26 hours, 3 countries, 3 peaks. 23 miles and over 3000m of ascent. 2 hours sleep and a lot of driving……Why exactly did I sign up to this again?
I joined Teesdale and Weardale Search and Mountain Rescue Team (TWSMRT) as a trainee back in March 2021 and their annual fundraising event is a National 3 Peaks challenge run jointly with Durham University Charities Kommittee (DUCK). TWSMRT provide the minibuses, drivers and leaders on the hill. DUCK provide students to take part in the challenge who will then raise funds for TWSMRT. As a trainee I was keen to prove my usefulness and as a qualified Mountain Leader this seemed like the ideal opportunity.
We left Durham at 8am on the Saturday morning, 2 minibuses each with 2 drivers, 2 leaders and 6 or 7 students in each group. We originally planned to have 9 students in each group but everyone taking part had taken Covid tests in the previous few days and a few students had dropped out after testing positive or being asked to self-isolate. This was unfortunate for the students concerned but we did then have more room on the minibus and smaller groups to lead on the hill. We had 6 students in our bus, myself and Tom as Leaders and Gabe and Damian as drivers.
We made good time up to Glasgow and then lost time in traffic north of the Erskine Bridge. It was not a race and we had been keen not to advertise the event as a 24 hour challenge, but we did want to return to Durham at a reasonable hour on the Sunday evening and we had cut off times for each mountain to ensure we managed that. This meant I had my eye on the clock the whole weekend and we were keen to avoid traffic delays before we’d even started. We made good time up the side of Loch Lomond though and finally set out for Ben Nevis from Glen Nevis at 14.40 pretty much on schedule.
The weather forecast was not good. Rain on Saturday afternoon on Ben Nevis, a possible dry spell for Scafell Pike and more rain on Sunday for Snowdon. I really wasn’t looking forward to Scafell Pike in the dark and rain at 1am so hoped the forecast was correct.
It was dry and cloudy as we started up the Red Burn path to Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe. Tom and I had agreed that we ‘d take it in turns to lead the group, the other one bringing up the rear, and Tom led off first at a swift pace. After 10 minutes I shouted to him to slow down. There was no way I was going to manage the 3 Peaks at the pace he was setting and I thought I was fit. Half the students were happy to keep up with Tom, the other half were happy to keep with me at the back, so I didn’t feel too unfit. The rain started just above the Lochan and we disappeared into the cloud as we toiled up the zig zags. It was a fair few years since I’d been up the zig zags – in fact, I think I’d only been up them once before, when I was 19 (a long time ago) on one of my first trips to Scotland with my brother Jim. I’ve climbed Ben Nevis many times since then, but always via the north face, usually in winter, occasionally in summer, usually descending the zig zags back to the CIC hut but occasionally descending via the Carn Mor Dearg Arete.
We reached the summit at 17.30, just under 3 hours after starting. There were still a few snow patches there and no. 2 and no. 3 gullies were still full of snow as we passed them. It was cold and wet on the summit with no view at all, so after the obligatory photo we turned round and started our descent.
We passed the other group who were maybe half an hour behind us, they were going well at a similar pace to us. The cloud cleared part of the way down the zig zags and we had a great view down to Fort William and over Loch Linnhe to the hills of Ardgour. The final part of the path back to the Youth Hostel was wet and slippy and most of us slipped over at least once, but finally at 19.45 we arrived back at the bus. It’s amazing what an 8pm kick off time for the England vs Ukraine football match did to encourage a decent pace on the descent.
The key to the whole trip was the team work between the drivers and leaders and the elimination of as much faffing as possible. While we were on the hill the drivers had refuelled the bus and had a meal so they were ready for the long drive south. We had messaged them on our descent so they were waiting for us at the Youth Hostel in Glen Nevis. We then had a brief toilet stop in Morrisons at Fort William and were ready to go. The minibus was well stocked with enough bottled water for the whole trip and we had also provided snacks, but everyone had taken sufficient food to feed themselves for the whole trip so the snacks were not really needed.
While we drove south us hillwalkers tried to eat some food and get some sleep. We expected to start on Scafell Pike sometime between 1am and 2am and it was going to be a hard night. The students fell asleep very quickly. I knew I wouldn’t sleep much as I never do whilst travelling and the unknown factor of the trip for me was how I would cope on very little sleep. I managed to get one hour sleep on the way to Scafell Pike and another on the way to Snowdon, so two hour’s in total. Not ideal, but I coped fine and didn’t feel nearly as bad as I thought I might. Tired yes, but not too bad tempered or ill. Food was more of a problem and I completely lost my appetite after Ben Nevis and it didn’t return until the middle of the following week. Cheese sandwiches and cold pizza lost their appeal fairly early on and I survived on crisps and jelly babies.
