After she finished her GCSEs, Emma realised that she’d have a good six weeks at home before Ceri finished her school year and we could start doing things as a family. She decided that she wanted to do something worthwhile with that time. I laughingly suggested that she do the National Three Peaks Challenge, which I’d done with my brothers back in 2009. And that’s how I found myself doing the Three Peaks Challenge with a teenager!
Emma’s plan was to raise some money for the Beacon Centre at Musgrove Park Hospital, the place where I’ve been receiving the treatments for my bowel cancer. As it turned out, the Beacon Centre is supported by the charity SURE (Somerset Unit for Radiotherapy Equipment). As her plan was to fund-raise for SURE, doing the Three Peaks Challenge with a teenager suddenly seemed like the logical choice.
So Emma set up an event page with the national event organiser:
She also set up a donations page through SURE’s website:
And then it was down to the planning.
The Three Peaks Challenge involves climbing the highest mountains in each of the three countries of Great Britain, ideally within a 24 hour period. The mountains are:
- Ben Nevis, in Scotland (1,345 m);
- Scafell Pike, in England (978 m), and;
- Snowdon, in Wales (1,085 m)
There is also the small matter of driving between these peaks, and they’re not close. The distances involved are:
- Ben Nevis to Scafell Pike – 257 miles (5½ hours)
- Scafell Pike to Snowdon – 211 miles (4½ hours)
They’re also a very long way from home:
- Taunton to Ben Nevis – 518 miles (9 hours)
- Snowdon to Taunton – 247 miles (5 hours)
This meant driving up on the Friday, to start the challenge on the Saturday. It is also traditionally done as close to the Summer Solstice as possible, to take into account the longest days and shortest nights. This allows two mountains to be done on one day, and the other mountain on the other day, without the need to walk in darkness. The challenge also needs a dedicated driver, to sleep while you’re climbing and drive while you’re sleeping. My brother Simon volunteered.
The only weekend around the Summer Solstice we could all manage was the 29th June – 1st July. And this was a good weekend; close to the solstice while avoiding the madness of the busiest weekend, which would be the one before. The only remaining problem was that these plans were being made in late May; would we have enough time for the training? Also, would Emma be able to take time off from her revision for her GSCEs, to fit in the training? The Three Peaks Challenge with a teenager in the middle of her exams was not an easy thing to plan.
The best case scenario was that we had time for four training walks. Emma thought she would be physically fit enough to do the challenge. I thought she would be mentally fit enough to do the challenge. So we decided to give it a go.
On the 29th May, we set off for the Brecon Beacons, for our first training walk. The three mountains in the challenge are all over 3,000 feet, the equivalent of what are called Munros in Scotland. This equates to 914 meters. We don’t have anything quite like that in the South. In fact, the highest point in the South of Britain is Pen y Fan, in the Brecon Beacons, in South Wales. It stands at 886 meters, which is only 28 meters under a Munro. So this was where we’d be doing all our training.
The first training walk involved going up Pen y Fan, over the other side to Cribyn and then back again. This was a distance of 6.5 miles and involved ascents totaling 739 meters. This walk is the equivalent of the Snowdon peak, which is 736 meters from Pen y Pass car park to the summit. Training for the Three Peaks Challenge with a teenager was successfully underway.
Our next training walk was just 6 days later. This was a deliberate plan to, basically, make Emma struggle. Due to the time limitations, the only way to get her ready was to work her as hard as possible, as early as possible. At this stage, we’d worked out that there could only be three training walks. After this one, we’d leave it two weeks to let the walks bed in. Then it would be two weeks to the event. This second walk was over nine miles long and involved ascents of 1000 meters. This was to replicate the climb of Scafell Pike, which is 934 meters… but in only 6.5 miles. Even in the Brecons, while you can replicate the height gain, you can’t match the steepness.
The third training walk was a nightmare. The plan was to walk from the Blaen y Glyn Uchaf car park, past the waterfalls and up onto the hills, along the Beacons Way. This would lead us over Fan y Big, and Cribyn and then down and up to the Trig Point on Pen y Fan. From there we would drop down to the Storey Arms Car Park. At which point we’d turn around and do the walk in reverse.
This one is supposed to replicate Ben Nevis. It involves 1300 meters of ascent, to compare with Ben Nevis’ 1336 meters. It is, however, close to 15 miles, as opposed to the Ben Nevis peak, which is just over 10 miles. But it is a very good test. By our reckoning, if you can do this, you’re ready. It worked for us in 2009. I saw no reason why it wouldn’t work now. It was a very cold and wet walk, though, and didn’t go according to plan. We did it though, so we agreed we were ready for the challenge and I booked the digs for the Friday night. For better or worse, the training for the Three Peaks Challenge with a teenager was done.
