The Three Peaks Challenge

Because They Are There

Seven of us attempted the Three Peaks Challenge – up and down the three highest mountains in England, Scotland and Wales in 24 hours. I recorded a Dictaphone journal:

(Click on photos for big versions)

 Afore the Ben


19.07: By the Thames

What am I doing? The last time I toiled up a mountain was a painful, hateful slog. Now I’m off to do it three times in a row. I’ll never make it. My co-climbing friends are all younger and fitter than me. Al (second from right above), ex-army, goes running every day. I don’t know his fiancée Hayley (third from right) very well but she has a look of “will the fat bloke at the back please keep up” about her. Next are the Lamonts, Nat and James (rightmost and kneeling), both lean and fit. The other two members of the party, Bill and Denny (second and third from left), appear slightly less athletic and, I hope, could be potential fellow contenders for back marker (I’m leftmost).

20.27: Heathrow Airport

Denny has spent £160 on gear, including socks designed by Nasa and action trousers with unzippable legs. But he’s wearing his dad’s walking boots, which have given him a blister on the way to the airport. Bill’s guide to Scotland says: “More people perish annually on Ben Nevis than on Everest.”


Ben Nevis

Height: 1,344m. Starting elevation: 30m. Total climb: 1,314m. Distance to walk: 17.16km.

Team comes on15.28:

We’re off! Al has taken charge and handed out tasks to Bill (some wrist computer thing) and Denny (a compass).
Denny’s feet were sore after 15 minutes and my hamstrings ached after about two. First stopWe’ve had a very short stop, as commanded by Al. Everyone feels reinvigorated despite the brevity of the pause.


One hour in, second rest stop. According to Bill’s wrist, we have climbed 540m, which seems pretty good. Everyone is OK and happily eating chocolate, although Nat’s legs are “feeling very heavy”.


AAAWe have awesome views of Loch Linnhe and out to sea (above, click for high res). We can see the valley floor a long way down, the sort of view you usually only see from an aeroplane. The surrounding mountains, mottled green and warm orange-brown, are draped in the thinnest cloud and look preposterously pretty.


DSCN4938It’s taken an hour and 40 minutes to start talking about Touching The Void.


Hayley’s knee is very sore. Everyone is giving advice. James is evangelising about Tubigrip but Nat thinks that will “stop her knee moving in the way it’s supposed to”.

DSCN4923Warnings from descending walkers are becoming ominous. It’s horrible up there, they say. Several have the cold, wet, traumatised look of disaster survivors. One bedraggled girl has clearly been crying a lot.


It’s very cold. We’re in cloud, walking through snow. I’m in shorts. My knees have gone bright red. Al has warned us to stay close – there are massive cliffs just to our left.

18.33: The Top

We are, right now, the highest people in the United Kingdom. It took three hours and five minutes to get here.highest in the UK

Other than Hayley’s knee, there are no problems. Everyone is sprightly. I am euphoric. That was a doddle! All my fitness work has made a difference – I’m really fit! They say downhill is harder, which is obviously rubbish.


Disaster! I have been injured – a toenail crunch to my left big toe. I knew this would happen because it happens every time I wear these boots. They are a tiny bit too small for me, so a particularly heavy downhill step will drive my big toenail into my toe as if it’s been whacked with a mallet.

It hurts. Every big downhill lurch zaps pain up my leg. If I tread gingerly I’m OK but it’s hard to tread gingerly descending The Ben.from the top

The bottom is visible. I’m walking delicately, then forgetting, bashing my toenails into a big rock, swearing loudly and startling the innocent sheep. I’ve smashed my right big toenail too now. We’re all tired and sore and my theory that every long walk is at least an hour too long is being ruthlessly demonstrated.


We’ve passed several other groups of Three-Peakers – some very friendly, some utterly ignoring our greetings in that spectacularly embarrassed and very British way.some other rainbow

What a lovely rainbow! We’re nearly at the bottom. Legs very heavy. Dreading the next climb.bungledenny's new trousers 2


It has taken five hours and 41 minutes. We’re all tired and Hayley is in quite a bad way with her knee. My big toenails have gone a pretty blackbird-egg blue. Feel a bit guilty mentioning them in light of Hayley’s much more serious ailment but do so anyway, to everyone. Bill is claiming repeatedly to have lumbar chafing but nobody will ask him what that is.


03.50: Lake District

After a massive curry in Fort William followed by fitful sleep in our hired minibus, we’re approaching Scafell Pike.

Scafell PikeDSCN5034

Height: 978m. Starting elevation: 90m. Total climb: 888m. Distance to walk: 9.82km.
burden of the ringAfter 45 minutes we’ve climbed one-third. It’s beautiful. “Much better than Scotland!” Denny has pointed out regularly. Huge rolling hills loom over the dark Wast Water behind us. In the distance is the sea.


Above us though, clouds are snagged on rugged cliffs. We are about to face the steepest section of the challenge.scafell or mordor

07.20: The Top

We’re the highest people in England! It took two hours and 15 minutes to get up here. There’s a panoramic view of the Lake District all around. The last bit was very steep, over jagged boulders.highest in England


We’re down in four hours, 25 minutes. The descent was not fun, my toes were sore and I just wanted to be finished. Poor Hayley is in trouble. Brave as a mother badger she may be but she grimaced with every step.

Hayley: “On the flat, it’s fine. Going up is bad. Down is awful.” There is no flat.

Snowdon next. Completely knackered, we’re off to climb the highest mountain in Wales.scenic wazz

12.32: The M6 Motorway

We’re not going to make it in 24 hours. We’re not even in Wales yet and Snowdon is on the far side of Wales.
We can barely remember what the challenge is. If it’s all three peaks, up and down, in 24 hours, we’ve failed. If it’s to be on all three summits within 24 hours, we have until 18.30 to get up Snowdon. We decide that the point is to go up all three in a weekend and enjoy ourselves.


Height: 1,085m. Starting elevation: 395m. Total climb: 690m. Distance to walk: 11.22km.


We’re heading up Snowdon. Hayley has stayed in the minibus. She has an important meeting at 9am tomorrow morning, so it’s probably for the best. Everyone else is tired but OK.


grimSnowdon is meant to be the easy one – it’s certainly got the least ominous name – yet we’re slogging up the steepest track yet. It’s raining and, high above us, black crags loom from the cloud. It’s horrible knowing that our destination is higher than all of them.
“Sun’s burning through!” we keep enthusing with false cheer. It’s not.
It’s very windy and the cloud lifts intermittently to reveal the most dramatic scenery yet. Waterfalls blown into plumes of spray tumble down the rugged rock of a huge corrie (or “cwm” since we’re in Wales) into a black lake. It’s Dragon's not so bad


DSCN5079Every now and then Snowdon flings a mighty, destabilising gust at us, usually when we’re on our most precarious footing. It is dangerous. In parts, if we slipped, we would fall a long way.
Totally in cloud, gale-force gusts whipping rain in our faces. We have just spent a few minutes cowering against a wall of rock in a biblically proportioned hailstorm. Al suggested that it might be foolish to carry on – the final section is an exposed ridge. It was Bill who said “No way” first but, to my surprise, I agreed.


We got to the top at 16.40 after two hours. Managed to take a couple of photos before camera got soaked. Very pleasing to get to the top but I’m very happy to be heading down.DSCN5087


We’re down, in 27 hours rather than the hoped for 24. That’s not the point, though. All of us – especially Hayley, who went up and down England’s highest peak in considerable pain – did that rarest yet most important of things: we impressed ourselves.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006 / Copyright on pictures Angus Watson 2006