This guide was put together in 1996 and at the time was the only “Three Peaks” website out there! The three of us haven’t completed the “Challenge” since so our cut-down story gives you a snaphot of what it was like for us 20 years ago when we were stepping into the unknown! We didn’t have a copy back then but now you can buy a great little book by Steve Williams called ‘The National 3 Peaks : Taking Up The Challenge‘ … or just keep reading below 🙂
… If you were to ask Nick, Dave or myself Steve Biggs why we wanted to attempt to climb Ben Nevis in Scotland, Scafell Pike in the Lake District and Mount Snowdon in North Wales within 24 hours, the likely answer might be “Well I dunno, err well we saw it in a magazine and thought we should have a go.” No ice-breaking reason or original idea, but the combined incentive of the three of us to take on this challenge, was enough to tip the balance, and force us to do it.
The doing it part consisted of the three of us, a Fiat Punto, a mobile phone and enough junk food to stock a Tesco’s superstore, as we traversed the country from the south-east via Scotland to North Wales, over the Easter Bank holiday weekend April 1996. We have included walking route maps, a handful of photos, much needed information and advice, along with the odd personal highs and lows, as we boldly went where now, quite a few people have gone before!
- Our previous walking experience
- Walking routes and maps
- Ben Nevis
- Scafell Pike
- Mount Snowdon
- Points to remember!
- What we’d do different next time
We were far from being experienced walkers. Out of the three of us, Dave was both the fittest, oldest, and hence the most experienced on the trip. It is recommended that at least one or two members of a larger group have the basic skills of compass reading, first aid, and a knowledge of mountain weather conditions. If all of the people on the trip have these skills, then this is all the better. Also people should know what equipment to take out onto the mountain, on an all day walking trip of this kind, both for in the car and out on the trail.
An event such as the Three Peaks Challenge is probably one of the better known challenges to non-walkers, and many attempt the challenge unprepared. It gives the whole group great confidence if they know that one of the group is competent in what he or she is doing, and has planned the trip weeks in advance to cover all eventualities. The hills are not the place to try out new, unusual equipment for the first time, especially when fatigue sets in later on in the 24 hours.
For a trip of this nature I greatly recommended that some sort of training is undertaken. I visited the gym at least twice a week in the 5-6 weeks leading up to the trip, and as I am an avid mountain biker and a member of my local running club, I have built up a fair amount of natural stamina and fitness. Dave had no problems on the trip as he has run marathons for years now, which ideally suits a challenge of this type. Nick has been cycling on his custom road bike and of late his new mountain bike, and so didn’t really have to step up his training over and above what he normally does. Each of these disciplines, both long-distance running and cycling, are therefore very good for preparing for the event. Like anything though it’s always best to look in fitness books and get advice from friends and relatives to help you prepare for this type of adventure.
The fitter you are, the less pain you are going to endure, and the more you are going to enjoy the trip!!!!
This map shows you the distance and travelling time driving from Ben Nevis down to Snowdon without stopping, i.e. we only had a total of 13-14 hours to climb up and down the three mountains once we had got to them.
Our Fiat Punto covered about 500 miles in the end from Ben Nevis to Mount Snowdon, taking 10.5 hours with the petrol costing about £40. REMEMBER, depending on what time you do the challenge you must bear in mind that on busy summer Bank holiday weekends the predicted time for a certain distance can change by up to a few hours. We were lucky with traffic and were able to travel down from Scotland without incident. It doesn’t bear thinking about if we had been stuck in traffic on the motorway with the minutes slowly ticking away.
It is worth noting that the only real decision which you will have to make is whether you want to start climbing Scafell Pike from Seathwaite (which involves a longer, flatter walk, but is easier to get to, to and from the motorway), or to take the longer drive over Wrynose and Hardknott passes, (which is a lot harder to get to, but involves a much shorter walk and gives better navigation, especially in low visibility conditions). Either way if you have planned the routes properly it won’t matter on which part of the mountain you start from.
It is always best to just simply consult your own atlas before the trip, and write down the exact route you wish to take, familiarising yourself with the route beforehand. Always check with Teletext(!!!!) or a daily newspaper a day or two before you leave home, in case there are any planned roadwork’s or if traffic jams are likely.