Emma kindly left the logistics of the trip to me. As there were only two of us walking, and we’d be using my Mazda 6, there was plenty of room for our equipment. The last time we’d done the Three Peaks Challenge, in 2009, it was supposed to be the same arrangement; two walkers and one driver. The difference that time, though, was that on the way up, Simon swung us by Edinburgh airport, where our other brother Alan was waiting. Neither of them had mentioned this to me. Which meant all my careful planning for the trip went right out the window. I wouldn’t be going anywhere near an airport on this trip!
I split the boot of the car in half and put in a box and a cool bag for each of us. Each box contained one set of:
- hiking boots
- trekking poles
- two litre bottle of water for washing
Each cool bag contained:
- a two litre bottle of drinking water per mountain
- a bag of snacks per mountain
- a two litre bottle or frozen water, to keep thing cool for 48 hours
- two iced coffees to get us going on the second two mountains
Emma shared the back seat with our travel bags and an array of pillows. She was certainly able to make herself comfortable back there and, with the help of Kwells travel sickness tablets, spent most of most journeys asleep. Simon would make his own back-seat nest while Emma and I were out walking.
We set off at about 11 am on the Friday morning, for the Carlisle Central Travelodge. It was a journey of 320 miles and should have taken about 5 hours. It didn’t! Setting off at 11 meant we should have missed the worst of the traffic. We didn’t. It turned out that there were about 100 miles of road works on the journey. And Fridays, it seems, are always busy. It was a very long, hot journey and far from the relaxing preparation I’d been hoping for. Worse still, the room was like a sauna and there was no air conditioning, which meant that I got about half the sleep I was hoping for.
We set off the next day as planned; to arrive in Fort William at around 4:30 pm. Go to the Morrisons, use the toilets, get a meal and buy the food for the rest of the trip. Just like everyone else in the World! A lot of the shelves we looked at had already been picked clean. It was quite funny, really. But we got what we needed and headed up to the start point, arriving a good 30 minutes before the off.
And so, at 6 pm the Three Peaks Challenge with a teenager began. Even at this time, the temperature was in the high 20s (82°f) and there was not a cloud in the sky. This quickly became a problem for me. The plan was to take a five minute break for every hour of walking. In each break, we’d each eat an energy bar, and I’d take the opportunity to refill my water bottle from the 2 litre bottle in my backpack. Emma had a 2 litre water bladder in her backpack.
Before we’d even made it to the first hour, I was overheating. I’d poured water into my cap to try and cool my head down but that only went so far. After about 50 minutes, the position of the slope offered some shade against the side of the track. I stripped off my shirt and we sat there for about 10 minutes. A glorious site for all the other walkers. I drank plenty and we were able to push on.
We actually made good time up Ben Nevis, reaching the top in about 3.5 hours, which is what I’d been hoping for. There was even some snow up there. At this stage, the Three Peaks Challenge with a teenager was looking good.
The descent, however, took longer than expected. The main problem was that the path was so steep and uneven, that it was impossible to get a safe rhythm going. Emma did the sensible thing and kept to a pace at which she felt comfortable.
The upshot was that it took 2.5 hours to get down, which was too long. The longer we were up there, the darker it got and the more difficult the descent became. We had head torches but I didn’t want to use them unless we had to. Once you start using torches, you can’t see anything outside of the beam and that’s limiting in its own way. Another issue was that the longer the descent took, the more time we were spending exerting ourselves. By the end I’d had to take off my teeshirt again. The air was so still, close to the bottom, that I was overheating once more.
But we got down, piled in the car and Simon started driving us to Scafell Pike. We took our Kwells, ate and drank, and Emma settled down to sleep. I, on the other hand, spent the first hour or so blasting the air conditioning over my naked torso, in an effort to cool myself down. After that, I was able to get a couple of hours of kip.
Simon made good time on the empty roads and the Sat Nav actually behaved itself, meaning we arrived at a time that allowed us to set off at about 5:30 am. Emma and I had woken up 30 minutes before arriving to get some food and drink on board. All we had to do was put our boots back on and go (after a brief trip to the portaloos).
The first thing I did, as we set off, was throw up. I put this down to Simon’s driving through the winding roads. ‘Making good time’ also involves being tossed around on bendy roads. The vomiting didn’t clear up, though, and after we’d walked a mile and I was throwing up the water I was drinking, I called a halt. The Three Peaks Challenge with a teenager was in trouble.
I realised that I couldn’t risk going on. I was suffering with heat exhaustion and if I couldn’t keep fluids down but kept pushing on, the likelihood was that I’d collapse with dehydration at some point. Then what? How was Emma supposed to deal with that?
