5. The Three Peaks

Ah, the Three Peaks – the classic challenge that’s been adopted by just about every charity out there. It’s easy to see why so many people want to take it on – the romance of the mountains, the grand, lofty peaks soaring to the heavens all around you, and the pure joy of reaching the highest points in England, Scotland and Wales. So off we went, Cozzie and I and my university mates Den and Nic. Instead of the mad dash of trying to do all three peaks in just 24 hours (which we’ve since realised is one hell of a challenge…) we chose to spread them out and climb one a day, giving us chance to actually enjoy our amazing surroundings. 72 hours of Nic’s banana loaf and tiffin followed – alongside some great company, a bit of sweat, and one or two blisters… Here is Cozzie’s take on our first walking challenge.

5. Three Peaks Challenge – May 30 to June 1, 2013

Challenge number 5 began not on our feet, but with a day of travel from London all the way to Ben Nevis in Scotland. We started on the Wednesday by catching a coach to Birmingham to meet the lovely Nic and Den, before heading off on our road-trip to Scotland for our first day of walking the following day. It took us about 8 hours to drive from Birmingham to Ben Nevis, enjoying the scenery and familiarising ourselves with the music on Den’s iPod. The weather was pretty good at this stage, although there were a few showers which we desperately hoped we wouldn’t see again for the next few days. After a compulsory stop at the legendary Teebay services – I’ve never seen a rustic farmhouse deli in motorway services before – we were finally into Scotland, and successfully made it through Gretna Green without feeling the urge for a quickie wedding.

The road through Glencoe

The road through Glencoe

Scotland is just beautiful – very barren, but spectacular. Driving up the west coast we passed from the lowlands into the highlands, where plains and mountains unfolded in a crumpled, wild landscape all around us. The road through Glencoe was stunning, albeit slightly tainted by Jimmy Savile’s vandalised and quite haunted-looking property nearby. On we went, very much hoping Ben Nevis wasn’t going to appear quite as daunting as some of the mountains we were passing by!

"We've made you tea, now where's our food?!"

“We’ve made you tea, now where’s our food?!”

We made it to our hostel in Fort William at about 8pm, right at the foot of Ben Nevis and on the shores of Loch Linnhe. It was a lovely evening, but we had little time to enjoy it as we needed to eat and plan our route for the next day. Nic had pulled together a delicious meal (rather posh-looking for a hostel, apparently) of chicken, fragrant pilaf rice and salad, which we enjoyed over a beer as the boys sorted out the route for the following day. Then it was off to bed in our shared bunk dorm, to the subtle sounds of Cozzie’s snuffling and Dom’s trumpeting, ahead of an early start on Thursday.

Ben Nevis, Scotland, Thursday 30th May

We were up early and at the car park of Ben Nevis by 8am the following day, and it was an absolutely cracker – blue sky, sunshine, not a cloud in sight – a very promising start to our Three Peaks challenge. After a couple of ‘before’ photos we were off, and all very much happy to be in the fresh air and away from the offices and routine of work.

Which way to the top of Ben Nevis?

Which way to the top of Ben Nevis?

Early into the walk a number of guys came hurtling down passed us – clearly conquering the Three Peaks in the rather more challenging 24 hours compared to our ‘leisurely’ three days. It turns out there is a very clearly marked track leading you to the top of Ben Nevis, so we didn’t need to spend too much time referring to the maps on the way up. We set off at a steady pace, weaving up and around the mountain, following the mostly shingle track, but in parts we were striding over big bits of slate and slightly rockier treading.

A quick break for Nic's magnificent Tiffin cake

A quick break for Nic’s magnificent banana loaf cake

We were making good progress as the sun got higher, but eventually we had to succumb to Cozzie’s regular need for food so stopped for our ‘elevenses’ – Nic’s AMAZEBALLS banana loaf – much to the envy of other walkers passing by. After taking on a few nuts and a bit more water as well, we carried on upwards. The air was fresh, clear and rejuvenating, and the scenery was fantastic – looking out to see the mountain ranges in Scotland, and also a number of glistening blue lochs. Picture perfect! (and sharing a number of similarities to some parts of NZ!)

Den and Nic leading the way!

Den and Nic leading the way!

As we neared the summit we realised that even in this wonderful sunshine at the end of May, there was still a substantial amount of old snow resting at the top of Ben Nevis. Very surprising given how ‘almost’ summery it felt and a clear reminder of not only how long winter had been but also of how the weather can be very different on a mountain. This was something that many fellow walkers didn’t appear to appreciate – the number of people who passed us either in jeans, inappropriate footwear, or with no or minimal supplies with them was surprising – some girls were even carrying handbags. It actually angered us all a little, as it is often those people who are so unprepared who get into difficulty when the weather changes quickly and end up needing the services of mountain rescue. Luckily Dom ‘Be Prepared’ Harris tends to bring enough supplies for all occasions, and we even got to try out our new snow shoes over our walking boots to give us a bit more traction getting over the icy higher ground. It was certainly a little cooler at the top, so we reapplied the layers we’d taken off, and added some jackets despite the sun still shining strongly.

