THE THREE PEAKS CHALLENGE
An ascent of Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon within a space of 24 hours.
5.45pm on Sunday 27 June 2010 as Owen and I take the first step toward Ben Nevis.
Tam, our support driver, settles in for a few hours of solitude in the
van at the Visitor Centre Carpark. The earlier rain has stopped, but it’s a
gloomy evening and every Munro in sight is shrouded in a low veil of cloud. We
cross River Nevis and begin the ascent; everyone we pass on their way down is
soaked and bedraggled, and we dare to hope that we’ve timed our walk perfectly,
the weather having now rapidly cleared to yield a fine, bright evening. Most of
the first hour's walking is marked by warm sunshine and high spirits. A group
of ten Three Peakers catches up with us, clearly having set off at a decent
pace, but we overtake them again as we come out the Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe
plateau, ahead of schedule and feeling optimistic.
Zig-zagging our way up the west face, the weather
turns. Clouds move in, the wind picks up, and out of nowhere we’re hit by very
heavy, driving rain, progressing into a full hailstorm. Perhaps it’s the cold
and damp which are rapidly exacerbating an old knee injury of mine as I begin
to get twinges of pain as I walk. The rain and hail mercifully clear as we make
the final summit push - the last 200 metres or so of ascent.
T=2hr45m – making
good time we reach the summit, in thick cloud affording no views. I've read
that you can see Ireland from the summit of Nevis on a clear day. Both times
I’ve been up there I could barely see past the end of my own arm.
Wasting no time at the summit we head back down,
passing again the group of 10 we saw earlier. At around 700m elevation the
prospect clears, affording some views around the region with the nearby lochs
catching the late evening sun. The descent is always tougher on a sprained
knee, and I felt the old injury worsening as we came down. It’s T=4hr45m as we arrive back at the van. One down. The
sensible thing to do is to jump in and drive straight off, but elated by the
good progress we’ve made in spite of the awful weather we spend some time
stretching and sorting ourselves out. At around T=5hr we pull out
of the carpark and Tam’s role begins in earnest.
Even in the spacious VW Caravelle it’s hard to get
much sleep on the 5-hour drive to Wasdale Head. (Tam, having barely slept while
we climbed Nevis, did wonderfully to get us there in such good time). Having
managed only about 2 hours’ sleep, we watch the sky lighten and the sun begin
to rise as we head east into Wasdale.
At T=11hr05m – 4.49am – we begin the ascent of Scafell Pike from the head of Wast Water. Conditions couldn't be more
different to those we'd left behind on Nevis: a mild morning, not too warm,
very little wind and no chance of rain. We’ve done this route before during our
preparation for the Challenge so know what to expect here.
Gill up to Hollow Stones, we veer NE to the Scafell-Lingmell bealach to avoid
the Mickledore scramble and approach Scafell Pike summit from the NW. Even in
the good weather this ascent feels tough – with so little sleep your body tells
you constantly that this is no time to be exercising and it’s a challenge to
press on. We see the group of 10 from before, as well as a couple other groups
we recognized from Ben Nevis. (There were in fact a few groups who we would see
and speak to on all 3 mountains – there’s a sense of camaraderie and shared
experience between different groups simultaneously doing the Three Peaks and
this was one of the many highlights of the Challenge).
We reach the summit at T=13hr13m, just
before 7am. I wore my knee strap the whole way, but it doesn't prevent the
descent from being painful which slows us down a little. At T=14hr52m
we’re back at the van (walk duration 3hr 45m, 2h 5min to summit), with just
over 9 hours to drive to Snowdon and complete the final walk. I manage another
hour's sleep as Tam once again takes to the roads and we head further south. A
minor navigational error (which Tam attributed to me distracting her) means we
miss our exit on the M6 and waste valuable time going down to the next junction
and back up. We enter Wales and encounter our first difficulties with traffic
as we come to a standstill in a traffic jam. It’s almost T=19hr,
approaching 5 hours left, and we’re still driving. Knowing that tiredness and
injury will slow us down on the last walk we’re keen to have as long as
possible to complete it. So with a bit of reckless overtaking from Tam we’re
on a clear road to Snowdon, with the mountain, shrouded in cloud, coming into
view ahead. At T=19hr38m, we start the final walk.
We’d planned to go up the Pyg track and down the
Miners track, but the Miners is wide, flat and well maintained making it very
easy going – an appealingly prospect with a painful knee – so we change plan
and decide to use the Miners track for the way up as well. The walk out to Llyn
Llydaw and the subsequent ascent to Glaslyn offer no real challenge, but after
that it becomes tougher. At 800m elevation we enter the cloud and the wind
picks up dramatically. The gusts are at least 50mph – the kind where everyone
stops walking and crouches or grabs something to save from being knocked over.
Between wind, rain and tiredness, the last ascent to the ridge was very
challenging indeed. “Don’t worry,” someone on their way down says to me, “you
can have a cup of tea at the top.” No I can’t love, I’m on a deadline here.
T=21hr23m. Relief as
we attain the ridge. The tourist railway emerges through the murky
cloud. At T=21hr35m, 12 minutes later (which felt like 30), we’re
at Snowdon summit. With 2 and a half hours to get back down it should be a done
deal, but it’s a steep, rocky descent to Glaslyn and my knee has only got
worse. It’s incredibly frustrating being stuck between a wish to go fast and a need
to go slow. The descent from the ridge to Glaslyn was unpleasant, but after
that it becomes much more manageable. At T=22hr45m we’re back at
Llyn Llydaw and are now finally willing to say out loud that we’re going to
complete it in time.
Monday 28 June 2010. We arrive back at the car park as Tam pulls in in the VW.
With 37 minutes to spare, the Three Peaks Challenge is declared successfully
Images (top to bottom / left to right): (1) Owen and I set off at the start of the Challenge. (2) A period of fine weather at the start. (3) Owen reaching Nevis summit. (4) Getting back from the first walk. (5) Tam driving into the Lakes as dawn approaches. (6) The sun rises behind Scafell Pike. (7) The view from Hollow Stones on the ascent of Scafell Pike. (8) Me stopping for some water on the way up. (9) Llyn Llydaw on the way up Snowdon. (10) The railway track on the summit ridge.