The Three Peaks Challenge is one which requires a fair amount of preparation, a pinch of fitness and a whole lot of grit. Taking on the three Great British countries respective highest peaks doesn’t sound like much of a daunting task, with the highest only being 1,344m. However, the challenge of doing it within 24 hours, including driving between the mountains, with time to touch the ocean at each end.
Note: Uptown Girl is Becky’s motivational song – the anthem for our challenge
James began the email thread back in January with the following;
There has been some interest (mostly by me) in doing the 24 hour 3 peaks challenge.
Below is a good website:
Basically you climb the 3 tallest mountains in Scotland, England and Wales within 24 hours.
Works out to be about 13 hours walking/jogging and 11 hours driving. Will be quite hard work and maybe a bit of training involved.
We were thinking a weekend in June/ july / start august, but open to suggestions. Maybe an annual leave day on the friday or monday.
Let me know if there is any interest at all and if so what weekends you have free in those months.
Be good to do in a group of 4 to 8 and im happy to do the bulk of the organising.
From here everything just snowballed. To start with each member was allocated a duty. James was team leader and pacer/timekeeper. Alan, the road navigator and safety lead. Mitch, on comms and the mountain navigator. Sam, the ever important driver between each mountain. Becky and Tam had the task of preparing copious amounts of food for the trip.
We did well, some would say we may have gone a little overboard, but we had pacing models, contingency plans, allocated scroggin packs… Mitch stayed up late for a few nights watching Youtube videos of the ascent and descent. For training a few of us scaled the Brecon Beacons.
Departing by train for Edinburgh from Kings Cross, we had with us a couple of chilly bins of food and enough changes of clothes to last a week. Accommodation off the Royal Mile and a decent nights sleep before picking up the van from the Waverley train station did the trick. We all reserved our seats and settled in.
Our plan was to start with the hardest mountain first, Ben Nevis in Scotland. Then work our way south to Scafell Pike and then on to Snowdon. We were starting Ben Nevis in the early afternoon. The official way to start the 3 Peaks Challenge is to start by touching the water at Fort William. We took care of the last minute prep and changed for the wet weather conditions. A few reads of the maps and we were ready to start.
A short 15 minute drive from here and we were in the £3 visitors carpark beneath Ben and his brother, Glen Nevis.
The Ben Nevis climb is around 1344m and very well used. There were many climbers also taking part this weekend despite the weather. In part due to the Scottish Bank Holiday. A steady hike through changing ferns and scrub led us to a high tarn (small mountain lake).
From here on, it was switchbacks up to the higher altitudes where it leveled off enough for snow to settle. Luckily being summer there were only a couple of patches. However, in the cloud and relative cold wind, we didn’t stay around long.
.Our descent took us through the worst of the Scottish summer. before finally emerging below the cloud line to a great view.
The descent kept us well under the budgeted time. Returning in about 4 and a half hours. Enough to catch back up with Sam, who had patiently been reading in the van, have a stretch out, take off the shoes (at this stage not smelling bad enough) and jump back into the van.
The drive to Scafell Pike took a bit longer than expected. Passing through the narrow roads that lead to Wasdale Head township we came across a flock of sheep sleeping across the road. It took a while to startle them out of their slumber and dodge the odd stubborn ewe. We heard stories of farmers laying farm machinery across the road during peak season to ward off the hordes of challenge participants, at all hours of the night. Ideally, we would have started Ben Nevis a bit later in the afternoon and had some daylight for Scafell, but we decided to brave conditions in the night. The cloud cover blocked out the full moon illuminating the carpark and we opted for head torches to light any obstacles on the path.
Mitch was a bit nervous on this one. This was where his skills as a navigator would be tested. Going through the dark with poor visibility and from what he saw on the Youtube video – a poorly defined path…
The track that lead halfway up Scafell was mostly on farmland, leading to a fork in the river that we had to cross. The more nimble stepped across while some just opted to go for wet feet. Rising up the path we saw about 5 other groups of headlamps snaking up the mountainside – a bit like a glowworm wriggling along. Some climbers were descending down, while we passed another couple groups.
