Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Three Peaks

On explaining that, on this occasion, we were not climbing the three peaks for charity, a friend asked "then why do it?" and I was a bit confused.

In case you are not initiated, the idea is to climb the highest mountains in Scotland, England and Wales within a 24 hour period. This may not seem a lot until you consider they are hundreds of miles apart and have a combined height of 11,178 feet (that's 3407m in metric, thought lets keep to imperial as it sounds more impressive). There is little I would prefer to do with a day then jump around some of the most scenic parts of the country with a couple of mates and some treks thrown in!

In the light of this, the best response I could come up with was “Why on earth not?”


Excited, rearing to go, we pull into the car park at the foot of the Britain's highest mountain. Hurriedly throw everything out of the car and prepare for the climb. Mental checklist - sunnies (tick), rain-coat (tick), walking stick (tick), sustenance (tick)...... boots (bugger). Showing the talent that flows deep in my veins I had left my trusty decade old walking boots in the airport pub. Those beauts had accompanied me to 50 odd countries and been lost for the sake of an early morning Guinness.

My response to the not so impressed reaction of Christina and the laughing of Dave, was to jump back in the car, put pedal to metal and some how return within 20 minutes with a brand new pair just waiting to blister me raw. Total shop time 4 minutes, leaving behind £60 and some laughing sales staff. Always be prepared.
Sweating already and in a minor fluster we set off at 4.45pm. We had 24 hours and were off in a hurry, marching up the gentle slope of Glen Nevis in the muggy late afternoon. Climbing Nevis is at no point particularly strenuous and, on the marked path, is in no way technical. It is rather a case of putting one foot in front of the other for a few hours and keeping your fingers crossed that the heavens do not open.
After a short while the path cuts back on itself repeatedly as it begins to zig-zag its way up the lower slopes. The route crosses numerous little streams and, as you take the wide arching turn up to the mid-way plateau, small waterfalls cascade across the adjacent ravine. From the minor plateau you have your first sight of the wider Highland surroundings. Beyond a lake lie green mountain after green mountain stretching as far as the eye can see. This is all set off by a patchy, changeable sky. At one point we even had some sunshine!
As the criss-crossing started again on the ever more rugged slopes of the Ben proper, a chunky Rescue Helicopter blasted its way up the valley and lingered on the path just above us. Some poor fella had hurt himself and was winched up and away for treatment. A reminder that, on the one hand, even in Britain mountains can cause problems and, on the other, this is not quite rural Bolivia, rescue is close at hand.

Now really into our stride we lolloped up the mountainside, only stopping for evidence that the proverb "don't piss in the wind" has something to it. In the last km we even encountered the last snows of winter and plenty a trekker clumsily slipping on the sludgy, steepest part. A couple more false summits and we were on the top of Britain. 4406 ft (1344m) up and only at the final moment in the clouds.

A satisfying feeling, but with a mind to the ticking clock we only stopped for a “high funf”, some sugar and a photographic tribute to our naturism inclined mate Mik (available to friends, not family).

The descent was swift and dramatically beautiful. It is probably nothing to do with my Highland routes, but this part of the world really captures me and crashing one foot after another down the mountainside with views of loch, ben and glen was a complete pleasure. My mind ventured back to the strange question, “then why do it?”
Only slightly worse for wear we stripped off the sweaty clothes, grabbed a chippy and piled in the car. I took the wheel for the first couple of hours through the southern Highlands. As the light faded we skipped past Glen Coe and the desolate moors which lie to the South, before flanking Loch Lomand. Windy, dramatic roads all the way. By the time we made it to Glasgow I was happy to hand over to Dave and catch a couple of hour's shut-eye while he breezed the motorway to Cumbria and the Lakes of North-West England.


I awoke with a jolt. Dave pulled over, gave me a whack, complained about listening to the same Foo Fighters CD on repeat for the past however many hours and clonked out. Still in the dead of night, a full moon glimmered over a landscape breaking up into hills. Another hour or so on, the journey took a surreal twist as we crossed into the National Park and onto an 8ft wide road strewn with sleeping sheep. Mild sleep-deprived hysterics ensued as I barely avoided playing DEATH with a black sheep via an emergency lash to the break pedal. Black sheep with the habit of sleeping in the road in the dead of night do not stand much chance in a Darwinian world, so come see them while you can.

Connecting back up to what can still only be called a minor road we wound through many a little village into uplands and slowed with the out of place three peaks traffic which frequents this part of the world at this time of year. Arriving at Wasdale head, we shoved our boots on, carbs in and set-off through a low rising field in the murk of pre-dawn.

In a slightly dazed state I pondered whether what was soon to be beneath our feet was really a “mountain”. I mean, a mountain, in little old England.

