We started the clock on our Three Peak Challenge at 05.54am on Saturday morning at the base of Ben Nevis, and came running into the car park of Snowdon at 05.36am on Sunday… well within the 24 hour time frame. But sadly, it’s not as simple as that.
(NB: Three Peaks Challenge involves climbing the three highest peaks in mainland Britain; Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon, and driving between them, within a 24 hour period.)
We opted to start out challenge first thing on Saturday morning, hoping to be as fresh as possible after a good night’s sleep, but with enough hours of daylight to complete Scafell Pike before nightfall. We’d heard that the path on Snowdon was fairly easy, in comparison to the other two, and completely do-able by torchlight. We were so lucky that Tom had offered to drive us for the challenge- we honestly couldn’t have done it without him!
The highest mountain in the UK, standing at 1, 344m – this was supposed to be the toughest climb of the day. Within 400m of the car one of the team took their first tumble, which didn’t bode well for the walk ahead, although luckily Char wasn’t injured and it would be our only fall of the challenge.
We started our ascent of the Pony Track aggressively fast, and it was soon clear that our group couldn’t hold that pace for long. We slowed to a brisk but comfortable speed, reaching the halfway point in 1hr 11mins (when you cross a waterfall), well ahead of schedule. With the mountain mostly to ourselves, save for a few other climbers, we were all in high spirits.
It was a very warm, humid day (particularly for Scotland!) and it wasn’t long before I’d zipped off the bottom of my trousers and stripped down to my tank top- certainly not what I was expecting, especially when walking through a patch of snow!
The trail although rocky in patches is easy to follow, there are a few places in which it zig-zags seemingly away from the right direction, but you have to trust the trail and not veer off it. Our tip was to count the zigs and zags as you climb.
Reaching the top was amazing. We’d made it up in 2hrs 33min, well ahead of our predicted time and still raring to go. Quick selfie and snack stop before we adjusted our walking sticks and powered off downhill. (This was actually the only peak that I used the poles for but was very grateful for them on the way down.)
We’d expected to complete the descent in about two thirds of the time of our ascent, however the gradient in some areas, and the heavy flow of groups on their ascent made our progress far slower than anticipated.
We finished with a final 500m jog to the car, finishing the first peak in 4hrs 45min. A mad dash in the carpark to change into dry clothes and flip flops, then a quick pit stop in Morrison’s (where we’d stocked up on food and snacks the night before) to use the loos and buy a cold drink, and we were on the road by 11.15am.
The highest mountain in England at 978m.
Drive time to Scafell was about 5hrs, plus a stop for petrol and the loo. We followed our Sat Nav to the programmed postcode only to discover that it wasn’t at the point that we’d been intending to start, at Wasdale Head. We were in fact an hour drive from there, and were at the start of the Corridor Route of Scafell Pike.
A major problem.
Our original route was 8km and should have taken us 4hrs. This route was tougher to follow, 13km in length however the gradient would be less steep. I’d put the postcode in to the Sat Nav so felt incredibly guilty, and responsible for the potential failure of our challenge. Tom told me ‘don’t be sad, just smash it’ so at 4.45 we set off determined to make up for the longer route by setting off at a fast but sustainable pace.
The start of the route was lovely, a gradual incline with stunning views of the surrounding valleys and lakes. We passed several people walking back from Scafell Pike and felt confident we could make it.
We could see that the clouds were lowering, and knew that we had to be at the peak and turning back to head home by 8.15-8.30 at the latest. This would ensure that we didn’t get caught out for too long in the dark, as well as staying on schedule for our last drive and climb.
Annoyingly, the path became far less straightforward, and although there seemed to be another path that acted as a short cut to the Corridor Route, it was not clearly signposted at all (actually none of it was signposted!). Suddenly we hit a dead end, or rather a crevasse. Essentially the path we were following ran out.
We were faced with two options; turn back, retrace our steps and rejoin the original path or scramble upwards to try to meet the Corridor Route on top of the ridge.