We arrived at Seathwaite at 1.20am and started up Scafell Pike via the Corridor Route. Most 3 Peak trips ascend Scafell Pike from Wasdale, this being a much shorter walking route, but the drive there is significantly longer. Our risk assessment had identified the driving as being main risk for the weekend and we were keen to allow our drivers a good 6 hours sleep at Seathwaite. This also meant we had the pleasure of a night time ascent up a deserted Corridor Route, the only lights being our line of head torches on the mountainside and later, the lights of the other group below us. The rain had stopped, the air was clear and up above Base Brown the sky was starting to clear and a few stars could be seen. The weather forecast was spot on and we had a dry ascent of Scafell Pike. Tom led to the stretcher box at Styhead and then I took over. I was pleased I’d been on this route recently, it meant I knew exactly where I was going in the dark and didn’t have to get out my map. Left at the stretcher box, over a small rocky knoll, turn sharp right at a large cairn and then descend slightly to Skew Gill and the start of the Corridor Route. Then the steep loose bit up the reddish rocks just past Skew Gill, more ascent then flatter for a bit before we rounded a bend, heard the stream below us and I knew we were approaching the bad step. We guided the students down the rocky scramble one by one, no problems at all, and continued on our way. Round the top of Piers Gill, again we heard the roar of the stream but saw nothing in the dark, and started the climb up to Lingmell Col. Here we met the main path up from Wasdale and saw the lights of other 3 Peaks groups and possibly also people hoping to see the sunrise from the summit. From Lingmell Col we could see a brighter sky to the east as dawn approached but unfortunately we then disappeared into the cloud again. We reached the summit at 04.10, just as it was starting to get light, stopped for long enough to take a photo and started our descent.
The descent of Scafell Pike via the Corridor Route always seems like a long way, but we were now walking in daylight and once past Lingmell Col we had a view. We met the other group just below the Col on their way up and continued on our way to Styhead. We were all feeling tired on the last part of the descent, but we made excellent time and arrived back at the minibus at 7am, earlier than expected and reluctantly we woke the drivers.
Very soon we were on our way again, down the M6 towards Wales. We stopped at Charnock Richard services on the M6 for a much needed cup of tea and again tried to eat and sleep a little. It was mid morning by now, but my body didn’t have a clue what time of day it was. I woke at some point, looked at the clock, saw it was 11.00 and for a brief moment had no idea whether it was 11am or 11pm. We stumbled out of the minibus at Pen Y Pass at 11.55am and started up the Pyg track for the last summit and in theory only 4 hours of walking. It was definitely better doing the 3 Peaks in the order we had done them in – the thought of climbing Ben Nevis at this stage in the trip didn’t appeal at all. Although Scafell Pike had been the longest walk with a time of just under 6 hours, Ben Nevis had had the most ascent and had definitely been the hardest in terms of effort needed. Snowdon had the least ascent and least distance so was a good peak to finish on.
The weather forecast was right again though and soon the heavens opened and the heavy rain started. Snowdon was very busy as well, and when we reached the summit at 14.10 we were very wet as we joined the queue for summit cairn. Once again we had no view, but the students were happy to have climbed the last mountain. I was happy that everyone in the group had climbed all 3 peaks, and that so far everyone was safe, uninjured and fairly cheerful.
Now I just wanted to get down. This was where the pace slowed right down. Maybe the students’ motivation declined after the last summit, maybe it was the rain and the lack of sleep, certainly knees started to grumble and we made very slow progress down the Miners’ track. I knew the drivers would be waiting for us at Pen Y Pass wondering where we were, but we lost mobile phone reception as we dropped down towards Llyn Glaslyn and the Team radios weren’t working well either, so there wasn’t much we could do. We arrived back at Pen Y Pass at 16.30, 26 hours after starting up Ben Nevis. All that remained was the long drive back to Durham.
It had been a brilliant weekend. A huge sense of achievement for all concerned, students, leaders and drivers. Great team work and also for me a strange masochistic sense of satisfaction from being able to cope with very little sleep. I enjoyed every minute of it. Will I do it again – yes, of course I will, and maybe we’ll get better weather next year. Thanks to all those at TWSMRT who put the work into organising the event, to the drivers and my fellow leaders, and to the students who took part and raised funds for us. So far the event has raised over £10,000, and if anyone would like to donate, the link to my Just Giving page is below:
Copyright of all text and photos Jane Ascroft 2021