National 3 Peaks by Mark
The National Three Peaks Challenge – September 2015.
25 miles of walking, 10,000 feet of ascent, 450 miles driving and 24 hours to do it in. To me that sounds like a lot to pack in to a day.
There is any number of reasons why people would attempt the national 3 peaks challenge. For me, the reason was no more difficult than to answer the question, can I do it?
The previous year, my wife had gone back to university and we therefore had a sizeable drop in disposable income. Rather than paying out for expensive foreign holidays we decided to start exploring the sites the UK had to offer and found ourselves, one sunny morning, at the Pen Y Pass car park looking at the summit of Mount Snowdon through the clouds. A day spent walking and we were hooked. For me it had been a few years since I climbed a hill of any significance and a flame was rekindled that the distractions of work, study, courses etc had effectively smothered.
I had heard about the 3 peaks before, I wish I could remember where. One evening while enjoying a few drinks the wife and I first discussed the idea. Unlike my usual response to ale which is to forget anything about the subject, the next morning the idea was still present and seeming ever more like a good one. It isn’t lost on me that beer could be the reason why I can’t remember where the idea of the 3 peaks started!
Several hours spent reading around the subject online and a few chats with some like-minded friends and we had a team of four and a date in mind for our attempt.
Suffering with a whiff of OCD and seeing the potential to make a good list, I offered to handle the logistics side of the trip. Back online I began researching how to move four people across 3 countries with (if the kit lists suggested on various websites were anything to go by) a ton of stuff. The short story is we booked some flights to Glasgow, had contacted Mountaineerin who were going to provide our transport, booked a couple of hotels and a hire car to get us home again at the conclusion of our challenge.
The next issue we had to address was fitness. There is no getting around it; we live in one of the flattest parts of the UK. In our corner of the country the idea of a big hill resembles something you would have to stand on tiptoes to see over.
In an attempt to kill two birds with one stone we decided on a trip to the Lake District. This would provide both good training and allow us to try out our intended route up Scafell Pike. An unseasonably bright and still day in April found us at the Wasdale Head car park and we were up and down again in less than 4 hours. From earlier reading this was about the time to aim for when attempting the challenge. Feeling good we retired for a little lunch. It was at this point one of our group muttered the words, “maybe this afternoon we should climb Great Gable, for a laugh.” Clearly being intoxicated on a mixture of fresh air and soup we all nodded enthusiastically. I can only apologise to the mountain sheep that had to endure my language that afternoon. As we reached the summit, laughing was not at the forefront of my brain. Even with the fine and clear weather we had enjoyed I found it hard going. It did however give me a good idea of where I was at with my fitness. That is to say it needed working on. What I can say though is that the views and sense of achievement I felt far outweighed the discomfort in my feet. There was something very satisfying about being able to look at the summit of Scafell Pike from a completely different angle knowing that only a few hours ago I had been standing on it!
On an aside, I find it interesting that all the reading I had done so far kept alluding to the point that a “reasonable” level of fitness was required to attempt the three peaks. Now I often find myself feeling fit enough to walk to the shops to buy a chocolate bar. Was that enough? Not being able to find a more useful description of the level I should be aiming for I decided that as many long walks as time allowed and a change in my focus at the gym to a more cardio based workout were the approach I would take. As the challenge drew closer I was definitely feeling fitter which had the added bonus of a touch more confidence in myself. It’s hard to know if you have ever done enough but as the challenge date fast approached I had to accept that I had done all I could do. The long walks also had the added advantage of refreshing my use of a map and compass which was definitely required.
So the penultimate day to our challenge had finally arrived. We arrived in Glasgow and I’m pleased to say collected all of our luggage from the conveyor belt. We had had to check in our rucksacks at the oversized baggage area and I couldn’t quite shake the idea that should this item be lost there was a very real chance that I would have to attempt the challenge in a pair of boxer shorts and trainers. (Apologies for that mental image.)
