On Saturday August 2nd 2014 I stood at the foot of Ben Nevis, Scotland, about to start the National 3 Peaks Challenge. The only thing that stood between me and a good night sleep were 3 mountains in the 3 different countries that make up mainland Great Britain. As I stood there looking at the path ahead relatively few nerves entered my mind, I was eager to start the clock and get trekking. It was a relatively chilly morning with a good atmosphere amongst the group. I opted for shorts and a lightweight fleece as I was certain the temperatures would begin rising as soon as the walk began. At this point if there was a starter gun available then it would have sounded but in the absence of this we just began in silent anticipation. We started from the car park of the Ben Nevis Inn (on the opposite side of the river from the Glen Nevis Visitor Centre). The going was good with a steady incline over relatively rocky terrain. The Sun hadn’t long rose and the morning mist was dissipating in front of our eyes. The chill of the light breeze was waking me up from the little sleep I had the night before. It probably didn’t help being in the local Wetherspoon's Pub until 10pm eating steak the previous night. It wasn’t long before I realised how much of a slog this challenge was going to be. I had only been walking 20 minutes and was already struggling with the relatively shallow incline. Thinking back to when I was talking about the National 3 Peaks Challenge it dawned on me how easily it tripped off the tongue:
“Up and down Ben Nevis then drive to the Lake District. Up and down Scafell Pike then drive to Snowdonia National Park. Up and down Snowdon then to the pub for a well-deserved beer”
Yet only 20 minutes in and the reality dawned on me that this is actually going to be very difficult. My muscles hadn’t properly warmed up, I had far too many clothes on and my camelback bladder wasn’t working. Not a great start to a 24-hour challenge! I decided after 30 minutes to stop on a large rock, just off the track, to address these niggling issues. This is when I was introduced to a Scottish pest… the Midge! Yes, the Midge! Not just one (an opportunist) but a whole swarm! I have never got changed so quickly in my entire life. In the 30 seconds I stopped to take off my fleece and t-shirt, leaving just my bamboo base layer on, my arms and legs were covered with black midges. By covered, I mean that I could not see the colour of my skin anymore. It was like I had a long sleeved black top on! From that moment on, I vowed never to stop until I was past the altitude that Midges did not venture. Later that day whilst driving to the Lake District I counted 350 bites on my 4 limbs and face. I probably missed many more. In all the literature I had read previous to taking on this challenge I had not seen any warnings regarding that little pest. Lesson learnt and I was on the move again.
When I stopped to sort out my niggling issues I was at the back of the pack. I could see the rest of the group on the zig-zags ahead of me. From this perspective I could see who was struggling and who was striding ahead. Personally, the hardest challenge I had was setting myself a good pace. To begin with I would shoot off in eager anticipation in 5th gear just to revert to 1st gear 200 metres or so ahead. It wasn’t until I was an hour into the Ben Nevis Track that I finally settled into a routine and caught up with the rest of the pack. I could see the half way point on the horizon, which seemed no closer then when we started, towering above our current location. It dawned on me what a big part psychology plays in these challenges. Firstly, being at the back of the pack and, secondly, the small distances travelled when it seemingly feels like miles. I decided that I would break it up into bite size chunks. Thus, only concentrating on one chunk at a time. I had already completed the lush green section of the trek and now I was embarking on rocky landscape before, from what I had read previously, the potentially snowy landscape that leads onto the grey lunar summit. By now the group had divided into two: one faster, one slower. Going on my attempt thus far you would have expected me to be happy in the slower group. This couldn’t be further from the truth. This was a challenge, a challenge with a time limit and one that I was adamant that I was going to succeed. I opted for the faster group. I felt good and I had found a pace that seemed to work for me. My body temperature was good, my energy levels were high, my mood was incredible and I was eager to get one mountain completed. I left leading the pack. The only concern I had was whether I was going to have access to enough water for the trek. I was carrying a 2-litre camelback that wasn’t dispensing any fluid and 2 half-litre bottles, currently standing at 1 empty and 1 full. I could access the water in my camelback if I wanted to but this would take valuable time due to its location in my backpack. I needed to fix the issue. As it turned out, the issue was air bubbles. Once I had successfully summated Ben Nevis miraculously it began working. I think the altitude helped get rid of the air bubbles in question.
