The three peaks challenge is a test of physical and mental endurance that requires the climber to summit the three highest peaks in Scotland (Ben Nevis – 1344 metres), England (Scafell Pike – 978 metres) and Wales (Snowdon – 1085 metres) back to back within 24 hours, with the time it takes to drive between the mountains your only respite.
Now, I undertook the challenge a year after climbing a single mountain – Kilimanjaro – that was higher than all three of these peaks combined. But whilst that’s a slow-paced climb spaced across seven days, the three peaks challenge demands a livelier pace and, undoubtedly, a higher level of fitness. So to ensure I wasn’t undercooked, things began with a bit of training…
Fact is, I actually was a bit undercooked when we arrived in the Brecon Beacons in Wales (land of my birth!) a few months ahead of the challenge itself. I wasn’t the only one though – when I asked one of my fellow climbers what training he’d done so far his response was a pithy ‘drinking beer’. So that was OK then!
The Brecon Beacons are a place of wild beauty, where plunging valleys make for stunning panoramas whilst you’re stood atop the grassy summits of the peaks themselves. Getting to those summits isn’t an easy feat, though: starting from sea level, we climbed and descended the highest peak, Pen-y-Fan, twice and scaling several other peaks (Corn Du, Cribyn and Fan y Big…stop tittering at the back) as part of the ridge line walk before descending back to Terra Firma.
The distance we covered amounted to an equivalent of 1600 metres, or 1 mile. In the language of the three peaks, this is one Ben Nevis and a half. Not bad…but clearly we needed to get ourselves in to shape. Because almost of all of us were absolutely shattered by the end of it, and hobbling gingerly up and down the stairs of our Hostel the following morning. Ouch.
A sunny summit at Pen-y-Fan. It wasn’t too last…
In the meantime, there was only one thing left to do…hit the pub!
Up to Ben Nevis
Three months of visiting pubs when we should have been training later*, and we found ourselves stood at the foot of Ben Nevis. The Highlands have to be among the most beautiful mountains in the world. And this being Scotland, it just wouldn’t be the same if those lush green landscapes and majestic craggy peaks weren’t almost permanently enshrouded by rain-flecked mist.
A combination of nerves and determination meant we got halfway up the mountain ahead of schedule. But as we began the most tricky part of the ascent – a relentless series of eight zigzags, each seemingly steeper than the last – the visibility dropped and the rain, a fine drizzle up to now, proceeded to hammer down. Then as we approached the summit, we came across a steep gradient of snow…
The weather was so bad on Ben Nevis that this is the only photo we got!
With plenty of four letter words going through my mind, we struggled on to the summit just about on schedule. An obligatory summit photo (no beautiful view, naturally) later and it was time to race back down the mountain, right? Wrong. Several ladies in the group decided now was the best time to take a toilet break, for some reason, leaving the rest of us to stand in the interminable cold and wet for what seemed like ages…
The minibus was a welcome sight when we eventually reached ground level. As we rested our weary limbs and drifted off to sleep, the knowledge that there were two further mountains ahead filled us with dread immense cheer. We were on schedule – what could go wrong?
*I’m legally obliged to say we did no such thing and in fact spent four hours daily in the gym.
Scafell Pike – Things start to go wrong
Who closes down a motorway when you’re in the middle of the three peaks challenge? The Scots, apparently. We were obliged to scrabble for an alternative route via the suburbs of Glasgow, still soaking wet and exhausted. It ate in to valuable time too.
Scafell Pike has the reputation of being the trickiest of the three peaks, to contradict what I said about Ben Nevis earlier. Sure, it’s the smallest (978 metres), but it’s the most consistently brutal underfoot and every bit as steep as the others. On top of all that, yep, we were subject to rain again.
About a third of the way up, you have to traverse a stream as well. Here, one of our number fell in. Her immediate response was something along the lines of ‘I can’t wait to get off this *%£$*@! Mountain’.
She wasn’t alone in feeling such sentiments. This was my first time on Scafell, and the adverse conditions rather skewered my opinion of it. Finally, after a seemingly endless assault course of jagged boulder clambering, we made it to the top for another view totally blotted out by mist, once again prompting us to head straight back down again. The descent was as unforgiving as expected, albeit not as perilously slippery as Ben Nevis. And then it was off to the third and final peak…
Snowdon – Mission Accomplished!
And so another return to the land of my birth, which was a surefire way to perk me up, even whipping on my Welsh rugby shirt for the occasion. I could tell you that everyone else was in similarly high spirits once we crossed the border in to the Land of My Fathers. But that would be a lie. At least the weather was kinder, allowing us to enjoy more sustained views of the scenery.
But it’s still a f*****g mountain at the end of the day, so it didn’t take long for chipper ‘I love this mountain/Wales/Joe by extension’ bonhomie to be replaced with grim silence and shortened breathing. And guess what? The further up we got, the worse the weather became, as if to reflect the collective mood of the group.
So we had another foggy, damp time at the summit, and another ginger, hobbled descent back down to terra firma. We ascended via the Pyg track, and were obliged to descend some of it too, before joining the infinitely easier Miners track for the last stretch, which enabled some comparatively leisurely ambling by Snowdon’s lakes.
So when we finally made it to the finishing line? Cheers, high-fives and sighs of relief all round. Maybe someone asked for their mother too, I can’t remember now. But ultimately – WE DID IT! Sure we could barely walk, and stairs now resembled some sort of medieval torture device, but we’d achieved something that required both mental and physical resilience. I forgot to mention that two of the group came seriously close to quitting about halfway up Snowdon, but they persevered, and we all pulled through as a team.
The last descent…
Take a wild guess at how the team chose to celebrate. Yes, that’s right, we went for a five mile run*.
*This time, I’m legally obliged to say we actually got drunk.