My formative years were spent on the banks of the River South Tyne. Between the bungalow I grew up in and the magical world of rolling hills and hidden pools, of sun-dappled woodland and frosted fields, was the Newcastle to Carlisle railway line. To cross it every day through the large white gate posts was to cross a threshold, to take a step from the world of adults and rules and order and expectation, into a world of intrigue and of beauty, of possibility limited only by one’s imagination. I’ve been very lucky over my thirty-six years in that as I’ve grown up, I’ve had many opportunities to chase that same feeling in adulthood. Bar a few years spent living and working in cities I have had the Northumbrian and Cumbrian countryside not far from my front door, and have strived to chase that same sense of thrill and adventure through walks in landscapes laced with opportunity, dripping with the potential to stun, to inspire, and to move. When my final day comes, when father time points his crooked finger in my direction and I experience the obligatory flash of life before my eyes, the faces of those important to me will be set amongst a flurry of peaks and valleys, of shadows and lights seen and experienced when in the great outdoors. And there will be one or two moments that linger a little longer in that montage, that stand a little proud amongst the others, having seared themselves more deeply into my memory by virtue of their scale and their colour and their beauty. One of those moments was experienced on the 7th of February 2017, and it snuck up unseen as I enjoyed a winter wander around the famous Cumbrian mountain, Helvellyn. To date, perhaps the most magical walk I have ever had.
I had been up this mountain, the third highest in England, twice previously – once in my early twenties with my brother and his friend Ste, and once in my early thirties with my girlfriend at the time. Both ascents were in mid-summer, both involved inordinate amounts of sweating and panting, and both started from the town of Glenridding and followed the well-trodden route up Striding Edge and back down Swirral. Helvellyn is certainly one of the most dramatic mountains in the UK – a long and at times testing drag up to Red Tarn which sits surrounded by sharp ridges of rock that must be clambered over and along before you rise up to the surprisingly flat plateau of the summit, where views East over Ullswater and West over Thirlmere are waiting to take your breath away.
On this occasion, on this cold and wet February morning, I decided to try a different approach – there is a path up to the top from Thirlmere that is a little less daunting and that requires little or no climbing or scrambling, which I thought would be much better suited to my levels of fitness at the time, and indeed to the time of year. Back then, foolishly, I wasn’t in the habit of checking the weather before I left home and making my way to The Lakes. I would take a quick squizz at what was happening around me in Northumberland and if there wasn’t anything too severe I would jump in the car. I have since learned how stupid this was, both in terms of safety and in terms of successful photography, after hearing many stories of how dangerous it can get up a Lakeland peak when the elements turn against you, and having suffered a few disappointments of driving over with all my camera gear only to find the weather has put photography out of the question. But, this February trip over to Cumbria was before these lessons – before logic, basic planning and common sense clouded my thinking. On this trip, it looked kind of alright where I lived, so I assumed it would be kind of alright sixty miles away.
I motored over there with a podcast on my stereo, a latte in my cup-holder, and the occasional spit of drizzle bouncing off my windscreen. I drove in along the snaking A66 and as the fields and peaks began to unfold and pop up, I could see the thick blanket of grey that seemed to be floating over the whole National Park. Every slight prominence of the drenched landscape rose up only to disappear into unmoving menacing cloud. As I pulled down into St John’s in The Vale and passed through the crags and woodland, peppered as they were in autumnal colours and trees that stood forlorn, I had a few moments of doubt as to whether or not I should bother. I found a large lay-by just past Brown Crag on the A591 and sat for a minute, the rain thudding dully on the roof of the car, taunting me to get out and face it if I dared. There was no trick of light, no features picked out, no atmosphere – I was sure I wasn’t going to get a half decent photo all day. Yes there were hills, yes there was a lake, and yes there were trees and features and nature all around, but there was so little light. What grey illumination managed to squeeze itself through the ominous ceiling that stretched from horizon to horizon fell limp and tired and desaturated around me.
But then I reminded myself – I didn’t start walking to take photographs. Photographs came as a result of my walking. I wasn’t going to measure the success of my day by what images I came back with, nor by the wonder of the sights that I would see, but rather by the quality of the time I would spend putting one foot in front of the other, clearing my head and sating my curiosity as to what challenge this other route up Helvellyn posed. Plus, I’d driven for ninety minutes to get there and it was ninety minutes back, and was I shite going to turn around without at least stretching my legs.
