This is a chapter from 'A Tribute to the Round', a short book on the Bob Graham Round, written for charity and available here
Save it for the night’, ‘don’t go out too fast’, ‘confusing in mist’ – all are common refrains for Leg Two. The Helvellyn range is the greatest line of high fells in the whole of Lakeland. But despite the relative ease of picking up a large number of summits, the full ridge was a relative latecomer to the 24-Hour Fell Record, first traversed in 1898 but only explicitly included in a record by Eustace Thomas in 1922.
The gatekeeper to the Helvellyn range, Clough Head distinguishes itself from its subsequent ridge-fellows by protruding its crags to the east rather than west.
When Bob Graham’s round was originally recorded, Clough Head was registered as Wanthwaite Crags, which lie not far from the top. Despite the proximity, there is scant prospect of a meaningful Clough assault through the crags, even through Fisher’s Wife’s Rake. (The rake is perhaps the original Leg Two support story as Fisher’s wife is said to have supported her husband in excavating peat off the fell.)
There has long been significant quarrying on the northern face, but the collective of Fisher, his wife, and the entirety of the Threlkeld mining industry have still only managed to remove a mere fraction of Clough Head’s bulk. The remainder endures for the round, indeed, after Skiddaw, it the second greatest climb in the entire round (measured from Threlkeld). The good news is that it leads on to swift peak-to-peak transitions and the investment pays dividends all the way to Wasdale, the next time contenders return to lake level. Judged in that context, the 2,000 feet of ascent is the bargain of the round, but it is undoubtedly a slog.
From Threlkeld, follow the road to the house passing itself off as the hamlet of Newsham, taking you over the original track bed of the Penrith to Cockermouth railway, now abandoned to an afterlife of pedestrianisation. Heading into the bog, most folk stay close to the fence rather than meandering through the remains of the once-thriving Iron Age settlement.
The Old Coach Road is quickly reached, although its historic patronage was mostly carts as coaches actually travelled via Troutbeck and Scales. Nearly every contender turns left onto the road, only to immediately turn right off it and head up the north face of Clough Head to the ridge and then summit. If you care to pause, you are in a perfect position to survey the shoulders of Blencathra, which may aid you in deciding between its descent options. Similarly, the BGR line up Clough can now be clearly seen from Threlkeld, an inevitable consequence of round traffic.
For those who would rather not contribute to this, or for those eschewing the steep, there are two alternatives, each of which offers a different perspective on the fell. The most mainstream is to keep going on the Old Coach Road, turning right at a later point and heading close to White Pike, which incidentally offers the best views from any place on Clough Head.
The more novel approach is to go around or over Threlkeld Knotts. After a short climb from the road, you find yourself in a hidden saddle, gaining a front row seat in the natural amphitheatre and a close-up view of the wall of scree – you are guaranteed to be an audience of one. A good diagonal path with a steady gradient can then be found to the top.
Kilian Jornet ascended from Threlkeld to Clough Head in 29 minutes, some 8 faster than Billy Bland, which gives a sense of where he found the time to break Bland’s record by over an hour.
Great Dodd does what it says on the tin, being both the biggest of its fellows and dodd-like (that is, a large, round hill). Its gentle, giant, grassy bulk extends from St John’s in the Vale to Matterdale.
From the Clough Head trig point, the grassy descent presents the best running ground so far on the round. After skirting rather than summiting Calfhow Pike, the clearly defined ascent is perfectly manageable in theory, but in practice it always feels harder than it should. Despite having made it onto the ridge, Great Dodd presents the 14th biggest ascent of the round. But persevere: you stay above 2,250 feet until Grisedale Tarn and this scale of ascent is not seen again until Fairfield.
For those who favour distance minimisation at all costs, it is possible to take a direct summit-to-summit line from Clough Head to Great Dodd. While it is all grass and no crag, it is unlikely to be enjoyable unless you are particularly desperate for water from Rowantree Gill.
Watson’s Dodd, Stybarrow Dodd, Raise and White Side
Once gained, the rounded and featureless top of Great Dodd risks making all descents appear equally plausible in darkness and mist. A good bearing is a must. From then on, there is no need to dwell on the peaks to Helvellyn. While they all have some merit, none of the best aspects are seen by dancing from top to top.
