Five men, one minibus, 1200 miles by road, 21 miles to walk, 10,000 feet to climb, 3 mountains to conquer, 24 hours to do it in, and fifteen lbs of jelly babies … with stats like that, how could it not be epic?
A casual remark last January set it all in motion. ‘We should do the Three Peaks Challenge,’ I said to Pete. ‘And I know someone else who’d like to as well’. Thus is was that myself, Pete, Dave, Russ, and Phil committed to conquering the tallest mountains in Scotland, England and Wales. Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike, and Snowdon were names that we would become very familiar with over the following months, presenting us with a challenge that, in truth, I never fully appreciated until on the day.
I trained hard, climbing local peaks such as the Blorenge, Sugarloaf, Skirrid, and Pen-y-Fan multiple times. I started running more seriously, averaging fifteen miles per week and increasing my usual run from a couple of miles to five or six. I started eating better, training hard, and spending money on proper kit. Excited, I was also aware that on the day, the mountains could throw anything at us. And I wasn’t wrong.
We drove to Stirling on Friday evening and stayed at Phil’s cousin’s house, a welcome change from our original plan — to arrive in Fort William at 2am and camp. After a few hour’s sleep we headed for Fort William, stopping to fuel up on the way. Note to roadside cafe: macaroni with onion and bacon usually contains bits of bacon. After that we killed an hour in Fort William, where I was forced to try on The Hat. Much prompting could not persuade me to buy it and wear it up the mountain, out of fear of being shot by the locals.
Then we geared up for Ben Nevis. Arriving at the starting point, we realised just how many people would be climbing at the same time. They were like lines of multi-coloured ants, snaking up the trail, zig-zagging across the mountain until they became depressingly small and disappeared altogether. This was one high bastard.
In good spirits, we set off. And though it is the highest of the three peaks by 1400 feet, I found this the easiest mountain to climb. The trails were steep and hard, and slippery on the way down (we all took at least one tumble). The smallish snow field was hard to climb, but fun to descend. The drifting mist soaked us a little. But … everything I’d heard had told me that this would be the hardest of the three peaks. So when we arrived back at the mini-bus after four hours, 4400 feet, and 8 miles, I was feeling pretty good about the whole thing.
This was going to be a piece of cake.
Until we stripped to change by the roadside and were attacked by the infamous Scottish mozzies. But that’s a horror story for another day.
First comedy mishap of the day occurred here (apart from Pete’s headlong fall into a wet ditch three minutes after setting off …!). Tired and sweaty, I was preparing a For Goodness Shake (a recovery drink), when the bloody thing exploded all over me. Banana-smelling gooey dust. Nice. I blame Pete. Just because he was there.
It was 10pm by now, so we powered off into the night and stopped at a service station … somewhere. Dave wore his Camping King crown and brought out the stove, and we brewed up and ate some rehydrated meals.
Scafell Pike was next … booted and suited we headed off, and though our ascent was 1400 feet less that Ben Nevis, I found this one really hard. The path — formed from random rocks — was slippery and gritty. And steep. And once the paths ended and Scafell Pike’s craggy summit came into view, the going changed to heavy boulders and scree fields, with no defined path to follow.
But we forged on, and the last haul to the summit was a real drag. It was great to get there, though, and the views were stunning.
A note here about the weather. We were so, so lucky on Ben Nevis. The skies were cloudy, but we only ever experience minor drizzle. At one point we were actually above the clouds, and when we walked down through them we’d obviously been above a major downpour. And on Scafell Pike, the weather was also kind to us (check out that photo of me at the trig point!) It was pretty cold up there, and when you stop walking after a couple of hours and the wind hits your sweat-damped body … that’s chilling. As for Snowdon… more on that in a minute.
As we climbed and descended Scafell Pike we were seeing lots of the same people we’d seen several hours and hundreds of miles away on Ben Nevis. Nods became ‘hello’s, and though having so many people around us detracted a little from the ‘man against the elements’ bit of the adventure, most people were good-natured and always ready with an encouraging comment. Apart from the big guy wearing a kid’s teddy bear hat. ‘Nice hat mate,’ from me should have met with a smile, at least. Miserable git. There was also a stag party doing the Three Peaks, the stag wearing full walking gear along with a tutu and a blond wig. Hats off to him.
