Taking on the Three Peaks Challenge
The city of Glasgow slept peacefully beneath a starry sky, as our minibus crept through the empty streets. Ten young professionals from London sat in the back, while I sat up front next to our driver whose buoyant conversation filled me with energy and enthusiasm as he drove us north towards the mountains. We wound our way along the shores of Loch Lomond at sunrise, passing through Glencoe as the gentle morning light cast spectacular colours on the mountains above. Some of the guys in the back enjoyed the view out the window, while others closed their eyes desperately hoping to store up some extra minutes of precious sleep, before we commenced on our gigantic journey.
We were en-route to Ben Nevis, ready to begin the National Three Peaks Challenge. The goal is to climb the highest mountain from each country in mainland Britain within 24 hours: Ben Nevis in Scotland (1345m), Scafell Pike in England (978m) and Snowdon in Wales (1130m). When you couple the total stats of 3064m and 37km with over 10 hours sitting on a bus and a great big dose of sleep deprivation, it really is a big day out!
I was one of the 3 mountain leaders and between us we had 29 clients, and 3 minibuses each with a driver who also provided support in the form of water, food and boundless enthusiasm! I had never completed the 3 peaks challenge before, neither as a participant nor a leader. In fact I had not been up Scaffel Pike until two weeks previously, when I decided to run up it during the night as a realistic recce. Ben Nevis on the other-hand, I had walked up a million times this summer and knew every boulder like the back of my hand!
We arrived at Ben Nevis in the beautiful sunshine whilst a spectacular cloud inversion filled the glen. Enthusiasm was high as we powered on up the mountain, the final few hundred metres enshrouded by mist, and some celebratory photos on the summit. Arriving back at the minibus I reflected on the fact that this would normally be the end of my working day, but now it had barely began!
As we were driving to the Lake District, we received information from locals about terrible flooding on the Wasdale road and horrendous weather. Indeed I had been somewhat apprehensive about the weekend’s forecast, with severe weather warnings for floods and gales. Now my mind flashed back to my recce run up Scafell, where I had waded through thigh deep water during the river crossing. Only, it was hard to believe it all, as we cruised down the motorway beneath a soft golden sunset.
Soon the rain was lashing down and we were engulfed by the darkness of the night. As we approached Wasdale head we saw the most remarkable sight, as hundreds of headtorches wound their ways up and down the mountainside. The rain subsided as we kitted up and soon we were on our way, walking up the hill in surprisingly pleasant conditions. The world became shrunken to the size of a headtorch beam, with little distraction from watching one foot after the next. The bright chatter that had fuelled our way up Ben Nevis was replaced by a peaceful silence which was energising in a different way. It was captivating, mesmerising, and wonderful. I love being on the mountains at night.
I planted myself in the river to help people across, the water flowing unnoticed around my waterproof socks. Almost everyone crossed successfully, until one girl in some confusion forgot to let go of my hand as she jumped away from me, dragging me with considerable force as I shouted “let go!!” until there I was standing in the deep river. Not much to do but laugh! As we reached the col we were treated to the full force of the weather. Strong winds and heavy rain made route finding on the vague upper section of path quite challenging. The beam of my headtorch reflecting off the driving rain was somewhat blinding, and it was challenging enough to see your feet, let alone decipher the path ahead. The pressure of 29 people following my every footstep was intense, but I managed to stay exactly on track and we all made it to the summit in very good time. Standing still long enough to take summit photos reminded us just how cold and exposed it was up there and we descended with great enthusiasm for the porridge that awaited us back at the van.
The forecast for Snowdon was ominous and we didn’t know what we were going to find, but the plan was to continue to Pen y Pass with dynamic decision making if needed. I hungrily ate up whatever my body seemed to crave, which would change quite radically between pork pies, chocolate and Haribo. I managed to snatch an hour of sleep on the way to Wales and arrived feeling full of energy. The team were doing fantastic and ready to embrace our final challenge, fuelled with determination and still doing a commendable job of supporting one another despite the discomfort and hardship. Walking up the Pyg Track turned out to be lovely and sheltered, but arriving at the pass Bwlch y Moch we were met by strong and freezing winds. Our layers of clothing protected us from the elements, and along with a little grit, we walked the final ridge to arrive at the summit of Snowdon. We did it! What an achievement! Everyone was delighted, ecstatic and elated; we had climbed the Three Highest Peaks in the UK and in no easy conditions.
To be honest, I previously had mixed feelings about the concept of the 3 peaks challenge. Part of me wondered if it was an over-commercialised and superficial use (or abuse) of the mountains. However, having experienced up close the emotional and physical journey that it demands (not just in my team but in everyone we met on the hills), and witnessing the undeniably beneficial effects it can have on confidence and self-esteem, I am completely converted. The experience is far from superficial, it is a completely authentic mountain experience and I am positive that it plants a seed of outdoor-passion in many of those who take part.
Our descent was undeniably cold as we remained in full exposure to the wind as we walked back down to Llanberis. But no amount of torrential rain could dampen our spirits now, and as we arrived back at the coach surrounded by an almost overwhelming sense of achievement, accomplishment and camaraderie.
My adventure was not yet over as I realised to my horror that my waterproof phone had leaked and was now completely non-functioning. Gone was my e-ticket back to Glasgow, the address of where I left my car, my google-maps to find the station and my way of making tomorrows arrangements. I suddenly felt a little helpless stuck in wales in the pouring rain with a wet bag full of wet clothes and 48 hours of sleep deprivation (although the adrenaline was keeping me wide awake)! But thanks to the kindness of the other mountain leaders, I was very soon showered, dry, and in Tesco making the most impulsive phone purchase ever in their last ten minutes of store-opening. Still buzzing with energy, I walked to the train station, and navigated my way through three changeovers, at long last sitting on a train that would bring me all the way back to Glasgow. I suddenly felt overcome by exhaustion and fell into a deep and cosy sleep.
I woke up gently as the train pulled into the station shortly after midnight. Typing in the address of where I had left my car two days earlier, I realised it was over an hour walk away and with two heavy bags and well-used legs I contemplated the idea of getting a taxi. Not something I would usually do as I can tend to be a bit stubborn and prefer a little hardship, but I reasoned with myself that it was a less than usual situation. Walking into the main street I clocked the taxi queue, where about thirty noisy happy tipsy people stood waiting to return from their night out. Nope, not today! And so I slung my bags onto my back and set off to walk the final few miles of the weekends adventure, every single step merging into a happy blur of a weekend spent in the mountains.