You can now buy a handy little all-in-one A-Z atlas that contains all the required 1:25,000 scale maps. We had to carry 3 unwieldy full size maps when we took part.
Ben Nevis lies in the Scottish Highlands, near Fort William, and the track we took was the established tourist route from the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel, (GR 128718). This is classed as the most practical short route, and involves a steep climb from the Youth Hostel, rather than the longer but shallower starting point from the track that starts behind the distillery on the A82 by Achintree, (GR 126729). This Pony track route was constructed to service the meteorological observatory that opened in 1883, and remains wholly intact. It traverses the SW side of Meall an t-Suidhe, then zigzags the broad west slopes of Ben Nevis to the exposed summit plateau, and consists of a rocky path over steep boulder fields. The problems encountered on this route include the cornices at the head of Gardyloo Gully and Tower Gully, mistaken descent into Five Finger Gully and crossing the top of Red Burn. Despite all this, the Pony Track remains the safest route to take. Ben Nevis is 1344m (4409ft) high, and involves 1325m (4347ft) of climbing from the Hostel which is 30 m above sea level. The route difficulty is regarded as intermediate to strenuous and the distance from the start to the summit is approximately 4.75 miles (7.6km).
Snow remains on the top of Ben Nevis well into the summer making it particularly hazardous. In low visibility conditions it is wise to use a map and compass and follow the recommended route of descent.
Scafell Pike involves a mere 913m (2995ft) of climbing, and is the smallest of the three mountains on the challenge at 977m (3206ft). Past experience from other walkers suggests that the best route to choose is the one starting from the National Trust Camp site at Wasdale Head, (GR 181076). Starting at Seathwaite has its advantages in that it’s easier to get to from Scotland, and saves total driving time, but the walk itself takes a lot longer. Also navigation from this side is more difficult in low visibility conditions or at night. We all felt that we made the right decision by starting out at Wasdale Head. Whichever way you climb Scafell, it’s always going to be tough. It’s not a very touristy mountain like Ben Nevis, and especially Snowdon, which has a cafe and a train station at the top. Thus you are going to find yourself on a rubbish track rather than a well-groomed motorway. Scafell was unpleasant and it was probably just as well that we climbed it in the dark, and got it over and done with. The terrain is a rocky path from rough crag to scree and has a rock summit. The route difficulty is regarded as strenuous. The distance from the start to the summit is approximately 2.5 miles (4km).
Snowdon is the mountain that I have visited most frequently, and the one that I regard as the nicest. I’ve climbed it from three directions: The 5 mile Llanberis path that follows close to the railway, The traverse over Crib Goch, and the Miners’ Track that starts out at Pen-Y-Pass. Of the three routes, the Llanberis Path is the flattest but the longest. Crib Goch, which is a sharp arete can be downright dangerous and bad for those with vertigo, while the Miners’ track which is relatively flat until the later, short, sharp, steeper sections are reached is probably the best. Originally an access track to the mines, the Miners’ track begins with an easy gradient to Llyn Llydaw and then onto Glaslyn, after which it joins the Pyg track and zigzags up to Bwlch Glas. The Pyg Track which lies parallel to the Miners’ track also starts from Pen-Y-Pass but is slightly higher up and slightly more difficult. The total ascent from the Pen-Y-Pass starting point is 725m (2381ft) with the summit standing at 1085m (3560ft). The terrain consists of a rocky path and craggy corries with a steep headwall climb to an exposed col (Bwlch Glas) which leads on to a broad summit ridge up by the railway track. The route difficulty is regarded as intermediate, and from the start to the summit the distance is approximately 4 miles (6.4km). The return route follows the same path. Remember though to stop the watch at Pen-Y-Pass car park on the way back, hopefully under 24 hours. (GR 647557.)
Mountain time breakdowns
Most challengers start their watches at the bottom of Ben Nevis and stop them at the bottom of Mount Snowdon. There is much speculation though as to which time of day you should start. Our original plan to start at 06.00hrs would have meant us being at the respective summits at 09.00hrs, 20.10hrs and 04.30hrs. We didn’t really want to finish so early in the morning though and so therefore followed the schedule below. The times are accurate as we had a databack facility on our cameras (very useful for working out how well you did when you get home).