Snowbound - the summit of Ben Nevis

Snowbound – the summit of Ben Nevis

It was 60 years and a day since that legendary Kiwi Sir Edmund Hillary first conquered Everest with Sherpa Tenzig, so it felt very fitting to be at the highest point in the UK (not bad for a wee girl from a small town in South Canterbury!!). There were plenty of other people who had made it to the summit with us, and while we munched down on our lunch we had to hide our smiles from a family over by a pile of rocks who were laughing as the grandfather trudged to the highest point, pulled out a brush and calmly stood combing his snowy white hair.

Helping Hearts Team at the top of the Ben Nevis

Helping Hearts Team at the top of the Ben Nevis

We had a good look around at the Trig point and the mountain hut and checked out the depth of the snow – about 4ft – before beginning the journey back down, conscious of the time and keen to get back to the car and on the road towards the Lake District for our second night’s accommodation.

The journey to the summit

The journey to the summit

The walk down was actually quite quick, and the number of people on the track heading to the summit had increased substantially by this time. Walking downhill certainly works different muscles, and is a little more taxing on Dom’s dodgy knees, but before we knew it we were back at the car (by around 4pm) with just enough time for a quick ice cream and some of Nic’s second baking marvel, the luxurious chocolate Tiffin indulgence, before getting on the road and heading back towards Wastwater in the Lake District.

The drive took a good 6 hours, including a stop for dinner of indulgent pie and chips at some services on the way, so it was still very long day. We didn’t arrive at Wastwater YHA until 11pm, and because we were staying in large single sex dorms, we traipsed around and eventually found a block of showers for us to get rid of our stale sweaty odours, and tip-toed into dorms with our headlights on trying to find spare beds. Within minutes we were all sound asleep and dreaming of beach holidays and massages!

Scafell Pike, England, Friday 31st May

The morning of Day 2, and the view from the doorstep of the Wastewater YHA

The morning of day two, and another glorious day to be in the outdoors. Our route would take us through the cloud to the summit of Scafell Pike

We awoke early again on Friday and left like ghosts in the night as we quietly slipped out of our hostel rooms and headed for the breakfast room. We began the day with a hearty breakfast of fruit, toast and a decent English fry up (not before Dom was told off for helping himself to an extra piece of bacon – it had apparently been meticulously counted out so that enough is cooked so that each guest gets only one rasher… whoops!) After a quick freshen up we were back in the car and driving to where we were to start the walk up Scafell Pike.

All four of us had climbed the peak before so the boys chose a route less travelled for us, taking us up the east side of the mountain from the south. It was a brilliant idea as it really felt like we had the track to ourselves. The morning was fresh with stunning blue skies and sunshine, and the walking began by threading around a few farms and following a gently trickling river.

Our route towards Scafell Pike

Our route towards Scafell Pike – Den and Nic working meticulously in-sync with each other 🙂

There wasn’t another soul in sight and it felt like we had the countryside to ourselves, which was pleasant, relaxing and rejuvenating. Nothing like some real fresh country air to put everyone in a positive mood. The river had some tantalisingly good looking swimming spots, which we (well, mainly Dom) hoped to be able to dip into on the way down.

Into the great wide open

Into the great wide open

We crossed farmland, walking up the river until we reached some waterfalls and plunge pools, before scrambling on to higher ground. Eventually we reached a large wide plain, a little marshy in places – which Nic found out through a rather large boot-full! – which was the first place where we began to see other walkers in the distance. After another refuelling stop of Nic’s increasingly addictive banana loaf we braced ourselves for the notably steeper and more challenging terrain than what we’d just encountered. At this point, Den & Nic ploughed ahead over the steeper granite slabs of rock, and we began to cross paths with more and more walkers.

trekking up..

Trekking up to the summit …

And then it was like turning a corner and being in the middle of a bustling city centre – the top of Scafell Pike was positively heaving, there were that many other walkers. We were very thankful that we’d taken the quieter, longer route up, but we all of a sudden had to adopt city mannerisms and use our elbows to ensure we got a photo of the four of us on top of the trig point, along with everyone else. The temperature was notably colder again as we inhaled some sandwiches, and as we finished our food RAF jets rocketed through the valleys around us.

Helping Hearts Team at the top of Scafell Pike

Helping Hearts Team at the top of Scafell Pike

Then it was time to get on our feet again and start winding our way back down, mostly following the way we’d come up. Again, it was the track less travelled, and as the crowds quickly thinned it was soon back to just the four of us making our way down, Den & Nic slightly in front as the more cautious Cozzie and Dom followed.  The downhills really bring out the worst in Dom’s dodgy knees, but being a tough bugger he just grimaces through it and gets on with it, which I massively respect him for. He’s an outdoor guy at heart and is totally at home in the middle of natures best environments.

