Birkhouse to Sheffield

View of Greenside mine from the ascent of Birkhouse Moor by Andy Wallace Andy FellwalkerSunday morning in Glenridding was calm and almost warm enough to wear shorts; there was plenty of mist on the fell tops but with any luck it would clear up as it had done the day before. I set off towards Helvellyn following the signs for Mires Beck until I reached the gate at the foot of Birkhouse Moor. Instead of turning left towards the reconstructed Mires Beck footpath I turned right; almost immediately there is a wooden barrier in the bracken, still in place after a long-ago reseeding exercise. You can walk around the barrier to get on to the green path you can see rising up through the bracken.

It wasn't long before the bracken almost obscured the path, it was fairly warm work climbing up the slope but with the bracken being wet I was glad I wasn't wearing shorts. The path disappears as the slope gets steeper and the bracken temporarily gives way to rough grass and boulders. You gain height quickly and there would have been a good view of Glenridding and Place Fell if it hadn't been so hazy. Looking down to Greenside Mine the reorganised, dull chaos created by man contrasted with the natural patchwork of autumn greens and browns.

View from the direct ascent of Birkhouse Moor by Andy Wallace Andy FellwalkerIt is a strenuous, steep climb on rough ground with numerous rock outcrops to negotiate, interspersed with more bracken. You won't see many people on this route, although I kept coming across small sections of path that must have seen some recent use. The steepness ends suddenly but there is still work to do; it is quite a long walk up the easier, grassy slopes where a faint but obvious path appears. Eventually you arrive at the flat summit plateau with a surprisingly large cairn given the lack of cairn-building material in the grassy vicinity. If it wasn't for the mist hiding Catstycam and Helvellyn, arriving at this summit would provide a wow moment as they suddenly appear ahead.

A small path leads you to the top of the Mires Beck path which is substantial enough to support the many pairs of boots that use it every year. There is no problem with route-finding here even in the worst weather; once you pass Hole-in-the-Wall it is best to climb up onto the ridge. Walking the ridge is easier on the feet and sometimes there is a view of Nethermost Pike and its cove a long way straight down. There is a small rock outcrop, Low Spying How, to climb up that may fool newcomers into thinking they have reached the start of Striding Edge but there is no mistaking the real start of it at High Spying How.

On Striding Edge by Andy Wallace Andy FellwalkerSuddenly you are climbing up rock, big and bouldery, lots of it, and without realising you are walking along the broad crest. Keep on the crest until you reach an abrupt drop; the memorial you can see six feet below is because Dixon took one step too many in this direction. You can scramble easily down on the right hand side to get down to the Dixon Memorial before continuing along the ridge on easy sloping slabs. There is another scramble downwards to make before you get onto the ar�te, a narrowing knife-edged ridge; it looks intimidating with the ground falling steeply away on both sides of the two-feet wide walkway.

As intimidating as it looks, in still conditions when the rock is dry it should cause no problems; the only thing to be afraid of is fear itself, just make sure you stop before admiring the view. There is the option of a path below the summit but in my opinion it is safer to walk on good rock than traverse the steep slope where erosion can expose you to the steepness below. I was enjoying the crossing anyway and I was half way across when suddenly the mist cleared from Helvellyn; the bluest sky above fluffy clouds crowning the summit.

Helvellyn appears by Andy Wallace Andy FellwalkerEven if you use the path there is no way of avoiding the final rock step; although the way around it is more obvious than it used to be I'm sure it is the less comfortable option. Suddenly you reach another steep drop; you can scramble down right or left and then there are more obvious steps down to the right to reach the top of the bad step. Bad step by name, easy down-climb by nature; turn to face into the rock and you will find plenty of hand and foot holds for even the shortest of legs to reach. There are other ways down either side of the step, but it seems to me that unless you are used to climbing you shouldn't get yourself any more exposed than necessary.

