” A peak experience is a moment accompanied by a euphoric mental state often achieved by self-actualizing individuals. ” Wikipedia
In my 39 years on planet Earth, I have wasted far too much time. I’ve lost days to worry and hangovers, months to traffic jams and train commutes, and quite possibly years to re-watching Jaws and the Rocky films (not to mention other favourites).
Realising that I’ve got the same 24 hours (86,400 seconds) as everyone else – and who knows how many of those are left – I do my best to make the most of that most precious resource, time.
A big RED FLAG for me is any extended period of wishing I was somewhere else, in time – past or future – or location – work versus home. I’m not talking about the occasional stroll down memory lane, or dreaming of an anticipated future event. I’m referring to the daily, mindless, Walter Mitty-esque state of not focusing on the task at hand. Maybe because it’s so boring, painful, scary…or even too easy? More likely though, it’s that I’ve forgotten the bigger picture that the task in front of me contributes towards…or I don’t care enough about that particular picture.
One of the greatest benefits I have reaped from endurance training, is that it has doubled as a mindfulness practice. I try to be “here and now” when I’m running, and the rhythmic breathing helps with this. I leave my earphones at home, and apart from my breathing, I may take my metronome to work on my cadence. The big picture for me of breaking a 3 hour marathon and then just continuing to be a lifelong plodder, keeps me focused. I find it much harder to replicate that mindfulness with swimming and cycling, and my attention wanders. It’s something I need to work on.
My latest challenge, required extended periods of present moment awareness. The level of physical fitness needed to complete The National Three Peaks Challenge is not to be sniffed at, but more demanding is the mental toughness to endure the hours of sleep-deprived hiking and ability to remain focused during each blister-producing step.
NATIONAL three PEAKS CHALLENGE
The National Three Peaks Challenge consists of the following. Hike up the tallest mountain in Scotland (Ben Nevis), England (Scafell Pike) and Wales (Snowdon). Oh, and drive between each of them – in 24 hours or less! The clock starts as you start hiking up your first mountain, continues throughout all hiking and driving, ending only once you have descended the third mountain. There are no rules about the order in which you tackle them. Some people drive as well as hike – which is pretty bloody stupid – driving tired is not a sensible thing to do. I’m no angel here, but I certainly wouldn’t choose to take on this hiking challenge AND drive myself. So if you are going to attempt this, find yourself a driver!
“He’s all talk,” is hopefully something that will never be said about me. I’m not one of life’s spectators. That said, for a variety of deep dark psychological reasons, despite being a “doer”, I am also a “delayer”.
The motto “completion, not perfection,” gets me started, on most things. The mantra, “one more step/word/rep/note” gets me to the end, of most things. But sometimes, completion isn’t good enough for me. My first marathon (4 hrs 13 mins) gnawed away at me, and although I’m proud of my 3:24 PB, I don’t think I can stop now until I see 2:59:59. I have other bees in my bonnet…so much to put right…and then write about! SPOILER ALERT: The Three Peaks Challenge is another one of them.
Anyway, I first thought of taking on this challenge in October 2014, with my cousin and a friend. We bought hiking boots and started training, but didn’t get as far as purchasing a compass or a map, finding a driver, or actually hiking up any mountains! So I was definitely deeply in the “delay” stage at this point.
In December 2017 at work I was given a Secret Santa gift of a compass and the OS Maps for the National Three Peaks. It’s amazing how that little push helped overcome the inertia that had prevented any serious progress three years earlier.
In June 2018 I actually managed to hike up all three mountains (Ben Nevis – Scotland, Scafell Pike – England, and Snowdon – Wales) with a group of people from work. In hindsight, the group was too big (opinion), as was the mini-bus (fact – couldn’t get over a humpbacked bridge at Wasdale Head) and many members of the group had underestimated the physical and mental demands of the challenge (fact). After late returners from Ben Nevis, an additional 2 mile walk each way at Scafell Pike and a detour to drop some of the group off at Liverpool train station, whilst on the way to Snowdon, we finished in about 30 hours. To soften the blow, we did have a sip of Moet at the top of Snowdon and watched the sunset before descending – which was a great memory.
