Smashing the UK national three-peak challenge

Ever since I was a little girl…

…is NOT where the story of this next grand adventure begins.

In fact, I can think of only one grand adventure of mine (which happened not to be sport or activity related) that originated in my childhood. I’m constantly coming up with new dreams and new ideas for adventures.

This story actually starts here:

I'm not sure which mountain this was taken on. The backgrounds in our pictures on all three summits are almost identical. Let's just say it was bleak.

I’m not sure which mountain this was taken on. The backgrounds in our pictures on all three summits are almost identical. Let’s just say it was bleak.

Ever since about four years ago when I first heard of the UK’s national three-peaks challenge, I’ve wanted to give it a go.

I have no idea who thought of this idea or when. I’m not even going to look it up to tell you about it because to me, that part is irrelevant. The national three-peaks challenge is about hiking up the three highest mountains in Scotland, England and Wales in a period of 24 hours.

It’s not an official race. There are no official times. There aren’t marshals or registration forms. There’s no one to announce you’ve accomplished the task. There are no certificates at the end or event T-shirts. There isn’t a specific day to do it, although I hear throngs of people choose to do it on June 21, the longest day of the year.

You just go out and do it.

I’ve been nagging my husband ever since I heard of this being “a thing” that we go and do it ourselves. He had already done it twice. He wasn’t enthusiastic in any way to do it a third time. I couldn’t understand why. My husband is huge on physical activities and challenges. But after four years of nagging and an opportune relatively free summer, he obliged.

He put together a team of five. It’s better to have a few people with you because the challenge involves an incredible amount of driving. Only days before our set date, two of the five pulled out, leaving us with a small team of three: me, my husband, and one of his work colleagues who also, it just so happens, was our third team member on our grand cycle from London to Paris in three days only three years ago.

I knew the national three-peaks challenge would be challenging. It wouldn’t be called a challenge otherwise. But so many people do it every year. So I naturally figured it’s a doable challenge for the average person. Since I’m above average (only in my own mind), I was certain we’d manage to do better than most. Climbing the three mountains one after the other IS doable, by the way. It’s just extremely challenging to fit it all into a very short 24-hour period!

We were in a constant state of rush. Rush rush rush rush rush. We rushed up mountains, we rushed down them. We rushed to get out of drenched clothes and into dry ones. We rushed to get on our hiking gear before each hike. We rushed to shove food into our mouths to keep up our energy levels. And we rushed (hopefully within local speed limits) to get from one mountain to the next.

We drove a total of 1582 km door to door. The challenge actually starts the moment you start climbing the first mountain and ends the moment you finish the last hike. But there’s still a lot of driving to get to the first mountain and a lot of driving to get back home. Imagine doing that sleep- and energy-deprived. Going up mountains is one part of the challenge. Driving the huge distances in between is another.

We aimed to set off at 9AM on Friday morning but ended up leaving the house at 9:30AM. There was a bit of a delay at the car rental. We aimed to reach Fort William, Scotland and start our climb up Ben Nevis at 5PM, but a road accident most likely caused by the torrential rains led to an hour’s more delay. Our main concern was getting down the mountain in the dark due to the late start.

We started climbing 1,345-meter-high Ben Nevis at 6:10PM. We pushed hard and fast. The weather conditions were pretty much the worst one could expect: pelting rain, strong winds, and poor visibility from start to finish. We were down by 10:30PM. Even though official sunset was at 9:47PM, there was still just enough light for us that we didn’t need to use our head torches.

One major thing I had in my head the whole time was that I was not going to allow us to fail this challenge because I was the girl in the group. Colin and Andrew are both faster than me. But I was not going to slow them down so much that we ended up failing. My goal was thus not to allow a single team of hikers to pass us from behind because their pace was faster than ours and also to pass as many people ahead of us as possible. We achieved that goal every single step of the way. That is my proudest accomplishment on this challenge.

I slept through the drive from Ben Nevis down to Scafell Pike in England. Colin and Andrew took turns driving. By 5:10AM Saturday morning we had started our climb up 978-meter Scafell Pike. Again, the weather conditions were less than desirable and the climb was very steep. Compared to proper mountains, the altitudes of these are not high at all. Even so, the climbs are not easy. They are generally steep climbs, the paths aren’t always clear and are often a bit treacherous, and the weather conditions on British “hills” are notoriously damp and misty. We were down somewhere around 9AM, had a very rushed breakfast and rushed off to our next destination.

I managed just under two-hours driving until I started feeling desperately sleepy so Andrew took over for an hour. That hour’s sleep, a caffeinated soda, and lots of sugar in the form of chocolate all woke me up sufficiently to take the helm again and get us to Wales’ Snowdon.

When we arrived, the main parking lot in front of the start of the path was full. That meant further delay, time we desperately needed, by parking in a park-and-ride area three miles away from the path. We dressed and didn’t wait for the bus that would have taken us to Snowdon. We jumped into a taxi and started our hike at 2:10PM. We had exactly four hours to get up and down that last mountain to succeed in our challenge. We were cutting it really really close.

After walking for about ten minutes, Colin started realizing we were not on the path he intended for us to take up the mountain. This wasn’t the one he had used to go up before. We asked a fit-looking hiking team that had just come down how long it took them up and back. “About three hours 20,” said a good-looking English-man. Let me tell you, way too many British hikers are EXTREMELY handsome. The handsomest of them all were the hardy Scots, especially the burly ones with the ginger beards. MAN-OH-MAN-OH-MAN! When I see those guys, I push myself twice as hard just to give a good impression.