Thirty minutes later I was well on my way up hill when as if on cue, as if as a reward for my positive mental attitude and determination to enjoy the great outdoors, the rain stopped. I was in a rhythm, trudging up the trail, watching where I placed my feet, the lovely muffled pit-pat-putt of rain drops landing on the hood of my Berghaus as the gradient began to take its toll on my legs, when all of a sudden it was quiet. I stopped and turned, pulling off my water-proof and looking around. The small stretch of woodland that runs parallel to Thirlmere had shrunk and fallen below me and the valley had opened up. The cloud above had started to thin somewhat to the North and to the West, and across the reservoir I could see forests, now picked out by sunlight, clinging to the slopes of Armboth and Whythburn Fells like cloaks of copper and rust. The haze of the rain seemed to sweep away before my eyes and details became clearer, angles sharper, shadows more defined and severe.
A little further up the hillside and I started to get that wonderful sense of scale and perspective of the shrinking world I’d left behind - Skiddaw, Bassenthwaite, Threlkeld, High Rigg, Low Moss, Raven Crag, The Ben – so many names, so many weathered crags and withering woods spreading for miles around and reminding me of my insignificance.
Everywhere I looked cloud seemed to be lifting, peaks both great and small seemed to be shaking off their covers and leaning and stretching to catch a little of the shifting, dancing sunlight. Except for Helvellyn of course. Uphill, not far ahead of me, there was an ominous wall of mist or fog or cloud – I couldn’t see what it was - it was solid and it wasn’t shifting and after a little more hiking I wouldn’t be able to go much further. As I surveyed the mountainside and tried to decide what to do I started to notice something else however – something I hadn’t seen much of that winter. Hiding behind rocks and clinging to slight undulations, peppered seemingly everywhere, there were pockets of snow and ice. With my head down and my eyes trained on my feet, my hood up and the rain flying horizontally into my face, I had not noticed that there was an abundance of the white stuff waiting for me at around 400 metres above sea level. It was everywhere! The first traces were only a few feet ahead, and as the path rose before me these traces grew in number and size and seemed to coalesce into an actual deep layer of snow just below the barrier of cloud I was heading for.
I started to move up hill and the discoloured winter grass and sodden stones began to sink beneath frost and ice – steps became a little more tricky, rocks a little more slippery. I looked to my right across Thirlmere and Long Moss and Standing Crag were stooping below a moody sky and showing a similar winter coating to that which surrounded me. There was something wonderful in the churning grey clouds that tossed and turned above them and I wanted to get my camera out to try and capture something. I saw a boulder just off the path and thought the added height would give me a better perspective. Excited by the wintery conditions and worried that the scene before me might change, I jogged over and tried to jump with one stride onto the wide flat surface of the rock. My foot slipped from under me and I landed with all my weight on the corner of the boulder, my shin taking the brunt of the impact, and then I slipped like a cartoon character who’d splattered against a wall, down the offending stone and into the snow below. There was the usual pregnant pause before the pain reared its throbbing head. For a moment I stupidly thought I might be okay, but within a few seconds I was gripping my leg and rolling around on the floor shouting words I rarely use, in a voice I didn’t recognise. This continued for quite some time until eventually the pain subsided a little and I plucked up the courage to survey the damage. With the odd curse still escaping my mouth I rolled back my trousers and looked at my poor swollen shin. Nothing too bad, thankfully – just a bump and a bruise and a graze that were hot to the touch and that seemed to pulsate in time with a sharp throb that ran the length of my left leg. I sat for a minute and held snow against my shin, wondering if I should carry on. I then got a little bored and remembered that I wasn’t a toddler and should probably just get back to it. I tried the boulder again, a little more gingerly, and snapped a quick shot before heading on my way.
