The 3 Peaks Challenge needs little introduction, the goal is to climb the three highest peaks in Scotland, England and Wales within a 24 hour period. It’s been on my list for a while so when the opportunity came up at work to join a 3 Peaks team and raise money for mental health charity Mind, I volunteered without a second thought.
About a week ago I thought I should do some proper research on the challenge and started to worry about by distinct lack of mountain-climbing-specific training, I hadn’t done any. I was working off the (possibly naive) assumption that my marathon fitness and strong legs would carry me through, but everything I read about the challenge made me doubt that. In any case, it was too late to do anything about it now…
As with any event like this, it’s truly the people you share it with that can make or break your experience and I was fortunate to be with the best bunch I could ask for. The team was made up of myself, Hannah, Tara, Ellen, Pippa, Carmen and Jack (who became an excellent not-gay-gay-best-friend, GBF). Jack wanted to be the alpha male, but unfortunately that was firmly taken by our mountain guide Jake, he was also after the beta male role, but was pipped to the post by our laugh-a-minute drive Wayne, so GBF it was…
I only really knew Hannah when we all met at Euston for our 8.10 train to Chester, but by the end of the weekend, we were pretty well acquainted! We were picked up from Chester by Jake, our leader, and Wayne who would be our driver for most of the trip. We quickly established the banter would be plentiful and we couldn’t take anything Wayne said seriously, but, together with DJ MC Willy (Hannah) blaring out the tunes, and some laser light action, the 8.5 hour trip to Fort William was quite a lot of fun!
Fort William is a lot further away from absolutely everything than I thought, but the views driving through Scotland were worth it. We made it to our bunkhouse, Bank St Lodge, just after 8pm and headed out for a pre-climb dinner. After a fairly short and broken sleep (we had a snorer in the group…), the alarm went off at 5 and we were ready to go!
We were dropped off at the base of Ben Nevis at 6.20 am which meant we technically had until 7.50am the next morning to officially complete the challenge (due to driving regulations the time has been extended to 25.5 hours).
Ben is not only the tallest mountain of the challenge, and the highest peak in the UK at 1,344m (4,409ft), it’s also dubbed the toughest of the 3 so I was glad we were tackling this one first, on fresh legs and the most sleep we were going to get all weekend. We started off at a faster pace than I was expecting but I didn’t mind, apparently we were making good time! We got warm quickly so it wasn’t long before we were taking layers off.
There is one main route up and down the mountain, the Mountain Track, but I was surprised by how many people we encountered coming down at this time of day, it meant they must have climbed up in the dark, I definitely wouldn’t fancy that! Nearly everyone we met along the way wished us a good morning, mountain climbers are pleasant folk!
The path zig-zagged upwards and the terrain was a mix of rocky steps, pebbly slopes and loose scree which would later be covered in a thick layer of snow. I was enjoying the climb, it was early in the morning and there were some beautiful views as we made our way up. About half way there was a waterfall to cross over and we stopped for a photo!
The mountain got steeper the higher we went and it started to get really cold. It wasn’t until we stopped to layer up that I realised how wet we all were from the damp atmosphere. We came across a couple of patches of snow, which turned into may be a solid half mile of quite deep snow we had to trudge through all the way to the summit. Everything was pure white in the middle of June!
After just under 3 hours of climbing we reached the top, it was cold, windy, and snowy but amazing to reach the first peak. We stopped for a snack, a hug and a summit selfie (obviously).
The next challenge was to get down the bloody thing, or GTFD (get the f**k down) as we called it. This was not my favourite thing at all and I quickly learned that I was very, very bad at it. I got my walking poles out for the descent but still found myself at the back of the group sliding all over the place on the snow. We were warned to stick to the path or we could easily veer towards the edge where there was a big crack in the snow, errrr, noted!
When we reached the rubble I seemed to get slower, in hindsight I was relying too much on the poles than my own balance and leg strength, which I would later learn was much more reliable. My slow descent wasn’t helped by the volume of people who were now coming up the mountain, the path was quite narrow so everytime I picked out my route someone would be coming into it the other way.
I found getting myself down the mountain stressful, mentally exhausting, and frustrating, I was holding the group back and I didn’t want to be the reason we would fail, it wasn’t enjoyable at all. We got to the bottom at 11.50am after a 5.5 hour trek. They estimate 5-6 hours so we were well within that, but we were aiming for 5 so had already lost half an hour, I felt like I had let the team down already.
Getting to the car park I had never been so happy to see another person than Wayne, with a silly hat and a flask of hot water ready to make us coffee. We were back on the road for the 256 mile journey to Scafell Pike with the highest mountain already under our belt. Onwards!
We stopped a couple of times to make sure Wayne had his allocated breaks and took the opportunity to enjoy the sunshine. We didn’t have any problems on the road and together with Wayne’s, errr, efficient shall we say, driving, we got to Scafell Pike at 18:50 and we were ready to go again.
Our only photo with Wayne!
There are a couple of routes up Scafell but we went for Wasdale Head, the steeper but shorter option, which should take about 4 hours. This mountain was definitely my favourite. It had been a gloriously sunny day and the views on the way up were beautiful, it was also very warm so we were grateful we weren’t climbing in the middle of the day.
Scafell Pike is the shortest mountain at 978m (3,209ft) but is the highest in England. I was determined not to be so rubbish on this one so I went for it on the ascent and really enjoyed the climb. There were some large boulders to navigate but there was also a lot of grass either side of the path which I thought would be useful on the way down.
