Camera walk to Helvellyn

The Lake District National Park boasts a total of 50 very accessible peaks exceeding 2,500ft, four of which are above the 3,000ft mark. Helvellyn, my chosen camera walk, comes in third highest at the lofty height of 3,118ft just behind Scafell and Scafell Pike. Like any mountain, getting to the top of it requires a fair amount of effort; in the case of this route, a direct ascent will usually have you standing on the top in about three to four hours, providing you’re moving at a steady pace. The winter of 2003 saw me haul a tent, sleeping bag, winter clothing, ice axe, crampons, food, water, tripod and camera gear to the top, just to get some of the shots shown in this article. As a photographer you need to give some thought to the time needed to transport the extra weight to such a height. Those who do make the effort will be well rewarded, there are probably no finer views in the English Lake District than the ones offered here. Not only does the area boast two of the greatest ridges in England, Striding Edge and Swirral Edge, it is also home to one of the highest tarns, Red Tarn.
The routes to the summit, via either of the Edges, aren’t technically demanding and are classified in the guidebooks as walkers’ routes, requiring merely some easy scrambling. However, you do need a head for heights and should treat both ridges with respect at any time of year. The temperature at the top will almost certainly be a good few degrees lower than that of the valley floor. So you please take adequate clothing. Having been to the summit many times over the years, I have to say that if you’re inexperienced or ill equipped to deal with a mountain environment, especially in winter conditions, a reconnaissance mission under good summer conditions is advisable. Even then, navigational skills are required in case the clouds roll in, which they often do. Summer jaunts can be just as rewarding as winter ones but your experience will be shared with lots more people. For me, the winter experience is the more enjoyable. Although the mountain still sees its fair share of walking boots, they are fewer in numbers. If you feel a little daunted by the high level traverses, photography from the comfort zone of Red Tarn will always yield some great images and Red Tarn doesn’t require anything more than a long walk up a very large hill. Even so, navigation and choice of clothing are still prime consideration.
Presently, my basic mountain camera kit comprises of the Canon EOS 1DS mk2 with a 17 – 40mm lens carried in a Lowe Pro Toploader AW 65. Other lenses are the 24 – 80mm, and occasionally the 100 – 400mm image stabilising lens, which are placed inside one of the Lowe padded lens’ pouches and attached to the side of a normal climbing or walking rucksack. Admittedly, today’s range of ‘camera backpacks’ are good for carrying photographic equipment under normal circumstances; but I rarely find them satisfactory on a mountain when also carrying clothing and food etc, especially in winter when an ice axe and crampons are added to the load. Before moving to digital I would have taken a range of filters too; but with the camera’s ability to change white balance at the press of a button, my only filter today is the Lee polarising filter. Instantly adjustable iso’s have meant that the trusty tripod has also become a non-essential item, especially when taking basic mountain shots in good light. I do, however, still use them when working at dawn or dusk.



My chosen route begins at Glenridding at the Southern end of Ullswater. Here you will find a National Trust car park, toilets and information centre. The centre is open   daily throughout the year and supplies a detailed weather report of the current conditions on the mountain. Head west up Glenridding Beck until a small gate is reached on the left, just before Westside; here red squirrels are often seen feeding in the residents’ gardens. Turn left and begin to ascend a good path through a small woodland, which eventually leads to the picturesque Lanty’s Tarn - a good spot to stop, catch your breath for a while and weigh up the photographic opportunities. From here the path descends a little way before eventually heading Westerly back up the side of Grisedale Brow. In my opinion, this is the most tiring part of the walk; but I usually divert my attention by watching the summit of Dollywagon Pike up ahead. The play of light here can be truly spectacular if the conditions are right. Shafts of sunlight often penetrate brooding clouds deep into the valley floor far below, giving a truly breath-taking show. Eventually, you will reach the ‘Hole-in-the-Wall,’ marked clearly on the map (NY 359155). As far as I can find, it’s actually a stone-wall with large a stile over it. Once over the wall the fun begins. After gaining a little more height, the amphitheatre of Helvellyn’s almost vertical cliffs come into view - a most impressive sight! Striding Edge can be seen on your left and Swirral Edge to your right. I often rest here to take in the scenery, replenish my energy levels with food and fluids while deciding whether to tackle the ridges or head directly for Red Tarn itself. If you’re brave enough, Striding Edge is a must and should present no problems for competent walkers; but please be careful when taking pictures on the ridge, it’s easy to lose your balance when staring through a viewfinder.


Out of respect for other walkers, you should also refrain from using your tripods here; it is very narrow in places. Lastly, there is one difficult bit to descend towards the end of the ridge at High Spying How, which can be avoided if necessary. Once over that it’s just a case of a final pull up a rocky slope to the top. This area does accumulate snow in winter so be prepared to cut steps if you’re the first up. If Striding Edge seems a little too daunting you can reach the top somewhat easier by ascending via Swirral Edge and then returning the same way.nce on the summit, and providing the clouds haven’t performed their usual trick, the views over Red Tarn and both narrow ridges of Striding and Swirral Edge are fantastic and offer lots of picture potential. A cairn and stone shelter which is in the shape of a cross flat on the ground can be found close by. Here you will find yourself either strolling around happily eating a sandwich and enjoying your achievements or huddling for cover in a ‘howler’ behind ice encrusted boulders, often in the company of others, all of whom will be wishing they were back at their cars. The route home is simply back to the ‘Hole-in the-Wall’ and then along the same path up which you came. Hardened photographers will be pitching a tent!

This route is well within the capabilities of a reasonably fit person with navigational skills, i.e. map and compass reading. Just owning a GPS is not sufficient. During winter you should carry ice axe and crampons and know how to use them, even if you are only visiting Red Tarn. A good layered clothing system, plenty food and water are essential. Always check local weather reports and make sure someone knows your intended route, and if camping, where exactly. If you are camping, it may be worth informing the local ranger at the visitor centre and also give them your vehicle registration details; cars left on the car park overnight can cause concern.
Helvellyn Helvellyn