So we were six hours over the target. We had failed and ended up arriving at work, straight from Snowdon, at 8 am on Monday morning and having to limp and shuffle around work the whole day. It was frustrating that I felt fit enough to have completed the challenge within the 24 hour limit, but was held back by other factors. It would be over a year before my next attempt.
LONDON TO FORT WILLIAM
Weeks of excitement, training and equipment gathering have resulted in my usual pre-event insomnia. I eventually manage three hours sleep, and reassure myself with the thought that I can have a nap during the ten hour car journey from London to Scotland. If that fails, I have seven hours in the Travelodge before our first hike up Ben Nevis.
The car journey conversation proves too interesting to zone out from, and thanks to road works and traffic, 13 HOURS LATER, we arrive in Fort William. I have missed my opportunity to nap in the car, and now we have just four hours until we are due to set off for Ben Nevis.
Thankfully, those four hours are the deepest sleep I think I have ever had and I am woken up at 04:15 am to the flashing of every light in the hotel room. Our driver Mark has hit the correct switch first time, but due to the delay has decided to switch that one off and try the others, tutting as the light show continues. It was a great start to the day – laughter and good spirits – and gratitude that none of us suffer from epilepsy.
The mountain weather reports over the last week have shown everything from snow and rain, to thunder and lightning, and yet we are blessed with a calm, clear and dry start. It’s 05:14 am and dark, so head torches are turned on from the start. Mark takes a photo of Simon and myself outside the visitor centre before we start my Garmin, and we’re off across the bridge and up our first mountain!
We have dressed for the worst conditions and as a result, find ourselves needed to take a layer off less then 10 minutes into our hike. I don’t remember sweating so much, so early, on the treadmill – but my legs feel fine, so onward we climb.
We are both surprised to be the only two hikers in sight, as every hotel and hostel is fully booked. Where is everybody else? The three hikers who whizz past us moments after that thought clearly aren’t the full answer to that question, but it is quite handy to have their head torches lighting the way.
I am diligent about my fuelling and hydration, eating half a snickers or muesli bar every 30 minutes, and washing it down with a few sips of water through the hose attached to my 2 litre bladder pouch.
I am feeling very smug about my £5 hiking bag – a charity shop find, worth £50 brand new – and unlike the first time I hiked up Ben Nevis, I am carrying two hiking poles. These are most useful for the downward journey, but I think even going up they are taking some of the incline work off of my legs. Any arrogance I feel about being so well-equipped (for a change) is knocked out of me half way up Ben Nevis, as I look at my map holder for the first time and realise I am looking at the map for Snowdon! Good job the path is VERY clear.
I am expecting snow at the summit, like there was in June 2018, but it’s all rock and fog. We make it to our first trig point (1345m) without incident, stopping for a quick photo and to put that removed layer back on – along with gloves. It’s amazing how quickly the weather and temperature can change, so I can see how easy it would be to underestimate the perils of hiking. It’s not just the cold either – we are walking just metres away from a sheer drop of hundreds of metres. The cairns help keep you on course, but if the fog is really bad, it would be very easy to….take a much quicker route to the bottom!?!
I am about to make my way back down the mountain when Simon points out that my bag, containing my water and other essentials (you know, like food, the map and compass) are still resting on the trig point. I have taken them off to put my jacket on and forgotten all about them. Yet another example of me being more “barely grilling” than Bear Grylls. Did I ever mention the time I drove two hours with a friend to go camping, and forgot the tent?
We are on our way down, and I am getting back into a good rhythm with my hiking sticks and breathing, at times even having a little trot – letting the hiking poles and gravity do most of the work. Soon enough however, the masses of hikers we’ve been expecting to see on the way up are blocking our path down, sitting across paths, RESTING?!? Many are wearing charity t-shirts (well done guys), many don’t look up to the challenge if they are aiming to complete all 3 peaks in 24 hours, and of course there is more than one supermodel-action man couple suffering together. I briefly wonder if any proposals will be made at the peak, or relationships will be over by the bottom…and decide against asking Laura to hike up here with me one day (Lucky escape?!?!).
