It was a deliberate choice to attempt the Three Peaks Challenge as near to summer solstice as possible; the prospect of climbing any of England’s, Wales’ or Scotland’s highest peaks in anything other than dazzling sunlight was…unappealing. To be honest, the thought of climbing them at all – having limited our training to several day trips to the South Downs and the Isle of Wight, and regularly commandeering the StairMaster at our local gyms – was daunting. Granted, some of us (read: “I”) had prepared on a nutritional level by seriously carb-loading for several dozen years beforehand, but it became increasingly evident in the months preceding our challenge that Hampshire really was fairly rubbish at providing us with the appropriate terrain on which to train.
On Friday 21 June, six of us arrived at Southampton Airport laden with rucksacks containing almost the entire stock of ‘Mountain Warehouse’ and enjoyed lunch before boarding our flight to Glasgow. On arrival, we were pleasantly surprised at how underwhelmingly unhilly the area was.
We met one of our drivers, Steve – as well as Aimee and Harry who had flown up separately – and after popping into Tesco Express to buy some Prosecco and French Fancies to enjoy at the end of the challenge, made our way out to the car park behind the airport to board our minibus. It was there that we met Roz, the other driver who welcomed us and our copious collection of luggage.
It was at this point that I fully realised Glasgow was nowhere near Fort William, the starting point for our challenge. After several hours of driving – with the landscape becoming alarmingly more dramatic with every passing minute – we stopped at an outfitter-gift-shop-type-place, where Steve and Roz checked that we had all our necessary stock. Adam – despite his protests – was told that he needed a pair of waterproof trousers and an anorak. It was the second time I’ve ever seen him annoyed. I was obviously amused, and even more so when I saw a coaster with his name on in the gift shop:
Several more hours of driving into the Highlands followed, along tarmac ribbons draped loosely between towering mountainsides, beside sapphire lochs reflecting the midsummer sun, until we reached our destination for the night: Inchree.
And what a place it was. A quaint collection of chalets on a small hillside, at the place where Lock Eil and Loch Linnhe meet, cocooned by verdant mountains of various greens. We could have easily stayed here for much longer than one night.
After a team meal in the onsite restaurant (and having probably cleared their entire stock of lasagne), we settled in for an early night. Being in northern Scotland, it didn’t get completely dark until after 11pm, and the dawn light was beginning to make an appearance before 3am – so by 5am, with sunlight streaming in through our windows, we were almost keen to get up and going. I mean, bed was certainly more appealing than what lay ahead in the next 24 hours, but the conditions could not have been better.
A short taxi ride took us to Fort William’s train station, where we met Roz and Steve again. They took us to the official start point and we were introduced to Adam, our mountain guide.
So as not to be confused with our own ‘Adam’, I will call our guide ‘Gary’ from this point onwards.
Gary was one of the most affable, encouraging and Scottish people I had ever met. He shook all our hands, made a valiant effort to remember each of our names on the first introduction, took a look at us collectively and said (with moderate confidence) that he thought we would all make it.
That was encouraging news, as Steve had told us on arrival in Glasgow that whilst 60 to 70% of people who start the challenge complete it, it’s very common for at least one person in the group to not finish. Only several weeks earlier, one person had given up after 13 minutes. It was our target to last at least 14.
So off we went, backpacks full with water, snacks, essential and non-essential equipment, mountain poles in hand, as we followed the train of other hikers making their way up. The path was a relatively gentle incline, gradually making its way up along the hillside. With the temperature in the low teens, the sun shining and a soft but refreshing breeze, it was proving to be exceedingly pleasant – and rather easy. Before long, we were beginning to pass other groups (and were occasionally passed by others ourselves), and so a slight air of competitiveness descended upon us. We were all in good spirits.