Challenge day was finally here and I was pleasantly surprised at how outwardly relaxed we all appeared. We had decided to start the challenge at 17:00 so had some time to relax in the morning. We had arranged with Mountaineerin to pick us up at 11:00 for the drive across to Fort William. Precisely on time Simon arrived and we loaded our kit on board the mini bus. We were finally on route. My wife had prepared a CD for the journey and as we listened to this I was feeling psyched up and strangely nostalgic about early 90’s music.
As we arrived in Fort William, conditions appeared perfect. The sun was out, the sky was clear and there was barely any wind. Remarkably all indications were that it was going to stay this way. An unexpected treat of the challenge then presented itself to me. It is not very often that you can walk around a supermarket and buy all the foods you like, guilt free and justify it that you need the calories and sugar to keep you going over the next day. With a trolley horrendously full of treats and the obligatory congratulation/commiseration beer purchased and while still humming the final countdown in my head from the journey it was off into town for some lunch.
As the afternoon rushed by we found ourselves at the base of Ben Nevis. Finally, after all the preparation, we had only a few minutes to go before we were off. I didn’t explain before why we decided to start in the late afternoon. As a group we had all climbed Scafell Pike and Snowdon previously. As Ben Nevis was an unknown to us we wanted to ensure that this was completed in daylight but wanted to travel overnight as we were more likely to be able to grab some sleep on the bus. As with all positives the flip side of this was that Scafell Pike would be attempted in complete darkness. More on this to follow.
17:00 arrived and we headed off through the stile. The weather is holding and we are finally on our way. About half an hour in and the most noticeable issue I had was the heat. It was very hot and I was struggling to settle into the initial pace we had set. I think through the excitement and desire to set a decent time we had set off very quickly. I’m pleased to say as the time passed I did settle and began enjoying the climb. After 2 hours and 46 minutes we had reached the summit. As we arrived the sun had just begun to set and was casting fantastic shades of orange across the shingle. At the risk of sounding over dramatic it was like standing in a painting of the perfect sunset. I wanted to stay for longer but after a quick photo, a text to Simon to let him know we were on the way back down (isn’t technology a cool thing?) it was time to go. As we are on the way down the sun was setting fast and about half an hour from the bottom we had to don our head torches. At roughly the same time we encountered a group of lads also making a descent who clearly didn’t have the same luck as us at retrieving their luggage from the airport as they had barely a pair of trainers and a bottle of Lucozade between them. They stayed with us for the last part of the walk and we parted ways as we reached the car park.
Not wanting to waste any time we jumped straight on the bus and away we went. We were all hot, tired but most of all thrilled that we are a third of the way through and under our allotted 5 hours walking time. As the miles began to rack up I experienced a feeling I wasn’t expecting at all. Sickness. I can only put it down to hours of exercise followed by the movement of the bus but I was feeling rough. After a pretty horrendous hour or so I hadn’t been able to eat, was just about able to drink and decided to try and get some sleep to see if this would cure it. I’m pleased to say it did and when I woke up next it was pitch black outside and the sickness has been replaced by hunger. This is far more easily dealt with due to the earlier shopping binge. Deciding on a change of clothes was the next challenge. Luckily due to the time of night most of the others were asleep (or at least pretending to be) and I was able to get changed with a modicum of modesty. I fell almost straight back to sleep and the next time I woke up we were in a service station. Although I had slept well I had found myself being amazingly jealous of one of our team that had brought a pillow and duvet with him. (He had devoted an entire piece of aircraft hold luggage to it.) Determined to make this right, I explored the service station and bought the closest thing I could find that resembled a duvet. This turned out to be a tartan coloured picnic rug. (I genuinely don’t know if we were still in Scotland or not.) It did the trick though as pretty much as soon as we set off again I was fast asleep and the next time I opened my eyes we were being warned that we were about 30 minutes away from Scafell Pike. A final kit check followed and I refilled my water bottles and tightened my boots in preparation.
As we arrived in the car park I’m again amazed at our luck with the weather. Not only is it dry but it’s a clear and crisp night. As a group, we have limited experience walking at night but having done the route before and with map in hand we weren’t feeling overly concerned. What followed was an absolute pleasure of a hike. I would go as far as saying it was one of my favourite walks of all time. To make it even better, we set a really good time and were back on the road in less than 4 hours. What we found really useful was a good powerful torch as well as our head torches that meant we were able to locate the Cairns with relative ease on both the way up and down.