Over a common swing-gate and along a dribbling stream. As if as a punishment for my recent pondering, the terrain quickly steepened. As the path broke off from the stream, the calf-stretching incline did not relent and Christina muttered the first real questioning of the day's activities. She was not feeling well, but soldiered on up.
With every minute the light was changing, brightening and opening up a broody landscape before us. Looking back from a resting point, the narrow valley fell steeply and opened up onto an oblong lake surrounded by green, jutting hills. In the far distance, just visible, the ocean.
Eventually, the slope slackened off as the path wound round to the left. Thoroughly contended sheep munched on the thick grass as panting trampers trundled past. By this point we were starting to recognise many fellow three-peakers from Nevis. The occasional smile and odd word accompanied our steady pace up to the lengthy, rocky escarpment which leads to the peak.
For me, the highlight of the climb came as we crossed out of the narrowing valley and onto a saddle looking over the far side of Skarfell Pike. At that instant I fell in love with the Lake District. As far as my eyes could see, dramatic, immovable hills guarding shimmering waters. The delicate colours of dawn lighting up the mists and patchy, low-lying cloud.

Now rather exposed, we were buffeted by cold winds as we criss-crossed the rugged final ascent. As we stood atop Scarfell Pike a simply breathtaking panorama was serially opened and closed by fast moving clouds passing right through us. I was ready to call this a mountain! Only 3209 ft (978m), yet self-evidently a gem of wild mountain landscape.
We were in high spirits on the trek down, making time for the odd fuel break to take in the views. Apart from a couple of twisted ankles inflicted by the steep lower section, we were rearing to go when we made it back to the car exactly 4 hours after we started. 7.30 am.

One serious stretch, smelly walking boots off, a new set of underwear and we were off. I was happy to grasp a modicum of sleep as Dave took the wheel through and out the windy roads of the Lakes.


A nudge awake, a bottle of caffeine and I was back at the wheel for the motorway. The nearest thing to a panic came and passed with a small section of stand-still traffic as we approached Wales somewhere near Chester. Once I was able to put my foot down the 24 hour challenge seemed very doable, but the small matter of an England v Germany football game was in some doubt. England's World Cup destiny was on the line and, thanks to my walking boots left in pub shenanigans, I was pushing my luck to get a look in. It was happening all over again...

Turning in from the Irish Sea, we parked in the village of Llanberis, jumped in a taxi and, having been dropped off at the bottom of the Miners Track, set off at a brisk pace along the flanks of Snowdon. It was 12.45, 4 hours until the 24 was up (and 2 hours 45 to the game).
I think we were all feeling pretty good once our muscles and joints had warmed up – the stop start nature of the three peaks does somewhat piss off cold body parts each time they are called in to action – and more gorgeous scenery made the task easier. In many ways similar to the last two back-drops with, to put it crudely, reasonable sized green chunks of rock towering over bodies of fresh water, it was refreshing how each peak differed in atmosphere and impact. Snowdon was all together more imposing than Scarfell, yet more tamed. Not as wild as Ben Nevis, but more sheep for company. Perhaps it was the full light of day and the knowledge that we had two peaks behind us, but the largest mountain in Wales breezed by as we took the circuitous track past imposing relics of mining days, small lakes and our fuzzy white friends.
The going got a touch tougher when we reached the high rock face which leads up to the summit, but we managed the zig-zag route without too much fuss once those of us with vertigo overcame their fears (perhaps vertigo is the wrong word, being as it was a rational fear of heights!). Fast, whipping fleeces of cloud and strong winds added an extra layer of interest to the very final part of the route, but we were soon walking past railway tracks to our goal.

I have to admit, the sight of a small white hair laden Victorian train passing by as you are about to reach the pinnacle of a “challenge” is a touch disheartening. A great feat of engineering no doubt, but somewhat out of keeping with a cloud covered mountain peak. Such oddity fitted in well with the sizeable sea-gulls which haunt the summit.
Putting this all to one side, we stood on the top of Wales and were pretty damn pleased with ourselves. Three peaks and a whole lot of driving in just a bit over 22 hours. No time to savour though, as the imminent football and a chocolate bar or two got us going.
Despite some wobbly knees, we made our way down as quickly as we collectively could. Thinking ahead, I had bought a small analogue radio, which relayed to us the first half of the so-built up football game. This added a nice dimension to the last hour as we fulfilled our new role of World Cup intermediaries to half the trekkers we passed on the way down. Unfortunately, except for a smiling German and the odd bitter Welshman, our news did not improve people's afternoons.
Putting in a final push and the hint of a jog we bundled into the car park from whence we began at 16.15 on the dot. Two pieces of good news. The taxi was waiting for us, ready to take us to a pre-warned pub for the last part of the match (Germany scored two goals during the brief 10 minute radioless taxi journey). Secondly, and in the long term far more satisfyingly, we had completed the three peaks challenge in 23 hours and 30 minutes. A little tired, but none of us asking the question “why?”

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