Summating Ben Nevis was a tricky affair. At one stage we had to slip and slide up a large patch of snow that hadn’t melted away in the summer sun. It was like an ice rink. I was glad I had walking poles on this section. Those who didn’t spent most of their time sliding around on their bum! On reaching the end of the snow section we were presented with ankle breaking boulders that needed to be traversed with care. The last thing I wanted to do was injure myself at the summit of my first mountain! But, after 2.5 hours I had successfully summated Ben Nevis having beaten everyone, apart from a small group of 4 guys, to the plinth. Not bad bearing in mind I started off in last place! The view was absolutely astonishing. Visibility was great and the sharp drops were awe-inspiring. To bring home how dangerous mountains are a few minutes later an RAF Search and Rescue helicopter flew overhead searching for a climber who [we have since found out] had fallen to his death that very morning. I was standing on top of Great Britain! There was nowhere higher on this island. I can completely understand how people can get addicted to scaling mountains. The elation of reaching the summit is unlike anything I have ever experienced before.
No time to waste though. This is the 3 Peaks Challenge after all. With a few customary photographs at the summit, the weather started closing in. From the top of Ben Nevis we could see the clouds fast approaching, the winds galloped and spots of rain started falling. My free iPhone app was telling me that it was -5 degrees centigrade at the summit. Fleece, waterproofs, hat and gloves on, I began my trek back to the Visitor Centre and the van, our carriage to the Lake District. I always find descending a mountain harder then ascending. It puts more pressure on your joints (such as ankles and knees) especially on loose rubble/rocks. At least when you are ascending and slip then your arms can break your fall or stop you from causing injury. When descending, you are more likely to fall onto your back; it’s not a natural response to throw your arms backwards to break your fall. As a result, the descent took slightly longer then the ascent resulting in a total time for Ben Nevis clocking in at 5.5 hours.
1 down, 2 to go!
The drive from Ben Nevis to Scafell Pike was long but strangely the time past rather quickly. I am not good at sleeping in moving vehicles and especially ones with less legroom than a Ryanair flight. However, there was plenty to do to prepare for the next mountain. During the journey I had time to physically and mentally debrief from Ben Nevis and prepare for Scafell Pike this included drying outer layers, changing base layers and nursing any injuries. For me, I had no reported injuries just a magnitude of bites from those dreaded midges’. Thankfully half a tube of germaline and a bunch of antihistamines kept the itching at bay. After that was the important task of refuelling and rehydrating. It is the only time that I have actually had an excuse to eat a magnitude of bad foods (chocolate, cheese, peanuts etc…). The excuse is calories not gluttony. It is a common thought that a person could burn in the region of 8000 calories in 24 hours doing the National 3 Peaks Challenge. The food consumed needs to go someway to creating those calories to burn. A favourite van snack of mine was baby bell cheese wrapped in pastrami, flapjacks and bananas. I found myself drinking at least 2 litres of water between each mountain. I would be eating regularly throughout the driving sections to not allow my body to dip. We arrived at Scafell Pike in the evening. This was going to be an evening ascent and a pitch-black night return. Head torches at the ready…
Since I decided to compete in the National 3 Peaks Challenge I was dreading Scafell Pike. Everyone that I knew who had taken part had warned me about this mountain. It is known for its punishing steep ascent with its bad tracks and a summit covered in boulders. The fact that it is always the middle mountain during the 3 Peaks Challenge means that most people attempt this at night. We were running ahead of schedule and had a good amount of light for the first half of the ascent. The Lake District had been battered by unrelenting rain for the past week with a thunderstorm due to arrive whilst we were in mid-climb. Potentially this could ruin our plans to take on the mountain at all. The track we had planned to take, the most direct route, involved a river crossing. During high rainfall this river is too dangerous to cross. However, it does clear quickly when the rain eases. The burning question was: Would the water level be low enough for us to cross safely at the time when we reach it? Time will only tell.
