On June 26th 2015 the Vivi Nation team tackled the National Three Peaks Challenge, raising money for Action Duchenne. For those who don’t know, the challenge involves climbing the three highest peaks in England, Wales and Scotland, all within a 24-hour time limit. Ben Nevis, the biggest of the three and the highest point in the UK was to be attempted first, with Scafell Pike in the Lake District second, and finishing with Snowdon in Wales.
Our motivation to complete the challenge came from the amazing charity we were representing and raising money for, Action Duchenne. Action Duchenne is a national charity that aims to find a cure for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a severe genetic muscle wasting disease. This particular charity is close to our hearts as, 10 years ago, a member of our team’s cousin was diagnosed with DMD.
Spoiler: if you want to know why you should try the National Three Peaks Challenge, and how to nail it, check out our blog here.
First and foremost, organising the logistics proved tougher than expected. As with many bright ideas, they may seem fantastic on paper but actually extremely difficult to organise. Our first issue was transport – solved in the end by Dave (Chris and Nick’s Dad – great work Dave). Having decided to start with Ben Nevis we then had to figure out what time we needed to get there and when we wanted to start – from London, Ben Nevis was about a 10-hour drive. After much deliberation, we decided to drive up North on the Friday night to Preston – this turned out to be a brilliant idea. Our preparation in the lead up was our normal routine – going to the gym, the odd cycle, a team viewing of The Fellowship of the Ring… I think we had a Lord of the Rings adventure epic in mind when we envisioned the challenge.
So the challenge weekend came, we all got our kit together, Dave picked us (Chris, Tom and Nick) up from London and we got on our way to our overnight stop-off point in Preston. I would love to say the journey was uneventful, however, an hour into the drive, Chris suddenly realised he had left London in a pair of flip flops… without his walking boots. After a few chosen words it was decided that he would have to buy a new pair of walking boots in the morning – an extremely inadvisable move seeing as you are meant to ‘break’ all boots in before any walking. How he managed to get on his way in flip-flops without realising it was beyond us all, clearly nerves rattling his brain. After a few delays, the much-needed rest came as we reached our destination, a good night sleep crucial to next day events.
The following day we set off at around 9am to make the 5-hour journey to Ben Nevis. After leaving the motorway in Scotland the team were treated to some of Scotland’s best views.
Starting at Ben Nevis visit centre at 4:30pm, our first experience was another group of young gentlemen, aged around 20, quite literally gasping for breath in the car park. Intrigued, we asked if they had just climbed Ben Nevis, to which their reply was ‘yes, the conditions aren’t great at the top and it took us 8 hours’. This was not music to our ears as we had under 5 hours on our own schedule. Nevertheless, a quick bite to eat, getting into our gear and a pre-challenge photo soon raised our spirits. This would be fun, we thought.
The start of Ben Nevis was a fairly tame affair. A gradual incline around the foot of the mountain with the odd scattered rocky patch to hike over. Once we reached the main path, however, the route was not as we had expected. Blaming it on poor research, we proceeded to climb a long, zig-zagging and rocky trail towards the mid-way point. The path was far from the steep but flat route we had been expecting. Instead, uneven rocks were our walkway, similar to a very poorly assembled set of stairs – brutal on the thighs. Still extremely optimistic at this stage we had no issues in quickly climbing this section of the route.
At the mid-way point, there is a stunning lake with some great views. The path also flattens out so you can cover that section in good speed. We were soon to discover we still had a long way still to go… including the hardest part. This wasn’t the last time we seriously miscalculated our timings/distances…
The second half of the climb began to really burn our legs and test our fitness. It was a very steep uphill climb over large rocks, with the last mile or so being a trudge through thick snow. I am told that snow isn’t guaranteed and I am sure without the snow it would have been easier, however as we had no choice on we went! Reaching the top was a mighty relief, however, we had lost a lot of time getting up the last section so decided to turn immediately back and begin our descent – what we felt would surely be the easiest section.
How wrong we could have been. On the way up, fitness and leg strength had taken a fairly large battering (the climb had been much harder than anticipated), on the way down it was a completely different experience. For starters, Chris’ new boots began to take their toll – within the first mile, blisters had struck. Nick was also starting to suffer from foot pain, whilst Tom had managed to get a huge blister on his heel on the way up. Additionally, the team were trying to rush the descent and the extra strain really began to hurt. With time ticking down, we finally made it to the bottom in a much worse state than expected, roughly 5 hours after we had begun.
Driver Dave had produced the goods and met us with water, some takeaway pizzas and a change of clothes. More heroic than the legendary Hercules. Quickly getting out of our hiking gear (and being set upon by midges – take insect repellent!) we set off on our way to Scafell Pike, still fairly confident.
