Helvellyn Sunrise

“We’ve got a bit of an early start for tomorrow’s ride”, announced Dan as I lay crashed out on the sofa after a long day after the night before, at work.

“That’s fine”, I replied, resigned to the fact that weekend lie-ins were off the agenda until daylight hours start to extend past 4pm.

“I mean early, early”, he said tentatively, anticipating my reaction. “Like meeting at 5am, early…”

When we’d discussed riding Helvellyn at the previous evening’s Kendal Mountain Festival Bike Night, I’d obviously missed the part about it being a sunrise mission.

“That’s not happening”, was my immediate response, despite knowing deep down that there was no way I was going to miss out on the adventure, especially after checking the weather forecast for the following morning.

Photo: Daniel Leadbetter

Having been blown away by Pete Archer’s stunning One More Brew film, which featured on the Bike Night bill, host Lee Craigie had expressed a desire to sample some of that Lake District gold, which was something Gez, Dan, Chay, Rosie, Ian and I were more than happy to facilitate.

So, at 4am the next morning, surprisingly fresh after another night of Kendal Mountain Festival madness, Lee knocked on our door, and we set off to meet the others.

It was pitch black and bitterly cold when we arrived at Glenridding, so with minimal faffing we began our ascent, with the aim of reaching the summit of Helvellyn before the sun emerged. With nothing but our head torches and a myriad of stars to light the way, we snaked our way up the rocky trail in an LED procession.

Photo: Daniel Leadbetter

With sub zero temperatures, Gez up front, and a 7.30am sunrise to aim for, the pace was swift, and as a purple band started to appear on the horizon, heralding the sun’s imminent arrival, we’d already made good progress. With the sun in hot pursuit, we hoisted our bikes onto our backs to tackle the next stage of the climb. Behind us, the purple gradually crept upwards like an enormous chromatography experiment, giving way to hues of red, orange, and ultimately yellow. Each time we paused to look back, yet more colour had seeped into the sky making it look more and more beautiful.

By the time we reached the summit, there was a thick orange belt hugging the horizon, which was slowly diluting the night sky to varying intensities of deep blue. I was so captivated by the spectacle that I hadn’t noticed my hands turning a similar shade of blue, until I tried to get my phone out to take a picture. Sadly, the freezing temperatures hadn’t gone unnoticed by my phone, which had already succumbed to the cold. Fortunately though, Dan’s hardier device was still hanging in there to capture the moment.

Photo: Daniel Leadbetter

It hadn’t taken long for the heat we’d generated on the way up to disappear, and even huddled together, in down jackets and insulated gloves, it was still bloody freezing. There was only one thing for it: whisky. Well, it was effectively still Saturday night after all. I don’t think the hip flask had been brought as a means of staving off hypothermia, but it certainly helped to warm us up, even if only momentarily.

We sat there enjoying the show until the pretty colours could no longer distract us from the pain of the cold, and we decided it was time to push on. However, it wasn’t just my fingers that had stopped working. As I went to pedal off, I discovered that my bike’s mech had also frozen. It turned out I wasn’t alone as Gez announced he was off to “have a moment” with his bike, although apparently even a 37 degree golden shower wasn’t enough to revive a frozen mech. Fortunately though, mine eventually came back to life without having to resort to such drastic measures.

Photo: Daniel Leadbetter

As we set off down Lower Man, the sun was just starting to peek above the horizon, offering enough light to reveal the frost-covered rocks that littered the steep, narrow trail. Although a little slippy in places, there was very little in the way of ice, so we were able to fly down without too much caution, which was just as well, seeing as my hands were too numb to squeeze the brakes with any kind of conviction.

The steep climb back up the other side provided an opportunity to generate some much needed body heat, but even that wasn’t enough to pump the blood back to our frozen extremities. After taking a moment to bask in the orange glow that had started to envelop the fell tops, we enjoyed another descent, before climbing to the summit of Raise, from where it was downhill all the way back.

Photo: Tristan Tinn

Like moths to a flame, we raced down Sticks Pass towards the burgeoning sun, which had now not only lit up the sky, but was finally starting to radiate some heat. As we descended, I could gradually feel the warmth return to my body, and by the time we were half way down, I even had to stop to shed some layers.

Sticks is always a great descent, and bathed in freshly-risen winter sunshine, it was even better. As always though, it was over far too quickly, and before we knew it, we were cruising towards Glenridding, past swathes of walkers and riders just setting out on their day’s adventures.

Photo: Daniel Leadbetter

As we arrived back at the van, I glanced at my watch and was amazed to see that it wasn’t even 9am yet. It was a beautiful day and we still had most of it at our disposal. As tempting as it was to go back to bed, the urge to eat was stronger, so we headed to Windermere, where we even managed to get a table in Homegrown without queuing. Turns out, not only does the early bird catch a spectacular sunrise, but it also gets first dibs on the best breakfast in town. And man, did it taste good!

Of all the beautiful sunrises I’ve experienced, that was definitely one of the most memorable. It was well worth the ridiculously early start, and possibly even the outbreak of shingles that attacked my weakened immune system shortly after.

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