Amanda, Rhys and James head up Helvellyn in an effort to see whether a stiff climb for tea and an enduro descent for breakfast is a recipe for fun.
Bikepacking, touring, camping… it’s not a new activity, but it’s becoming increasingly popular. We’re almost positive you’re sick of seeing fully loaded gravel bikes with bearded hipsters behaving like they’re the first to try it. So how about we load up some mountain bikes and go camping? No, that doesn’t sound hard enough. Enduro bikes and bivvy bags up the highest mountain we can get to? Now that sounds more like an adventure.
I’m quite sure we aren’t the first to do this either, but we are possibly the most uneducated group when it comes to bivvying. I do some research and find that I need three items – a camping mat, a sleeping bag, and a bivvy bag. It doesn’t sound like much, but the sun is shining so do we really need much more? James Vincent, a Lake District local and good friend I haven’t seen for far too long, plots an achievable route to Helvellyn summit for the expedition and I head over with my partner Rhys.
Where no Strawb has gone before
Are we prepared? Will the weather hold? Is this a good idea? The thought of a sleep-deprived descent of England’s second-highest mountain doesn’t fill me with joy, so I choose not to think about it. Resilience? Nah. Ignorance.
Meeting at the van, I offer up various begged, borrowed and gifted lightweight camping solutions to James. As he checks out what fits where, Rhys and I make snack piles to make sure we’ve got enough with us. He’s on cookies, Tangfastics and Clif Bloks. I’ve got Strawbs, Trek bars and four bananas. We figure our bags out surprisingly easily, and run out of reasons not to hit the trails. We’re off! There’s no hesitation from me, which is a relatively new trait. I have spent the past eight months bothering to get bike fit, so I’m eager to show off my hard work to James who has previously attempted to shoot a feature up Helvellyn with me. Let’s just say, we don’t have any photos together from the summit. Not yet, anyway.
Our route from Askham to Helvellyn starts from Heughscar Hill over to Martindale, descending from Hause down to Patterdale. We plan to grab some food around there or Glenridding, and then finally to head up and over Dollywaggon Pike. We warm up on the gentle climb to the top of Askham Fell, which is immediately followed by a fast smooth descent to the lower path that will take us toward Martindale. This first hint of descent is a perfect opportunity to tighten our bar bags and we all point out that the bikes have a bit less pop than usual. Good to get a feel for that on a tame open hillside.
Howtown Do You Do, Nice To Meet You
Riding from here along to Howtown is a tame introduction to classic Lakes terrain. Rocky, loose, undulating, and littered with walkers. It’s a great trail, and the walkers out enjoying the sun are grateful for our polite approach to riding. We’re stopping to take photos and chat about the weekend ahead. This is the first time James and Rhys have met, so there’s plenty of acquainting to be done, and I’m not at all surprised to find that they get on as if they’ve known each other for years. Rhys is an open book, and the pages of that book read ‘chilled AF, loves to ride bikes’. James is an easy character to get along with because he’s an Excellent Person, and also lives for riding bikes.
The afternoon is relaxed. We gradually chip away at our route, regularly stopping to take in the views and eat Strawbs. As we approach the climb up to Hause I get my first twang of excitement. Hause Gate climb is a long path that you can see the full length of, making it easy to pace yourself and take your time. It’s a long one with quite a kick up at the end by the looks of things, and the destination promises great views.
That kick up turns out to be a scramble, a common occurrence on a James Vincent ride. Luckily it’s a short one, and we’re soon at the top and thinking of our stomachs. The ride down from here to where food hopefully lies is the Boredale high line, a bridleway with a footpath running parallel below. Despite there being a separate footpath, you can still expect plenty of walkers on the high line so we work our way down gradually with the odd coaching session along the way. I realise I’m lacking confidence today and try to figure out what’s bothering me. The technical sections are long and steep, and the ground is rough enough to block your view of the section below and, to add to that, my bar bag is blocking the view of the trail directly in front of me. I put it down to new territories and a fully loaded bike, and do my best to get through the parts I consider rideable. Meanwhile, Rhys is in his element blasting down the most difficult line he can find. James has his camera in machine-gun mode, and we spend long enough making our way down to end up really hungry, sun-blushed and ready for a pint.