I digress. If that team finished most of the hike in that amount of time, there was a chance for us to finish the hike in about four hours. We were certainly going to give it a try.

The last time I had been to the toilet was when I took over the driving from Andrew on our way to Wales. I didn’t want to delay the beginning of our hike any further by insisting I go to the toilet at the proper toilets in the parking lot before we started. But if I didn’t go to the toilet while my hands were still warm enough to pull down my pants, we were going to be in big trouble when my hands started freezing near the top of the mountain (they freeze even in my gloves) and I needed to pee. So while we were still on lower ground, I told the guys to rush ahead and I made a record-breaking pee stop. That is one of my other proudest accomplishments on this trip.

THAT was not a digression. That’s one of the most important parts of this story.

Another important part is that poor Andrew, who pulled a muscle going up Scafell Pike, which slowed him down only ever-so-slightly, was hiking behind me much of the way up. I don’t know what it is and I’ve heard other hikers speak of the same, but hiking makes me fart A LOT. It’s never a nice thing for the person behind you, and that was Andrew. Not only was I farting constantly, I was also huffing and puffing and saying “Oh God!” and “Oh fuck!” and “For goodness sake!” the entire way up. It’s how I cope with pain. Somehow making as much noise as possible allows my head to block out some of the pain. Anyway, that’s what I’ve told myself and the result was that I was a VERY loud hiker up Snowdon. I feel so sorry for Andrew, who was the actual injured one and who didn’t utter a sound. We managed to make it to the 1,085-meter summit in just about two hours. Colin had told us that if we could make it to the summit in two hours, we had a good chance of making it back down in two or less.

On our way down, we saw a few of the teams that we had been seeing behind us on the other two mountains. One group of REALLY good-looking guys asked us if we thought we’d make it back in time. They had seen us on the other two mountains with just about the same amount of time between us. We told them we were hoping we were going to make it. They thought they might too.

Andrew limped the whole way down yet he was still quite far ahead of me. Colin was even further ahead. I’m scared of descents. I’ve had too many injuries lately and I didn’t want to fall and break a leg or dislocate a shoulder. I was faster going down than I have ever been but not fast enough to keep up with Colin and Andrew. As long as they were still in sight, that was all right. As long as no one passed me from behind and I was still passing people ahead of me, I was happy with my pace.

We got down to the relatively flat bit of the mountain in good time. One of Andrew’s friends had just completed the same challenge not 12 hours before us. “How long did you say it took him to do Snowdon?” I asked. “Three hours, 38 minutes,” said Andrew. “Our next challenge,” I announced looking at my watch, “is to finish this hike in three hours, 30 minutes!” We started walking even faster than we already were. And then, when I started doubting that we might not make that time, I started running and Colin and Andrew joined me. We did it! We climbed up and down Snowdon in 3:30! And we finished the challenge in 23 hours and 37 minutes! We had a whole half an hour to go! That felt SO good.

Again, we didn’t wait for the bus to take us back to our car. We were drenched and needed to get into dry clothes before we started to shiver. We jumped into a taxi, got dry, and sat down and had a proper pasta, meat and cheese meal from stuff I prepared before we started our journey. It was a great meal.

Most inspiring to me on this whole trip was a young man, probably in his late 20s, who we passed early on up Ben Nevis. He was really struggling up that mountain. On our way down, I saw him sitting in the mist, not moving. I stopped. “Are you all right?” I asked. “It’s my leg,” he said. “I have a cramp.” “You need to stretch the muscle,” I told him. “Do you know how to stretch?” I gave him my arm and helped him stand up. I showed him how to stretch his quads and supported him while Colin helped him pull his leg back. He looked a bit better. He slowly started climbing while we rushed down. I worried about him a lot. I was concerned that his team had left him behind and that he was going to have to climb down Ben Nevis in the dark.

But just as we neared the bottom of the second mountain, there he was strongly slowly climbing upwards. I was so happy to see him that I gave him a huge bear hug. I saw him again climbing up the third mountain. There was no way he was going to finish the challenge in 24 hours but in my mind that didn’t matter a single bit. This young man was doing something that was clearly very challenging to him yet he kept at it. That requires a tremendous amount of mental strength. It’s that young man who gave me the most inspiration and who I’m most happy for as a result of this trip.

One last note: our only source of news for two straight days was the radio. I didn’t have an Internet connection and didn’t want one. Much happened in the world in those two days, but I managed to hear it without all the hype, hysteria and drama one gets through social media feeds and even television. It allowed me to put things into context and to keep up-to-date with the world’s goings-on without it affecting my personal well-being and without it taking up tons of my time that could be better spent. It’s an important lesson that I hope I can keep in mind for the future.

Colin’s been so gracious, making me feel like a superwoman for having accomplished the task. This morning he gave me a huge hug, telling me how proud he was of me. But then he said, “This was a great experience, but we’re not going to do it again, ok?” I laughed. I had finally understood why he was so reluctant to undertake this challenge for yet a third time. Every single muscle in my legs was aching. I have several blisters on my feet from walking for hours and hours in boots full of puddles because the pelting rain (and walking in shin-deep streams) was too much to keep my waterproof boots from staying waterproof. We had gone through four sets of clothes because we returned from every single hike completely and utterly drenched in sweat and rain. I smelled smells coming from my clothes I had never smelled before. We slept only intermittently and didn’t eat as much as we needed to. We did it. There was no need to do the same thing again.

Now, what to do next?

Don’t you think for a second I don’t have more small dreams and ambitions up that sleeve of mine!


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