Once we are out of the clouds, the scenery stops me mid-stride. Even to a chromatically-challenged person such as myself, the greens and blues look unreal – it’s like we’ve landed in Oz. We are hiking against the clock and have already lost time due to the dawdling do-gooders (seriously, well done guys) but we are willing to sacrifice a few more seconds on some selfies.
I have left one walkie talkie with our driver Mark and I am trying to communicate through the other one, “Come in Silver Fox. Over.” Unfortunately, he is not responding and we later find out that he is watching the rugby elsewhere and has left the walkie talkie in the car. This is a bit of a relief as I am concerned that the “silver fox” comment has offended him! Interestingly we pick up some of the organised groups’ radio signals and hear their instructions to “speed up, slow down,” and unless I’m mistaken, they share my opinion about one hiker I’ve passed on the way down, “she’s not gonna make it.”
We have escaped this poor hiker’s fate on mountain number one, completing the hike in 4 hrs 34 mins, to be met by – NO ONE! Mark, expecting us to take 5 hours, is “on his way”. I am concerned that this is going to be a repeat of my last attempt to complete this challenge, but he appears in 5 minutes, giving us time to stretch. We grab our fresh clothing, have a quick change and then we are off to the Lake District.
The drive to our second hike is uneventful…beautiful…but thankfully, no traffic or drama. The weather reports are the best they have been all week and after our first hike being so dry, we can’t believe our luck.
As we approach the starting point I recognise the humpback bridge that halted our minibus in June last year. We drive over it without any issues and negotiate the narrow road towards Wasdale Head. I recognise the starting point, as we drive straight past it, and Simon’s GPS agrees, so we turn back. It’s a 60 second delay, as opposed to a 2 mile hike to the start as it was on my previous attempt.
I start the Garmin a few minutes after the start as I am more concerned with trying to get my beef jerky out of my running belt. There is a fast-flowing stream that we have to cross, which I don’t remember from last time. Simon puts on his gaiters – I don’ t have these, but I managed to get across and stay relatively dry. Upon reaching the other side, I turn around to make sure the GoPro is pointing towards Simon as he makes his crossing. You never know, it could be worth £250!?! But alas, no slips, falls or splashes…so no You’ve Been Framed reward.
We complete the hike in 3 hrs 7 mins (more likely 3 hrs 10 mins), and Mark is ready and waiting this time (there was no rugby to watch). He even responds on the Walkie Talkies and lets us know that the other groups have arrived and are beginning their ascent. Rather them than us – it’s getting dark. The hardest part is coming down, again because of the focus you have to maintain about where you put your foot next. You are always one dodgy placement from a moving rock and twisted ankle. We stop briefly to give another hiker some paracetamol, and pass the three hikers from Durham, who we had already beat coming down from Ben Nevis.
I feel a bit queezy as we make our way along the country lanes, and open the window. Mark offers to pull over, but I’m concerned about wasting time and not actually feeling any better for it. We continue driving anyway, and eventually I fall asleep in the back of the car, waking up feeling far less nauseous.
I don’t really want to relive this part. Even writing about it is exhausting. I would rather watch the GoPro, but even that won’t do it justice. I am scared that I will forget how horrible this last mountain was a will hike it in these conditions again (highly unlikely).
We arrive at about 00:20 on Sunday morning, well aware that we need to be finished by 05:14 and that our original route (the 4 hour Pyg track) is too dangerous due to the high wind, and so we are going to have to take the Miner’s track which is longer.
It starts off as quite gentle rain, but that doesn’t last. It just seems to get heavier and heavier until you just have to accept that waterproofs have their limits. Each step is now accompanied by squelching as well as pain.
We are warned by a couple, who initially ask “Are you going up Snowdon?” that the conditions are treacherous, that the paths are like lakes and the wind is 50-60 mph. The subtext of this brief conversation is clearly, “YOU’RE F****** NUTS, DON’T GO!” but we push on.
