The UK, or national as it is also known, Three Peaks Challenge consists of climbing the highest mountain in Scotland (Ben Nevis), followed by the highest mountain in England (Scafell Pike) and finishing up by climbing the highest mountain in Wales (Snowdon). The timer starts when you begin your ascent of Ben Nevis and it stops when you return to the bottom of Snowdon. The challenge is to complete it within 24 hours.
How it worked
The company that I booked to complete the challenge with ran it a little differently. With 40-60 people taking part in the same event, all wishing to walk at different paces, completing the challenge in the traditional way would have been somewhat of a logistical nightmare. Particularly as one person may go fast on one mountain but then struggle on the next, hindering his team in the process.
Therefore, the way they operated it, was by pausing each individuals time at the end of each mountain. The timer would start, you would climb and then when you returned you would be given a finish time for that mountain. Your timer would then not start until you began the next mountain. This ensured that everyone was on the mountain at the same time, which worked well for safety reasons as there would also be 8 mountain leaders on each mountain, at any time. It also helped for people wishing to travel at different speeds.
At the end of the challenge, a flat 11 hours would then be added to your accumulative time for travel. This also prevented any issues with getting held up in traffic, and also allowed for a number of toilet and food stops. Whether the travel took 9 hours or 15, a total of 11 would be added to your time at the end.
Getting to Scotland
Living in Warwickshire, getting to Scotland for 10am on a Saturday isn’t the easiest of tasks. The only real option was to get the train, the Caledonian Sleeper train from Crewe to Fort William in Scotland, which was the meeting point.
The journey was pretty awful to be honest, but I expected that. The corridors were so narrow that you almost had to walk down them sideways and the rooms were tiny, with a bunk bed in each. The mattresses were surprisingly comfortable enough, but the train was so bumpy and noisey that it was hard to get any sleep. The carriages were moved around at Edinburgh, which I can only assume happened at 3am as I was awoken by a large shunt.
In the morning, the breakfast was pleasant, but hardly filling. Not a great experience. There were however, some nice views of Scotland on the way in in the morning.
After meeting up with the company and confirming registration, we were each assigned a bus. Each bus contained two drivers, one mountain leader and 8-10 participants, or clients as we were called. The plan was to start the walk with your assigned team and leader, with the potential to move up or down a group on the mountain, depending on your pace, thus picking up a different leader.
Following the short drive to start of the challenge, it was communicated that our team leader (Rob) was the lead guide, that he would be at the front of all parties and therefore no one should overtake him at any point. Great, I thought, I would be with the fastest group.
Following the signal of the start of the climb to peak one, we were counted through the gate and Rob promptly stormed off, setting the pace. He slowed down on some of the steep sections, but kept pretty much the same quick pace through, stopping maybe every three quarters of a mile to do a quick headcount, giving us time to take on fluids, grab a snack or get our waterproofs out.
The climb up Ben Nevis is relatively uneventful. It certainly isn’t easy, but it also isn’t overly steep, hence taking almost double the time to get to the summit as Snowdon, despite only being 300m higher. When you get high enough, there’s a quite beautiful view back down at the loch, and there’s a waterfall that you cross, which is around half way up. Other than that, it’s pretty much a rocky zig-zag track that takes you to the top, where you are met by some rather dangerous edges with near 1000ft shear drops. Rob told us that only the week previously a man was trying to take a selfie with the drop in the background, slipped and fell. He didn’t make it.
Unfortunately, as it was so busy, we spent far too long at the summit for my liking, around 15-20 minutes. This was due to the guides trying to take an accurate head count before heading back down. We were all wearing arm bands to signal us as members of the party but, as it turned out, there was another group on Ben Nevis wearing the same coloured armbands. Not ideal. When they were confident that they had rounded everyone up, we began making our way down, quickly.
As it was so busy, we had to stop quite often to allow people to pass coming the other way, while also having to wait for the right opportunity before overtaking others on the way down. This meant having to go quicker when we were moving. Prior to setting off for Scotland, I told my three year old daughter that I was going to be climbing some mountains this weekend. She asked me if I was going to be sliding down them on my bum! As it turned out, she wasn’t all that inaccurate, as I had to steady myself a number of times to prevent myself from hitting the ground. There was one moment where I slipped off one rock and into another, bruising the bone in the side of my foot in the process. I winced with every step for the next mile or so, afraid that I may have done some real damage. I made it down ok and then spent the journey from Ben Nevis to Scafell without any shoes or socks on, in an attempt to prevent aggravation. It worked and, although it did cause some pain throughout the entire challenge, it wasn’t enough to affect me in any way.
The aim for Ben Nevis was five hours and, although I made it in 4:55 as only the third person to complete, I really felt that it could have been quicker if we hadn’t have waited at the top, or if the mountain wasn’t so busy.
The second mountain was Scafell Pike, in the Lake District. It was unfortunate that this mountain was climbed in the dark. One of the things that I love about mountains and hiking in general is the scenery. As you can imagine, climbing at midnight, there was almost nothing to be seen. It was however a clear and surprisingly warm night, with a full moon. As with all of the mountains, we were encouraged to “start cold” meaning wearing as few layers as possible as we would soon warm up as we ascended. Sure enough, not far into the Scafell climb I was almost wet through with sweat, I really didn’t expect it to be that warm at that time of the night on a mountain. I even packed thermals in preparation for the night time climb.
