Ice and hail clawed at any exposed skin. Energy was low and the likelihood of developing frostbite was rising with every minute we spent at altitude. Through the blizzard, one of the team could be seen, most likely Ellis, but it was hard to tell. He took one laboured step, clearly exhausted. He knew he wasn’t going to make it to the bottom in time, but no one expected his next step to be his last. The ledge of ice and rock crumbled beneath him and his dark form dissolved into swirling white.
I woke with a start, phone alarm ringing impotently less than a foot away. It was 5am. Soon, Nick and Robbie would arrive, Susanna would be bouncing off the walls, and Dad would be ready by the minibus, unperturbed by the 11 hour drive to Scotland that lay before for him. The clock hadn’t started yet, but the 3 Peaks Challenge had begun.
Right on time the four of us began our journey north, stopping on the way to pick up Ellis, Sam, Joshua, Kav, and Amber. We were halfway to Scotland before the team was fully assembled, nine walkers, Dad at the wheel, and Bonnie the dog as our mascot.
The 3 Peaks involves climbing the biggest mountain in each country in Britain. Scafell Pike in England, Snowdon in Wales, and Ben Nevis in Scotland. That’s a lot of mountain to climb, and to further complicate matters, they must all be completed within 24 hours, including the time it takes to drive between them.
Around 5pm we arrived at the base of Ben Nevis. Some of us were well prepared, others less so (I’m looking you Sam). After pulling on our backpacks and lacing our boots, we set off.
Start the clock.
17:08 – 24 hours remaining
Ben Nevis began with a punishing rocky climb that switched back and forth as the sun beat down on us, but you won’t hear you complaining about the weather over this weekend. Benny is the tallest of the three mountains, the longest and (in my opinion) the most difficult climb. Despite this, the team was doing well. We all stuck together and there was no one that I was worried about at this stage.
19:40 – 21 hours 28 minutes remaining
Around the summit of Ben Nevis was rocky with sheer drops on either side. Ice packs, sparsely dotted with trash, hung around its ears. It was bitterly cold and everything was shrouded in cloud. If the weather were bad, losing your bearings and wandering off the side of the mountain would be only too easy. I kept one eye on Ellis as we posed for a few photos. Only as we began our decent did the cloud roll away, giving us a spectacular view of the Scottish highlands under the light of the setting sun. Soon it was dark and torchlight was our guide. Above and below us, like luminescent worms, the lights of other teams dotted the mountainside.
04:30 – 12 hours 22 minutes remaining
Throughout the journey to Scafell Pike most of us were sleeping, waking only when jolted from our slumber. At one point Amber sat bolt upright and looked at me with fear in her eyes. Vomit, beige and chunky flew towards the window which I had just managed to open. Most of it went outside, but a little hand made it and, propelled by the wind, had splashed on my face and was dripping onto my pillow.
As we approach Scafell Pike we were flagged down by someone at the side of the road. Part of me didn’t want to stop, any delay could mean failing the challenge, but dad is much nicer than I am. We stopped.
“Have you got a ginger James in there with you?” Asked a Lancashire accent I knew well.
Jenny is a fellow Aberystwyth grad and the reason Ellis, Susanna, Amber and I spent a night dancing to folk music in a quarry one weekend over summer. She was going to join us for the early morning climb of Scafell Pike, before eating all the food she brought with her (one raw egg), climbing another mountain, and camping on top of it. My dad, quite rightly, thought she was mad.
Scafell Pike started with a gentle climb but quickly got very steep. The pain and fatigue from climbing Benny could be felt and gradually the team began to spread out along the track.
06:24 – 10 hours 16 minutes remaining
We made it to the summit of Scafell Pike a little after sunrise and we hung around long enough for a quick photo and one of my rallying speeches before beginning the decent. Halfway down, Susanna needed to go to the toilet. Not wanting to hold anyone up she did this sheep style, right in the middle of the field where she was standing. Classic Suze.
08:00 – 9 hours 8 minutes remaining
We made it to the bottom without any broken ankles and even manage to pick up a new member, Freya, who had been separated from her group. She left us when we reach the bottom, but it wouldn’t be the last time we saw her that day. We wished Jenny good luck on her adventures and sped off towards our final mountain.
13:00 – 4 hours 8 minutes remaining
A mile from Snowdon our way was blocked. Bulky Police motorbikes were cutting a way for hundreds of cyclists racing the Aviva Tour of Britain. We were in trouble. The clock was ticking and we couldn’t get to the mountain. Within minutes, Ellis was out the bus and preparing the run the extra mile, so we all did. It was nice to imagine that the crowds gathered to cheer on the cyclists were really there to get us to the top of this final mountain.
Getting up wasn’t easy. We arrived at the start at different times and were very spread out, walking solo or in pairs. Running so fast earlier on left me tired and it wasn’t long before Ellis developed a pain in his ass. The path was long and flat, until it wasn’t, and then it was a steep uphill climb. We were passed by others from the team as we each fought our own battle to get to the top. But we made it, not together, not as a team, but everyone made it to the top.
But time was still ticking and the clock doesn’t stop until we get to the bottom.
We trickled in as time ran down. Josh, Susanna, Kav, Robbie, Ellis and I all got in with time on the clock, we met Freya on the way back and she joined us for the ride home. Time went by and Sam, Nick and Amber still hadn’t gotten in. We sat in the bus and waited.
20 minutes to go. Nothing.
15 minutes. Nothing.
Finally, like the heroes that are and with less than ten minutes on the clock, Nick, Sam and Amber crossed the finish line.
17:08 – 0 hours 0 minutes remaining.
We had all made it.
3 mountains, 3 countries, in 24 hours.