We had to abandon the attempt on the Three Peaks in the 24 hours. The Three Peaks Challenge with a teenager was on hold, not because of the teenager, because of me…
Emma was understandably gutted. I was also distraught to be the reason she couldn’t continue. I’ve never been good in the heat, most likely because I’m so overweight. But I’d done all the training needed; I’d done considerably more than Emma. The problem was that, all through the training period, the weather had been unseasonably cool and wet. During the challenge, however, the weather was unseasonably hot and dry. And that did it for me!
We went back to the car, woke poor Simon up and had a chat. We agreed to continue to Snowdon, where Simon would go up with Emma. I would take over the driving. I can’t emphasise enough the strength of character it took for Emma to agree to this. She’d told everyone what she was doing and had £700 of sponsorship raised against the attempt. And now it had all gone wrong. She was worried that people would be angry with her or laugh at her, she must have wanted it all to be over. But she decided to push on and do Snowdon. I’ve rarely been as proud of her as I was at that moment.
I did the first part of the journey to Snowdon but was too tired to get us all the way. Simon woke up after a couple of hours and took over for the next bit. That’s how we did all of the remaining journeys. One of us slept while the other drove a couple of hours and then swap. It worked much better than I thought it would.
But we got to the Pen y Pass car park and Simon and Emma set off up the PYG track at about midday. It was incredibly hot. I was supposed to get some sleep but the car was like an oven and we didn’t have enough fuel for me to leave the engine running with the air con on. So I found some shade and read, while the other two soldiered on.
Simon planned to go up the PYG Track and come down the Miner’s Track. It’s not the fastest option but it’s easier and, in the heat, a good call. I assumed that it’s take them about 4 hours. So, at about 2:30 pm, I set off up the Miner’s Track to meet them. I walked about half an hour, to the point I found some shade, and settled down with my Kindle for them to arrive. By 3:30, they weren’t there and I started to worry. There was no phone signal because of all the mountains, so I couldn’t contact them. I walked further up, to the lake, and gained a bit of height. From there, I could see people all the way back to the foot of the descent; about half an hour’s walking. They weren’t there, either.
It was at that point that I really started worrying. Firstly that they might have come back along the PYG track and I had the car keys. So I hurried back to the car but they weren’t there. Then I remembered that I’d seen two mountain rescue jeeps and at least one helicopter. What if they’d been on one of those? How would I know without phone signal. I eventually found a spot on the Miner’s Track where I got enough signal to contact Julie. She’d heard nothing, which, at least, ruled out emergencies. Although, now Julie was worried as well.
I then theorised that they might have got to the top and were so tired that they decided to take the train down. But they might have to wait to get a spot on the train and then wait again to catch the bus up to the car park. So I sat myself at a place where I could see the exit of the PYG Track, the exit of the Miner’s Track and the drop off point for the bus. And I settled down to wait. 5 pm ticked by, then 5:30. Finally, at 6 pm, 6 hours after they set off, I saw them coming down the Miner’s Track. I can’t describe the relief I felt. There might even have been tears…
It turned out that, because it was so hot and there was no time constraint, they took plenty of stops on the way up. It actually took 3½ hours to get to the top. That was the point that I was waiting for them on the Miner’s Track, thinking, ‘any minute now…’.
Once at the top, and after the photo, they’d gone into the restaurant for a cold drink and a snack. Then, on the way down, the lake had looked too inviting, so they’d stopped off for a swim…
But they were back by 6 pm, which was 24 hours after we set off. In that time, Emma had done 2¼ of the 3 Peaks and fitted in a swim. But she wasn’t done. She said that I owed her a mountain. The Three Peaks Challenge with a teenager, it seemed, was not finished.
So, four days later, on Thursday 5th June, we set off at 10 am from Taunton, for Scafell Pike. After seven hours of driving, at 5 pm, when the temperature was a little cooler, we set off up the mountain again. This time, thankfully, with exactly zero vomiting.
We blew through the point I’d turned us back during the previous attempt and made it to the summit in 2.5 hours, which was a pretty respectable time.
From there, it was a just a matter of the descent. We went down the Lord’s Rake, to ring the changes. The Lord’s Rake is a scree slope and has always been something of a scramble. But it seems to have got even steeper since I was last here and I doubt I’ll go that way again. It was, however, a nice bit of adventure, to finish off what has been a real adventure.
While I’m disappointed that I wasn’t able to give Emma the chance to get up and down the 3 Peaks in the 24 hours, I’m thrilled that she’s now done them all. It’s been lovely to be able to spend all this time with Emma, while she raises money for such a worthwhile cause.
Should anyone wish to make a contribution, donations are accepted until 1st October:
So, while the Three Peaks Challenge with a teenager didn’t go according to plan, said teenager did do all Three Peaks. Admittedly, not with the same person on all the Peaks, and not in the 24 hours. But that’s hardly her fault.
She has showed amazing fortitude and determination to find a way to achieve what she set out to do. The girl done good.