The transition to Watson’s Dodd is very quick. Bypassed by even the Helvellyn and Dodds fell race, you can barely feel the ascent, although Wainwright assures us it is “undoubtedly” a separate fell (save for the absence of any eastern bulk). It is one of three Bob Graham peaks named after a specific person, the other two being Robinson and Harrison Stickle.
Onward to Stybarrow Dodd and it never feels too early to branch out left from the path to the summit. From there, cross Sticks Pass, named for the now long-gone set of sticks which previously marked the way. It was originally an important mining route between the east and west and is now the highest mountain pass in Lakeland crossed by a commonly used path.
If struggling to keep track of progress, note Raise is the halfway point along the ridge and the only one of the tops with a rocky summit. On the approach, you may catch sight of Lakeland’s only ski tow; Bob Graham Club rules are silent on the validity of attempts which make use of it on winter rounds. The eastern body is also littered with remnants from silver and lead mining, most notably an extensive smelting flue and stone aqueduct.
Further excavatory evidence is on show as you head on and peer down into Keppel Cove below Red Screes. The Glenridding miners dammed the beck, but it is now a marshy ex-reservoir after nature had its way with man’s intrusion. The transition to White Side causes no trouble, as evidenced by the fact there is no trail skirting the summit – a rarity on this ridge.
Once at White Side, you are on interesting historical ground. Until 1922, it was very common for 24-Hour Fell Record contenders to ascend or descend Helvellyn via the White Stones route (so called because the stones were literally white-washed to guide patrons of the King’s Head at Thirlspot). They would then travel up through St John’s in the Vale for refreshment at Threlkeld before taking on Blencathra.
Helvellyn Lower Man and Helvellyn
And so to Helvellyn and its Lower Man. The latter comes first and is the only one of the pair to offer a challenge. Once there, Lower Man is a fell with few accolades. Sporting a mere 60 feet of prominence, it is outperformed by even Thunacar Knott; only Sergeant Man and Grey Knotts offer less. The way on to Helvellyn is very likely to be the swiftest transition of the round.
Gaining Helvellyn hardly feels like one has conquered a patriarch of the Lakes. It is an immensely popular mountain, famous for its variety of approachable and exciting ascent options – at least seven on each side. And yet the round avoids all this character. To know Helvellyn like the back of one’s hand offers no advantage whatsoever to a contender. In this respect, it is wholly unlike Skiddaw, Blencathra, Bowfell, Scafell, Scafell Pike and Great Gable – all greats which reward the connoisseur. Imagine the route debate if contenders had to transition from Thirlspot to Glenridding! No matter, for Helvellyn is one of only two fells to have been included in every Lake District 24-Hour Fell Record (the other being Skiddaw). To shun it would be a severe injustice.
Once gained, the flat top contains a motley collection of trig point, wind shelter, memorials and, of course, tourists. For midnight starters, this is probably the point at which you may see your first non-supporter human soul, it being a popular place to watch the sunrise.
Nethermost Pike and Dollywaggon Pike
It is a short trot down from Helvellyn to the depression of Swallow Scarth. The highlights are the views into the corries of Nethermost and Ruthwaite Coves, seldom studied by the Helvellyn throng, although there is a trade-off between hugging the escarpment edge and minimising ups and downs.
The initial part of the descent is on the same slightly sloping ground as was used for landing a light aircraft in 1926, commemorated on a summit plaque. If in need of water, drop to Brownrigg Well, which has slaked the thirst of many a shepherd and fellrunner. Never known to run dry, it is reputedly the highest spring in England.
Nethermost Pike is self-evidently not a pike, but no one can bear to withdraw its title (and, in fairness, there are some pike properties when viewed from the east). Many will touch more than one top for surety; the true summit is in the northern corner of the plateau. From there, High Crag must rank with Codale Head as the most claimed unintended summit on the round. In good weather, contenders will get a view of Dollywaggon Pike’s craggy eastern aspect as they start to face up to the fact that the Helvellyn ridge is soon coming to an end.
Fairfield faces toward the round with its roughest and most mountainous side. The ascent reminds you that the round is a beast, providing an unwelcome preview of Leg Three and rockier times ahead. Contenders will rue the glacial erosion that so successfully separated the Helvellyn and Fairfield ranges.