Another peak done!

Another peak done! (= crazy hair time!)

Soon enough we had made it down the steepest bits and were back crossing the big wide open towards the marshes and walking along past the river. We were all feeling satisfactorily disconnected from modern technology-reliant life and again feeling quite smug that we’d chosen such an isolated route. It really puts you back in touch with nature and makes you feel more alive than an office job ever could!

Unfortunately there wasn’t enough time for Dom to stop and cool off in the very inviting river, so after another 8 hour-day of walking we were back at the car, cleaning our boots, eating more chocolate Tiffin and back on the road, this time towards Wales and Snowdonia.

The most rewarding of hydration methods

The most rewarding of hydration methods

We thankfully arrived in Llanberis much earlier this time, and found a top-notch pub for, well, everyone  – people dressed up on a night out, walkers, cyclists, outdoorsy-type people and a whole bunch of locals. We rehydrated with a very well-earned beer, and some great pub grub, and then checked into our rather luxurious hotel (compared to our recent hostel accommodation anyway) and showered before passing out quite quickly on their massive beds, ahead of our final day of walking.

Snowdon, Wales, Saturday 1st June

Day Three started a little slower – our muscles were screaming out for a little respite from any kind of movement, let alone more walking, but after another hearty cooked breakfast and a few sandwiches in the bags for lunch, we were loading the car again and driving to the base of our third peak, Snowdon in Wales.

Day 3 started out a little chillier...

Day 3 started out a little chillier…

The glorious sunshine of the last couple of days was over as we stepped outside into a much more overcast day, with rain forecast for the afternoon and the standard advice from those at the hotel was to “get it done this morning before the rain comes”. As a result, everyone was trying to do it in the morning! After the relative isolation of our trek up Scafell the previous day, Snowdon was rammed with other walkers , and generally busier being a Saturday too.

Cooler conditions for our third day of walking, but lovely scenery none-the-less

Cooler conditions for our third day of walking, but lovely scenery nonetheless

In comparison to the previous two days of walking, the walk up Snowdon felt somewhat easier – even with more fatigued muscles. We took the Miners’ route up, which is very clearly marked and basically involved just following the people in front of you.  The track was crowded, and started out reasonably flat as we walked around a lake and towards the steeper stretches of the mountain that would take us to our third peak – which was hidden behind the low hanging mist and cloud as rain threatened in the distance. It was a rather uneventful and very straightforward walk up, although we were generally a little muted due to feeling more tired today. Walkers of all ages and sizes were enjoying the Welsh mountain and we all chuckled as a four year old by the name of Max tore passed us and up some steeper climbs, with his parents chasing after him – destined to be a climber perhaps?!

After about 4 hours of walking we were pretty much at the summit, having scrambled on all fours over the final steeper parts, and it felt considerably cooler as we queued to reach the trig point. The difference with Snowdon compared to the other two peaks is that it is such a popular route because of the cafe at the summit and the train taking people all the way there. While it takes away a little from the outstanding beauty of the area, the chance to warm up and reward ourselves with a hot chocolate, a pasty/sausage roll and some of our sandwiches was not to be scoffed at.

The top of Snowdon!

The top of Snowdon!

Whilst we were enjoying our food, a bunch of foolhardy competitors were running to the top of Snowdon as part of the 5-Welsh-peaks running challenge – absolutely bonkers! It made our walk up seem very placid in comparison. Then as we were walking down, we had to regularly make way for lean (mostly male), scantily clad runners pushing themselves to the top. They were very impressive!

As we meandered back down taking the Pyg route back to the car, it was a good chance to reflect on a truly awesome experience and a great few days walking with some absolutely fantastic friends. With a huge sigh of relief and satisfaction, and having managed to avoid the rain, we eventually made it to the bottom and could finally reward ourselves with the third and most satisfying piece of Nic’s chocolate Tiffin – delicious!

BOOM! Challenge Number Five - done!

BOOM! Challenge Number Five – done!

We headed back to Birmingham for some indulgent fish and chips and an early night before Dom and I made our way back to London on the Sunday.  Being a glutton for punishment (or showing off his extreme fitness prowess), Den was up early on Sunday and off to do a 100k bike ride (which he blitzed in 3.5hours!!) while the rest of us did us much sitting around as possible!

In summary, this was a really fun challenge – in most parts due to Den & Nic’s company – but climbing the Three Peaks is a great way to see more of the UK’s great landscape, definitely helped by the great weather we had. The Three Peaks, whether all at once or at different times, is an adventure we would recommend to everyone – each of the mountains have different challenges and highlights, and it really is an enjoyable way to exercise and take in some fresh country air.

So that’s it, Challenge Number 5 has been successfully completed! Please continue to encourage us by heading to our justgiving page and supporting the excellent work of all the staff at Southmead hospital in Bristol: http://www.justgiving.com/helpinghearts2013