Three countries, three peaks and the perfect ending.
Making our way down Ben Nevis I got chatting away to someone about travelling as that is one of the few things I know anything about other than dairy cows which was a topic that had already been exhausted in depth. It was mentioned that the United Kingdom, my beloved home has everything an adventurer could need and there was simply no need to travel abroad. I hear this many many many times usually from people who have never or at best, rarely left the island. I will accept that I sometimes overlook the UK as somewhere exciting to travel but to be fair on me I saw quite a bit on family and scouting holidays (basically at a time when I had never left the country!). However, I am slowly rediscovering all the UK has to offer in terms of outdoor adventure and there is no doubt that she does have an awesome amount on offer. I would say there is very little that you can’t do in the UK but my argument is this; There are many places in the world that are bigger, better, more beautiful and more epic than the UK. The Scottish Highlands are beautiful but Torres Del Paine is mind blowing. Scarfell Pike is adorable but it’s hardly Kilimanjaro on the plains of Africa. Snowden is a delight but isn’t quite at the standard of the Himalayas. Britain is charming, cute, simply delightful in every way and can excite anyone visiting the country whether it be outdoor adventure, history or afternoon tea and for this I will forever be proud to call her home. But, you must forgive me if I ever turn around and say to you bluntly that the Scottish Highlands, the Lake District and Snowdonia are only ‘alright’.
I find there is only one way to get things done in life and that is to simply get on with it. The UK mainland consists of the three countries England, Wales and Scotland and each has their own highest peak which every British school child grows up learning and promptly forgets once they discover the pub. As you may guess from the previous rant, each peak is relatively petit on the world stage and each can be trekked easily enough in half a day or, a day if you fancy dragging the kids along. Ironically though, I had never climbed any of them which was an issue that need to be addressed. Not being one to mess around I decided the best course of action would be to climb all three peaks in twenty four hours as I was short on vacation and I also had to fit in visits to a wedding, London and the pub. The National Three Peak Challenge is just that. Twenty-three miles of hiking, 3,064 meters of ascent, 462 miles of driving and twenty-four hours from start to finish (carpark to carpark). This is a popular event for people wanting to raise money for charity. I on the other hand wanted to do it for a laugh plus I genuinely am short on time these days.
The challenge kicked off at Fort William up in Scotland which I believe is the furthest I’ve dared venture north of the (Hadrian’s) wall. As we headed north, society gave way to nothing but rolling green hills, winding roads and rivers and, people that probably spoke English but in such a strong accent that it may well have been another language. Fort William is home to the legendary Ben Nevis which at 1,345m is not only the highest peak in Scotland but also the highest in the UK (Mt Blanc is 4,808m). After a couple of cheeky beers and a good nights sleep, the group congregated at the foot of Ben Nevis and under the watchful eye of our mountain guide at 8.45am on a sunny Saturday we began our challenge. Being Scotland, halfway up the mountain the sun gave way to a half decent down pour but we were happy to take this on the chin as thunderstorms had been forecast for the morning which would have ended our challenge before it had even begun. Quite literally marching on past people who needed to be airlifted off the mountain we crossed a baby snow field and finally made it to the top after about three and a half hours. The top didn’t have a massive amount on offer other than cloud and rocks and after a quick photo we turned around and made the dreaded descent. Going down is always far worse than going up! My brother in law is the only person I know who prefers hiking down a mountain than up it and as such he merrily trotted on past me and was one of the first to jump in a sunny river at the foot of the mountain. Yes, it was sunny again. Around 2pm with everyone back on the bus we began the seven hour journey south to the Lake district where our second peak awaited us.
I was expecting to be transported around in a tin can style minibus but as it happened we had a coach with leather reclining seats, charging points and a toilet which made the whole ordeal that bit more luxurious. Strangely, as thunderstorms opened up during our drive south, Scotland appeared even more beautiful than when the sun was shining. It’s as though the country is designed to be beautiful in the wet. The winner of a wet t-shirt competition only geographically speaking. We had one service break as we crossed back into England where we could buy some food and make use of the facilities but we had no longer than fifteen minutes before having to get back on the road. I had been craving a Mc Donald’s and I also decided a tactical toilet stop would result in one less thing to worry about. Mc Donald’s didn’t exist and so that saved a bit of time but when entering the gentleman toilets there was a queue. Men never need to queue for the bathroom, never! On the one occasion I was on a tight schedule with no sign of a bathroom for the next fourteen hours there was a queue for the mens toilets at a service station in the middle of nowhere. This was not a good omen.
Scarfell Pike is surrounded by pure Englishness. Tight winding country lanes lined with stone walls and sheep roaming free and daring the coach to hit them at will. At 978 meters high it is closer to a bump than a mountain but being the highest bump in England it would have to do. Setting off at 9pm we had three and a half hours to get up and back to the bus. Not so much because of the effort but because of the scenery it was almost a shame to have to go at pace. As we hiked upwards the sun was setting on what had been a stunning English summer evening. A clear blue sky gave way to darkness and pure peace. Not the kind of murky winter darkness that we dislike but the wonderful summer darkness where it doesn’t really appear to be fully dark if that makes sense? The final push to the top was a bit trickier due to it being nothing but loose rock and it had a peak that kept moving away. What I mean by this is every time you got over a ridge, you were confronted by another. Around midnight we had become the highest people in England at that particular time. Part of me was proud of this accomplishment, part of me longed to be in a beer garden along with the rest of the population. Scarfell Pike had taken some prisoners though with part of the group slowing which delayed our departure to Wales. As the coach departed behind schedule we had chance to get a few hours sleep before making the final ascent.
Four hours later and things were beginning to look desperate. We were supposed to get four hours to climb Snowden but thanks to the slow group and an unfortunate stop for someone to throw up their guts we were down to three hours which I at least deemed impossible. Our guides appeared undeterred and believed it was still possible with a huge amount of effort. For those who wanted to attempt completing the challenge in twenty four hours, they were put into a fast group who would jump off the bus as soon as it drove into the car park and start hiking at pace. Blurry eyed and in need for the bathroom I put myself into the fast group as my stubbornness and pride kicked in. I had paid to do this challenge in twenty four hours, I didn’t want to pay or go through it all again another day. As it happens, the toilet block at the foot of Snowden looked wonderful but as I walked past it there were more important things on my mind. How the hell was I going to get up a 1085 meter peak and back down again in under three hours? Luckily the weather was once again stunning with clear blue skies and even at 6am the trail was getting quite busy. The final push to the top of Snowden is rather hellish as one has to ascend large rocks on no clearly defined path. It gets even worse when you stumble across a rail track that leads right to the peak of the mountain which is also home to a cafe. All that aside, amazingly four of us scrambled and panted our way to the peak in ninety minutes which left us with around eighty minutes to get back. And get back we did with only ten minutes to spare. I was a broken man I admit with my calves torn to shreds but I was a happy man having climbed the three highest peaks in the UK in under twenty four hours and, even more importantly I had finally climbed the three highest peaks in the UK.
The perfect ending? Frustratingly the mens bathroom was closed for cleaning when I got back to the carpark but I patiently waited and once he left I was the first into a spotlessly clean bathroom fit for a champion. And with the majority of the group still up on Snowden I could take my time!