My gear list for the UK three peaks challenge

Climbing three mountains in 24 hours requires a lot of planning – physically and mentally, but without the right gear the experience can become a whole lot less enjoyable – even dangerous.  You wouldn’t climb one mountain without having access to some basic stuff, let alone three! In order for your challenge to be successful, you have to have thought everything through carefully. A few minutes here and there faffing around trying to find things in your car boot, or looking for Three peaks challengeloose change for the car park can be the difference between scraping through the 24 hour target or breezing through it. You need to aim to have things as slick as possible.

The gear I took had some basic requirements in mind, namely; warmth, protection from the elements, nutrition and hydration.

I basically had two packs, a small day pack for stuff I needed to take with me on the mountain and a pack for the car with things I needed quick access to between peaks.

My day pack: (for taking on the the mountain)

Long sleeved base layer
Warm fleece
Water proof jacket
Gloves (all the above in a waterproof bag)
Water – in a 1.5-2 L bladder for easy access (alternatively use a couple of narrow mouthed bottles that you can drink from on the move)
Nutrition – I like to take a few sugary snacks with a healthy balance of protein such as Nakd bars, fruit and nuts. For the less health conscious – any sugary treats will do!
Head torch
Phone in zip locked plastic bag (mainly for taking photos but may also be needed in case of emergency- assuming that network coverage is available on the mountain, which it may not be in all places).

Side note: I used the Mountainsmith Day Pack to take my gear with me on the mountain (pictured above and below). More on that to come as I will be doing a gear review of this lumbar pack.

Between peak bag: (to be kept handy in the car)

Three pairs of spare socks
Three clean pairs of shorts/leggings                                                                                                               Three clean T-shirts
A Towel                                                                                                                                                                                5 litres of water to refill hydration bladder (and extra for when driving)
More snacks for the remaining two peaks
Something more substantial to eat between mountains  (I took sandwiches)
Spare shoes
Anti inflammatory relief such as ibuprofen tablets or gel                                                             Deodorant – not vital, but kinder for your companions
Protein shake for the end
Addresses/ directions for the car parks we were headed to
Coins for the car park (expect to pay £5 for   four hours or less at Snowdon, and £6 for Scaffel Pike)

Three peaks challenge day packThere aren’t a whole load of places to refill your water at each mountain to my knowledge, and to avoid any hydration related catastrophes I would highly recommend taking more water than you think you’ll need with you, at least in the car. Not only will your body require more water than normal due to intense physical effort it takes to climb three mountains, but there are a couple of fairly long drives in between peaks where you will want to replenish your fluid levels. Running out of water is a totally avoidable problem to have, and one that will cost you time.

Top tip:
Remember not to start with too many layers on, you will soon be sweating and wishing you hadn’t put everything you own on. Similarly If you think the weather is changing or as soon as you start to feel cold, put an extra layer on. It’s better to prevent yourself getting really cold and it’s easier to put the extra layers on before you near the top of the mountain where it will be a lot more exposed.

For more information on undertaking the challenge without an organised tour or guide, see my recent post on how to complete the UK three peaks challenge unsupported.

Making your first attempt a success without paying for the privilege

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 Three peaks challenge - Snowdon viewbe 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!

Quick facts:

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 Three peaks challenge - Ben Neviswalks 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 Three peaks challenge - Snowdon viewand 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.

Getting there
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.

Three peaks challengeTime efficiency
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.

Top tip
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.

Azalea's on Kyushu, Japan

A day hike in Aso Kuju National Park

Hoarfrost in Kuju MountainsThe Aso Kuju National Park lies roughly in the centre of Kyushu and is made up of the Aso volcanic plateau and the Kuju mountain range. This range has several peaks over 1700m and remains volcanically active today. It’s ever changing scenery is most popular in June when the hills are littered with bright pink kyushu azaleas. However each season brings beautiful colours as trees turn white in winter with hoarfrost and the leaves of the white enkianthus  become red in October. We visited in early spring when there was still a bitterly cold wind and evidence of winter lingering on the trees at higher elevation.

