3 Peaks Challenge – Part 2: The hikes

Setting off, 5pm Friday

Setting off, 5pm Friday

In this second article on my recent 3 Peaks challenge I describe the hikes themselves and the transits between the mountains. See Part One for a description of the challenge.

My personal times were:

Mountain Start Summit reached Back at base Distance
Ben Nevis 5pm 7-50pm 10pm 10 miles
Scafell Pike 4-30am 6-30am 8-30am 6 miles
Snowdon 1-45pm 4-10pm 7-30pm 8.5 miles

So as you can see I did succeed and completed it – I got to the top of Snowdon in a shade over 23 hours. I was a little disappointed not to get down again within 24 hours, but as you will discover when you read the account of each mountain, I just count myself lucky to have even finished at all, irrespective of times.

Ben Nevis

A small handful of our party set off before 5pm as their personal targets were simply to complete all three climbs and not worry about the time factor. The rest of us set off at five on the dot as seen in the photo at the top – I’m in the green coat on the right of the picture. Yes, the short hairy legs are mine.

Given the amount of training I had done I was a little surprised that after only about 300 metres or so I was at the back of the column. Maybe it was down to being somewhat restricted in the leg-length department. Rather than going hare-arsing after everyone, however, I decided to continue at the pace I had been training at. Sure enough, after a mile where the slope really starts, I was starting to go past my colleagues who had set off so quickly. Early on I delayered too, which helped a lot as you really work up a sweat on the initial climb. By the time I had gone about 3 miles I think I was in the middle of the pack.

I’ve used Path Profiler in Google Maps to give a rough idea as to the slopes on the route walked. Note the distance reported is on the low side as I cut a lot of corners when tracing the route for the profiler. It would be useful if you could pick on a path already in a map rather than having to trace it out again. To make it readable you may have to click on the image.

Some of the guys were quite serious racing snakes. Ian – my brother in law -was planning on running all three peaks, and another three were speed walking up and hoping to jog down.

Originally I was thinking that I could be snapping photos all the time on the walk, but the pressure of racing against the clock, along with not wanting to concede a place in the order we got back to the cars, meant that it was really hard to justify turning the walk into a photography expedition. Even so, I did manage to grab a few pictures.


Looking back down Glen Nevis


Into the cloud

Looking up you can see some figures against the cloud that hung over the peak. I had decided to take my Canon SLR with me in a weatherproof bag (see Snowdon for more info), and so stopping, putting down walking sticks, unpacking the camera, and lining up a shot could take precious time. In hindsight I think I would have been better of with a small pocket camera like my Ixus.


Top of Ben Nevis

After about 3 or 4 miles, the rest of the way was in cloud and so the view was not that great. Eventually after 2hrs 50 mins I got to the top. Here you can see me with some of the guys who got there shortly after I did. It was pretty cold at the top. Apparently earlier on someone – not one of my crowd – had stripped off and danced naked around the top. Mad sod.

Just below the summit was some quite deep snow that you had to go through. I took this picture as I descended.


I think what Ben Nevis did illustrate is that even though you are walking in mid-summer, where the weather is nice and balmy at the bottom, conditions on the mountain can be very different and can change in just a few minutes. You really do need to walk with good kit. Hopefully if you get nice weather you won’t need it, but if you don’t it will save you a load of pain and discomfort.


Ben Nevis descent, 8-15pm

As I got below the snowline, the clouds cleared briefly just enough to see the sun glint off the loch and reveal the rocky ground that we were on. This was taken at 8-15pm.

Finally after another twenty minutes – about a mile – I got below the cloud base as you can see in this next picture.


Ben Nevis descent, just below the clouds

(Note: click on any of these images for a larger version).

By this time I was feeling pretty good. Not tired at all, in the middle of the pack and making good time. About half way down the track becomes quite smooth for a while so I decided to jog that bit. But after a couple of hundred yards I decided to just walk as normal, really thinking that I did not want to risk screwing myself up when I would not be really changing my finish order enough to leap into an earlier car. None of my training had involved running on the mountain, and now did not seem the right time to start!

On the lower part of the mountain there is quite a steep descent down stone steps. It was here that I first started to get twinges in my left knee. By the time I got to the bottom I was in a lot of pain most times I took a step. It slowed me down quite a lot. However, I just gritted my teeth and ignored it until I got to the bottom where took a couple of Ibuprofen, stuck a tubigrip bandage on it, and got myself sorted for the drive.

I had got down in time to be in the third car – the first two with the fast guys had already left. By the time we were ready to go it was gone 10-30pm. This half hour turnaround was really quite slow, and was mainly due to sorting out hot food. It must have seemed a long wait for the first of the guys in my car who had got down at least 20 minutes earlier than I.

Drive to Scafell Pike

On pulling out of the car park at Ben Nevis we discovered a slight problem. Our driver Paul had forgotten the lesson learned only 10 hours before about filling up with fuel when you get the chance, and we only had a partial tank of fuel. The trip computer was saying we had enough for around a hundred miles or so. By this time, there were no garages open in Fort William, and it was touch and go whether it would get us to Glasgow.