After about half an hour, the path curved around the hillside and ahead of us – into the foreseeable distance – the incline steepened, and the path became more uneven. The conversation died down, and concentration turned more to keeping a steady pace and – more importantly – breathing. Another half hour passed, and we paused to catch our breath at one of the corners. The path continued to snake up and around the mountain before us, and Gary pointed to a waterfall several hundred feet up, some way into the distance. He said that when we reached that point, we would be about halfway to the summit. At that moment, my heart sank a little.
Thankfully, the next stretch proved to be one of my favourite parts of the entire challenge – the incline lessened and the path widened so we could walk alongside one another more easily and once again partake in conversation. Furthermore, at this altitude, the scenery really was beginning to look utterly spectacular. At the waterfall, a couple of us topped up our water bottles and paused for a couple of minutes. In my head, I told myself it was all downhill from this point (well, except that it was still going to be uphill for a while).
Gary told us that it would take about 90 minutes to reach the summit of Ben Nevis from here, and the next section would involve 8 hairpin turns. The section between turns 3 and 5 were apparently going to be the worst. Once we got to turn 5, I therefore assumed it would be easier.
It was not.
The path became rockier and steeper, and the weather had changed quite dramatically. There was a cold, damp wind, which meant we were no longer wearing our short-sleeved shirts but had dug out our coats (Adam now being grateful for his mandatory purchase the previous day). We continued onward and upward, and shortly after 10am, reached the summit, elated to be at the UK’s highest elevation. After taking off our coats and donning our Aztec shirts for a few photos, and briefly cursing the lack of a Snowdon-type café and train to take us back down, we began the descent.
The clouds gathered quickly, and visibility worsened quickly to the point that we could barely see ten feet in front of us. Our hands were too cold to feel for the gloves in our rucksacks, so we made our way down as quickly as we could. The clouds lingered longer than we had thought they would, and despite the joy of reaching the summit in a good time, general spirits were not quite as high as they had been just 30 minutes earlier, even with my impression of Cher singing Abba songs. For me, the prospect of six hours of rest on the bus was the primary motivation for getting down quickly.
Our way down was, however, slower than we had wanted it to be, because of the sheer volume of other people climbing the mountain that day.
Back at the bus, Roz and Steve had prepared tea, coffee and bacon rolls for us, which were gratefully received. Following a ten-minute break to change socks, check for blisters (so far – none), and sort through our bags, we were on our way to mountain number two – Scafell Pike.
The aim was to sleep on the bus between mountains, but this was difficult as it careered around the winding roads. I think I managed 5 minutes before I either woke myself up with a particularly loud snore, or my head hit the window.
By 8pm we were close to arriving at Scafell Pike – Harry had chosen to play us some dramatic music as we saw the range looming ahead of us as we drove along the winding lane to the start of the walk. On leaving the bus and beginning the walk, there was something about the landscape ahead of us that seemed so quintessentially English – the tree-lined path between the rolling hillsides, alongside a gentle brook cascading down towards the lake, with cobbled walls scattered here and there.
Very soon, Scafell Pike felt like a very different walk to that which we had experienced on Ben Nevis, most notably feeling considerably steeper for most of its ascent. The walk was certainly shorter than it had been on our first mountain, but mentally more challenging because the summit never seemed to come into view – after turning a corner, the path would seem to continue indefinitely.
It took just over two hours to reach the top, and as we did, we were treated to one of the most glorious sunsets imaginable. Gary told us that in the hundred or so times he had undertaken this challenge with a group, this was the most amazing view he had seen from Scafell Pike.
The light quickly began to fade, and it wasn’t long before we were descending in complete darkness. A trail of headtorches winding down the mountain provided a degree of reassurance, and proved to be an interesting juxtaposition – a slither of activity against a background of rural emptiness.
Roz and Steve had been busy preparing porridge for us back at the bus, and once consumed at a little after midnight, we were on our way to the final mountain of the challenge – Snowdon.
A few of us managed to catch a little sleep, but none of us were particularly keen or sufficiently energised to get out of the bus again at 5am when we arrived. Although it was light at this point, it was overcast – comfortable for our climb, but not providing us with the spectacular palette of colours we had been able to enjoy at Ben Nevis and Scafell Pike.