A good place to start your hike is at the Chojabaru Visitor Centre in the north east section of the park, on the road to Beppu. If approaching the visitor centre from the south you will drive to it via the scenic Makinoto Pass. Entrance is free and there is information to read, maps and leaflets in English. An interesting twenty minute film about the area (with English subtitles) is available to watch if you have time. The staff at the visitor centre are particularly helpful and were able to suggest a hiking route for us on the day. You can purchase a very good hiking map of the area here for 300 yen.

We decided to hike up Mount Minimata, at approximately 12km and 1700m elevation which in total took us around 4.5 hours including pausing for the obligatory photos and a lunch stop. The path begins at the visitor centre and winds gently up a concrete path for 2 km or so before turning into a gravel path. The views from quite early on are breath taking.

About half way up the path becomes very rocky and you begin to see steam billowing from a neighbouring volcano. The path going up through the rocks is quite difficult to miss as there are painted yellow dots lining the way. Shortly you will come to a covered rest area with benches which is where we decided to break for lunch. Note that there are no facilities here at all, but the remains of an old concrete shelter provided a much needed respite from the wind.

After this begins a steep and rocky trail towards the summit which we found to be very muddy and slippery, so do be careful if the ground is wet.
A ‘false summit’ near the top of the mountain brings temporary elation until you realise you’re not quite there yet. From here you can see the top of Mount Minimata and a further thirty to forty minutes through similar terrain takes you to the summit.  From here we were rewarded with a glimpse of the large caldera viewed occasionally through the shifting clouds.

After reaching the summit there is a circular route that takes you to three other peaks and back to the top of Mount Minimata. We did not do this due to time pressure but followed the same track back down towards the visitor centre after taking a few snaps.

Be warned that the weather can change very quickly on the mountain and you should be prepared for all conditions. The hike does not require technical experience but a fair level of fitness and agility are required to navigate steep uphill climbs over rocky and slippery terrain.

There is a myriad of hiking trails in this mountain range and I would recommend staying for at least a few days if you are a keen walker and time allows. We barely scratched the surface of this beautiful region which provides a welcomed escape from the expanse of Japan’s busy cities and an opportunity to reconnect with nature. The region is also known for it’s fantastic hot springs and within an hours drive is the much loved onsen town of Kurokawa Onsen – a great place to soak your tired muscles after a good day’s hiking!

Mount Fuji from Lake Ashi

The iconic Mount Fuji – a day hike from Hakone

Hakone is a popular day trip from Tokyo. It also serves as a good base for hiking and taking a trip out to Lake Ashi for that classic view of Mount Fuji. If you have time, spend a couple of nights here to make the most of the area.

Keen to avoid the crowds, we embarked on a hike from Hakone Yumoto to the far side Lake Ashi and then took the cable car and train back to Hakone Yumoto station. This route takes in a section of the ancient stone pathed old Tokkaido road, a historic tea house, great views of Mount Fuji (weather permitting) and a peaceful amble  along Lake Ashi.  From start to finish the hike was around 15 miles, took approximately seven hours (including stops) and includes several kilometres of steep uphill climb at the start. Not for the faint hearted!

Starting from Hakone Yumoto on the south side of the river, head uphill  in a south westerly direction looking out for signs for the old stone path. After approximately one hour you will come to a stone path off to the left through some woods, clearly signposted as the old Tokkaido path.

Follow the path through a short section of woods, over a river and out the other side. You want to follow signs to the village of Hatajyuku. The path begins to criss-cross a road quite steeply up hill, but is fairly well signposted along the way.

You will come to the village of Hatajyuku which is famous for wood craft and would make a good pit stop if needed as there are public toilets available.

From here the path again criss crosses a road and there are several sections of steep steps to climb until you eventually reach a turning to the left signposted Moto Hakone. After winding through a forested area you will find Amazake Chaya, an atmospheric tea house built in 1881 for travellers journeying along the old Tokkaido. Try the hot, sweet sake for a real treat (400 yen) and help yourself to as much tea as you want.

