Singletrack Issue 119: Ultimate Helvellyn

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Words & Photography James Vincent

This is a Classic Ride you’ve got to work for, but it’ll be worth it. Really, there’s just a bit more up…

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height

My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight

For the ends of being and ideal grace.

While many areas of the Lake District are somewhat bereft of bridleways in favour of footpaths, leaving you with just one or two obvious routes in a certain locale, the Helvellyn massif has no such problem. Putting aside the precarious Striding and Swirral edges that even the likes of Danny MacAskill would think twice about riding, there are bridleways heading away from the summit and criss-crossing the ridge in almost every direction. What’s more, each one leads to an absolute belter of a descent that poses its own unique dilemma – speak to ten different mountain bikers, and you’ll end up with ten different routes, with each rider adamant that theirs is the best.

“Ride along the Dodds, then you spend most of the day above 750m on a great ridge ride before descending Dollywagon and Grisedale Beck…” 

“No, no, no – the Dodds will be boggy as hell, unless we’ve had six months of dry weather. Climb up Sticks Pass, then hit the ridge and descend Dollywagon…” 

“What? Dollywagon’s horrible. It’s just steps and water bars. No one can ride it cleanly…” 

“Nonsense, my mate did it years ago on his rigid hardtail with V-brakes, it’s easy.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever. Anyway, go up Dollywagon. The steps mean you gain height really quickly.” 

“Ooh, that’s not a bad shout actually.” 

And so it goes on, reaching a dangerous crescendo of noise until no one hears last orders at the bar. Enough! It’s my ride and I get to choose the route.

Fortunately, my decision is made easier because Wil, who’s joining Tim (a local) and me for this epic, is staying at Glenridding YHA at the bottom of the climb to Keppel Cove, so it makes sense to start there. Next, the ride has to have enough scope to keep us entertained all day, and since you can reach the summit and be back down in time for breakfast (if you start early enough), simply descending via Dollywagon and Grisedale Beck won’t quite do.

It sounds like we need to go up and over the ridge twice and as I’ve always had a soft spot for Birkside, that’s the first descent sorted. The only problem with this is that it drops you close to the shores of Thirlmere and there are no nice climbs out of that particular valley – for whatever reason, they’re mostly steep, long, soul-sapping, grassy slogs. So let’s focus on the descending options once you get back to the ridge instead – Sticks Pass or Grisedale Beck via Grisedale Tarn? Grisedale Beck is good. Very good in fact, but as a last descent of the day, you just can’t beat the feel-good factor and sheer variety of Sticks, plus there’s the added bonus that it finishes right where we started.

Now if you’ve got the legs for it, there’s nothing stopping you from hitting the summit twice and finishing with Dollywagon, but I don’t, so once it is. Sorted. Let’s do this…

On the up.

As per usual I’m running late; Wil and Tim have already introduced each other and are getting their kit sorted when I arrive, but they’re soon distracted by the cake that I’ve brought with me. Staying in the YHA, Wil neglected to bring sandwiches, so he’s reliant on my hunter-gatherer skills. Fortunately, I got to Rheged early(ish), so there’s plenty of choice and pickings are varied, healthy and nutritious. The snacks are divvied up, final bike checks are completed and at last the ride can begin. Starting from the YHA, it’s a brutal introduction, with no chance for a warm-up and our tyres are scrabbling for grip on the loose gravelly track. Past the first few turns, however, things level off and we get a brief respite to catch our breath and take in the view.

The valley opens out in front of us, with Catstye Cam to our left and just behind it the summit of Helvellyn itself is easily recognisable as the last few remnants of winter cling to its western edges. Ominously, cloud swirls around it in spite of the glorious sunshine we are enjoying below, serving as a reminder that today’s ride will see some serious altitude gain and is not one to be taken lightly. 

If you’ve got the legs for it, the climb itself can be ridden all the way – make it to the fork in the track and you’re doing well. Make it past the fork, round all the zigzags to the ridge, and you can count yourself in a very small, and very elite group. Tim claims to have cleaned it on his first attempt a few years back – apparently he had no idea how far he had left to climb, so he just kept on grinding his way up. The swine. In his defence he was fresh off a season’s guiding in the Alps, but still. He’s a bit more subdued today, but no less keen – if I wasn’t asking him to stop all the time for photos, I have no doubt he’d be making another attempt on it today.