So we had to hope the garages marked on Paul’s TomTom Satnav between us and Glasgow would be open at the dead of night. In the meantime, he drove with economy in mind. For us poor passengers it meant no aircon, or any other non-essential gadget. The drive immediately south of Fort William was spooky – the local deer graze right up to the edge of the road and all you see is a glimpse of antler in the headlights as you zoom by. There was a real risk of a collision with these animals.

We passed a garage identified on TomTom, but it was closed. As we got to the Glasgow turn, we were further dismayed to see the road was closed overnight for maintainance. So now we needed to divert via Stirling. At this point Paul certainly started to earn his Prius Eco-Badge, as he made use of every drop of fuel and every slight hill to squeeze every mile we could out of a now dangerously low tank. If we ran out here – in the middle of Scotland at gone midnight – our challenge would be over.

Finally, with the car running on fumes and prayers, we coasted into a service station on the outskirts of Stirling. Phew!

The rest of the drive to Wastwater at the base of Scafell was uneventful after that, and us five walkers managed to get at least a little sleep even if it was fitful. I was sitting in the middle at the back which did allow me to stretch my leg a bit an ease the pain. I was, however, starting to get worried. We arrived at about 4-15am.


Wastwater, base of Scafell

Scafell Pike

We managed to get going in pretty quick time. Just 15 minutes to get parked, changed, watered up, and on our way. Looking up the trail you could make out the torches of a few other walkers who were already going before sunrise.

Here is the path profile for Scafell. See notes on the Ben Nevis one above for more information.

By the time I was half way up I was in real trouble. Despite walking with care and my sticks, every step was agony to my left knee – it felt like swollen ligaments or tendons, rather than muscle pain.  Three of the guys in my car had zoomed on ahead, with a fourth going slowly just ahead of me but gradually pulling away. By this time I was seriously thinking that I may have to give up.

Luckily about this time I spotted our club doctor, Adam, coming back down. Thankfully he was one of the racing snakes in the first car who had got there about an hour before us. I asked if he had anything to ease the pain and, after a series of questions grilling me on my medical history, he pulled out some pills from his bag and issued some dire warnings about how long to leave it before a second dosage. I swallowed the pills, and carried on up. After just a few minutes the edge had come off the pain, and if I took extra care on my foot position on each step the pain was more bearable. I was still moving a bit slowly, but at least I was going.


Myself and team mates at top of Scafell Pike

My fellow passengers were pleasantly surprised to see me at the top – they had only been there a few minutes. I thought I would be a long way behind, but the steep climb of Scafell is a great leveler of pace, I guess. I think that also my fitness may have paid off as, despite the pain of walking, I never felt the need to stop and rest. Score one for my training regime!


The rocky summit of Scafell Pike around 6am.

Anyway, time for a quick photo or two, and then back down. This one was looking from the top towards the recently risen Sun.

I took extra care on the way down as I was mindul that is when the knees can really start to go. Part way down IanD – the first of the guys from the next car behind us – came pounding up the hill and looked to be a man on a mission. I carried on down, the pain getting better and my pace gradually increasing. By this time the first three from my car were out of sight, with the fourth gradually easing ahead of me. About half a mile or so to go I looked behind me to see IanD really going for it on his way back down. He’s a lanky sod, and the length of his legs was a real advantage to him as he caught me up. As he passed me all I could think was “Bastard! That’s my place in the third car gone….”.

Not too long after, I surprised the rest of my car by striding back to base – the drugs had kicked in big time by now. I was fully expecting to have to wait around now for the rest of car four to get down the hill as IanD had passed both me and one other from car three on his mad descent. Much to my surprise, however, he declined swapping cars as the fourth vehicle was our big BA Baracas ‘A-Team’ van and he could stretch out in the back to sleep. Fantastic, I thought.

Little was IanD to know that his decision meant that his attempt on the Three Peaks Challenge was at an end.

Transit from Scafell to Snowdon

We had a pretty quick turnaround at the bottom of Scafell – I was determined to get a shift-on before IanD changed his mind! As we left, Paul our driver made a great decision that probably affected whether any of us would make it up Snowdon in 24 hours. Rather than follow the organiser’s route out of the Lake District that, on the map, looked the shortest, he simply followed the Satnav that took us out a longer way, but on better roads.

The route most of the other cars followed was to go out through Wrynose Pass. While fantastically beautiful, it is on very steep and narrow roads and the ‘A-Team’ van, in particular, later had real trouble negotiating it. The route we followed was the same as the one I used the previous week when I went up Scafell as a practice run, and dropped out through Wasdale, down to Ulpha, and picked up the A595 that eventually gets you back on the M6 near Woodhouse. Definitely the best route.

We had a straightforward trip, although with hitting the road about 9am we started to get the weekend traffic.  As we got near Wales, the weather turned pretty wet, and the outlook was it would get worse. After about four and a half hours we turned into the car park of Pen-y-Pass at around 1-30pm. We knew that the chances of getting up and back by 5pm were pretty much gone, but we should be able to meet the Challenge target of getting to the top within 24 hours.