There are two ways down Dollywaggon, two ways round Grisedale Tarn and, in broad terms, two ways up Fairfield. Not all options can be combined and they gravitate into two natural packages.
The first – and probably the most popular, by a slither – is to head straight towards Seat Sandal from the old gate, following the broken fence posts and the border of Allerdale and Eden districts. Contenders circumnavigate Grisedale Tarn anti-clockwise, contouring to Grisedale Hause. From there, it is the tourist path zigzagging through scree, although it is worth noting that some of the rocky path can be avoided by taking grassy lines on the side of the old wall. Take care as you head onto the summit as it can be a disorientating plateau, partly due to the abundance of cairns.
The second route off the Helvellyn ridge is to head down the south-eastern old pony track. If you would rather avoid the temptation to cut every corner, it is possible to hug closer to Falcon Crag and Tarn Crag. It may not be swifter, but it allows for a longer appreciation of Dollywaggon’s crags and a splendid view into the Grisedale valley.
After crossing the tarn outflow, prepare for a direct attack via Cofa Pike. There is an array of sub-options, some of which do not involve Cofa at all. Depending on your appetite for gradient and scrambling, it is possible to (in ascending scale of ambition): 1 take the path to Deepdale Hause, then to Fairfield via Cofa Pike along the ridge; 2 follow trods and streams to Cofa on an eroding path, often used for quick descents; 3 head direct to Fairfield (a scramble, ill-suited to a nocturnal attack); and 4 start out on 3, but bend round to the tourist path from Grisedale Hause for the final few hundred feet of ascent.
Overall, which package to select? The trade-off is between terrain and distance. On the one hand, a tussocky descent and no-nonsense, unforgiving ascent; on the other, a mainstream descent and an off-track climb. For the purists, taking one of the ‘Cofa’ options obviates the need to cover the same ground twice. For those seeking small psychological boosts, the opportunity to deposit packs at Grisedale Hause should not be missed.
Seat Sandal is in the way. It stands annoyingly apart from its neighbours, topographically part of the Fairfield range but sufficiently aloof to deny a ridgeline. As a result, it deprives contenders of a swift descent from Fairfield to Dunmail. Without it, everyone would hurtle down Raise Beck to the start of Leg Three.
Instead, a substantive, manageable yet mundane ascent awaits. From Fairfield, head straight down to the Hause (looking either to the left or right for usable grass and scree), then up the path with slight scrambles to the summit.
Wainwright records Seat Sandal’s unique feature as the fact its waters drain to the seas in three very different ways: Grisedale Tarn to Solway Firth, Tongue Gill to Morecambe Bay and Thirlmere to Manchester.
In Benjamin the Waggoner, Wordsworth recounts: “And now have reached that pile of stones, Heaped over brave King Dunmail’s bones, He who had once supreme command, Last king of rocky Cumberland.” The legend has bent truth severely but the stories remain. Today, all that can be said for sure is that the Thirlmere tunneled aqueduct runs under Dunmail’s cairn. The fact it takes Lakeland’s water southwards seems apt given Dunmail is said to have succumbed his crown to Edmund, King of England. It takes over a day for the waters to reach Manchester, so the round will be put to bed by the time a drop is drunk.
From Seat Sandal, there is one main way down, off the north-western shoulder, although it leads to an increasingly eroded descent through rocks and bracken. In good light, look for the Steel Fell ascent line to help judge the bearing. It is a steep way down, indeed the current record-holder, Kilian Jornet, described it as “super, super steep”, which tells us much. Jornet, Jasmin Paris and Billy Bland all took the same time to make it to Dunmail: 11 minutes.
Alternatively, the environmentally conscious may take a northern bearing from Sandal until Raise Beck is reached. Following the beck’s cataracts gets you safely to Dunmail with a path, if not a sense of urgency.
A direct western descent is also technically possible (and described in Mark Richards’s Fellranger series), but it is tricky ground to the Achille Ratti hut and the Grade II Listed AA phone box. Even if it works, it leaves you oddly sited for a Steel Fell attack unless the intention is to introduce even further novelty into the round. and strike out to Cotra Breast, the intriguing name for Steel Fell’s south-eastern shoulder.