White Side

Published 7 May 2014

Cairn/shelter on White Side

The plan was to go to Helvellyn. The plan didn’t happen. Instead I went up White Side, then to Raise and did three Dodds…

The plan was simple. We’d be in the Lake District for six full days. On Sunday – the first day – my parents would be joining us. On another, Catherine, myself and our son Sam would all go out and do something as a family. Which left four days.

Catherine and myself would split them up. One of us would head to the fells whilst the other looked after Sam. The next day we’d flip it over. Sam would get to enjoy various aspects of Ambleside and the surrounding area, and we’d both get some walking done.

There was just one decision that needed to be made.

“Do you want to go out Monday then?”

“No, it’s alright. You go.”

It would be wrong to insinuate that Catherine’s decision had absolutely anything to do with me telling her minutes before that, there was a chance of some rain on the Monday, but that Tuesday would be dry. So I won’t.

As it happened, by the time the morning had arrived, the forecast had changed; no rain was scheduled at all.

St John's in the Vale and High Rigg

The plan was to head up and do Helvellyn, and then head back down towards Grasmere, bagging Nethermost Pike and Dollywagon Pike in the process. Maybe if there was lots of time left, I’d head over Fairfield towards Stone Arthur and grab that as well.

At 950m above sea level, Helvellyn is the highest peak in Wainwright’s pictorial guide to the Eastern Fells. It’s also a mere 27m shorter than Scafell Pike, the highest mountain in England. And for most people, the ascent of Helvellyn starts at Wythburn, at the foot of Thirlmere reservoir. But Wainwright lists seven different ways to ascend this mighty fell from the west (and another seven from the east), and looking through the list I decided to start my trek from Thirlspot instead, and approach using the “White Stones” route.

It’s apparently a popular route, perhaps due to its fine views of Thirlmere and St John’s in the Vale. It is named after a series of whitewashed stones, that by Wainwright’s visit in the 1950s, were a dim grey. What they are now, I never found out. It’s possible that they’re long gone. It’s also possible that they’ve been re-painted. I never found out as I quickly discovered that I’d taken a wrong turning.

In retrospect, what I should have done was simple. I should have followed the big sign pointing up that was marked “Helvellyn”. But this seemed to lead directly up a hill with no visible path, so instead I followed on the visible track I was on.

Waterfall on Fisher Gill

This, perhaps, wasn’t the best of moves. The path soon disappeared, leaving me to guess my way up the fell. I was pretty sure I was roughly following what Wainwright described as “the old pony route”, which he helpfully mentioned was “intermittent due to disuse”. True, he wrote that in 1955 and things might have changed, but it didn’t look like it.

With no clear path, I did what I almost inevitably do in these situations. Got lost and a bit confused. But what I was sure about was that I was heading towards something named “White Side”.

At first I assumed White Side was just a little blip on the path; a small mound or so. A mound you could climb over to get to Helvellyn, but you didn’t have to. There was a handy, convenient path that bypassed it. Finding what I believed to be that path, I struck off. But as I went along a contour, something made me look at my trusty Wainwright again. Yep, there it was. White Side wasn’t just some blip; it was a full blown fell. I was right under it. It was just asking to be bagged.

Abruptly I turned round and climbed once more, and I heaved myself up to White Side’s summit. Which I then noticed looked absolutely nothing like what it was supposed to. For starters, there were rocks everywhere. And no cairn.

I looked at my Wainwright again, this time taking note of the all important height of White Side. This wasn’t some minor fell. At 863m high, White Side is a pretty big beast. At best, I was at Brown Crag and I still had another 250m to climb.

Thankfully though, I’d finally found a path. A path that pretty much took me straight there. In a straight line.

It was then I began to notice the snow. I probably should have expected the snow. After all, it was March. But it had been such a mild winter and there was very little noticeable from the valleys, so I hadn’t really been expecting much to be left.

Approaching the top of White Side

To be fair, there wasn’t much on White Side. Just a few bits. Over to my left, at Helvellyn, was another matter. The fell sides were covered in the stuff. White was a predominate colour and no mistake.

But all that was still to come. After a couple of false summits, I’d finally managed to stagger on to White Side. A fell I’d never really planned to do, and certainly knew nothing about. And as I poured once more over my Wainwright, I found out I hadn’t even really climbed White Side. The summit itself is nameless; White Side being the name of the west slope I’d just climbed. A name appropriated by Wainwright for convenience only.

Did that matter? Not one bit. I might not have ever planned to be there, but I was more than happy to add another fell to the tally. Looking over at Helvellyn though was another matter. I knew nothing about the summit, but I could see lots and lots of snow over there. And there were lots of people too. I put my best foot forward and headed off to join them.

Next time: Raise it up for Raise!

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