The Three Peaks

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Three Peaks Day 4 – Mount Snowdon, Wales

Once again we travelled the day before to our next stop, the Snowdonia mountain range in Wales. The place we stayed this time was very close to our starting point, but the weather was awful. The past couple of days hadn’t been that bad even though there was evidence of overnight rain it hadn’t rained during a climb. This time we were starting a climb in the rain with at least two of us struggling to walk on blistered feet.

The first thirty minutes were uncomfortable because of this but eventually as the rough path gave way to waterlogged fields it started to become easier on the feet, but harder work moving forward as the rain continued to make the track worse. In some places the mud was so bad it was like it wanted to suck your own feet from you so it could keep them for itself. It didn’t really bother us though, this was the last mountain and we weren’t about to let some bad weather stop us.

As we got higher up the mountain the wind started to pick up and due to something being blown from a friends hand (can’t remember what now) we ended up leaving the track and continued directly up the side of the mountain. This was our mistake. Once we got off the track the wind changed from being a gale force to one that started to remind me of the wind on Mount Tongariro. As the wind got worse we had to shelter in a sort of alcove in the mountain just so we could catch the breath that had been blown from us. Once we were ready we started to continue and that’s when the wind took a turn for the worse. No longer able to stay on our feet a few of us were swept from our feet and blown across the grassy side of the mountain straight into a wire fence. Those that had more or less stayed on their feet clambered over the fence, and whilst keeping low made a run for cover behind a large rock. Once there was a big enough lull in the wind we followed suit and joined the others behind the rock.

It was whilst sheltering behind the rock we realised that in winds like this it was not safe to climb a mountain. We knew the higher we got the worse it would be, so with much regret and consideration we decided to abandon the mountain and to start heading back down. Unfortunately our attempt to leave the mountain wasn’t to succeed. We attempted to make a run for the fence so we could get over it and make our way back to the path but the wind was so strong we couldn’t even push against the wind to make it. Without having even reached the fence we had to abandon our attempt to get off the mountain and swiftly returned to the cover behind the rock. It was obvious at this point it wasn’t a question of whether we could climb the mountain, but whether we could actually get off it. With the wind picking up in speed it meant the temperature was dropping – one of my friends seriously considered using a survival bag at this point to try and conserve heat. Instead we decided to try and find a different way off the mountain. Cautiously we tried to descend down into the gulley which we were sheltering above, but a check of the map made us realise we weren’t going to get anywhere going that way – our only choice was to fight the wind and to make it back to the other side of the fence.

With some luck the wind did lessen somewhat which helped us fight against it’s almighty force and we did indeed make it back over the fence. Every step we took was a cautious one and we were constantly checking to make sure everyone was still safe and keeping low. After what seemed like forever we eventually made it below the level of the wind and got off the mountain.

This was the supposed to have been the easiest, but it defeated us. Although disheartened in this defeat we have vowed to climb Mount Snowdon again when the weather isn’t so challenging.

Three Peaks Day 3 – Scafell Pike, Cumbria

Over night we’d travelled from Fort William in Scotland, to a place in the peak district of England. We weren’t starting as close to our target mountain as the previous day so we didn’t get such an early start. The start of the day was cloudy and wet, although not raining, so we made sure we’d started out fully kitted out again and started our climb. It’s a fair walk from the starting point until you actually start to climb and involves crossing streams with fast, rushing water – obviously something to be careful in doing as you wouldn’t want to slip before you’ve even started in earnest.

One of the milder streams

To reach the start of the snow didn’t take as long as the previous day, but this time we didn’t have a guide or crampons – we had to rely on ourselves to get to the top. Going it alone (well not really alone as there were seven of us again) it’s really essential that you take the easier path in this sort of weather. The “easy” path is relatively gentle climb which winds round the back of the mountain, in the photo below you can see the quicker, more direct route. To give you an idea of the madness of that route you may notice two men and a dog whom appear as specks in the bottom left hand corner.