The trek started from the car park at Wasdale Head where, after a short wander through what seemed to be cattle grazing land, the track, thick with bush on either side, followed a stream over a bridge and up to the dreaded river crossing. The ground was easy going and gave us, what we now know as, a false sense of confidence. Although I had been awake for approximately 12 hours by now and having already completed the largest mountain on mainland Great Britain I felt strong and ready for the challenge of Mountain Number 2! The river had subsided a lot by the time we arrived that traversing it by jumping over boulders was relatively easy. The water was over boot height so I wouldn’t have wanted to miss a boulder and end up in the water. Trekking boots would be impossible to dry in the time that we had available in the van between mountains. Any confidence I had at the start was cruelly taken away from me after the river crossing. From then onwards it was a steep incline all the way to the top. Each step caused every muscle in my legs to burn. My limbs felt like they were made of concrete and my bag felt like it was filled with bricks. The going was tough, tougher then we all envisaged. Even the guys who completed Ben Nevis in front of me were finding the going tough. It was slow progress. There was only one way we were going to get to the summit and that was by working as a team. This is exactly what we did. The slowest member of the group set the pace and we pushed steadily up the mountain. It took every ounce of my energy to put one foot in front of the other. The saving grace was that the view was absolutely beautiful. It was an overcast evening, the clouds were thick and black in places, fit to burst. In the distance, through a gap in the clouds, the Sun was setting giving an orange glow over the horizon. It gave an almost apocalyptic look over the landscape making the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. No matter how difficult the trek was nothing could beat that moment, looking back over the English countryside. I was in the moment, in the landscape and nothing else mattered. Life was simple and complete. I savoured the moment by taking a 5-minute break to eat some chocolate, drink some water and feel how lucky I was to be there at that time. As with all breaks, they were over as quickly as they started. We were on a timed challenge after all. As I witnessed the last slither of sun dip below the horizon and the landscape get enveloped into darkness I illuminated my head touch. This was it: 22 challengers and a humdinger of a mountain to conquer. The track just got worse as we ascended. From smooth, slate-like rock, loose stones to massive boulders more extreme then the summit of Ben Nevis. What made it all the more dangerous was that the rains began. The heavy clouds had started to deposit their contents onto us. We were close to the summit now: 22 challengers, 22 beams of light and a map to find the plinth marking the summit. After 3 hours of the hardest trek I have ever been part of we finally arrived at the summit of Scafell Pike wet, cold, tired and ecstatic to have made it! Again, a few customary photographs but this time under flashlight before the long trek back to the van and onto our final mountain of the trio. Easier said then done.
The return leg had become treacherous. By now the rain was really hammering down, the wind was strong enough to knock us off balance and the boulders had become as slippery as an ice rink. My boots have some of the deepest and best sole grips around and even I found it difficult to stay on my feet! One time in particular had me worried. I was traversing a couple of large boulders when my right foot slipped from quite a large foot hold, my entire body buckled to my right side and I went down hard. My right forearm hit a boulder so hard that I lost all feeling in the lower part of my arm. It felt numb. The strange thing was that I felt absolutely no pain at all; I just had no feeling in that forearm, or hand, for what seemed like an eternity. A few minutes ticked past and slowly the numbness started to subside and was being replaced by a strange feeling of pins and needles and, finally, full movement. I was lucky. I hadn’t broken anything. What it did do was make me more aware of the ground that I was walking on. I found myself making judgements on where to step, what looked safe and where to fall over in case I lost my balance. I had a lucky escape and I wasn’t planning on going down again. It continued this way all the way down to the car park with people falling, slipping and rolling on all parts of the track. The rain and darkness really did make the entire mountain more dangerous than it should have been. However, that is the nature of the challenge. If it were to be easy who would want to do it. We all made it down in one piece in a total of 5 hours with no serious injuries, thankfully.
Scafell Pike had challenged me no end and through the difficulty of the terrain, the challenging conditions, the stunning views and awe-inspiring landscapes will remain as one of the highlights of the trip thus far. The group had bonded so much on that mountain because without the help of every single one of those people then it would have been a miserable experience. As it turns out it was the polar opposite. Midnight had past and it was back on the road en-route to our final destination.
2 down, 1 to go.
The drive from the Lake District to Snowdonia National Park was also long but like the previous journey was punctuated with tasks to prepare for the next challenge. By now, we were really finding out how our kit was holding up to the punishing schedule and changing weather conditions. I realised that my waterproof gortex over trousers were about an inch too long. As I was walking they were getting caught under the heel of my boot causing the material to shred. It was a slow process so should last until the end. During this challenge I took a risk with the base layers that I chose to bring along. It is common for trekkers to use Merino Wool base layers due to their wicking properties. During training I didn’t enjoy wearing them, I found them incredibly itchy and uncomfortable. This challenge is hard enough without the clothing working against me too. That could make or break me in the vast scheme of things. I took to twitter to ask for advice. To my surprise, within an hour of posting my question, Dave Cornthwaite – “Say Yes More” adventurer - had replied with a link to BAM clothing, specialising in clothing made from Bamboo material: (www.bambooclothing.co.uk). I purchased 3 base layer tops, 1 for each mountain. They arrived the day before I was catching my flight to Scotland; I hadn't even taken the clothing out of the plastic polythene to test its size. I ran out of time. As it turns out the bamboo material was perfect for the challenge, I suffered no chaffing, my body was dry and the base layer was soaked with sweat. The wicking properties were extraordinary. The swan song was that the material did not cause me to itch uncontrollably, was cheaper than the Merino Wool counterpart and was so comfortable to wear. In fact, since returning to normality I wear the base layers regularly. It was a risk worth taking and has changed my trekking life completely. Previous to taking on this challenge, I had thought that this drive would be the hardest to get through due to the time of day – I would usually be sound asleep! It was strange, although I felt tired and my muscles were aching, the time of the day didn’t have much bearing on my mood. There was plenty to do during this time on the road to keep the brain occupied that sleep was an after thought. Before we knew it, we had arrived at the foot of Snowdon – the final mountain.
