I’m saying it right up front – I won the Three Peaks. I won it inasmuch as it was the toughest mental and physical challenge I’ve ever undertaken. The only person I beat was myself – and that’s more than good enough.
For the non-UKers, the Three Peaks Challenge is climbing the three highest mountains in the UK – Ben Nevis, Scotland; Scafell Pike, England; Snowdon, Wales – in 24 hours.
More than 3,000 metres of ascent.
480 miles of driving in between.
I took part on the weekend of 23-24 July, guided by Simon of Adventure Cafe UK, in association with my firm, Gowling WLG, and all for three great charities – Help Harry Help Others, Bliss, and Beyond Food Foundation.
We spent all day travelling north to Fort William, ready to start at Ben Nevis on Saturday morning. We stayed in the Chase the Wild Goose hostel – my first time hostelling, so the whole weekend was stuffed with new experiences. The safety briefing was enough to curl your hair and then we attempted to sleep, with the alarms set for 4.50am.
Our guide Simon had told us that when we began the challenge, he’d set of at 24-hour pace and we’d all think he was joking. News flash – I thought he was joking.
We set off at 6.30am on Saturday and the pace was faster than I would usually walk on a flat road, and we were heading immediately uphill. It took all of five minutes for the rest of the group to drop me, but I kept ploughing on as they got further and further ahead.
Almost immediately I started worrying – I’m not fit enough, I’m definitely not fast enough, I’ll never get through this. Being by myself meant I didn’t have anyone to discourage these thoughts or take my mind off how I was going to slow down the team – not that I’d have had enough breath for a conversation anyway.
My heart rate monitor reached 188bpm at one point, and I spent the first hour of the climb trying not to throw up or faint, all the blood frantic in my legs to propel my muscles and leaving me dizzy.
Simon kept coming back to check on me and leant me his walking poles to take some of the strain, but apart from those brief interludes, I walked alone until I caught up with the others at each rest stop. There I’d collapse, heave for breath, suck down some water and try and slow my heart rate. Everyone else had been stopped for a few minutes already, so they were up and going again before I’d managed to recover. It felt like a horrible nightmare.
Simon stuck me at the front a few times to lead the group, explaining it would give me ‘leader’s legs’ and that I’d be faster. Usually after 15 minutes the others would start to pass me and I’d be at the back again. All I could think was that we’d never hit the 24 hours, it would be my fault, and we wouldn’t raise any money in consequence.
Then, finally, eventually, we summited inside the clouds.
When we got back down, it turned out we’d climbed and descended Ben Nevis in 5 hours 5 minutes – way inside the time limit of 6 hours. So although I was slower than the rest of the group, I was still fast. Who knew? Not me.
I was still worried, though. I thought that seeing as how we’d saved so much time on Ben Nevis, we could take Scafell Pike more slowly – no chance. Because Snowdon would be completed during the wee small hours, that was the one we were likely to be slower on, so we needed to take Scafell Pike at the same speed as Ben Nevis.
We got to Scafell Pike at 6.30pm. I’d managed to doze for about half an hour, and I’d forced myself to eat despite having no appetite, and I’d drunk another two litres of water in the minibus on the way. I was as ready as I was going to get i.e. not much.
Now, Scafell Pike is significantly shorter than Ben Nevis, but also steeper for much of its height. In it’s way it was just as much a challenge – scrambling through the boulder field left by a departing glacier and then picking a way through an unmarked landscape trying to find the summit, then clambering the summit made entirely of shifting, broken rock. A couple of the team struggled on Scafell Pike, but still I was slowest, puffing my way upwards with gritted teeth, ruthlessly strangling the voice in my head that told me I couldn’t do it, I wasn’t fit enough, I wasn’t fast enough, I was letting down the team.
That mental battle was as draining as the physical one.
And then we summited Scafell Pike. We were in a cloud inversion for a while – above the clouds in bright sunshine – and then the weather closed in on the way down.
About a kilometre down from the picture above I tripped and landed knees-first on the rock – yeeouch.
Cloud and night fell on the descent of Scafell Pike until we were picking our way down the steep, increasingly-slippery rocks with the aid of head torches. We finally got back to the base and the waiting minibus at 10.30pm – 4 hours 15 minutes. Again, well under the time limit of 5 hours. Hooray, I thought, we’ve got yonks of time for Snowdon, we can take it slowly etc etc.
We limped onto the bus and were immediately off. Food, water, sleep. Or, actually, food, water, cram yourself into a tiny seat and spend the next 5 hours trying – and failing – to sleep.
I knew as soon as I got off the bus something was wrong – my left hip was screaming at me. Some time during the drive it had locked up, and it wasn’t unlocking any time soon. Simon had also injured his ankle on Scafell Pike and needed his walking poles back – as if I hadn’t been slow enough before, I was now in pain and without the aid of the poles. Nothing to do but grit my teeth – the enamel practically cracking off by now – and get on with it.
It was cold when we got off the bus, and very foggy. I opted for full waterproofs and it was the best decision I made all weekend. Simon said we were best to take the Miner’s Track route as it was longer, but a gradual ascent and we could get quite high up the mountain in the dark before it got tricky. With luck, the sun would have risen before we reached the technical bits.
My hip eased as walked, but seized the instant we stopped for a break, and as the slowest, I needed more breaks than everyone else. All I could see was the faint outline of people backlit in their head torches, bobbing away above me like will-o’-the-wisps in the fog. And then, miracle of miracles, as the sun began to rise, everyone else became so tired that they slowed down. And then slowed down some more. All of a sudden I was walking with the group – I even overtook a few!
It was very cold and very wet – the fog becoming so heavy it was almost rain – and then just becoming rain – and it was definitely my favourite of the three mountains. It was a completely different experience walking among the group than it was walking alone at the back. Yes, I still had to keep stopping for breath, but I stayed in contact all the way up that mountain, and was actually second in the group on the descent. Turns out I really like descending and my knees are fine with it.
Finally, we summited at 6am.
That’s fog blurring the image.
We’d reached the peak of Snowdon in 22 hours 30 minutes. That left us 90 minutes to descend in order to hit our 24-hour mark.
Simon said it was doable, but it would be dangerous. It was wet, it was very cold, and it was very windy. The challenge was to “climb” the Three Peaks within 24 hours – we’d done that. In the interests of safety, we unanimously elected to descend safely and more slowly.
We finally got to the base in 25 hours.
Some people might think we failed because of that. Believe me, we did not.
Bruises from Scafell Pike.
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