Snowy peaks, Scafell Pike

This slower, winding path is still hard work as the snow gets deeper and it becomes harder to tell which route is the best to take due to a scattering of rocks protruding out of the snow. This mountain was colder due to the presence of wind and the familiar experience of sporadic fog. This fog actually proved to be a bit of a problem the closer we got to the top. Some of us were able to take the mountain a little faster than the others and had ended up about 10 to 20 metres in front of the others. Looking back we thought we could see them so kept going, alas it was another group and the rest of our group were lagging further behind, unsure of where we had gone with no map for themselves.

We reached the summit without realising they were still 5 minutes behind us, and when they arrived they were initially furious at us for leaving them behind. I think they realised we never meant for it to happen, and moments after we were all enjoying being at the summit. Sadly the conditions at the top of this mountain weren’t the same as Ben Nevis – this mountain had a biting wind which meant any lengthy stay at the top would have been a bad idea. We took our compulsory photographs from the summit and of the trig point and made our way back down.

Having had the opportunity to slide down Ben Nevis we decided we’d try and do the same down Scafell Pike. Sadly the snow didn’t have the same smoothness to it which meant it didn’t really help us get down the mountain any faster. It was a fairly uneventful descent getting down past the snow, over the rocks and crossing the stream. However we somehow managed to take a wrong turn and ended up walking down across a field and along a bridle way. It was a slightly longer path but it was a pleasant walk.

Leaving Scafell Pike behind us…

Thankfully at the bottom of this mountain is a pub that serves hot food so although we couldn’t get the Sunday roast we had hoped for we did manage to get warmed up and ready for the drive to Wales. The last part of this descent wasn’t easy for me either due to the blister I’d gotten from the previous day having gotten worse during this second descent.

Three Peaks Day 2 – Ben Nevis, Scotland

So the morning came and after a good fried breakfast we met up with our guide who was going to take us to the summit. Where the previous day had been nice and sunny this day was already cold and wet. We didn’t let this dampen our spirits though – we were about to climb a mountain! The other guys had some experience from doing some minor peaks around England but nothing that high over the previous weeks, and one had done Ben Nevis before – I think I may have been a little more prepared for bad weather conditions though due to me having done Mount Tongariro the week before.

Starting the climb

The start of the climb is quite easy and can be done in normal walking gear – walking boots, gaiters, etc. but eventually we got to places with increasingly more snow. After about an hours walking we finally got to a point where we needed crampons to proceed any further. My first attempt at fitting them wasn’t too bad, but my mistake was in what to do with the excess material from the straps when they’re pulled tight. I knew it’d be dangerous to have it tucked away somewhere, but the best way is to actually tuck them inside your gaiters as they should hold it in place. It’s a little strange walking in them at first, but as we reached deeper and deeper snow it became more comfortable to walk in them.

Looking down on Fort William

At some points the path did get quite narrow but with the crampons on it didn’t really worry us as they do provide pretty decent grip. Along the path we took stops every now and then so that the ones who were lagging behind could stop and rest which did mean it took longer to do the climb but it gave the sun time to break through the clouds. It was kind of an eerie atmosphere – it was predominantly cloudy but you couldn’t feel any wind so it was actually quite warm despite all the snow.

After we’d been walking across snow for some time there had been instances where it wasn’t clear where the path was and stepping off the path meant you’d suddenly find yourself knee-deep (or deeper) in snow. It was round about this time when the guide started to show us a few basic skills for climbing mountains in the snow. The first one was an avalanche test:

You use an ice pick to dig out a square area as deep as you can, making sure that you leave part of the snow and ice in the middle standing. The idea then is to gradually put more weight onto the snow and to see how much strength you need to break it. If the snow at the top breaks easily then there’s a real chance of an avalanche. The reasoning behind this is that when the temperature warms slightly it will start to weaken the bonds between the snowflakes on the top layer; as it freezes again it will not be as strong as it was previously so will not take as much weight. When snow then falls on this thin layer of ice it becomes a risk that the weight of the snow, or people walking on it may then cause the sheet to move.