15.00 base of Ben Nevis
18:00 summit of Ben Nevis
20:00 base of Ben Nevis
02.45 base of Scafell Pike
05:10 summit of Scafell Pike
06:30 base of Scafell Pike
11.15 base of Snowdon
13.30 summit of Snowdon
14.35 base of Snowdon
The list of equipment below is all fairly general. It is not the case that everything written down has to be taken, as there were some things that both Nick and Dave didn’t take which I personally preferred to have with me. On the other hand there are some absolute necessities, such as a whistle and first aid kit, etc. You may yourself be able to add even more items to those below. It is therefore only provided as a guide, not a definite checklist.
Main Equipment taken and used in rucksacks and worn for walking.
- A sturdy, fairly large rucksack with waterproof bag liner.
- Waterproof bottoms and fleece jacket.
- Winter walking boots (Zamberlans).
- Petzl head torch, spare battery + spare bulb (Scafell only).
- Crampons and ice axe.
- Sunglasses and map.
- 2 x 0.75 litre bottles.
- Compass, camera and Motorola Flip mobile phone + car charger.
- H5 bars and Lucozade sport tablets. Buy them at Cyber Sports Nutrition.
- Handkerchiefs, thin running gloves and thick winter gloves.
- Woolly hat, 2 x Ron Hill Tracksters and 1 x Long Johns.
- 2 x Helly Hansen thermal under tops.
- 1 x Karrimor mid wear thermal top.
- 2 x pairs walking socks + undersocks.
- Thermos flasks (2 between the 3 of us).
- Toilet paper.
- FOOD!Items that I carried in rucksack but didn’t use
(All necessary to take however).
- Whistle, waterproof top and comprehensive first aid kit.
- Vistalite LED red clipable bike light (Scafell only).
- Balaclava, scarf, spare woolly hat and survival blanket.Equipment used and left in car and other bags.
- A smaller rucksack for clothes and to keep car tidier.
- Filled litre bottle and energy drink powder.
- Toilet bag, towel, magazines, Walkman and tapes.
- Plastic lunch box, trainers and pillow.
- 3 breakfast bowls, cups and cutlery.
- 4 x T-shirts and 2 x casual shirts.
- 1 x Ron Hill Tracksters and 3 x walking socks.
- 1 x Helly Hansen thermal under tops and underwear.
- Money (about 100 quid covered the cost for me).
- 2 x 5 litre water containers, camping stove + kettle.
- FOOD sandwiches, sweets, crisps and Easter eggs, etc.Items that I had in car but didn’t use.
- Spare Kodak film(!!), thermorest mat and sleeping bag.
After lazing around in Fort William for part of the day visiting shops, we returned to the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel at approximately 14.00hrs. The car was parked up outside the Hostel, and we duly unloaded the gear onto a patch of grass in the shade nearby. Each of us had 2 to 3 bags to unpack and reorganise, so that all that we needed was in our main rucksacks. A 40 litre green KIMM SAC suited me, but Dave and Nick vouched for a larger LOWE Alpine 65 litre and a KARRIMOR Trail 45 respectively.
Only 24 hours to go! At about 14.55hrs we were ready and headed 20 yards down the road to a bridge crossing the River Nevis. This leads to a stile on the other side, which we considered to be the start of our trip. Dave started the stopwatch (15:01hrs), and we were on our way. It was at this very early stage that I wondered whether it was a good idea to start at 15.00hrs instead of the earlier time of 06.00hrs that we had originally considered. We thought rightly, as it happened, that the later time would be the better of the two because it meant a), we could sample the beers at the local pubs in bustling Fort William on the Friday night, (how can you not visit a pub in Fort William called the Ben Nevis), b), we didn’t have to pack for the adventure the night before, c), we could have a reasonable lie in (as late as they can be in Youth Hostels), d), we didn’t have to disturb the 4th person in our Youth Hostel room, e), we could climb 2 of the 3 mountains in daylight instead of just one and a half, and f), it gave us the opportunity to run down Mount Snowdon in daylight if we were running behind schedule. The one or two personal drawbacks which I instantly thought about 100 yards into our trip were a), how dehydrated I felt through drinking the night before, b), how I had an extra 7 hours to get nervous during the day instead of just waking up and getting on with it instantly, and c), it meant we all had to stay awake and half alert for an extra 7 hours. I wanted to quit there and then!!
