The National 3 Peaks

By Tompky - 5:55 AM

May Bank Holiday was time for Challenge Number 5, which was to climb the National 3 Peaks.  The accepted standard for this is to do it in under 24 hours, which was always going to be the target.  I was really looking forward to this one, as there were 6 friends doing it with me, and my mam and dad driving the minibus so it was going to feel like a real team effort – which at times became truer than I had wished/anticipated!!

We set off from the North East of England at midday on Saturday, with the idea we would start to climb Ben Nevis at 6pm, getting up and down in 4 hours and be back on the road at 10pm.  Unfortunately this isn’t quite how it panned out, and we hit traffic on the way, delaying us by nearly 3 hours!!  People say that it is a driving challenge rather than a climbing challenge.  I wouldn’t agree with this but can see how it can be quickly derailed by misfortune on the roads!

We started to climb Ben Nevis at 10pm, just as the daylight was drawing in.  2 of us had climbed Ben Nevis previously, and felt that it was doable in the dark.  We all had head torches, and felt that the path would be easy enough to follow.  An hour into the climb, and with everyone else off the mountain apart from the 7 of us, we were nearly climbing in pitch black and decided it was time to switch the head torches on.  Whilst they were essential, they are clearly not as effective as actually climbing in daylight as you can only see 10 metres or so in front and not the whole landscape.  As we approached the summit, it unfortunately became clear that we had left the path, and didn’t know the direction of the summit.  The sky was black, it was -10 degrees, and we had no way of knowing where the path was.  We huddled together, and decided the best course of action was to walk in one direction, essentially uphill in a straight line, and hope we found the path again.  We did this a couple of times with no success, and were just starting to lose hope and give up, potentially giving up on the challenge and going back downhill, when we noticed a small set of stones.  We walked in the direction of the cairn, which led us back to the path.  Although it wasn’t totally clear, we knew that if we could keep spotting cairns in the distance, they would lead us to the top.  We then hopped, 20 yards at a time, from cairn to cairn, until we reached the top.  There were a few shaky moments, climbing over snow, and getting all too close to the edge a few times, but at 11.30pm we reached the top.  With freezing temperatures, and against the clock, we had little time to celebrate and turned back round.  Again going from cairn to cairn on the way down, before finding the path.  A decent bit of relief.  The path was much easier to follow on the way down, and we got to the bottom at 1am Sunday morning.

A quick feed and drink, we all piled back into the minibus, and were back on our way, travelling in the direction of Scafell.  At this stage, it became clear how much you need a team to do this challenge.  It is essential to have at least 2 drivers, who can take it in turns to drive and sleep through the night.

We arrived at Scafell just after 6.30am, and, getting ready on the bus, we were all set to start climbing again as soon as the bus pulled up.  I think most of the group agreed this was the toughest climb, it seemed a lot more relentless uphill climbing than Ben Nevis and Snowdon, and really took it out of the legs.  There was no real let up whilst going up, and it was as consistent as it was steep.  Again being up against the time there was no real celebration at the top, a quick photo opportunity and then back down to head toward the bus.  We arrived back at the bus at 10am, and another quick food stop and we were on our way.  At this stage we were well ahead of time, but then found out one of the real tests of the challenge!

Driving out of the Lake District down the country lanes, we hit a stray rock, and heard the horrible ‘ppppppssssssssssttttttttttttttttt’ that signalled a punctured tyre.  This is when it really turned into a team effort.  As an office worker, myself and 3 others had absolutely no idea what to do in this situation, and if it had been left up to us that would have been it all over.  Thankfully, the other 3 are all labouring types, and hopped off the bus as quick as a flash.  3 peaks climbers turned stand-in formula 1 team, one of them was under the bus taking off the spare wheel, one had the jack out, and one was taking bolts off and replacing the flat tyre.  An hour of time lost, but we were soon back on our way, and we felt although we were now back up against the clock when we should have been cruising, the challenge was still very doable.

We arrived at Snowdon at 1.30pm, knowing that the standard time to do it in is 4 hours.  None of us knew what to expect with none of the group having done it before.  Very different to the other 2, we walked pretty much on the flat for the first couple of miles, before reaching the real climb.  This lifts you nearly vertically up, right to the top of the mountain.  Again, after 2 previous climbs this felt a real task, and the going was very slow.  All of the talk of the group was how we were doing against the time, and it was still very much in the balance.  We got to the top knowing we had about 2 hours to get to the bottom and to the van to achieve within 24 hours.  At this point the train that goes from the top to the bottom seemed very tempting!!

Getting down was much easier than up (sounds obvious but not necessarily the case with Ben Nevis and Scafell Pike), and after a couple of mishaps with footwear (my hiking shoes split in half so had to revert to trainers) we reached the bottom with 50 minutes to spare.  A brisk walk across the two miles meant we had completed the 3 peaks with 28 minutes to spare, in 23.32.

Another great challenge, and think it would be great to do either all 3 in the 24 hours as we did, or even to do each one individually.  Each offers great views, and certainly the sights climbing Ben Nevis and the top of Snowdon are definitely worth the effort of the climb!!

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