Arriving at Scafell Pike in the early hours of the morning wasn’t a pleasant experience (we took the Wasdale route). Nevis had already taken some of the stuffing out of us and the thought of climbing another peak on no sleep filled us with dread (trying to sleep in between the mountains is a must – we failed and regretted it). To make matters worse, as we were approaching Scaffel Pike, the heavens had opened. A thick fog obscured our line of sight and torrential rain quite literally put a dampner on our spirits.
Getting changed in the pouring rain in the early hours of the morning was truly soul destroying. Despite this, some words of encouragement from Dave injected a bit of belief back into our weary bones and we pulled ourselves together to begin our second ascent, what turned out to be a woeful experience.
With limited light (remember a torch), we were soaked almost immediately, despite wearing full waterproofs (key tip here is to bring a change of clothes for each mountain). It was a miserable start. We didn’t really know where we were heading so we picked up on some torches in the distance and began making our way towards them – fortunately, this turned out to be the right way but if you get it wrong, be aware that it can add another 3 miles to your trek.
The burn set in almost immediately as we followed a stream up the mountain. Not only was it physically tough, but it was also a mental challenge. The rain was absolutely pouring down. Anyone who came past us on their way down looked thoroughly depressed and the camaraderie that we started the challenge off with had been replaced with utter silence, only broken by the frustrated grunt from one of us.
Halfway up we encountered another team who were in deep discussion. As we neared, they made the bold decision to abandon their attempt and turn back. We decided to continue… I felt like crying. The wind picked up, the fog increased, the rain continued to pour down. Looking back on it now I can still stand by my statement at the time ‘this is the worst experience of my life’. Nearing the top we saw a keen hiker making his way back down. We asked him how far we had to go, desperately hoping for a positive reply. He replied: “not too far but the last bit is a really steep scramble across a load of boulders. It is very difficult in this weather.” ‘We are going to die’, flitted into my thoughts.
Much to our delight, we didn’t die. The going was indeed extremely gruelling though. Once we had reached the top, behind schedule again, we immediately began our miserable trudge back down – literally desperate to get off the mountain. On our way back down we met a lot of other groups, all of which looked as miserable as us. A fair few turned back (a fairly wise move) – we didn’t help by telling anyone who asked how wet and cold the weather was the higher you go. Out of interest, we checked the emergency log and six call-outs had already happened that day. Not surprising given the conditions. Reaching the bottom of Scafell Pike was one of the most joyous moments in my life. It was arguably the closest I had come in ten years to shedding tears: tears of despair at how physically and mentally ruined we felt, and tears of joy at getting back into a warm, dry car.
The issue we now had was a big one: all of our gear was completely soaked and we still had another mountain to climb. We felt like Frodo and Sam carrying Sauron’s ring toward the fiery pits of Mount Doom. This is us at the end of Scaffel Pike – a sorry sight (and incredibly wet).
In the car on the way to Snowdon, we couldn’t quite believe what we had read prior to starting the challenge. Firstly, we realised our prior readings had been poor – reading blogs from experienced hikers isn’t the way forward (they make the challenge sound far easier than it actually is). Secondly, we began to read the reasons people fail the challenge, which was a real possibility for us as well. Lastly, we read that a large number of people do the three peaks over a whole weekend, some only do Ben Nevis, guided companies can call the hike off in bad weather and the 24-hour failure rate for those who complete the three mountains is much higher than expected. Googling ‘three peaks challenge failures’ came back with some entertaining results – this is our clear favourite. We also Googled the weather for our own challenge, desperately hoping for some Sun. Instead, we read that there were two weather warnings on Scafell Pike and THREE on Snowdon. Oh dear.
Arriving at Snowdon in the rain, with legs like lead, it was always going to a tough one. On a positive note, nothing could be worse than Scafell Pike! The end was in sight, which was a real blessing, so despite having to put on soaking wet clothes and shoes, there was light at the end of the tunnel. Snowdon, fortunately, turned out to be the easiest of the three peaks – we climbed the Pyg Trail, which is apparently the easiest ascent. The path itself was also the easiest. It was flatter and slightly less rocky than the previous two peaks. The wind was pretty horrid with already wet clothing, resulting in us looking like a pretty bedraggled, cold bunch. Despite the rain and fog, we knew the end was in sight and that helped spur us on. At that stage, each step felt like an Olympic Gold medal.
The challenge itself is a superb achievement for those who complete it. It is a fantastic event to raise money for the charities you support, which is the most important thing. However, our main pointers are:
- the 24 hour target should only be attempted if you have a good level of fitness (a lot of people we spoke to either climbed just one mountain or did it over a weekend)
- extremely bad weather will literally ruin the experience for you
- make sure you have the right kit – water, hiking boots, change of clothes, hiking poles, food, full waterproofs, torches.. check out the checklist on the official Three Peaks website
Thank you to all who sponsored us from the Vivi team: Chris, Nick, Tom and Dave.
Check out our highlights reel: