

This was a short ‘microadventure’, but it’s a great way to spend a night nonetheless. This really is not something to try unprepared, the weather changes quickly in the mountains as demonstrated on this particular night. If you want to repeat an adventure like this you should make sure you have a map and compass, and know how to use them. It’s pretty common in places like this to go to bed with a clear sky and wake up in a cloud. To repeat this particular route you’ll need OS Map OL6.

I took the following gear on this trip:

  • Outdoor Research Helium Bivvy Bag
  • Exped Synmat UL
  • Rab Ascent 700 Sleeping Bag
  • JetBoil MiniMo
  • Platypus (2l)
  • Nalgene (1l)
  • Summit dehydrated meal
  • Trail mix, serial bars
  • Montane Featherlight Down Jacket
  • Mountain Equipment Shivling GoreTex Pro Jacket
  • Berghaus AQ2 Waterproof Trousers
  • A stripped-down selection of camera equipment (full gear list) in an F-Stop ICU
  • Osprey Ether Rucksack
  • Ortlieb Map Bag, OS OL6, Silva Compass
  • Garmin Etrex 30 GPS
  • Headphones, my phone and my Anker battery