So we went up. Straight up.
Luckily we found the path and pressed onwards. I have literally never been more pleased to see a path, until we discovered that it was a path in the loosest term of the word.
The weather was closing in, and there was a lot of scrambling over rocks involved. It was 7.30pm, and we’d have to turn back within the hour to make it back in time. Additionally, we were nervous about covering these sheer rock face climbs in darkness, with only our head torches to light the way.
We were only 1.2km away from the summit, but it was up a scree slope. It started to rain. My heart said press onwards, my head said turn back- it was not worth hurting ourselves or, worse becoming lost and scared on the mountain overnight.
Sometimes it’s scarier to turn back than to press on regardless. To know when to admit defeat.
Thankfully the girls and I were all on the same page, and after some scary traverses, and heavier rain, hail and lightening, it was clear we’d made the right choice.
We’d climbed 1700m of elevation (nearly double the height of Scafell) including Broad Crag, Round How and Stand Crag and covered 13km in total, and were soaked through.
Back at the car, a quick change into warm, dry clothes and use of the loo in the local car park and we hit the road. It would have been easy to give in, especially in the pouring rain, to have thrown the towel in and headed straight back to London. Our spirits were low, but we were determined to finish our challenge.
Onwards to Wales, and Snowdon.
Standing at 1058m, this is the highest mountain in Wales.
Driving through hours of pouring rain and I definitely questioned whether we’d made the right decision. We arrived at the Pen y Pass carpark to climb the Pyg trail at 1.30am, where a local club was still in full swing. The loos we used were also those being used by clubbers who thought we were absolutely mad decked in our coats, scarves and head torches. To be honest, I thought we were totally mad, but it was also a little exciting.
You could not see a thing outside the circle of light beamed out by our head torches.
The going was hard, much harder than we’d anticipated. The path that we’d been led to believe was easy to follow and not too treacherous was none of the aforementioned when you can’t see the path ahead of you. Although it started on a gradual incline, the route soon becomes rocky steps, however the difficulty comes when you seem to lose the track as it heads through rock fields or up and over rocky outcrops. This happened on numerous occasions and slowed our pace considerably as we scanned the surrounding area to establish where the path continued.
We were pretty quiet on the walk up, it was definitely head down- one foot in front of the other. Our exhaustion from physical exertion and lack of sleep was showing, and everyone was feeling a little unsteady on our feet and we were tiring more quickly. We stopped every few hundred metres and made sure we were taking on enough fuel. The fog had also descended upon us, making it impossible to see anything over a metre away.
We rounded a corner and suddenly Helena shouted that we were at the top- cue celebrations, a burst in energy and excitement and a peak top selfie…
..only to discover from a group that had been in the distance behind us throughout the climb that sadly this was not the top, and we still had nearly a kilometre to go! The wind was howling at this point, and the final trudge up to the actual peak was partly funny- laughing at our mistake and partly just really, really cold.
Team photo at the actual peak! There was light just trying to peak over the clouds.
We were still clock watching, wanting to finish within the 24 hours, so we didn’t hang around long at the top. It also started to SNOW, which was all the incentive we needed to pick up the pace and get back to the car park!
As we descended it became lighter, showing us the gorgeous scenery we’d walked through as well as lighting the path. This made it ten times easier than the ascent, and showed us just how clear the route would have been to follow if we’d been able to actually see it!
Love this photo of Helena’s ‘balancing arms’- these are genuine.
With less than an hour to go we started to power down, jogging through a couple of the flatter sections. Spirits were considerably higher as we fantasised about cups of tea, coffee and the loo! Oh and sitting down.
We entered the car park at 5.36am, with 18 minutes to spare and huge smiles on our faces. We may not have completed the official Three Peaks Challenge (depending on who you ask!), but we took on our own challenge, pushed ourselves mentally and physically without putting ourselves in danger, and finished triumphant. Oh and so far we’ve raised over £1000 for charity- I’d call that a success.