The track does indeed resemble a waterfall in parts, and is easily lost as alternative tracks seem to appear. Without the GPS, we would have been miles off course in no time and this would have jeopardised our chances of completing the challenge even more.
A bit further up the mountain, Simon has pushed himself so hard that he is physically sick. I think to myself, “That’s it. It’s over. I can’t leave him. We’re rational human beings. This is crazy, highly unpleasant, uncivilised even…Simon is very sensible, he’s gonna call it a day.” Did he F***! “Just give me a minute,” he says before 10 seconds later, gathering himself and continuing the ascent. Absolute LEGEND.
I don’t have any photos of this hike, not even at the top. The GoPro footage and the Garmin activity are all the proof I have that we did this…but somehow, in the crazy wind and belting rain, with just a metre’s visibility, we made it to the trig point.
That was after I found myself one step from the edge of the mountain and a sheer drop to who knows where (I know it was down, which is a good enough justification for my screams to “STOP! GET BACK” to Simon on the GoPro). The screams are muffled due to the waterproof casing and wind, and the drop off is not really visible due to the fog and rain – but check the Garmin. I come right to the start of a seriously steep altitude change!
On the way back down we are off course as much as we are on course. We both fall at various times, and slide down the scree of the steep mountain edge. I hurt my hand on a rock during one of these falls, so much so that I can’t make a fist even now without wincing.
We are so off track at one point, that whilst looking for the track, my boots splashing around on the ground below me, Simon reveals that I am in the lake! I shine the head lamp a bit further, and what I see confirms that I am indeed on the shore of the lake.
I jump out and get back on the track, which is a lot more uphill that we remember. I turn to Simon and say these exact words, “Si, we have to do this in the 24 hours. I can’t do this again. I won’t do this again.” The GPS reassures us that we are on the correct track and finally we see some lights. Not sure how far away they are exactly, and with time running out, we decide to jog. Not for long though as Simon has gone above and beyond what his body is willing to do already.
We wade through the huge puddle at the gate and Simon closes it as I stop the watch at 05:05 am, just 9 minutes to spare. I felt like Phileas Fogg (although, out of the two of us, I was more likely the Passepartout character).
The challenge took us 23 hours and 51 minutes (05:14 Saturday, 05:05 Sunday) with the final mountain taking 4 hrs 28 mins. I remember Snowdon being the easiest hike of the three last time, but without question, it was the most testing this time around.
over the hill(s)
This challenge is over for me now. I wouldn’t feel any happier doing it in 23 hours and 50 minutes or any other number. It’s done. Big Boss beaten. Game completed. One less bee in my bonnet! One more article posted.
To rid me of any post-event blues, I have entered the ballot for the Berlin marathon and I am keeping my fingers crossed for the London ballot as well. I am easing myself back into MAF running and I’m in the process of cleaning up my diet – starting with Sober October and a Low Carb High Fat diet, five days a week. I also have a place in the Windsor triathlon next June, so I need to keep swimming (will seek some coaching before next season) and cycling (need to set up my turbo) in mind.
FANCY THIS CHALLENGE?
I would recommend this challenge to anyone but:
- Get a driver (a fast, reliable driver, with a working SatNav)
- Use a decent GPS – maps are no good in thick fog
- Choose your time of year wisely – weather is unpredictable, but there are some “no go” times of year
- Wear boots, not shoes or trainers
- Use two hiking poles
- Loads (daily) of slow (2-3mph), long (1-2 hours), 15% incline treadmill work will get you fit enough
- Don’t underestimate how hard the descent is. You work just as hard braking yourself from speeding down. It’s so easy to step on a loose rock and twist an ankle = game over.
- Hike one for training – I chose Snowdon over the summer. A different trail, but it was still good preparation
- Head torches are ESSENTIAL (spare batteries)
- Don’t climb Scafell Pike at night…Ben Nevis and Snowdon are much easier terrain
- Blister plasters are ESSENTIAL
- 3 x protein drinks for post hike
- Waterproof gloves and jacket, and trousers
- Have a change of clothes for each mountain and one for afterwards
- The official medals are quite cool – I have ordered 3 of these for Simon, Mark and myself – just to add to the collection!