Mount Snowdon

As we got ready to go, the rain was not too bad. The next photo shows me just changed and within a minute or so from setting off. For the first time on this challenge I put by waterproof trousers on – boy did I need them!


Raring to go up Snowdon

The five of us headed off at 1-45pm. My knee by now was slowing me down a bit from my normal pace, and after about ten minutes myself and another of the guys, George, who was really starting to suffer with his knees decided to go at our own speed and let the other three go ahead.

Our route was the Miner’s track. This starts off flat for a few miles, continues up a reasonable bit of slope, and then hits a very steep climb of over 400 meters elevation. Here is the path profile for Scafell. See notes on the Ben Nevis one above for more information.

Soon after clearing the car park the rain and wind really started in anger. George’s water proof cover for his rucksack was continually blown off, and I was thankful for having good quality outer layers and a hood that kept my thermal hat on.

The point on the Miners Track where you turn a corner onto the last lake to look up at the start of the 500m steep climb was a real decision point. Winds by this time were gusting over 50mph (as we later found out), and rain was continuous. Light was starting to go.  We both decided to just go for it – I was not too worried about getting up, but the descent later in ever worsening conditions was real concern for me as we started the climb.

Partway up we met a couple of the guys from the second car, who warned us that things were getting bad. They later confessed that after seeing the pair of us they were certain we would not make it to the top. Further up the wind was getting stronger. At one point as I was mid-step across a gap a large gust of wind caught me off balance and I was knocked over. Bit of a brown trouser moment, but I was unhurt and after that a bit more careful. The same thing was to happen a couple more times while on the way back down.


On Snowdon ridge. It's a bit wet.

The rubbish conditions mean that my camera was kept in its bag – I was genuinely fearful that even the bag I had would not be sufficient to keep the water out, given the driving rain. Finally, as we got to the main ridge, I decided that I simply had to take a photo and was relieved that it was bone dry. Here’s where the steep part of the climb ends and you start to walk the final ten minutes or so up the ridge to the summit.

I quickly stuffed the camera back into its bag. A couple of minutes later the others from the third car passed us on their way down.  At this point George and I realised that we had not been passed by all the guys from car one. We later found out that they had got a bit lost on the descent due to bad weather and missed where the Miners’s Track splits and so had instead returned via the Pig Track.

George and I trudged on. Finally, at 4-10pm – 23 hours and 10 minutes since the challenge had started – we both reached the top of Snowdon. To mark the occasion, I risked my SLR once more for George to take a photo of me.3Peaks-18 Things were so bad the autofocus simply could not lock on on. As you can see, I’m still smiling though! This was not a great day to see panoramic vistas across Wales from the country’s highest peak…

There were only a couple other people at the top, which contrasted greatly with the numbers we had seen at the tops of the previous two mountains. After a very short rest, we headed back down again.

If things were bad on the way up, they were simply crap on the way down. Now the time pressure was off, our priority was simply to get down without injury. By now the wind was gusting upto 80mph (according to the BBC later), and the cloud had descended almost to the lake at the base of the steep part of the track. We saw hardly anyone now, and had to be careful with our navigation as you could not rely on seeing where others had gone. The track was mostly unrecognisable from the ascent as more and more streams and little waterfalls transformed the surroundings.

Completion of the steep descent from the ridge to the lake was when we could start to relax. Our knees no longer were so stressed, and the danger of slipping on rocks on a steep slope passed. From here we just plodded along the much flatter part of the track. It seemed to go on forever. With about half a mile to go we saw in the distance  our driver who had set out to try and find us. The rest of the guys in the car had got down a long time ago and they were concerned for our safety, particularly as hardly any other walkers were coming off the mountain by now. Paul decided he was going to walk for a mile or so up the track, and then call for help if there was no sign. Luckily, that was not needed after all. He informed us that the fourth and fifth cars had decided not to even attempt Snowdon because of the atrocious conditions combined with the lateness of the day. This was definitely a wise decision – going up and down again as night fell would not be fun, and for largely inexperienced walkers likely to be dangerous too. See part three for more on the decisions made back at Scafell that contributed to the abandonment of their attempt.

At long last the three of us returned to the car park at 7-30pm. Two of us were wet through, tired, aching, but chuffed to hell we had managed it. After a change into dry clothes, we drove off to the Holiday Inn in Wrexham to meet up for a few well-earned beers with the rest of the team.

Post-challenge refeshements

Post-challenge refreshments

It’s all over

Well, I did it. Whether anyone reads this far or not, who knows! Hopefully you’ve found it interesting. It was one of the toughest things I’ve done for a long time. But good preparation, training and kit improved my chances and kept me injury free. The super-strength pain killers I was prescribed on the way up Scafell almost certainly made the difference between success and painful failure. While not making my knee normal, sufficient edge was taken off what was agony so that I could carry on.

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