No Food At The Inn
The first pub we get to has a picnic area across the road, an excellent food menu and plenty of seating available. We can’t believe our luck! Kneepads off, helmets away, we get settled only to find they aren’t serving food outside and it’s far too stuffy inside for us to regenerate. James says there’s another pub five minutes down the road, and we go through the same process; however, this pub is only serving bar snacks and no full meals. Just as we begin to get disheartened, Rhys takes the initiative to go online to find somewhere serving food, call ahead and check we can eat there. It’s a climb up a road to get there, but we don’t care – there’s food and beer waiting for us.
It’s almost too warm to get the food in, but I have no trouble downing my pint of Pepsi and chaser of Wainwrights. We’re still not in a rush, and make the most of having a sit down and a bathroom to rinse our sweaty faces. James and I find it hilarious that anytime Rhys goes to the loo, he manages to return looking like he’s had a shower fully clothed.
The time comes for us to make our way up to bed. From Glenridding we plan to head up Grisedale Beck to Grisedale Tarn, then up Dollywaggon. I’m terrible at remembering trails, so I make the assumption that we’re going up the way I failed last time, due to a lack of fitness, and set off pedalling. The sun has dropped low enough to offer us a comforting warm glow, and for the first time all day we aren’t overheating.
The climb to Grisedale Tarn is a fun challenge. There are some really technical sections that I enjoy managing to get up thanks to a combination of SPDs and fitness, both new for 2021. As we approach the Tarn it becomes clear that we’ve missed the sun on this side, so we may as well crack on with the ascent and hope for some clear skies up top. Before setting off we decide it’s snack time, and Rhys’ face lights up as he goes to get a cookie, but finds the entire pack has merged into one huge diabetes-cake. As he chomps his way through it, I offer my Strawbs around and fail to understand why they’re laughing at me. Apparently I’ve mentioned my Strawbs a lot, and for some reason this is hilarious. I give one final offering of Strawbs, receive the same response, so I stuff them back in my bag and leave them to their Strawb-less Bromance.
Broomwagon for Dollywaggon, please!
“You might want to get your bike on your back here,” James casually advises. I’m not over the moon about having to hike again, but hopefully it will be another short one and I can continue showing off my new legs. I look up and realise this isn’t a short one. I also find that I can’t get my bike on my back because an old injury has started niggling me after the hike earlier today. So my solution is to grumpily, stubbornly, push my bike up Dollywaggon. Have you ever ridden Dollywaggon? It’s not a trail you want to be pushing a bike up. I messily huff and puff my way up, lifting the front end of my bike over the huge steps and dragging the rest with it.
“I thought we were going for a bike ride, James? We’re supposed to be ‘enduropacking’, this is just walking with unnecessary luggage.” I am not happy, and I am making no attempt to hide it. Rhys braves an objection to my opinion by suggesting that we’re doing ‘full enduro’. I know he’s right, but I don’t honour that with a response. I just continue to make this ordeal as awkward and exhausting as I possibly can. As we reach the top, it’s bittersweet. We made it back to pedallable land – sweet! Though it’s windy and there are clouds rolling in. Gah.
Helvellyn has three ‘tops’ to it in my mind. The official summit trig point, the Mountain Cross Shelter, and the cross cairn. If you’re out to ‘touch the top’, you’re likely to go up the cairn, spot the trig point, go touch it, then rush down to the shelter to get warmed up from the inevitable wind chill. We Three Bikepacketeers arrive at the shelter and rejoice at the immediate relief from the wind. The cairn and trig point can wait for the morning; we’ve got beers to drink and beds to make, to our error in that order.
Our evening gradually escalates from peaceful conversation into fits of beer-induced laughter as we begin to get ready for bed. James wraps himself up in his down jacket, a smug look on his tipsy face. Rhys makes use of his pre-loaded toothbrush, heads out the edge of the mountain and does a full body thrust to spit it as far over the edge as he can. He fails to acknowledge the wind direction, and returns to us with a face and a hood full of wind-whipped toothpaste spit. Meanwhile, I’ve efficiently made my bed and got in, quietly sipping my hipflask and enjoying an excited fizz of anticipation, similar to that a child would get at the gates of Disneyland. I’m a sleepy caterpillar in my cosy cocoon, with a plan to wake up a bright-eyed butterfly. I think I’m drunk. A happy drunk… wait, what on earth is James doing?