You can journey through the avenue of cedar trees on your way to the old check point, if you wish to visit it (entrance 500 yen). Allow 20- 30 minutes to look around the exhibition hall and visit the recreated check point building.Following the path roughly one hour from here you should reach the far eastern shore of lake Ashi, arriving in the small town of Moto Hakone. There are a few shops and cafes here If you want to break for a while. If you walk along the shore with the lake on your right for a few minutes you will see the classic view of Mount Fuji across the lake.

The route along the southern shore of lake Ashi is largely undeveloped and not often visited by tourists. In fact, in the three hours it took us to hike along it we met only two people and saw the odd fisherman. There are lovely views of the lake along the way as the path hugs the shore closely for the most part, with the occasional foray into some wooded areas. We came across a couple of small, secluded beaches.
The path itself is very easy to follow although towards the end becomes more undulating and there are tree roots to be avoided underfoot.

On reaching Togendai we took the cable car to Gora, changing at Sounzan then took the train back to Hakone Yumoto station.

TOP TIP: I’d highly recommend picking up a hiking map from the tourist information office which is just opposite the station. Although most sections of the old Tokkaido path are well signposted, it came in handy at a couple of points.

If you want less of a cardiovascular work out you could do the same route but in reverse as Lake Ashi is over 2000 feet higher than Hakone. Get an early start and check train/cable car times before you go to avoid missing the last ride back to Hakone. You might want to allow longer than seven hours for this hike if you want to enjoy it at a more leisurely pace.

Plateau point, Grand Canyon

A three day Grand Canyon adventure

I once heard it said that less than one in ten people who visit the Grand Canyon  step below it’s rim and I can believe it having observed the hubbub of people scuttling off their tour buses by the visitor centre, eager to tick it off their sight – seeing checklist. Another popular way to see it is by taking a helicopter ride from one of the neighbouring towns or cities, such as Las Vegas.

In my humble opinion, the wilderness that can be experienced in the Grand Canyon National Park can only be truly appreciated on foot, and what better way to do it than to hike to the bottom and back. This can been done in a day, but there are plenty of warnings surrounding the dangers of doing this as people often underestimate the magnitude of the climb and of the climate. In fact, there are many accounts of people that have lost their lives attempting to do this – and I have a book aptly named ‘Death in Grand Canyon’ to back me up on that! (I don’t suggest reading it before you go).

We decided to book a local guide through Four Seasons Guides based in Flagstaff, partly to secure our permits but also because it saved us a lot of hassle with regards to planning and bringing our own equipment from overseas. We couldn’t have been more impressed by the professionalism and organisation of our guide, who took care of all the necessary practicalities – from setting up camp to cooking some amazing meals. We never went hungry!

The first day involved hiking the South Kaibab Trail to the Phantom Ranch area at the bottom of the canyon where we camped overnight to the sound of crickets and frogs by the river. The trail is steep and it’s unmistakable bright red sand gets everywhere and sticks to everything like glue. Poles came in useful as the descent took its toll on our knees as we approached the bottom. After an early start we had ample time to enjoy a side hike once we reached the bottom, exploring the banks and tributaries of the Colorado river and it’s fascinating wildlife. The river provides nourishment to more greenery than I ever imagined would exist in such a dry landscape – the canyon is full of surprises. We were even lucky enough to listen to a talk by a park ranger near to where we camped about the canyon’s native animal and bird life before having the option to take a walk to find some scorpions, which light up under an ultraviolet lamp. At well over forty degrees centigrade, the heat we experienced at the bottom of the canyon (in June) was unrelenting.

On day two we began the ~1,250 foot ascent to our second resting place, Indian Garden, roughly half way up the canyon on the 9.9 mile Bright Angel Trail. Stepping to one side to allow the mule trains to pass by, the trail began to feel busier the further we climbed from the bottom. A series of switchbacks called the Devil’s Corkscrew makes the climb feel endless but having another early start and taking plenty of water on board meant that we were able to complete it at a fairly leisurely pace. Dinner was an unforgettable experience. Our guide managed to secure his favourite ‘table’ – a flat piece of rock at the aptly named Plateau Point. As the sun set, we feasted on freshly cooked burritos whilst drinking in the incredible views of the Colorado River below and the Canyon above. We were greeted by a group of excited teenagers on our way back to camp, who had just seen a rattlesnake on the path. Sadly for us, it had slithered away before we had a chance to see it.