The path I was following became increasingly difficult to distinguish and the thick and seemingly impenetrable cloud ahead loomed over me a thousand storeys tall. I continued towards it, carefully, my thinking being that because the level of land around me was quite wide and because I was quite sure that there weren’t any severe drops anywhere nearby, if nothing else, I could take the opportunity to get close and perhaps even stick my head in to see what it was like. I’d heard so many stories of white-outs and dangerous quick dropping fog, that this seemed like a relatively safe opportunity to have a little glance into weather I had never experienced before without any risk of getting lost or falling over an edge. But, as I slowly made my way up icy steps and almost hidden trails towards what had hitherto seemed like a wall of wintery weather, it became less dense, less solid, less daunting. All of a sudden, not twenty metres away from it, I could actually see into it, and it wasn’t fog or mist or cloud, but snow – thick, flying, belting ice white snow. It was like looking into another world – I could almost lean into it, my feet in winter daylight with green fields and autumnal colours not too far below, my torso in Narnia with blizzards swirling around me and roughly ten to twenty metres of visibility. I moved forward and what had up to that point looked like a definite and exact threshold between the two worlds was something a little more blurred – still breath-taking, still two extreme seasons sitting and existing next to each other on the same mountain, but now with an antechamber one could rest in before entering the unknown.
I looked into the arctic-like conditions ahead of me. Somewhere up there was the last four hundred metres of Helvellyn, encased in a recently shaken snow globe I was thinking of stepping into. I figured that as long as I was careful, as long as I was slow, and as long as I could see far enough ahead of me to feel safe, I would continue. I strapped my camera bag back on, had a wee sip of my orange cordial, and with the same sense of thrill and anticipation I had felt as a child when exploring somewhere new, somewhere possibly dangerous, I took a few steps into the unknown. I made slow progress up hill, stopping occasionally to look around and reassure myself that I could still see remnants of the path and enough ground to the left and the right of me. Although there was a distinct difference between the sky and the earth, all was white – the snow flew into my eyes and clung to my beard and the wind whipped around my hood. In the distance, down the valley side, ghostly clouds of all shapes and sizes floated by like so many misshapen ships, some faster, some taller, some darker and more heavily laden with cargoes of ice and hail. These wisps and waves and hauntingly silent bodies of weather would occasionally slow and linger, but then transform and clear – cracks would appear and the sun would burn its way through – slips of blue sky and rays of light appeared momentarily before being smothered and stifled – a grand tussle of elements played out around me as I struggled up the barely discernible trail, every so often catching sight of a heavenly gallimaufry of sun and wind and snow.
Twice I stopped. Twice I got a little scared and started to walk downhill again. But twice I told myself to carry on and to experience and enjoy what was happening around me. The weather continued to shift and as I walked it fluctuated, the world morphing from a calm white glow with an unnatural warmth and stillness, to a steel grey wasteland that shook and that chilled to the bone. Before long however, the ground started to even out and with it the visibility seemed to improve – I could now see thirty metres or so around me. The snow kept up, but it was lighter, more gentle, floating down as if dropped, rather than flying down as if thrown. I had reached a plateau and I stopped to look around, peeling back my hood to enjoy the quiet. It didn’t feel like I had been walking long enough to have made the top, but there ahead of me was the trig point – a short column of stone that marked the summit of Helvellyn. It seemed to tremble as it stood guard over the abrupt drop down to Red Tarn, the ridges of Striding Edge and Swirral Edge running off into the distance before tracing their way like a jagged jaw line down to the valley below. Or so I imagined. Because I could see none of this of course – only the trig point, and a few feet beyond the ground disappearing into nothing. Not ten steps ahead of me was a great blue and white abyss where one of the most wonderful views in the Lakes should have been, and yet the sight was all the more stirring as a result. The trig point was lashed with streaks of ice that had been frozen sideways and I stood next to it trying to take in and appreciate the otherworldly quality of the scene I found myself in. As tempting as it was, I didn’t dare go closer to the edge, and for a few moments I simply breathed in the chilling air and listened to the silence, before capturing one quick photo and then turning to re-trace my steps.