I peek my head out to find him digging around and colouring the air with obscenities… “Amanda, these bags you gave me, which one is the sleeping bag?” [rustles] “Oh hang on, this is insulated. Wait, it’s a jacket.”
We all laugh, and blame Chipps for the error since I borrowed everything from him and he’s not here to defend himself (for the record, he definitely told me it was a jacket, I definitely forgot, and James definitely opened everything out before we set off). James puts his additional insulated jacket on, still laughing, but relieved to have the other two bags I gave him. Well, would you believe it, there was another packable insulated down jacket in there? We can’t breathe for laughing. James is less amused, as he applies his third bloated layer and loses some flexibility in his arms.
Right, it’s definitely bedtime now and we’re just waiting on the Michelin Man to open the third bag and settle down.
“It’s a ******* silk sleeping bag liner Amanda! For ***** ****. What the ****?! What the **** am I supposed to do with my legs?”
James can’t ruin my cocoon vibe. I continue laughing until he sees the funny side, and vaguely accepts responsibility since he did unpack everything at the van, and there was another sleeping bag available. After all this, he’s the first asleep and immediately starts snoring so loudly that Rhys and I decide to move to the other side of the cross, fully intending to sneak back over before he wakes up. We oversleep.
Roof of the world.
Morning arrives around 05:30am, not with the golden light of the rising sun, but with chatty e-bikers. There’s heavy cloud cover and they don’t hang around, so Rhys and I take the opportunity to sneak back around to James who had woken up for a wee hours earlier, confused about our absence but not concerned enough to locate us. I learn that you can’t walk in a bivvy bag with an inflated mat. Not successfully, anyway, and fall directly onto James in an awkward, rigid plank.
“Morning mate,” I croak. Oh god, I feel a bit hungover. Back to bed for five minutes… Or four hours, as it turns out.
I’m not sure we’re doing this right. Is it supposed to be so easy? When I think of bivvying I get visions of discomfort, rocks in my back, bugs eating me alive. The reality, in this case at least, is a great night’s sleep followed by waking up feeling like I’ve achieved something spectacular in this activity alone. Not everyone could do this. It takes some resilience to put yourself to bed on a mountain summit, in a bag. Or in three jackets and a silk skirt, in James’ case.
Helvellyn offers a long, challenging and rewarding descent whichever way down you go. Unless you’re caffeine dependent and haven’t had your morning brew, in which case it offers a very drawn-out technical nightmare. We set out to exit the cloud via a quick visit to the trig point with a harsh cross wind and streaming eyes. I’m feeling a strong disconnection with my bike. I make a line choice, commit to it, and my body fails to deliver the message to the bike. This stop-start riding gets me quite frustrated, and I find myself apologising for the lack of coordination and taking so long to get down the mountain. James and Rhys keep reassuring me that we’re in no rush and to just take my time figuring it out, and they don’t get too awkward about me bursting into tears to relieve myself of some of the built-up stress.
It occurs to me at this point that I have several internal factors going against me. There’s the iron deficiency I learned of days earlier, that the doctor chose to describe as ‘more of an absence than a deficiency’. There’s the fact I’m ovulating, which makes me clumsy as hell and a weepy, unconfident, emotional mess. And there’s the lack of caffeine, which I initially joke about but soon realise I really do depend on a strong brew to clear my inner fog. These three issues are all fuelling each other, and I don’t feel like I can overpower them. I can’t win. I walk my bike down the next section, crying and feeling terribly bitter and cheated about my body being off-balance.