We took around two and a half hours to climb the Pyg track – Jimmy, Carly and I had taken the same trail a few weeks earlier in order to practise, and had reached the top in just under two hours, but it proved considerably more difficult having already climbed two mountains and with next to no sleep.
At the summit, the wind was like something from another world. I have never experienced anything like it. We celebrated with a tot of whiskey, and then took the much gentler Llanberis Path on our descent.
This was the hardest part of the entire challenge for me – I had never struggled with the downhill sections before, but my calves (as in legs, not baby cows) were in a lot of pain by this point. Others were struggling with knees or just a complete lack of energy.
Shortly after 10am, we reached the Snowdon train station. We were exhausted, but jubilant. Dave celebrated by putting his walking poles in a nearby bin, which amused the rest of us greatly (in fairness, they were broken).
Back at the bus, we were presented with our certificates and medals, and a well-earned rest as we were taken to Chester train station. Although the total time taken was 27 hours, the journey time between the mountains was delayed, and based on our actual mountain-climbing times, under normal circumstances our time would have been 23 hours and 4 minutes.
So would we do it again, or would it be a case of ‘Ben Never again’? Was it an enjoyable or was it ‘Scawful Pike’? ‘Snow-donefornow’ or ‘Snow-doneforgood’?
In short, we loved it. The scenery was incredible, the company was wonderful, and the memories will stay with us for many years to come. The walks themselves were not easy, but neither were they insurmountable. We all found them accessible, and the comradery between us certainly helped. We all struggled with a different element – from physical discomfort to a lack of energy – and so to all of us, completing the challenge was a great achievement.
Throughout the experience, I had several recurring thoughts. Firstly, I had so often taken for granted, or completely forgotten, how beautiful these three countries are. We are so privileged to have such spectacular places within (fairly) easy reach of us. Secondly, there is nothing tangible, no material possession, that compares to the pleasure of watching a sunset (which also happens to be completely free). Thirdly, although I had wanted to take on the Three Peaks Challenge for many years, I had spent much time procrastinating and doubting my own abilities – and that proved a complete waste of time. It certainly wasn’t the easiest thing I’ve ever done, but with the comradery of some good friends in some truly memorable places, it was one of the best.
And so was the Domino’s Pizza on the Sunday evening.
On a final note, we wanted to use this experience to raise awareness of, and money for, a cause that is important to many people: mental health. All of us who took part in this challenge have either struggled with depression ourselves or are close to someone who does. At some point in our lives, at least one in four people will struggle with mental illness in some form, and almost every one of us will know someone for whom it’s a very real challenge.
Although in recent years there have been improvements in the understanding of, and care for those with, mental illnesses, the reality is that so many people still lack the care, support and advice they desperately need.
As someone who has had depression for about 15 years, I can testify to it being a truly isolating and debilitating experience. There may not be any obvious physical symptoms or clear signs of a person’s mental health difficulties, but in some ways that adds to it being such a frustrating, complicated and lonely pain to endure. At my lowest moments, there have been times when – even if surrounded by friends or family – I’ve felt so utterly detached and despairing that I’ve seriously contemplated ending it all. Depression makes you feel guilty. You feel embarrassed, irrational, and burdensome to others. And these feelings only serve to propagate themselves even further, thus becoming a vicious cycle.
The charity we have chosen to support is ‘Solent Mind’, and we’re delighted that our efforts have succeeded in raising just over £2,000 for them. They are committed to providing advice, support and empowerment to anyone struggling with a mental illness in the Hampshire region, in every demographic, and work to both raise awareness and challenge the stigma associated with mental illnesses.
Matt Costen, Dave Bridger, Jimmy Comfort, Hayley Glyn-Jones, Adam Huston, Harry Roberts, Carly Taylor, Aimee Wheeler.