Past the Hollow Stones, the path started to disappear into the rocky terrain, the only markers helping us know the right path were small stacked rock formations, known as “cairns”. Each cairn was about 20 to 50 metres apart, a blessing in difficult terrain and with the fog starting to roll in. However, it soon became difficult navigating between these. A couple times getting lost and having to retrack our steps. It was all very tense as we feared having to use Alan’s safety bivouac and camp out the night to re orientate ourselves.
Eventually making it to the top of the eerie peak at 978m, a small structure appeared out of the mist. We’d made it to the top!
The descent wasn’t much easier than the climb. Despite now knowing the path, the terrain had become slippery and with a few tumbles going down, we decided to cut the pace back. Passing a few other groups, some lost like we were, we saw the same mistakes being made. As the early morning light started to filter in, we hoped we still had enough time for Snowdon.
The drive to Snowdon was electric. We all struggled to get some sleep despite the pending final climb and the excitement building. Sam had taken a bit crook and with Alan sharing driving and car navigating duties, he managed little sleep. Tactics became a big part of the discussion leading up to Pen-y-Pass.
Snowdon is particularly popular among climbers, it was here that New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay trained before the first successful ascent of Mt Everest. The nature of our climb was a little more on the beaten track.
On arrival, the car park was over capacity, so having a drop-off prepared was key. By now the van had started to reek of wet shoes and sweaty thermals. Getting people to slip these back on took a bit more than some encouragement. Doing the mental math we had just less than four hours for a return journey of Snowdon and then drive to touch the sea. Ben Nevis and Scafell had taken us longer than this and Snowdon was the second tallest at 1,085m. Luckily the Pen-y-Pass car park was at 350m, so this saved a large part of the climb.
Taking off up the Miners Track, this accounted for most of the distance. About 5km of relatively flat path running reached a sudden stop at Glaslyn Lake. Here the only way was up a steep slope, scrambling on all fours to connect up with Pyg Pass. At the intersection we asked someone having a rest how far to the top. His prediction of about an hour made our hearts sink. We had already been going about an hour and this meant would be struggling to make it all within 24 hours. Between us, we had already agreed we wouldn’t do this again, even if we fell short. The mental math started to run away on us – particularly after little sleep. About 10 minutes down the path we asked another hiker who responded with “about 25 minutes” (always get a second opinion).
Approaching the summit we found a train track, leading all the way up the northern reach. Those bloody cheats!
As we arrived in 1 hour 20, we had enough time for a more relaxed descent before the drive to Caernarfon to touch the water – so a bit more relaxed. Again, no view…
The descent down Pyg’s Track was where the muscles started to remind us of the 40km of climbing and descending we had done over the past 22 hours, with 3km vertical ascent. This track, while a steadier decline, was again smooth rocks covered in water. We actually took longer to get back down!
Radioing in to Sam in the van using the call-sign “Goldilocks to Baby Bear” we arranged for a swift pick-up from the car park down to Caernarfon Castle. Here, parking infront of a disgruntled ice-cream van we descended the stairs and touched the Irish Sea for a finished time of 23 hours, 28 minutes and 1 second.
Not wanting to stop the roaring summer trade in ice-creams, we made for the local supermarket carpark by the railway station. Sam was taking the afternoon train back to London for work. We had another day in Wales to admire the scenery. After a pint and a warm meal at the local, we were exhausted.
James took over driving duties back up to Pen-y-Pass where we stayed at the same hostel George Mallory used to train for his ill-fated 1924 attempt on Everest. The hostel now bears his name. We didn’t last too long, three games of table tennis, one game of cards in the afternoon sun, then a 12 hour sleep.
Waking the following morning was five very rigid individuals. Our muscles had completely seized and every step was an effort in itself. One last task of cleaning the smelly gear out of the van and emptying unused thawed food. Our 6 hour drive back to one of the best weekends London had in a while made it all the worse.
In all, the Three Peaks Challenge is an event that certainly tests your abilities in more than once discipline. It takes a lot of teamwork and co-ordination.
Special thanks to our fearless leader, James and our tireless driver, Sam.