Fitness? The track soon climbed and it was at this point my legs felt like lead, and the feeling of dehydration hit me. For the next hour I clutched a three quarter litre bottle in my hand, taking sips every minute or two. First bit of advice DRINK, DRINK, DRINK both before, during and after. There was no time for taking pictures. I also soon noticed that being the slowest member of the group meant no rest breaks. When the other two up ahead stopped for a break to let me catch up, they would continue as soon as I had reached them, i.e. the fittest members of the group got regular breaks at a slower pace waiting for me. I wished I had drunk a lot more and trained (not just weight training) but also cardiovascular stuff. My quads and calf muscles were beginning to fry already.
Oh, the snow! After a couple of hours of boulders and loose stones we could see groups of people 30 minutes ahead of us to our right, starting to climb up a large snow covered gully (this is where the snow began). The weather at this point was still tremendous for April, and a bank holiday at that (blue cloudless sky, no wind, a strong sun and high temperatures). When we reached this point we donned our crampons, put on our winter gloves, (due to the cold snow and not cold air), tied our ice axes into a wrist loop, and trudged up the snow bank. Walking on the snow took a lot longer than if we had climbed the same gully under dry, snow free conditions.
Crampons. This was the first time any of us had used crampons and the first of many times on the challenge we would have to buckle up. Not a great idea having not even practised walking in them let alone ascending snow gullies, but luckily it caused none of us any problems. Ice axe in hand we started to climb, stopping at regular intervals for breath, through a combination of exhaustion, the thin air, overheating and having heavier than normal footwear on. However even on level ground the crampons proved invaluable above the snow-line.
Another false summit. Walking uphill took what seemed like ages and with many false summits ahead of us, and with most other climbers returning down the mountain (approx.17:00hrs), it was very depressing. On the way up we continued watching out for beck’s and holes hidden beneath us and followed the step-like formation of former footprints before us. It was not long before my feet started to hurt. Crampons do not seem to bend that well and what with borrowed boots and extremely narrow feet, my feet were rotating about inside the boots with every step. The boots were the correct size, but even with 2 pairs of socks on (one thin and one thick), they could not be made tight enough around my heel. A new walking style was soon adopted. Slowly the number of people on the mountain thinned out and false summit after false summit soon became the norm. Then in the distance I spotted the infamous gullies, and knew that the trig point in the distance was this time the real McCoy. It’s amazing how after feeling completely shattered and humourless after 3 hours walking, I felt as if I could have sprinted to the summit, if it wasn’t for those cumbersome crampons that is. We hit the summit at exactly 18:00hrs.
Highest Person in the British Isles. The top of the mountain was idyllic, and as was later said to me by a local on the descent, was an “incredibly rare day”, which he hadn’t seen for years. The sky was a beautiful indigo blue colour and the view of the surrounding mountains was very reminiscent of the Alps. If we had been looking for an incredible time we would have simply touched the summit and come back down again, but we were out to enjoy ourselves whilst still breaking 24 hours. We were not looking for records. Each of us had our own camera, and so went off in our separate directions around the summit taking various pictures of each other. After a quick brew up and some food to eat we thought about leaving, but not before Nick and I had phoned home using his Motorola Flip© mobile to tell our parents we were safe and well. I phoned whilst sitting on the actual trig point itself, such was my excitement at the time, proudly muttering the words “I am now the highest person in the British Isles!”. Nick’s phone was luckily only used in this phoning home guise on the trip, and not in any emergency situation. It was reassuring though having a full 5 bars of coverage on the Ben, just in case there had been a serious mishap. The need for a compass to leave Ben Nevis wasn’t necessary in such beautiful conditions, but we checked the 231 degree bearing given on the route cards and found that it was very precise. Some other walkers were intelligently striding out the quoted 150m distance to the next trig point for the next time they may be at the top, perhaps in white out conditions, (the summit is surrounded by steep gullies, and cornices can be a great danger in winter).Under clear conditions though it is obvious where the gullies are and which route to take).