The 5 km hike back to the south rim on day three covered ~3060 foot elevation and was equally tough. Keen to avoid climbing in the heat of the day, we started early and stopped regularly in the shade to rehydrate. We were fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of the magnificent California Condor, with an impressive three meter wingspan, which once was extinct in the wild.

In hindsight I feel it would be very managable to do the hike over two days if you have a good level of fitness, however lingering for a few more days gives you the option to explore areas off the main trails and savour the moment a bit more. It also makes it possible to avoid hiking during the hottest, driest part of the day.
The north rim has a fraction of the visitors that the south rim receives and there are many more multi-day hikes in the Park to be enjoyed, not to mention rafting on the Colorado. We barely scratched the surface of the Grand Canyon but the experience we had was phenomenal and has left us wanting more… watch this space!

Highland cow

100 miles on the West Highland Way

Scotland is a country known for it’s natural beauty, iconic landscapes and mountainous terrain. The West Highland Way offers the traveller a glimpse into what Scotland has to offer, and an opportunity to ‘get away from it all’, taking in great views, peaceful lochs and forests.
We hiked the ~100 mile trail that winds through some of Scotland’s most loved scenery in six days, averaging around fifteen miles a day.

The way begins in Milngavie (pronounced ‘mill-guy’), just outside Glasgow, and winds North finishing in Fort William near to the foot of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Scotland. The trail conveniently passes through several small towns/ villages making it possible to stay overnight in local hostels, camp grounds or alternative accommodation.

For those wishing to lighten their load, a baggage transfer service is available. This would be particularly useful if carrying camping gear, which fortunately we were not.

Our six day hike can be broken down into the following sections (we had longer and shorter days based on the availability of accommodation which we booked fairly last minute):

Scotland's West Highland WayDay one: Milngavie to Balmaha ~20 miles/32 km
The way begins in the town of Milngavie and the first few miles do not feel particularly remote. After this the hike is fairly flat, mostly on footpaths and quiet roads with a fairly steep ascent over Conic Hill towards the end. The climb is rewarded by views to Loch Lomond as the path winds down towards the shore. Even from day one the scenery is pretty astounding and provides a taste of things to come

Day two: Balmaha to Ardlui ~21 miles/34 km
This was in some ways the most difficult day of the hike given it’s length and difficult terrain along the latter sections on the shore of Loch Lomond. The final push is followed by a pleasant boat ride across the Loch to  Ardlui where you can find a decent pub and lodgings. Connecting the remote and largely uninhabited east side of Loch Lomond with the West, the boat can be summoned from across the Loch by raising a ball tied to a flagpole and waiting in anticipation on the dock – just make sure you don’t miss the last boat! Expect to pay a mere £4 per person each way (£6 for solo travellers).

Scotland's West Highland WayDay three: Ardlui to Crianlarich ~6 miles/10 km                                 With moderate ascents and descents, this short stretch of the trail proved to be in some ways the most beautiful and a section of the hike I remember particularly well for it’s pine forests. Be sure to check out the youth hostel at Crianlarich,  with beds from only £18 per night this is a great place to rest your weary legs.

Day four: Crianlarich to Tyndrum ~ 6 miles/10 km                             After only covering 6 miles the previous day, ideally we would have hiked a bit further, but due to limited availability of accommodation we had to stop only 6 miles up the road in Tyndrum.  As a result, the day felt more like a gentle stroll than a serious hike, but given that we had a very big day the next day we were glad for our second easy day in a row.

Day five: Tyndrum to Kinlochleven ~28 miles/ 45 km                                                                                    This section takes in the wilderness of Rannoch Moor as well as the Devil’s Staircase – the most challenging climb on the WHW. Rannoch Moor is basically an uninhabited peat-bog with few trails across it and limited cover.  Consequently it felt a lot more exposed and would be quite challenging in adverse weather.  We stopped off for a well deserved break at the Kingshouse Hotel before climbing out of Glencoe up the infamous Devil’s Staircase to the highest point on the whole trail.  Although a tough climb of several hundred metres, the views at the top are well worth it.  After the climb, the trail meanders gently down from the high pastures to the town of Kinlochleven where we stayed the night.