We changed by the side of the road (some people probably saw more than they would have liked, but I was tired and wet and didn’t care….), and heading off along the beautiful winding lanes, the constant energy gels we’d been popping began to take effect on our stomach, and Dave and I requested a pit-stop to let nature take its course.
And then, way out in the wild on top of a small hill by the side of the road, two portaloos! What the hell were they doing there? We didn’t know, but Pete skidded to a stop and said, ‘There you go.’ And there, indeed, we went. And in a final stroke of fate, the doors didn’t lock, and as we held them open we had a beautiful, panoramic view of Scafell Pike. What better way to thumb your nose at a mountain?
Time was ticking on. We had to get to Snowdon quickly, so we hit a roadside burger van and had a breakfast roll each to fuel up for the final climb. Snowdon is the easiest, I’d been told. The paths are clear, and it’s a gentle slog until the last hard climb. It’ll be fine. Loads of people do it. Snowdon is the easiest….
Snowdon was a hell-hole. Or a hell-mountain. We’d been spoiled with the weather, and now the rain had come in with a vengeance. We suited up and prepared, all in high spirits, and determined to achieve our aim — ascend and descend three mountains in 24 hours. Dave, Pete and I headed off, Russ and Phil electing to take an easier pace. Into the rain. And as we started climbing, into the gale-force winds as well.
It was hard. Pete, totally in the zone, pulled off ahead of us. Dave and I climbed together, both developing painful knees that had us gritting our teeth against the discomfort. The weather was horrible. We were climbing waterfalls with frozen, numb hands. We stopped for an energy bar which neither of us could open with our frozen fingers. We were soaked from the outside with rain, and from the inside with sweat. But we were determined, and never once did either of us suggest that we wouldn’t finish. Dave asked for a gun so he could shoot himself. I thought I probably wouldn’t have the strength to pull the trigger.
By the time we reached the top, the wind was staggeringly strong, blowing rain into our faces that felt like shotgun pellets. My knee was knackered — I dragged myself the last couple of hundred feet, only climbing with my left leg, and by the time I reached Dave at the trig point I was shivering with the pain. We shook hands … we’d done it! In that awful weather, exhausted, wet, and cold, it was a sublime moment. I honestly didn’t shed a tear. It was just the rain.
Dave decided to try and head down quickly to achieve the 24 hour time (Pete had already passed us on his descent). So he went, and I started down on my own. This was my rough time. I couldn’t see, because my glasses were soaked and there was nothing dry to wipe them with. But I kept a good speed, and for a while even thought I might make it down in the time.
Then I overshot one of the paths we’d taken on the way up. Only by 100 feet, and I could see the lakeside Miner’s Path I was aiming for down below. I started down a slope, quickly realised it was the wrong way and probably dangerous, climbed back up again. Backtracked, then found the path. By now I’d passed exhaustion, and also passed the 24 hour limit. I’d made the Snowdon summit within about 23 hours, so … that’s it for me. I was also a little worried that the other chaps would have all made it back and might be concerned I wasn’t there. If Prince William had to pick me up, I’d never live it down.
So after all that climbing, 32 hours without sleep, many miles walked, and the insane chaos of Snowdon, I ran the three miles back along the Miner’s Path leading to the lake.
There was a cafe. It was warm. And dry. And I sat down with Dave, Pete, Russ, and Phil, and drank a pint of very sweet tea. It was over. We ate in Llanberis, then drove home.
The Three Peaks Challenge has ‘challenge’ in the title for a reason. It was the hardest thing I have ever done, a true endurance event, but also one of the most enjoyable, and the most satisfying. It was always a challenge first and foremost for myself, but I also raised money for a very worthy charity that’s close to my heart. Today I still ache, and I’m still exhausted. But I have the memory of a fine adventure undertaken with good friends, and the pleasure of knowing that we all did it.
And wait til you see what comes next.
(You can still donate to St David’s Foundation as a sponsor of my Challenge … www.JustGiving.com/Tim–Lebbon).