Tobogganing down the Ben. We started to walk down at approximately 18:20hrs. This was the bit we had all looked forward to. After 500 yards we reached the steeper drop of the gully and resorted to a lying down (self-arrest) position with our ice axes at the ready. We pushed off and slid down the slope in the groove formed by all the other walkers and climbers who had descended before us. Speeds of about 15-20 mph were reached but with due care, as small rocks were beginning to show through the over-deepening trough. All this sliding sped up the descent until we realised that by stopping to take pictures every 100 yards or so of the other two sliding past, a couple who were walking down at the same time were still level with us. Unfortunately the snow-line was soon reached, the dreaded crampons were put away and the ice axes were strapped back onto our rucksacks. At this point I believed we would soon be back at the car. However I realised that the snow line was only a third of the way down the mountain. Much walking was still to be done. After the calves, thighs and buttocks having done most of the work on the way up, it was now the turn of the muscles in the front of my shins to take me down the mountain, slowing me down after every step. Luckily though the blisters weren’t hurting as much on the downhill due to my foots different movements.
Car, sweet car. Even on the downhill the others were still way in front. Sheer exhaustion meant concentration was waning and I didn’t want to come a cropper at this early stage. With Dave reaching the car first, followed closely by Nick, the car was already open and the kettle boiling when I arrived. A run to the hostel didn’t seem beyond me and a pot noodle was quickly brought back to the car. The time was approx. 20:15hrs. Dave, ever with an eye on the clock, beckoned us to hurry up and after “chuck in the car packing” we were off, with Nick at the wheel. Onward to Scafell Pike.
The idea was for the three of us to take turns driving between the mountains. However, due to being an inexperienced driver and feeling terrible I slept all the way to Scafell Pike, apart from the last hour when having to travel over Hardknott and Wrynose pass made me feel sick. I was feeling seriously ill at this point. I felt sweaty and had flu like symptoms. I was reciting what I would say to the others in my head when I was to tell them I was going to quit. When the car pulled up the need to do this had lessened and after a quick visit to the bushes I decided to continue, my feelings unknown to the other two. Sitting in the back for the whole journey with no room, no air (three door car), loud music and rucksacks knocking against you every 5 minutes hadn’t done wonders for my general well-being, what with Dave in rally mode with all the headlights on full beam driving over the passes.
Not a soul. Scafell Pike was to be the only mountain we would have to climb in the dark, due to our rearranged departure time from the base of Ben Nevis. We donned our Petzl head torches, quickly got ready and at 02:45hrs we walked upstream from the car park, with head torches lighting up oval patches of light yards from our feet as we progressed upwards. The provision of a powerful car torch by myself helped in long distance navigation, as to which path we should take (It was an invaluable aid as there is not an obvious route up Scafell Pike at night). Dave’s idea of word games helped pass the time, as did singing songs and having general thoughts in your head.
Group word games didn’t last long though and would have to have been ended anyway as the gaps between Dave, Nick and I constantly grew. We soon hit the snow. This in itself lit up the surrounding area with the cold snow reflecting any available light there was from the cloudy sky and our torches. We could see where we needed to go, but were unaware of the concavity of the slope we were climbing. Consequently half way up we realised crampons were needed, and with only a chair sized rock in the distance to our right, allowing room for only one person, we each took turns to clamber up and put on our crampons. Fifteen minutes were wasted here as we each took our turn. It gave us a nice break but each 5 minutes of wasted time does quite quickly add up. At this time we felt our most vulnerable. Perching on a rock half way up a snow covered gully with only head torches for light, no sound, no wind and no other company at 04:30hrs in April was an amazing feeling.
Let’s get back down again. There were no footprints to follow this time for footholds. Nobody had been up here in days. Being the slowest member did have its advantages here, as Nick and Dave’s virgin footprints gave me places to push off (a home made flight of stairs). Once again ice axes were used and no foot movements were made until these had been firmly hit into the ground, and then with a kicking action the feet were powered into the snow. The top of the gully was soon reached and we progressed onwards. False summit after false summit greeted us, until the real summit was reached, before which our crampons had to cross many rock outcrops (easier than you might think). I was very relieved to touch the trig point (the time was now 05.10hrs). This time we quickly made a cup of tea, took some pictures and descended, (not much of a view on this occasion, which is probably just as well, as you can apparently see the Sellafield nuclear power station in the distance during daylight hours). This wasn’t the place to hang around in. We soon reached the top of the snow covered gully and dropped down backwards kicking both our feet and ice axe into the snow, as the footholds we had used on the way up were now out of our sight as we moved backwards. At this point Dave noticed that one of his crampons was missing. We weren’t going to go back for it so we continued (they were a cheap pair anyway).