Scotland's West Highland WayDay six: Kinlochleven to Fort William ~16 miles/ 26 km.                                                           After our epic hike the day before, limbs were tired and feet were sore, so the immediate climb out of Kinlochleven was quite tough; a climb made even more demoralising by a couple of female German ultra-marathoners running past us as if out for a Saturday morning Park Run.  However, the reward for our hard work was our first sight of Ben Nevis – Scotland’s highest mountain and our companion for most of the remainder of the hike.  Even with the summit shrouded in cloud, Ben Nevis loomed large and provided an inspiring backdrop as we made our way slowly down into Glen Nevis.  After almost 100 miles of walking, the final 3 miles along tarmac roads felt strangely West Highland Way, Scotlandhard and the elusive Fort William always seemed just round the next bend, but eventually we arrived weary, elated and hungry.  The weariness would take a while to deal with, but the hunger was quickly resolved by steaks all round at the local Wetherspoons – although not before the obligatory photograph with the Weary Traveller!

Top tip: As a first hand witness of the dreaded ‘midges’ in Scotland, I can assure you that these critters really are as bad as their reputation would suggest. Your best chance of avoiding them is to go in May/ June and consider taking strong insect repellent as a precaution. We hiked the Way in May and didn’t see a single midge.

Be sure to book accommodation well in advance (or camp) to avoid disappointment. This way, you could space out your overnight stops more evenly, if you wish.

Feature photo courtesy of Nicolai Durbaum/ Unsplash

Angel's Landing Trail, Zion National Park

Hiking Zion’s infamous ‘Angel’s Landing’

With spectacular vistas and accessible hiking – Utah’s Zion National Park has it all. Think glassy pools, coruscating waterfalls, towering rock formations and an impressive network of hiking trails.

I struggle to remember a more stunning view on our American road trip than that seen from the top of Angel’s landing. Not for the faint hearted, this five mile trail is an adventure up steep slopes and across narrow, vertiginous ledges. Allow four to five hours as it is particularly strenuous and covers a total elevation of around 1,488 feet. This is American canyonlands at it’s finest, and you’ll struggle to find better views of Zion Canyon from anywhere else in the park.

Part of the beauty of Zion is that it is not accessible by car during peak months (usually April to October), so the tranquillity is not spoilt by traffic jams and car horns. There is an excellent free shuttle bus service that leaves from the town of Springdale, where there are many lodgings available. More information about the shuttle bus can be found here.

Plan for an early start if hiking during the summer months as hiking in the midday heat is never pleasant. The trail becomes extremely dangerous in winter due to snow and ice so aim to visit in spring, summer or fall. Needless to say, don’t even think about doing the hike if a storm is brewing. Stay safe and check the weather forecast before you go.

As with any hike, ensure you have plenty of water and energy snacks. You will want to have your hands free to be able to hold on to the chains.

The trailhead can be located by the picnic area near to the grotto shuttle stop in Zion Canyon. From here you will follow the west rim trail for the first section of the hike which takes you along the river before starting to climb up towards Refrigerator Canyon. This is followed by a series of switchbacks called ‘Walter’s wiggles’ which takes you to Scout’s lookout on top of the ridge. The views from here are great which is good news if you don’t like the look of the last section. From here things get much more challenging- exposed drop off’s and steep  switchbacks make it unsuitable for those with a fear of heights . Chains are bolted into the cliff face at particular points to hold on to as things become a little hairy. You don’t need to have elite fitness to do the hike, but a reasonable level of fitness and agility is required.

The Angel’s landing is a must for anyone visiting Zion National Park and is an ideal escape for travellers with only a day to spare on their Wild West itinerary. If you have a spirit of adventure, don’t miss out on this fantastic opportunity to get up close and personal with the natural world. You may even be lucky enough to spot some wildlife on your way: bighorn sheep, canyon tree frogs, porcupines and mule deer are amongst the animals native to Zion Canyon.