Mountain madness (in which I tackle the 3 highest peaks in the UK in 24 hours)

NOTE: Although this blog is personal in that I use it to express my views and process my own thoughts about modern librarianship it is largely a ‘professional’ endeavour. However, I’ve decided to make an exception with this particular post as lots of the readers of my blog generously sponsored me in my attempt at the Three Peaks Challenge. You can still sponsor me here

After the first 100 metres up Ben Nevis I confess I thought I’d made a terrible, terrible mistake. I was tired, out of breath and utterly demoralised. How on earth could I climb this mountain let alone two more? I hadn’t done as much training as I’d wanted, due to an irritating chest infection (which forced me to cut my regular three mile run home after work) and the ascent already had me gasping. There was some comfort to be had in the fact that my training partner, Julie, confessed to being just as shattered as we talked about how completely different the gym treadmills were to the boulder-strewn paths we were now pulling ourselves up.

Phill on one of the early sections of Ben Nevis

I’ve climbed a fair few hills and mountains in my time but the last serious peak I’d climbed had been Snowdon back in 2001 when I was a sprightly 29-year-old. Was I still up to it? Also playing on my mind was the fact that all other members of the group were pretty fit and younger than me. Stuart had recently done a 10k run and plays football regularly, Phill is a rower and mountain bike nut and Ben completed the London Marathon in just over 3.5 hrs. It was going to be interesting keeping up with them.

Thankfully a more gradual stretch and a steadier pace soon had me feeling much less daunted. A rest stop at 600 metres was very welcome and saw the first of many high-carb pasta meals of the 24 hours (I won’t be eating pasta again soon).

Zig-zagging to the top

Zig-zagging to the top was some of the toughest climbing I’ve ever done, but short regular stops made it bearable. Also tweets of support were coming through and were incredibly motivating – it was like having a virtual support team.

One of the strangest things about this whole experience was that most other 3 Peak-ers were on their way down as we were on the way up – we must have started Nevis later than every other team, however, this would pay dividends later as we’d start Scafell Pike in daylight. What every person coming down had in common, was that each and every one told us a widely inaccurate estimated time to the top. One woman gleefully told us 40 minutes left and we ended up reaching the summit 1.5 hours later! Most however, seemed to double the actual time, thinking – no doubt – about how long it had taken them to get down from the top.

With the 'snow section' behind me

It was from people coming down Nevis that we first heard about the snow section ahead. Snow section! When we got to it, it was a killer to get through but at least we felt like proper mountaineers. Thankfully the summit wasn’t far ahead and I got a sudden burst of energy to make it to the top. Despite the initial gleeful tenor to the trip back down, the constant jarring of feet on the stone paths soon took their toll and halfway down we were nearly all complaining of ‘jelly legs’.

At the very top of Ben Nevis - the highest point in the UK.

About 200 metres from the bottom Julie really started to struggle as she found that her legs just wouldn’t carry her. By the time we arrived back at the main road it was clear her challenge was over. There was no-one more determined to complete this than Julie so it was really tough for her to take, but if your legs just don’t work anymore you don’t have a choice. I know she won’t see it as any consolation but at least she conquered the highest peak in the UK. The excellent Gordon, our driver and up until Julie’s retirement, the sole member of the support team, furnished us with hot pizzas before driving us down to the Lake District as Saturday became Sunday.

Arriving at the foot of Scafell Pike (the tallest mountain in England) at 5am in the morning I was seriously in two minds about continuing myself as my knees felt completely buggered and I idly wondered whether the support team might end up bigger than the challenge group! I decided I’d at least give it a go. As with Nevis I found the first section demoralising due to the steep ascent, however after the first hour the terrain became more gradual and grassy (very glad not to have stones underfoot for once) and the climb became almost enjoyable.