As the concave gully flattened out, Dave used the technique of double foot jumping sideways, whilst I was quite happy to slide down the hill at a constant speed of 3 mph needing no use of the ice axe. Nick however was now out of sight adopting the much slower backwards method, (this was the first time we had not been in contact with another member of the trio). A shout up to him resulted in no reply. Five seconds later he appeared around the corner 40 yards away, all was well. We all took our crampons off before the ice had ended and jogged and walked back down to Wasdale Head. You realise how good crampons are when you first take them off! There were a few slips over the last 100 yards of snow, even though it was relatively flat by now. Nick went ahead and got to the car first. Being high up the dawn broke instantly and the head torches were turned off. A quick change of clothes and we all climbed into the car, and headed off to Snowdon. (06.30hrs).
It was now relatively light and Nick took his turn at the wheel again. I was quite content to sit in the back and sleep once more. The only parts of the journey that I noticed were when we stopped off for petrol, and having Nick and Dave buy drinks for us all. On one stretch of open road, Dave offered me a cheese and pickle sandwich. I took a bite and instantly began to feel ill, so I put the other half down. I was eventually sick, however. Nick noticed, Dave laughed and we pulled up. I couldn’t get the words out but beckoned them to go on. They continued reluctantly and I looked ahead through the windscreen. Time was of the essence.
DISASTER!!! We finally reached Pen-Y-Pass (near Llanberis) at approx. 11:00am and saw the car park we were going to park in. DISASTER!!! An old attendant in a yellow coat beckoned us on as the car park was full with Easter Bank holiday traffic. We drove past, looking for spaces by the Pen-Y-Pass Youth Hostel, and then in the numerous lay-bys on the way down valley to Llanberis. There were none. Many things ran through our heads. First of which was where the hell were we going to start. We had numerous options. A), All of us could start out at Llanberis and climb the longer, but flatter Snowdon Path. B), Dave could drop off Nick and I, before returning down the valley to find the first available parking space, and then run up the road again to tackle the Miners’ Track (our original plan) 20 minutes behind us, or C), Dave could drop us off at the Miners’ Track and then tackle the Snowdon Path himself, meet us at the summit at 13:30hrs, before descending with Nick and me to the Miners’ Track, with hopefully time to spare. This Bank holiday parking nightmare could seriously screw up the whole challenge. I was very concerned at this stage that we could fail the challenge purely through not being able to park due to Bank holiday traffic at Pen-Y-Pass.
Lucky stars. However after returning to the car park to try the attendant bloke again, and asking for a place to purely unload, after a plea to park due to the three peaks challenge had failed, a car left the car park, whilst we were unloading, which the attendant duly offered us. Fifteen minutes of time and panic had been spent, but a sigh of relief was in evidence on all of our faces. We packed the rucksacks, filled the bottles, went to the toilet in turn and headed off, (11:15hrs). Dave ended up carrying all my gear to help me out, (such was my general condition).
Under Pressure. The first mile or two was around Llyn Lydaw and was relatively flat. Dave’s consensus here was that time may not be on our side on the descent so we had a 2 minute jog to the base of the climb. We chose the Miners’ Track as it is regarded to be easier than the Pyg Track which is parallel but 200 yards higher up. The Pyg Track would have involved more technical walking and wouldn’t have allowed us to run back to Pen-Y-Pass if we had needed to have done so. Dave had calculated precisely between certain points what our walking time was, so we’d know how much time we could make up on the way back if we had to run. Snowdon seemed to rise magnificently high ahead of us to our left as we ascended. At the snow line it wasn’t worth putting the crampons on, or holding an ice axe, so these lifesavers from earlier on, now became worthless pieces of luggage for us. Dave kept spurring us on, still weary about the time, offering comments such as “It’s all in your mind, keep on walking!”. It was utmost in my mind at this time that we might not complete the challenge. After an hour or so we saw people perhaps 15 minutes ahead of us reaching the top of the track, and turning left towards the summit on the mountain ridge. At this point Nick looked very exhausted and dehydrated. I obligingly carried his pack for him, (after all I wasn’t carrying anything) and could feel why Nick was starting to suffer. It was incredibly heavy, and it made me wonder how Dave had managed in theory to carry two sacks the whole way up.
