Having successfully completed the UK National three peaks challenge five times between us, my husband and I are certainly no authority on the subject but have learnt a few things along the way.
A lot of people undertake the challenge as an organised group tour with support from a guide and/or driver. This is largely down to individual preference but for the purpose of this post I will be focussing on organising and completing it without any back up. A daunting prospect for some, but achievable with the right planning, training and determination.
The challenge involves climbing to the top of the highest mountains in England, Scotland and Wales (and back!) in 24 hours or less. Not for the faint hearted, the hike takes in stunning vistas from the start – and whilst you won’t have much time to stop to admire the view, the sense of achievement is worth it. A good level of fitness is needed, however you will also need to carefully plan your route, gear and nutrition in order to be successful. Every minute counts!
Mount Snowdon (Wales)- Elevation 1,085m ~8 miles
Scafell Pike (England)– Elevation 978m ~ 6 miles
Ben Nevis (Scotland)– Elevation 1,345m ~9 miles
Total distance to drive between mountains: 472 miles
I can’t emphasise enough the importance of training for an event like this. Just going for a few walks won’t cut it, unless you are a seasoned hiker you will need to get yourself up some hills – the toughest part of the challenge is the sheer elevation gain and you will be out of breath within the first ten minutes of starting if you haven’t prepared your body for it. I would suggest if you’re starting from scratch, taking a long, hilly walk with a day pack at least once a week for two to three months – gradually building up the distance.
When to go
July and August are popular months to complete the three peaks challenge, and for good reason. Temperatures are generally milder and conditions more favourable. Snow can be found at high elevation even as late in the year as June, making the climb more challenging.
Direction Most people go North to South rather than South to North. However there are merits to doing both. Whilst it may be mentally more challenging to finish on Ben Nevis, the toughest and longest climb, you can also get ahead of schedule pretty easily on Snowdon and Scafell Pike, which is a nice feeling. The other advantage of going South to North is that you will typically be climbing on Ben Nevis in the dark, as opposed to the more difficult to navigate Scafell Pike.
Timing The general aim is to spend as little time hiking in the dark as possible. Walking at night is slower and requires more concentration to avoid tripping or taking a wrong turn. Having got lost on Scafell Pike in the middle of the night, I can vouch for this – and it is about as fun as it sounds. Practically this means timing your climbs so that you drive between Scafell Pike and Ben Nevis overnight. If going North to South, start climbing Saturday evening so that you come off Ben Nevis at dusk and begin climbing Scafell Pike at dawn. If travelling North to South, start climbing Snowdon in the morning so that you finish climbing Scafell Pike just as it gets dark.
Choosing your route To my knowledge there are no rules about which route up the mountain you can take. With this in mind it makes sense to take the shortest maintained trail up each mountain. There is only one route up Ben Nevis unless you fancy a bit of rock-climbing. Scafell Pike has several routes, but the shortest and simplest is the route up from Wasdale Head. Snowdon should be climbed from Pen y Pas; from here you have a choice between the shorter, rockier Pyg track or the longer but easier Miner’s track. We usually go up the Pyg track and down the Miner’s track, but there is some merit in going up and down the Miner’s track as 3/4 of it has a very gentle gradient and you can travel pretty quickly.
Part of the challenge is to get to each mountain in a timely fashion, and by car is the only feasible way to do this. On our combined trips we have either had a designated driver who has not done the challenge or we have driven it ourselves. The latter is perfectly doable, particularly if you can take turns although a lot of it depends on how well you cope with sleep deprivation and driving at night.
At the risk of sounding like a kill-joy, and as much as it would be lovely to stop at every peak for a picnic and a photo shoot – this is not the time to do it! Unless you are a super athlete who is running the entire thing, you definately won’t have time. Eat on the move or in the car, and certainly take a few quick photos on the way- but if you want a leisurely hike with lots of stops, this is not for you.
It goes without saying that you must check the weather forecast before you set off (at any time of the year) as conditions on the mountains can change rapidly and may become dangerous if you are not adequately prepared. Make sure to take plenty of layers including a waterproof – just because the weather seems ok at the base of the mountain does not mean that it will be the same two or three hours later at the summit. Go careful underfoot, particularly at night, rocks can become slippery and you will have to negotiate a river crossing on Scafell Pike.
Be aware of the dangers of driving when tired – pull over and give someone else a turn. Don’t be tempted to power through, it’s dangerous and definately not worth it.
There is safety in numbers and whilst we did see the odd lone climber, who I can only assume were very confident in their ability and experience, I would suggest going as a group of four or more. This is for two reasons; more drivers to take a turn at the wheel, and in case of emergency one person to wait with the injured person and two to go for help.
You will be shattered and probably sleep deprived by the end of the challenge. Aim to stay near to your finish point to avoid a long drive after your adventure.