Just after leaving I had a touch of the sickness feeling again but nothing like the initial trip and eating and drinking rapidly made this disappear. As a group we’re all still talking to each other and things are going well. True to my earlier form, I’m asleep in minutes and next wake up as we’re changing drivers in Warrington. We bid farewell to Simon and continued our journey across the country and at the next service station I decided to get changed. With the sun up it was now a lot harder to maintain modesty trying to change on the bus.
In fresh clothes, you guessed it; straight back to sleep I go. This time however I wake up about an hour away from Snowdon. For the first time since we left I decided to check the weather outlook on my phone and again it was down as being sunny and clear. Could we really be that lucky? As we pulled into the Pen Y Pass car park the sun is beaming and there are the usual crowds of people that Snowdon seems to attract. I’m so elated that I decide to go full walker and unzip of the bottoms of my trousers to reveal my pasty legs beneath with the boots and high socks combination. I’m well past the point of caring what I look/smell like at this point and again we head off. We had decided to use the Pyg track on the way up and on route have a brief discussion about where we are in the challenge. As we had been so fortunate with the weather and worked hard to set some decent times we decided to set a more relaxed pace up Snowdon. We weren’t out to set any records and would be perfectly happy to make it back in less than 24 hours. To be honest I was pleased as I was starting to lag at this point. Snowdon turned out to be a long ascent for me and I can’t lie and say I enjoyed every step. It would be fair to say that we all suffered with ups and downs on the trip emotionally as well as physically. I was thankful for the others support in motivating me through this climb, as I hope I had done when they were having a can’t be bothered any more moment. It was a relief to see the summit and as we touched the summit stone I was having a real mix of feelings. More than anything though was a feeling of relief that we had at least made it to the top of all three mountains. Our familiar pattern of a quick photo, a sugary snack and a drink of water and we set off back down the miners track this time. After a steep initial descent the track gradient gets noticeably gentler and we rounded a corner by a lake; I couldn’t wait to be back at the bus. I noticed I had, for the first time since we set off, a stone in my boot. It was rubbing like mad but we were so close back there was no way I was stopping to sort it out. At least I thought we were close back but the path seemed to go on and on. To my absolute delight we rounded the last corner and the car park is in sight. This seems to give us all a noticeable lift and we practically jog it back to the car park. (At least it felt like this, I strongly suggest limp may be a more accurate word.)
As we touch the final gate I looked down at my watch and see that we have made it in a time of 23 hours and 14 minutes including all stops on the way. Any negative thoughts or tiredness has been instantly replaced with feelings of elation and hugs all around. We sit on the tarmac of the car park and crack up our celebratory beers reflecting on the day and marvelling at how fortunate we have been with the weather and general lack of issues.
All too soon and it’s time to leave. As we are dropped at the hotel the staff stares at the dishevelled and stinking party of four that have presented themselves at the desk. All checked in (once we managed to convince them we really had a reservation there) and the feeling of that first shower is one that I can’t adequately describe with words. Needless to say it was good. I made the mistake of sitting down at the conclusion of this and very nearly didn’t move again. Promised a decent meal I managed to drag myself from the bed and we found ourselves sitting in a lovely restaurant. We laughed and cried at the same time when they told us they had a table for us upstairs that we pretty much had to crawl up. It wasn’t a late night for any of us and the next morning it was off down the road to pick up the hire car. To round off an amazing trip it turned out the car I had hired was an automatic and I could have hugged the guy from the hire company. Off home we went.
How to sum up the experience? Simply Amazing! I can’t recommend it highly enough. Be under no illusion that it is difficult and you won’t be able to walk without pain for a few days. There are loads of variables to overcome and you can never be quite sure how it is going to pan out. Surely though, that is the point. If it was easy everybody would do it and it wouldn’t be a challenge. I can’t thank my wife or my other team mates enough for their support throughout. Nobody can ever take away the sense of achievement we now all share and it has only inspired us all to go on and look for the next challenge.