What was fairly off-putting at this time was that it did break suggesting that an avalanche was possible, but the guide merely shrugged his shoulders and exclaimed that he hadn’t seen it do that before. Moving on we eventually got to the halfway point where there is a narrow passage with steep, snow-covered sides – this is where he decided to do a few more skills such as the various ways you can stop yourself from sliding in the snow. When you’re wearing crampons you have to be extremely careful about sliding as they can easily get a grip without warning (as you’re falling) and will then break your leg from the force.

Taking a break

As we neared the top the snow got heavier and we encountered frequent changes in the visibility. One minute you could be shrouded in fog that stopped you seeing more than about 10 metres in front of you, and the next you’d be squinting from the sun reflecting off the snow. The climb does get harder near the top and it’s wise to stick to the area marked out by chevrons due to the number of gullies and cliff faces that are not easily seen.

As we approached the summit there was one last gulley which we almost walked off (well I say we, it was mainly just me that almost fell off) due to the guide getting mixed up with where the hidden gulley was located. Apparently he has fallen down it once before and was saved only by his quick thinking and having an ice pick to stop himself.

Approaching the summit

Upon reaching the summit of Ben Nevis it still felt like an achievement despite it not being the highest I’d climbed, it was more of an adventure having an incredible amount of snow and having achieved it with some friends. At the top it was deathly calm with no wind whatsoever which actually made it quite warm (hence me being in my base layer only by that point). The guide did comment that it’s extremely rare to not have wind on top of the mountain.

Me atop the trig point

At the top there were quite a few people there, one group even had a bottle of champagne which they offered to us after they’d had their full of it.

After about 30 minutes at the summit pausing for a drink and a bite to eat we begun our descent. It was of course far quicker to get back down, but in places this also made it more dangerous due to how easily you could slip despite the crampons.

The extra strain this put on our feet and knees made it gradually more and more uncomfortable despite having “blister proof” socks. Eventually we got back down below the majority of the snow and removed our crampons.

What came next is probably the part which was the most fun. To avoid the icy path that looked quite dangerous we cut across the side of the mountain by sliding on our backs down the slopes. After several of these I finally decided I should be recording this on my iPhone so made sure I went off to the side slightly so I could record those that followed me. Sadly when I landed I found myself buried up to my waist in the snow, but it was a good position to get some shots of the slope. It wasn’t as steep as the previous two, but it was still fun.

Near the edge of a gully

About half an hour to an hour after that we finally reached the bottom (and the pub) having completed our first mountain of the Three Peaks Challenge.

Once we’d finished at the pub we then got on the road and started the drive to the next peak in Yorkshire, Scafell Pike.

Three Peaks Day 1 – To Scotland!

Just one week after returning from my trip around Australia and New Zealand I was off again for Easter Weekend on another adventure. This one was to form part of a colleagues stag party and would be the Three Peaks challenge.

Normally the Three Peaks challenge should be done in a 24 hour period but as that means a lot of travelling when your starting point is Leicester and almost certainly no sleep we opted to do it over the Easter weekend instead – that meant we could travel the 420 miles up to Fort William in Scotland on the Friday and then do one mountain per day for Saturday to Monday. I’m not sure what a drive like that would be like in places like the US, but in the UK it’s considered to be a pretty long drive and would take around 8 hours to complete without stops and depending on traffic.

The Highlands, Scotland

Our first peak would be┬áthe largest in the British Isles, Ben Nevis. We’d heard the weather reports saying that it would be under heavy snow so our first task upon arriving in Fort William was to find somewhere we could hire crampons from.

After visiting a number of places we were given a telephone number of a small company who might still have had some left. The problem was with the amount of snow on the mountain it wasn’t really possible without the correct equipment which meant most places had hired all theirs out. This last company fortunately had enough crampons left for the seven of us to hire out so we made the trek over to a house on the hillside where this lady ran the business from. When we got back to the hotel we made sure we had a rough idea how to fit the crampons to our walking boots – of course the following day when we climbed the mountain we found we’d done it wrong.

After having tried on the crampons we then headed to a nearby restaurant for an evening meal followed by a pub near the hotel. Unfortunately once at the pub I was so tired still from the lack of sleep the week before that I didn’t last long before retiring for the evening.