As Scafell Pike was so hard on the joints my left knee was beginning to give me a little bit of grief. The boulders were so large at some points that I would find myself rolling my knee or ankle quite regularly. As my ankles had support in the boots then they could deal with the pressure. I had read a lot about this previous to taking on the challenge and had come prepared with a support bandage. With this in place I set about beginning the final mountain of the trio. We started from the car park at Pen-Y-Pass and chose the Pyg Track to ascend. Snowdon was the only mountain I had conquered previously but that was many years ago using the Rangers Track. What I did remember from back then was that the zig zags were less steep and swept through the landscape effortlessly. I was feeling good and was eager to get moving, so eager that as soon as I had set my walking poles to the appropriate height I was off, leaving the group behind. I had a time limit to adhere to and I was not going to fail on that last mountain. Off I went. After the difficulties of both Ben Nevis and Scafell Pike, Snowdon was a dream. The going was relatively straightforward and any boulders that I encountered were child’s play in comparison to anything I had experienced before. This was a dream mountain to finish on. The Welsh valleys were lush with greenery, the lakes sparkled in the breaking dawn and cool air was a welcome treat. I couldn’t have felt more alive then I did at that moment, on that mountain. I skipped and hopped all the way to the top in 1hour 50 minutes. Typically for Snowdon the mountaintop was covered in fog and the visibility was down to only a few metres. I have never seen a view from the summit of Snowdon; I hear it’s beautiful so I’ll have to take their word for it. What I am going to take away from the summit of Snowdon was how windy it was. The final ascent to the plinth was so windy that I had to be hunched over to avoid getting swept into the abyss. Just getting up to the plinth involved shuffling on my bum up the final steps and holding on for dear life. However scary and precarious it was, it didn’t matter, I had done it, I had scaled 3 mountains. As it was so windy, the photo opportunity was taken behind the plinth on the way down. I could hardly hold on let alone get my camera out for a shot. All that was left to do was to get back to the Pen-Y-Pass car park to complete the National 3 Peaks Challenge. For a bit of variety we decided to descend through a slightly different route: the Miners Track. Both the Pyg and Miners join up at the upper levels of Snowdon but couldn’t have been more different. Whereas the Pyg Track is more of a shallow ascent from start to finish, the Miners track stays at lake level until it ascends pretty sharply to meet the upper level of the Pyg Track. The two tracks join together looking out over Lake Glaslyn. The steep descent on the Miners Track was fun and pretty challenging as it involved scaling down boulders. It reminded me of Scafell Pike but without the darkness and the torrential rain! Once we got to lake level, it was literally a wander back to base where the challenge was completed.
I completed the National 3 Peaks Challenge in 23 hours 27 minutes! A whole 33 minutes shy of the target. I felt battered, bruised and in need of a decent meal. I had been eating high calorie foods for the past 36 hours to prepare and subsequently fuel myself for the duration of the challenge.
That was it! The National 3 Peaks Challenge was at an end. I was relieved, proud and enjoyed pretty much every minute of the challenge. I would love to return to these 3 great mountains someday for a more leisurely trek. I only saw one mountain top view after all! Let’s not forget that the primary reason for this challenge was to raise funds and awareness for Great Ormond Street Hospital. During the training period and the challenge itself I have been overwhelmed by the support that I received from friends, family and strangers alike. The kindness and generosity that everyone has shown has really been a highlight of this entire process. From those who donated money to the cause, those who offered advice, the support I received from the group on the day and the knowledge and experience from the mountain guides. It all went some way into making this challenge become a reality. The final figure raised including online, offline, text and gift aid was: £1063.75. This has completely taken me by surprise and the money will mean a great deal to the lovely folks at Great Ormond Street Hospital.
Below are a selection of photographs from the challenge. Click to enlarge...