No time for a cup of tea! From thereon I recognised the last 400 yards leading up to the summit from a bike ride up the mountain in the previous summer, and I was at this point confident we could reach the summit and descend with time to spare. We had ascended in 1 hour 45 minutes and had 2 hours to descend, (relatively easy barring mishaps). At the summit the customary pictures were taken and we felt we had enough time to buy a can from the shop at the summit. With the number of people at the top that day (Bank holiday Sunday), I was in no doubt that we would be able to. Sods’ law it was shut, so for the hundreds of people who had braved the climb, recollection of their climb and a bad view of the surrounding mountains (due to summit cloud) was their only reward. A funny emotion came over me at the top. A feeling of anxiety on the climb from realising that we might fail the challenge was quickly replaced by a feeling of anti-climax as we knew we would now complete the 24 hour challenge. The feeling of elation and success had almost completely passed us by. For us at this point it almost seemed as if it was all over, yet we still had almost 2 hours to go.
Success!!!!!!!! We returned to the gully indicating the start of the Pyg’ track, at which point Nick asked for his rucksack back (who was I to say no), and we descended. A technique of scree jumping seemed the quickest way to descend until we again reached the well-laid boulder track once more (ideal for combating erosion, but weary on tired legs). We reached the flatter section of the track by the Llyn, took a breather and realised the time was 13:45hrs and we had 75 minutes to spare. We chatted about many things on the way back to Pen-Y-Pass. Nicks’ topic of conversation was interspersed mainly with the latest news about his blisters. Dave kept describing explicitly his first pint in the Vaynol Arms pub on the way down to Llanberis, and I was generally discussing how I couldn’t believe we had actually done it.
We eventually turned the last corner and saw the car in the distance in the still packed car park. The last downhill 100 yards filled us with great achievement as we bathed in the mid afternoon sun. As soon as we hit the tarmac Dave stopped the stopwatch: 23 hours 37 minutes!!! Not a world record but still well-deserved considering there was only 3 of us, with no other helpers, in a small car in snowy April conditions. We had a picture taken of us to savour the moment and then checked into the youth hostel opposite for a well deserved rest. Needless to say the weather the next day was wet, cold and miserable with visibility considerably reduced. We had been amazingly lucky with both the weather (mid to high 60’s) and the travelling down from Ben Nevis, and all it left us to do now was drive down to the Brecon Beacons stopping off at various tourist villages to enjoy the rest of our holiday. Funnily enough we didn’t use our walking boots again that week, and resorted to more leisurely footwear for sedate window shopping.
The Ben’s name in Gaelic is Beinn Nimheis, meaning poisonous or terrible, and there’s no doubt it’s a dangerous place to be if you run into problems – health or weather.
People are forever getting into trouble on the Ben. They think that because it has a well-worn path up it, somehow it has been tamed – well you can forget that! The Scottish mountains (not just Ben Nevis) are dangerous places to be if you run into problems, so here are some ways to reduce the risks:
- When the observatory was working, readings showed that the average annual summit temperatures were just below freezing – nine degrees less than Fort William below. Remember that, and pack extra warm clothes no matter what time of the year.
- The weather can change within minutes around here; It can change from a total blue sky to heavy cloud and drizzle within an hour. Always be prepared with extra clothing and waterproofs, and keep an eye on the clouds forming on the horizon. If it does catch you out, have escape routes pre-planned at points along the route (and see point 3).
- Remember it’s harder to turn back if you run into problems – know your own limits and don’t be afraid to call it a day. You can always come back. That is, if you make the right decision. Pre-plan your route, and as much as is possible, stick to it. Also, leave a note with someone responsible. Sticking to the route means that if any rescue services are needed they know exactly where you should be – if you stray too far from the route, rescue will certainly be delayed. Give approximate times for your return, allowing for a bit extra for those unforeseen delays. (There is a rescue book in the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel reception area. This is where you can write down your route and expected time of return. DON’T FORGET TO SIGN IT WHEN YOU GET BACK!!!!!)