It was also a lot quieter on this mountain, just a few other hikers and a lot of sheep (and lovely black slugs), the sun was setting as we made our way up and it got chilly again as we hit the cloud. As the view disappeared, all we could really see was lots of loose rubble, it flattened out as we reached the top and I felt a bit like I was on the moon. However, the flat did not mean we were at the top and it was another 15 minutes or so before we actually reached the summit.
It was now 9pm so it had taken us 2 hours 10 to reach the top, time for another hug and a summit selfie but no time for snacks because we needed to GTFD before it got dark! Luckily, we had picked Summer Solstice weekend so it wouldn’t get properly dark until near 11, hopefully we would make it…
At this point Jake literally confiscated my walking poles. He told me I didn’t need them and I’d be much quicker without them…errrr, really?? Turns out he was right, relying on my own balance and strength gave me much more momentum so I progressed a lot quicker than descending Ben.
Tara was in quite a lot of pain with her knees so we stuck together at the back. With the sun going down, darkness was closing in and visibility was starting to get poor so it was time to get my pink head torch out! Jake gave Tara a piggyback the rest of the way down to save her knees for Snowdon and we finally made it to the bottom at 11pm. It was dark. All in all it had taken 4 hours 10, not far off target.
Back in the laser light party bus we were back on the road to Snowdon which was 211 miles away. We all fell asleep on this part of the journey and woke briefly to say goodbye to Wayne who handed over the driving Derek at around 2.30am at a service station somewhere along the way.
We arrived at Snowdon at around 4.30am. Having all been asleep, the last thing we really wanted to do was drag ourselves up another mountain but it needed to be done. It was very windy, but it was light again and spirits lifted when we realised we were actually on our way up the last mountain! To complete the task on time we would only have around 3 hours 10 to get up and back down again, it was going to be unlikely but none of us cared by this point, we would still have completed the 3 Peaks!
Snowdon is 1,085 m (3560 ft) high and we were led to believe this was the easiest mountain to climb…I’m really not sure it was! It’s difficult to pull apart how much of the inevitable tiredness and accumulation of mountain-miles in the legs affected the climb but I didn’t feel particularly tired so I think it was just the mountain!
It started off pretty easy with solid stone steps but they got a lot steeper as we went up. This was much more of a clambering up with hands type of climb, but I was grateful there wasn’t as many loose stoney areas as there were on the other 2.
There were some nice flat areas along a ridge with some awesome views of the lake below, but at some points the stones were very jagged and steep and I didn’t really want to look down! I was a little concerned about how the hell I was going to get down again…I might just have to live on the top of Snowdon.
When we reached the ridge at the top the wind was really, really strong. We kept going until we reached the final steps up to the summit where there was a big brass dial. Jack jumped on top of it and we had to cling onto him to stay steady! After more hugs and summit selfies I decided I didn’t want to live there so we had to GTFD before we blew away!
The poles came back out for this one, my left knee was hurting from twisting it on Scafell so I wanted the extra support. Jake decided to take us a different path back down, this would be a longer route but it would involve a much shorter, sharper decent so we could get back to the lake quicker and then the rest would be pretty flat. I liked the sound of that!
Clambering down, we all made it to the lake and took some time out to appreciate the view, it was stunning. It was fairly non eventful from that point and we all enjoyed being on the flat even if it did seem to go on forever as we curved round the mountain. Tara was still struggling with her knees so she had another piggyback for the last section…we think she had a little crush on Jake!
Seeing car park and cafe come into view at the end was the best thing I’ve ever seen, I couldn’t wait to take my boots off! Arriving at 10am, literally as it started to rain, we had completed the 3 Peaks Challenge in around 27.5 hours which we were all happy with, we’d bloody done it!!
It was then time for breakfast at Pete’s cafe where Hannah was devastated to have ordered a burger and became slightly deranged with jealously over everyone else’s food, the amusement never stopped!
Heading back to Chester we all fell asleep immediately, but we were greeted by a cheery Wayne on arrival to bid a fond farewell. Finally we were back on the train to London, we were all a little sad our victorious adventure was over but happy and completely exhausted.
The 3 Peaks Challenge is an epic experience which I would recommend to anyone, but don’t underestimate the challenge. It’s tough, mentally and physically, you need to be prepared for a lack of sleep and changeable weather and I would recommend going with someone who knows the mountains well. Situations can change fast and you need to be prepared for anything. Thanks so much to my fellow hikers, Jake and Wayne (and Derek!) for making my experience the best it could’ve been, I couldn’t have done it without any of you!
3 Peaks: In Summary
- 7 adventurers
- 3 Mountains
- 3 Countries
- 26 miles walked
- 9,800 feet of ascent
- 1 expert Mountain Guide (thanks Jake!)
- 1 minibus complete with disco lights
- 2 drivers (we love you Wayne)
- 880 miles traveled on the road
- 334 miles traveled by train
- 15 hours walking up and down mountains
- Nearly 26 hours travelling
- Snow, sunshine, wind & rain
- Excessive amount of mountain selfies (80% by Jack)
- 67 little sheeps (approx)
- 167 strange black slugs (approx)
- 1 case of severe personality disorder (Hannah / Helen…)
- Too much sugar to quantify
- Challenge complete!
Post challenge, post breakfast team shot