Eventually we join the ridge running north to south, and have a short punchy climb before the first descent proper of the day. It’s a fast and loose affair, with rocks pinging up left and right as we boost off cairns and drift through the turns. The thrill is short-lived though, and all too quickly it’s time to introduce Wil to the finer points of carrying one’s bike. There are two main methods of doing this – either grasp hold of the forks and non-driveside crank arm and hoick the bike directly over your head and onto your back, resting the down tube across your shoulders, or swing the whole bike onto your back in a much more ungainly fashion. Either way, we’re beyond the point of pedalling, no matter how fit we are, and it’s marginally easier than pushing.

The cloud thickens as we hike up and soon we’re wading through pea soup, before cresting the false summit of Lower Man. By this point the wind is whipping around us and visibility is measured in metres, so we put our jackets on and brace ourselves for the final push. We can’t see a thing, let alone the trig point, even though we know we’re only a few hundred metres from it. Fortunately, the path on the ground is easy to follow and we add ourselves to the throng surrounding the summit shelter – the May bank holiday has brought walkers and riders here in their droves, and it’s heaving. But I bet that no one else has brought beer up here. As this is Wil’s first time on Helvellyn we felt it called for a celebration, and my word does this hit the spot! Summit beer is now a thing.

You great big berk.

Beer drunk and snacks consumed, it’s time to abandon our refuge. Dropping out of the cloud and away from the madding crowd, the terrain is once more fast and loose, with big sweeping corners stretching out in front of us towards Thirlmere in the distance. The boulders rapidly get bigger, doing their best to block our path, and it becomes imperative to keep our wheels moving, otherwise it’s most definitely game over. The route through the rocky maze isn’t obvious and we’re making it up as we go along. Unlike at a trail centre, where you can be sure that 99% of obstacles are rideable, here, it’s the other way around – you’re never quite sure what lies ahead, and the trail only reveals itself to you at the last possible moment. But when you do unlock a section and get through in one piece, the sense of satisfaction is unrivalled and your confidence grows (or is that the beer talking?). You rapidly become an expert in judging which of the rocky chutes go, and you find flow in abundance. 

A short stepped section pops up out of nowhere to catch us off guard, although it’s nowhere near as savage as its cousin on Dollywagon. There are some cracking twists and turns, and the drainage channels are significantly less imposing – the trick with these is to forget you’re riding on steps, and just roll steadily along it as you would a regular trail and you’ll be fine. 

We then come to the crux of the piece – a large exposed slab of bedrock, with no obvious solution, blocks our way. A false path tempts us off to the right, but local knowledge tells us that there’s a route through the centre of the rocks. From our entry point it looks impenetrable until we’re almost on top of it, then all of a sudden the exit appears. All it takes is a truckload of commitment and guts to stay off the brakes and roll through. As it is, Tim still needs two runs at it, while Wil wisely walks down. That’s not to say it’s beyond him, but we’re a long way from home and you don’t want to be crashing here if you can help it. 

This is a case of do as I say, not as I do, because I then proceed to have a spectacular over the bars not 50 metres down the trail. Cruising alongside a fence on some sublime alpine singletrack, I briefly switch off, and BANG! I catch my bars on the fence, and in an instant I’m flying through the air before collapsing in a tangled heap with my bike. Tim and Wil are genuinely concerned for my well-being, but my knee pads and helmet have done their job and we continue.

We’re soon transported to another world on the permissive path above Thirlmere. Clinging to the fell side it meanders through the forest, with bird song and babbling brooks drowning out the traffic from the busy road far below us. We’ll soon join it, but for now we spin along our own traffic-free highway without a care in the world.

Back to reality.

After a short cruise down the road past the only pub on route, The Kings Head Hotel, we get to Legburthwaite. Now there’s no way to sugar-coat this – the climb up Sticks Pass is horrid, grim, soul-destroying, and slow. So what’s it doing in a classic ride I hear you ask? Erm… I’m not too sure actually. Scratch that – I do. Because sometimes you’ve got to earn your turns, and what’s ahead of you is one of the most incredible pieces of singletrack in the world and that should be more than enough to keep you going through the dark times. And besides, when Wil, Tim and I pause for a moment at the sheepfold that marks the end of the hikeabike section where the gradient levels off, we’re all in agreement that there’s nowhere on earth that we’d rather be. The afternoon sun beats down on our shoulders, we spy Keswick in the distance, with Bassenthwaite just beyond it, and our gaze drifts onwards through the haze over the Solway into Scotland. 