- Make sure at least one member of the party has knowledge of first aid – don’t forget, even in the summer months people can get hypothermia up there. Also, if you have no experience in the mountains, it would be a good idea to take along someone who has. Experience gives you a feel for what the weather is doing, you can recognise the best escape routes from the map, know how to overcome obstacles and so on.
- It should go without saying that map reading skills are essential, and when the mist sets in, a compass can be a life saver. On Ben Nevis, the summit has cliffs on two sides, and if you were disorientated it would be all too easy to choose the wrong direction – unless you had a compass. Get one and learn to use it.
- Apart from extra clothing, food, map and compass, there are some other essential pieces of equipment that you shouldn’t be without: a survival bag (bright orange) is cheap and could save your life; a head torch, in case you have to descend in the dark – something which you will have to do on a 24 hour challenge; and a whistle to attract attention in an emergency.
- International Distress Signal. Six signals (whistle blasts, torch flashes or similar in rapid succession). Pause for 1 minute and repeat until located. A reply is 3 signals in rapid succession followed by a 1 minute pause. Repeat to located casualty.
- Leave the Scottish mountains to the experts during the winter. The best time of year to visit most Scottish mountains would be May and early June – fewer people, no midges and, almost every year, a run of good weather. However, there will still be a covering of snow on the Ben at this time of year, so July through to September is the only safe option. (We were quite foolhardy and extremely lucky in early April.)
That is if there is a next time. It’s one of those things you are only likely to do once, but that’s not going to stop you talking about it for weeks after you’ve returned. Whenever anybody is talking about it in the hills or in the pub, you can always gleefully say “Oh yeah, I’ve done the Three Peaks Challenge… there’s nothing to it really!”The reason why you wouldn’t do it again is because deep down you know how hard it was, but you’re not going to let other people know that.
Since the trip I’ve gained much confidence through the character building nature of trudging up mountain after mountain with a heavy pack on my back, with the prospect of no proper sleep for a day in the back of my mind. It’s given me the added incentive of getting back out there and taking on other such events like the coast-to-coast or eventually the Lands End to John O’Groats bike ride. Until then though talking about it and not doing it suits me down to the ground.
- I would probably take gaiters in case of colder conditions. On Ben Nevis especially, the snow entered my boots, which was probably the reason why I suffered from blisters so early on.
- I’d take some compact binoculars as the views from Ben Nevis are spectacular on clear days, (saying that I never wished I had some at the time).
- I would have a smaller camera kept in waist rucksack pocket, (so much easier!!). I had to keep taking the whole rucksack off to get my camera out, as it was a large size zoom camera. Unless this is something you must take, it’s much easier to just reach down to your side pocket and pull out a standard 35mm job. Many a time I would not bother taking a picture, purely because taking off a heavy rucksack every 5 minutes was to much effort!
- I would have a bigger car and a helper. Our Fiat Punto was just a bit too small for the 3 of us, and none of us are particularly that big. It may look OK when you pack the car to leave for Scotland, but when it’s 3.00am in the morning everything just gets slung in the back of the car and methodical packing goes out of the window. Someone also has to help with driving and sort out the rucksacks, and food and drinks whilst the competing members of the group are either sleeping, walking or attacking each other! REMEMBER you are going to have to be with these people in close proximity for 24 hours or more. It’s important that you get on with them to start with. A liberal spraying of deodorant after each mountain wouldn’t go amiss either. Our car had to be fumigated after we returned home, and the disused banana skins peeled off the rear car mats.
- I would make up a 5 litre container of energy drink before the walks started, which would be left in the car rather than have to mix up a small water bottle with energy drink every time. This is both convenient and saves time.
- I would do the trip in late June or July when good weather is much more likely. Our trip in April could have easily been fraught with terrible conditions. As it was the weather was great, but you can’t guarantee it. A week after we finished our weekend trip, Ben Nevis was covered in snow storms with sub zero temperatures!!!
- I would do some sort of training, e.g. running as well as weights. The beer that had been consumed over my preceding university term had greatly reduced my mountain goat climbing abilities, and the approach of “I’m hard enough to do it without training, it’s only one day after all”, really isn’t the right attitude to have.