A gambler’s high on the peaks of Britain

At some point everyone needs to gamble. Throw caution to the wind; dance with lady luck. Bet it all on a hand of cards. Well, we weren’t quite betting everything, but we had staked a lot on avoiding the usual Highlands weather of wind, rain and fog. It doesn’t take an expert to know that wagering on Scottish weather isn’t wise, but so far we had rolled the dice and come out trumps. We were standing at the top of Ben Nevis, sunshine streaming down on us and resplendent scenery before as far as the eye could see. Bens, lochs, dales and even the Irish Sea lay before us, all glinting and smiling in the sunlight. Sadly we couldn’t dilly-dally at the peak for too long, despite the memorable vistas tempting us to soak in their beauty for a while longer. After all, we had a challenge to complete. 

 

When good friend Matt announced we would be celebrating his 40th birthday by hiking the Three Peaks Challenge, my initial reaction was curiosity. It soon turned to trepidation. The concept is simple, but the reality is tough: reach the highest peaks in Scotland, England and Wales, all within a 24-hour period. This would involve 23 miles of walking and a not insignificant 3 064 metres of ascent (often at very cold temperatures). For our group of nine rather unfit men, this was not going to be a typical walk in the park. To give us a fighting chance on our quest for fame and glory, we enlisted the expertise of guides Dan and Becky from ‘Into the Outside’ (and their faithful Labrador Pan). For them the challenge would be even harder: as well as hiking, they would be organizing transport and logistics, keeping everyone well fed and warm, making sure we didn’t get lost and keeping everyone in high spirits. 

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We had started our challenge at the foot of Ben Nevis at 4pm on the first afternoon. Five hours later we were safely back at the bottom in the fading light, grateful for the long Scottish summer evenings. We now had a six-hour drive to Scafell Pike in the Lake District of England, which we were hoping to begin in the wee hours of the following morning. Mother nature had indeed dealt us a good hand, as shortly after leaving Ben Nevis the heavens opened and a fearsome thunderstorm erupted above us. Another group, also doing the same challenge but two hours behind us, were soaked to the bone. 

 

Our luck didn’t hold for too long. Scafell Pike was meant to be the easiest of our three hikes, at ‘just’ a 978 metre elevation, but turned out to be our toughest. Becky (who had done the night driving) and Pan the labbie (who at 11 years old was battling to keep up) wisely decided to rest in the van. The rest of us set off, navigating the first hour by torch light. Tendons were tight and muscles stiff from the last peak, and no one had got much sleep in the van. As night turned to daylight we slowly continued upwards, completing the last few miles to the top while buffeted by freezing winds and surrounded by heavy fog. Rumour has it the view from the top at sunrise is amazing - I made a mental note to check that on google when I got home - and after a quick photo of us in the fog we wordlessly turned around and began scampering back to the warmth of our van. 

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Life looked a lot merrier once we had changed into a dry set of clothes and devoured a carbo-filled pasta breakfast. We would now spend the morning driving to Snowdon Peak in Wales, our final summit. To encourage sensible driving, over time the challenge had been modified from the original 24 hours to a system where travel time is assumed to be a standard 10 hours and hikers therefore have 14 hours to complete their three hikes. This meant we had just over five hours to climb our final peak. Challenge accepted, and we hoped mother nature would smile sweetly upon us. We were delighted to discover that Snowdon was – if it’s possible – just as beautiful as the other hikes. The route winds above the Llyn Llydaw lake, before a sharp climb at the end leads to the top of the peak, complete with magnificent views of rolling Welsh countryside. Our photo at the peak is once I will cherish for a long time: it shows a group of tired, dirty, proud and happy faces – a fitting reflection of our journey to the top. And the Welsh weather had been relatively kind to us, with a harsh wind but glimpses of sun peeking through the clouds. Once more we had somehow avoided rain, which counted as a victory in my book.

Descending from Snowdon gave me a chance to reflect on the whole crazy experience. Everything I had been warned to expect had been true: the physical element of the challenge had been tough and the temperatures had been frigid – even in mid-Summer.  However, it was the unexpected challenges of the trip that made it truly unique: the near-constant diet of pasta dishes and protein bars, the lack of sleep and the time spent driving between the peaks. Crossing the finish line (well within the time limit, I might proudly add) certainly provided a real sense of achievement. We had hiked further than we had thought possible, we had seen beautiful parts of Britain we had not previously known existed and we had created some priceless memories together as a group of friends. Matt, let the planning for the 50th birthday celebrations commence - we will be ready to spin the wheel of fortune with mother nature once again. 

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Know before you go:

For more info on the 3 peaks challenge see https://www.threepeakschallenge.uk. Doing the challenge with qualified guides is strongly recommended (www.intotheoutside.co.uk)