View from an upper section of Scafell Pike

In what seemed like a relatively short space of time, the four of us soon found ourselves looking down on tremendous views of the valley and lesser mountains below. As we neared the actual summit, after two or three evil false ones, it was my turn to be told to slow down, so we could all make the final push together. I put my sudden turn of speed down to the surprisingly restorative power of Fruit Pastilles. The summit, like Nevis, was misty and bleak with little to see in any direction, but our spirits were high, mine especially, after all I’d climbed the final peak, Snowdon, three times before and “it was a doddle”…

A shot of Phill, Ben and Stuart as they join me on the summit of Scafell Pike

The walk down Scafell was tough but eased for me by my decision to make wide zig-zagged paths in the grass wherever possible away from the main route. I’m convinced if I hadn’t that Snowdon would have been no-go for me. We completed Scafell in 4.5 hours, incredibly just as we had estimated, but at the bottom there was no support team in sight. The uber-fit Ben took it upon himself to find them. It turned out they were a kilometre down the road fast asleep. Bless. As you can imagine there was some banter to be had when the car arrived to pick us up.

A river runs through it / us

We’d known from the start that we’d be climbing Snowdon in the rain, but nothing could of prepared us for that final part of the challenge in North Wales: traversing a route that started off as a track and became more like a free-flowing river as the rain and the wind pounded the mountain side. I knew the Pyg Track well, but this might as well have been another mountain entirely as we made our ascent into the clouds towards a completely invisible summit.

Once again we seemed to be the last ones on the mountain and given the conditions for the first time we were thinking about mountain rescue and how if we injured ourselves there would be no easy way to get us off the peak. Of course we were all very tired by now and there were lots of stumbles and near falls. About fifteen minutes from the towering summit there was talk of stopping and turning back – it was that windy, cold and wet. The rain was like nails in our faces – I’ve never experienced anything like it.

At the top of Snowdon

Phill was particularly worried now as he thought I was slurring my words. I still hold that I was just talking and chewing a fruit pastille at the same time! I should point out that despite waterproofs we were all completely soaked to the skin so hypothermia was very much on our minds. However, we pressed on and somehow plugged away until we reached the top and clung on to the trig point at the top for dear life. I’m only surprised we don’t look more terrified in the summit photo! We elected to get down the mountain as quick as we could – every step was painful now and needed to be extremely carefully placed as the wind constantly threatened to blow us off the rocks – so we descended to the Miners Track, a flatter but longer route which was really the only option in these circumstances. An hour or so later we rounded a corner along this seemingly neverending path and finally saw the car park ahead of us. Despite the pain, Phill and I somehow found the energy to race each other to the car park gate! Competitive – moi? Gordon and Julie were waiting for us with a bottle of champers and many congratulations, before whisking us off to our inviting hotel.

Final time: 25:46. Given the various tribulations and weather conditions there was no talk of failure. We were all just amazed by what we had done. And as Phill said we did actually climb all three in 24 hours, its just that we didn’t get down the last one in that time.

My favourite photo from the Challenge: sunset over Ben Nevis

Thanks so much to everyone who sponsored me. Alone I raised just shy of £2000 and with Julie (a separate Just Giving account for our workplace): £835, all in aid of Great Ormond Street. There is still time to sponsor me – I’d love to crack that £2000 barrier if you can help out?

Would I do it again? Well at the bar that night there was already talk of the next challenge. We’d really bonded as a team and had had an amazing if knackering time. Till next year…

You can sponsor me here

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8 thoughts on “Mountain madness (in which I tackle the 3 highest peaks in the UK in 24 hours)

  1. Congratulations – brilliant achievement and well done for pushing through to the end in such terrible conditions. Perhaps next Kilimanjaro -less rain? Fruit pastilles could sponsor you as they helped get you through

  2. Hello Andy – well done! I enjoyed this as I climb mountains. You’ve obviousy got good stamina as, although I’m fine after a day’s walking up a Munro or two, I’m not sure I could manage 2 more new climbs straight away!

  3. Pingback: BLA 2011 – Impact, value and stress seals… (Part 1) « Libreaction

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