With head torches lighting the way, Rob set the pace again, storming off through the gate with a light jog required to catch up. Although the smallest of the three mountains, Scafell proved to be the toughest climb, and not just because it was completed in the dark. After the river crossing, which contained gorgeously clear water, the trail took a dramatic change in incline. I was blowing hard and my heart rate was approaching the sort of levels that I usually see during a Tuesday night interval session. There was no let up either, no stopping for a breather, just relentless climbing as I kept right on the shoulder of the guide. A brief look up showed a wonderfully clear evening/morning, with the moon in full bloom.
Rob brought us to a halt at the end of the steep section to grab a snack and to take on some fluids. I took the opportunity to capture a picture of the night sky before proceeding on along a non-rocky section. A welcome relief for the quads. This was short lived however as next up was a section of scree (loose rocks and stones) which again the legs were unthankful for.
They were thankful however for the summit, which arrived sooner than I had expected in 1:41. A quick photo was followed by the request of the guides to turn our head torches off and just bask in the silence of our beautiful surroundings. Quickly snapped out of a minor state of meditation, I added an upper layer and we set off back down, something I was not looking forward to given how steep the climb was.
Thankfully we got down unscathed, and quickly. At moments I was almost running down, trying to bounce from rock to rock without losing my footing. There was a few near misses but I was the second person to make it back to the coaches in a total time of 3:22. With legs like jelly, we were provided with a cup of tea and some warm porridge before setting off for Snowdon.
Once I had completed Scafell, I was feeling pretty confident. I hadn’t done either of the other two mountains before, but Snowdon I had done five times previously, and four times up the same path as we were taking, the Pyg Track. This felt like my mountain.
Knowing exactly what was coming helped prepare mentally. I set off right on Rob’s shoulder again, knowing full well that the first mile would be tough before a bit of a breather in the middle section. Blowing hard again I kept the pace and had to refrain from overtaking as I bounced from rock to rock, adrenaline and excitement of the finish was now setting in.
Again we started cold, but around half way up the wind began to pick up and it started raining. We stopped abruptly to put our waterproofs on, struggling to hold on to layers of kit in the strong wind. Leaning against the rocks, trying to break the wind, I just about got my layers on before we set off again. By this point, another group had overtaken us as they had planned ahead and put their waterproofs on slightly earlier. I began to push on from our group in an effort to join the leading one. This was not a problem, we were just instructed not to overtake the lead guide. This was no longer Rob.
We stepped over from the Pyg Track where it meets with the Llanberis Track and the wind really hit. It was poor visibility at this point, with wind almost strong enough to knock you off your feet and rain coming in sideways, not fun at all. In fact, at one point I wondered to myself if we would actually summit, the weather was that bad. I had heard of times where the guides had considered it too dangerous to continue, and turned the group round without making the top.
Luckily enough, we did summit, although we didn’t stay there long. As soon as I had taken a picture or two, I was eager to get back down, out of the clouds and out of the wind. With Rob now behind me, a new guide was leading us down the easiest descent of the day. The rain continued until the finish, but the wind eased up as we passed the Half Way House.
Having reached the bottom there was still a way to go, as we had to make our way through Llanberis to where the minibuses were parked. Walking fast enough to almost be considered a light jog, I was the second person to enter the car park as we were greeted by a round of applause by the support staff and offers of handshakes. All of that could wait, I wanted to register my time! A great feeling of elation as it was recorded as 3:18.
Here are the timings for the challenge:
Ben Nevis: 4:54:36
Theoretical drive from Ben Nevis to Scafell: 6:00:00
Scafell Pike: 3:22:28
Theoretical drive from Scafell to Snowdon: 5:00:00
Total time: 22:35:27
Official time given by the company: 22:29:00
There’s no denying how tough the challenge was, a real test of endurance and also leg strength. I was really pleased that I didn’t seize up during mountains, neither did I suffer any muscle injuries at all. I’m convinced that this was down to the fact that I stretched for around five minutes after each mountain. I am also pleased with the kit that I have and used throughout the challenge. I saw a number of people with Montane clothing and similarly expensive pieces of equipment including head torches, walking sticks and backpacks. I was almost a walking advert for Decathlon. My trousers, backpack and waterproof trousers were all Quechua, whilst the tops that I wore were just my running tops – Kalenji and my jacket was also purchased from there. While none of this was particularly cheap, it would be considered as budget options. It did however do the job and did it well.
I was most impressed by my head torch and my Sealskinz water proof gloves that I received for my birthday. The head torch was a Petzl Tikka RXP and lit the path on Scafell wonderfully, while the gloves saved my hands from freezing in the wind and rain on Snowdon.
I’ve been asked since whether I would ever attempt the challenge again. The answer is a resounding no. Whilst I loved the walking and the mountains, the travel was a real slog, starting on Friday night with a train from Rugby to Crewe and finishing on Sunday night with a bus from Chester to Crewe followed by a train home. It was a great achievement, but I have no desire to repeat it, not even to improve on the time.
Finally, if you’re thinking of going for the three peaks challenge yourself, make sure you are fit enough, as it is a real test of endurance. Maybe try the Yorkshire Three as a tester as I did, and I couldn’t recommend the below company highly enough.