Rhys gives me a pep talk, a calm and short one simply reminding me that I often just need one ‘win’ for things to start clicking. Well, I get my win on a long section of extremely technical, yet not too steep trail. From here I spend my descent finding ‘wins’ between the sections that I don’t feel coordinated enough to ride safely, and I don’t beat myself up for pushing down those parts. Rhys is an extremely talented rider who can apparently go anywhere and instantly click with the terrain. He’s from Wales and has never ridden in the Lakes before, despite having ridden mountain bikes for 20 years, and he descends with confidence whilst frequently checking in on me. James is well versed in Helvellyn and cracks on, hoping for the cloud to clear so he can get his camera out somewhere between here and the café we’re heading toward for breakfast. He chose to ride with a saddlebag, and has been getting increasingly frustrated with the loss of range on his seatpost, and eventually puts the bivvy gear in the void of his camera bag that had previously contained two large cans of beer.
The café stop was both a moment to pause and reflect on everything we’d achieved so far, and a jump-start into the second part of our adventure – thanks to the excellent espressos at Helvellyn Country Kitchen. “If you had to, would you give up your suspension or your seatpost?” James’ head was clearly on the descents, whereas I was silently furious with myself for still struggling with fear after a bad crash I had almost eight months ago. I went inside to order another coffee and a big slab of pick-me-up cake.
Switched on for the second part of the day, the caffeine cleared the fog from my head, and the cake gave me the energy I needed to put my positive-pants on, and hopefully stop pulling the brakes. From the café we headed to the Ullswater Singletrack, a bridleway worthy of both a trail grading and traffic lights. Heavy foot traffic in both directions stops us from blasting our way through. This trail is a fantastic mix of smooth flowy sections linking up concentrated tech – rocky slabs, boulders and twisting steps – that goes on just long enough to require full commitment. The first challenge we come to sees me immediately pull the brakes, only to realise it is nothing more than habit making me stop. James calmly assures me that the entire section is rollable and tows me in, and I ride it effortlessly, arriving at a very proud looking Rhys with a big grin on his face. That’s my win for the afternoon, and from here on I lose the hesitation and find myself understanding the terrain more. It all goes, if you have some speed and commitment.
The singletrack goes on for so long, the whole time with Ullswater teasing us on the left. We finally cave in and decide to take a dip to cool down. Rhys dives straight in and announces that it’s very cold. I carefully ease myself in, yet still manage to get cold shock. Once I catch my breath we spend a good ten minutes trying to coax James in, who bothers to strip down to his liner shorts but doesn’t bother to go beyond ankle deep. We’re warm and dry almost as soon as we surface, and following the last chunk of singletrack we make our way to the final climb back to Askham, via a quick detour the ice cream shop in Pooley Bridge, obviously.
Enduropacking. Is it the future?
Arriving back where we began, it occurs to me that the weekend has felt like much longer than two days and I am still waiting for the discomfort to arrive. The bar bag containing my three bivvy items had been there for long enough for me to forget about it. The backpack containing a few extra layers and some Strawbs was no different to a usual big day out. OK, so we cheated on the food front by planning a pub tea and a café breakfast, but even if we had replaced our beers with a stove it wouldn’t have added much weight, it might have even weighed less. I think bivvying is a goer!
Instead of learning lessons on how to bivvy better, I have taken much more from this adventure. Many of us have our regular riding buddies, and our special occasion riding buddies who live a bit further afield. This trip has made me realise just how lucky I am to have Rhys as my regular riding buddy, since he takes such good care of my mental and physical state on a ride. He checks I’ve got food and drink, he talks out my fears without seeming patronising, and he’s always calm and stable. And as for James, I need to spend more time with that man. He manages to make every situation funny and removes all pressure from a bike ride. He respects whatever state I’m in, whether it be a teary stubborn mess or a giggly unhelpful git who forgot to give him a sleeping bag. A big thank you and huge respect to James for documenting one of the most memorable bike rides I’ve ever had. Now which mountain shall we try next?
We do have to point out that wild camping is technically illegal in England without the landowner’s permission. However, it does go on and the Lake District website even has tips on how to do it properly. We’d argue that the kind of fast and light bikepacking style of overnighting, especially where you’re only there for a few hours, don’t cook or make a fire (and definitely don’t leave a trace) is no different from a late night ride combined with a sunrise sortie. If you arrive late, leave early, leave no trace and are prepared for any and all conditions, you’re unlikely to annoy anyone.
Scotland, though (and as usual), has a far more enlightened approach.
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