I was only a few minutes into my walk back down when I heard, for the first time since leaving Hexham that morning, the voice of another human being. At first I couldn’t tell where it was coming from and so I stopped and tried to listen a little more closely – it was a conversation taking place somewhere ahead of me, spoken loudly so as to rise above the wind. I started to walk again, peering down the slope and scanning the snow and the outcrops of rock to see if there was any movement. At first I had no luck and, by trying to listen as I walked, managed only to lose focus on where I placed my feet and so stumbled and tripped more than once. But then the cocoon of snow and cloud that surrounded me started to change shape for the hundredth time, and cracks began to appear. The light that spilled into the sky had a distinct reddish warmth that signalled the sun, like I, was in its descent. It was diffused by the thinning grey above me and appeared as a thick band of orange, painting the horizon of the hills on the other side of Thirlmere as they crept into view for the first time in hours. All of a sudden, the landscape around me lit up and I could see quite far downhill - there they were, two walkers like stick men in the distance, clambering over rocks, chatting to each other, having a quick piss (I think), and then carrying on their way. I tried to follow.
As was their wont that day, the cloud and sun continued to wrestle with each other, albeit with less vigour and less care as to who would be the victor. Like the famous spent swimmers that do cling together, they grasped and they grabbed before the cloud seemed to give a final winning blow and the sun was reduced to a weak blush of amber somewhere distant, somewhere far off and enjoyed by others. I lost the two men ahead of me but after a short while I started to pass corners and steps and rocks that I recognised. I could see further ahead and further below and before too long, I was back at the edge of the cloud. Even though I had only been away from my car for a few hours, even though I had only walked a quite typical distance for me and my usual hikes, I felt like I had been on an expedition of sorts – that I had visited a far-off land and seen things no one else had seen. Full to the brim with this sense of achievement, buoyed by that wonderful feeling of knowing something nobody else knows, I looked to complete my descent with speed and to get back to my car, to rest my legs and check my shin, to wolf down a sausage roll I had left in my glove compartment that would no doubt be the best tasting sausage roll in the world ever full stop. But my walk wasn’t over yet. Helvellyn had one more trick up its sleeve, and it had saved the best for last.
As I stepped down I could see to my left that something quite magical was happening. As the sun started to sink to the west, battle-worn and beaten, slipping slowly behind the peaks of Long Moss and Low Saddle and Armboth Fell, the mist and the cloud started to float, slowly at first, across the surface of those same hills and down towards Thirlmere. This gentle tide of wisps and curls of smoke-like fog grew stronger, quicker, more desperate to pour over the edge of The Pewits and High Tove and down Cockrigg and Fisher Crags – they seemed to race and flare as behind them the last bright light of the day - yellow, orange, pink and gold - refracted and diffused, accentuated and then amplified, seeped through and illuminated the western sky with a radiance I would never have thought possible.
All the world around me, laid out in miniature, so distant and yet so detailed, seemed to bask in the glow as I stood stunned. Every tree in every woodland, every ripple on every lake, and every crag on every fell side was bathed in the warmest pouring of winter sunlight. It lasted about ten minutes before, once again, the cloud won out and our plucky star sank defeated behind the hills of the western Lake District.
As a parting gift the sun was kind enough to leave enough of itself to guide me back down to Helvellyn Gill and on to my car and my waiting sausage roll. It was quite the reunion. As the evening set in and I put my car in gear, another vehicle pulled into the lay-by. It was a Vauxhall Corsa with blacked out windows and music playing far too loud. It parked alongside me and the passenger wound down his window - a young lad with a tatt on his neck and a gold necklance Mr T might deem over the top. I wound down my window to be greeted by the unmistakable smell of weed and the glazed eyes of the baked youth who'd enjoyed it. He pointed up to the cloud I had not long ago been walking in and asked if that was Helvellyn. I said yes. He asked me if I'd been up. I said yes. He asked what it was like. I said it was snowing. He didn't believe - asked me if I was taking the piss. I promised him I wasn't. He looked at me like I was mad and the driver - a young girl - pulled away and onto the road towards Grasmere.
I wound my window back up, brushed the sausage roll crumbs from my beard, and started the drive back home. I'm not foolish enough to expect to be rewarded with such sights when venturing out into seemingly mundane conditions in future - indeed many unspectacular walks have been had since this trip up Helvellyn that have been as uninspiring as their weather forecasts have predicted. But, I will never forget this particular jaunt, and it will always act as a reminder of what truly wonderful surprises can occur in the absence of expectation.
All images taken on the Sony A7rii using the Sony G Master 24 - 70mm 2.8.