I’ll never know whether it was the rush of sugar from the Tangfastics produced at the crossroads that did it, or if it was the wave of excitement as the singletrack hove into view. Either way, I felt rejuvenated – my legs full of energy and ready to enjoy, no, relish, what was laid out in front of me. Having ridden this trail many times before, I always know how good it’s going to be, but even a newcomer can’t help but get excited by the glorious, sinewy ribbon of dirt winding its way off into the distance.

Sticks Pass really does have it all – starting out as a swoopy BMX track (watch out for the sharp right-hander after the jumps), it soon deteriorates into a rutted mess. There’s a line buried in there somewhere – just don’t ask me to find it again. Beyond the ruts, the trail turns into one of the sweetest, most flowing pieces of singletrack this country has ever produced. Clinging to the side of the valley, it winds its way down at a perfect gradient, with just enough technicality to keep you awake, and on a baking hot, dusty day like today it’s the perfect end to a perfect day. We wind up back at the YHA where we started, absolutely exhausted, but utterly elated. We’ve conquered the mountain. 

The Knowledge

Helvellyn

  • Distance: 22.41km (13.93 miles)
  • Highest Point: 950m (3,116.8ft)
  • Total Ascent: 1,385m (4,547ft)

Maps

OS Landranger (1:50 000) 90 Penrith & Keswick, Ambleside or OS Outdoor Leisure Series (1:25 000) OL5 The English Lakes North-Eastern Area

Accommodation

You’re spoilt for choice – there’s the YHA at the mines above Glenridding, and Patterdale YHA is a bit further up the valley towards the Kirkstone Pass. Some of the aforementioned inns have rooms, or if you wanted to splash out, you’re really spoilt for choice with some cracking hotels dotted along the shores of Ullswater. Alternatively, base yourself in Penrith or Keswick and really make a weekend of it.

Food Before

It’s worth taking a picnic, or taking breakfast for an early start. The 24 hour service station at Rheged serves a slimmed down range of the fayre available from its famous Tebay sibling.

Food During

The Kings Head Hotel, on the main road in Thirlmere is perfect for a midway stop if you have time. Otherwise, bring sandwiches!

Food After

Glenridding YHA has been known to serve very good pizzas late afternoon to early evening. The Travellers Rest just down the hill into Glenridding serves good, well priced food and fantastic local beers, or for something a bit more upmarket there are some very nice hotels and bars down on the shores of Ullswater. Finally, the Helvellyn Country Kitchen in Glenridding does one of the best breakfasts around (perfect if you got up early for a dawn raid).

Bike Shops 

There’s nothing in Glenridding itself – the nearest shops are Arragon’s (Penrith), followed by Keswick Bikes (Keswick), or Biketreks (Ambleside) and Wheelbase (Staveley) to the south.

Why bother?

At 950m, Helvellyn is the third highest peak in England, as well as the highest point you can legally ride a bike, and quite frankly that’ll be more than good enough for some people. You’ll also feel like a true mountaineer – regardless of which route you choose, you’re going to be carrying your bike at some stage, and when you hit the summit you’ll either have the place to yourself, or (more likely) be surrounded by bemused walkers simultaneously questioning your sanity and admiring your chutzpah. 

But even if peak bagging isn’t quite your thing, still ride it, because every descent you could choose to take from the summit is genuinely world class, and once you hit the top you’ll be faced with up to an hour’s solid descending before you have to start climbing again. That you don’t need to travel overseas to experience it makes it that much sweeter.

Oh, and there’s variety too; there’s flowing singletrack, flat-out rocky chutes, or slow speed technical riding. Yes, it’s all at the rockier end of the spectrum, but each descent has its own distinct character. So much so, that you’re going to have to keep climbing back up until you’ve ticked them all off. When putting this ride together I tried to figure out how to squeeze them all into one route, but I just couldn’t (our legs wouldn’t have been able to take it, and there wasn’t enough daylight).

Finally, go prepared. You are heading up a mountain and the weather can change in an instant – when we rode it, it was gloriously sunny and calm down in the valley, but the summit was covered in cloud and the wind was whipping around. Know your escape routes, what to do in an emergency, and if at any point you’re feeling slightly unsure of things, turn back.

Gallery Extra

As we always have far too many images to fit in the printed mag. Click an image to start the gallery.

Comments (1)

    Is there a gpx or map for this route? Cheers g

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