There is a little bit more rock to scramble over before you are faced with climbing the rest of Helvellyn; it could be a daunting prospect if you have used up too much nervous energy on Striding Edge. There are several eroded paths to climb up, some are more eroded and slippery than others but when the rock is dry it is much more fun and easier, I think, to climb directly up the rock. There are no slabs to cross and there are plenty of holds for hands and feet but it is undeniably steep, although you get the absolute best view of Striding Edge from there.

Getting off Striding Edge by Andy Wallace Andy FellwalkerOnce you get halfway up there is a small flat area where the rock ends; from here all the paths to the summit are steep and eroded but you are nearly there. After a final, rising traverse you reach the Gough Memorial, or at least somewhere close to it, from where you can see the summit or at least the crowd of people around the shelter just below it. I managed to find a space to sit in the shelter, out of the wind the sun was warm; it could have been a summer's day.

After visiting the summit I kept close to the edge above Red Tarn's corrie to visit the triangulation column and then the cairn marking the entrance/exit of Swirral Edge. In bad weather the edge is always a good navigational aid, keep close to it and you will reach Helvellyn Lower Man; follow the path and cairns if you are heading down to Thirlmere. Even from Lower Man the view of nearby Catstycam was very hazy; the sky was blue overhead but there were clouds above the Pennines in the distance.

The ascent of Helvellyn by Andy Wallace Andy FellwalkerFrom Helvellyn Lower Man there is an obvious, eroded descent down its northern ridge; it is not uncommon for mountain-bikers to pass you here, although they tend to be shouldering their machines at this stage. The straightforward climb to the summit of Whiteside is much more of a cycling route on an easy gradient; it makes for a pleasant walk in the sunshine too. There is an easy descent too that you can't miss in good weather but I had to use a compass and go north-west the last time I was there in mist.

In good weather the obvious path to Raise is impossible to miss but it is easy to turn onto the zigzag path to Keppel Cove if you are not careful. This is the kind of walking you could do all day when the sun is shining; once you reach the rocky summit just head towards Stybarrow Dodd, the bad weather warnings apply here too. The descent from the summit of Raise is eroded and a bit steeper at first until you reach a straight, man-made path; I don't why anybody would go the effort of building a substantial path here but it takes you to the Stick Pass path. The cairn is smaller than it used to be and the final stick has now disappeared but the crossroad of paths is a good enough clue that you are there.

Greenside Quarry by Andy Wallace Andy FellwalkerI turned right in the direction of Sheffield Pike; for a normally dull-looking hill it looked hazily attractive and rugged in the distance. It was getting quite warm by that time as I walked down the path by the eastern and more attractive Sticks Gill. When you reach the spoil heaps below the big quarry on your left there are many paths trying to avoid the slate heaps and swampy areas. I tried to avoid having to climb upwards across the face of the quarry but the big path going down to Nick Head would have taken me too far away from Sheffield Pike.

Having realised I was going the wrong way on the big path I made a beeline for the quarry; I found a faint path that led up to the quarry and across its face on a causeway of waste stones. After you get past the quarry the path in the grass gets more obvious; it was too obvious and I was gaining too much height and heading in the wrong direction. In order to avoid losing too much height I decided to walk across the rough and sometimes swampy grass between me and the col to reach the start of the path up to Sheffield Pike.

My favourite Juniper Tree on Sheffield Pike by Andy Wallace Andy FellwalkerIt is another straightforward climb to Sheffield Pike; at this time of year it is possible to avoid the worst of the mud on the obvious path up to the summit plateau. The view back to Greenside and Stybarrow Dodd looked attractive in sunshine; I can't remember a sunny day on Sheffield Pike before and it surely can't be so warm there very often. A good path leads you directly to the summit but from there onwards the rest of the plateau is very swampy, but not as swampy as when I have been there before. At the edge of the swamp you make a steep descent down Heron Pike, it is good ground and easy clambering over rocks apart from a heathery shoulder where the peaty path has been churned into mud.

Have you done the hard work by the time you reach the col between Sheffield Pike and Glenridding Dodd? Not quite, there are a couple of paths leading down to the Greenside road and they are equally steep, your knees and ankles will not thank you for making them hurt at the end of the day.

Andy Wallace 15th October 2006

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