National 3 Peaks

3 peaks in 24 hours...

If you’re a hillwalker, or perhaps are thinking about using the mountains of Britain as the site of a walking challenge, it won’t be long before you hear about the National Three Peaks. The challenge is many things to many people, from a right of passage for walkers looking to push their endurance to a huge fund-raising institution for charities.

Guided day walk on Scafell Pike in the Lake District in aid of Caudwell Children

It is controversial, difficult, and for many the first glimpse they get of the mountains, leading to a lifetime of enjoyment. Whatever your views about it, it’s here to stay. And if you intend to be one of the thousands who attempt it this year, what do you need to know?

Charity fundraisers from Birmingham Children's Hospital take on Snowdon

The National Three Peaks challenge is the attempt to summit the highest peaks in Scotland, England and Wales within 24 hours, including the driving in-between and any rest stops. Essentially it’s a non-stop day and night long fight against sleep deprivation and weather. Most people end up walking part of the route in the dark, and many attempts are thwarted by slow traffic. Having said all that, it’s a great adventure. Most attempts start with Ben Nevis in Scotland, working their way south to Scafell Pike in England and Snowdon in Wales. Though it’s perfectly possible to do it the other way around, it’s good to tackle Ben Nevis while you’re still fresh, as it’s got far more ascent than the other two.

A group on the summit of Scafell Pike.

The clock begins as walkers begin the ascent of whichever is peak number one. It doesn’t stop until they get down to the bottom of peak number three. I’ve often thought that the 24 hour time limit is a bit of shame, and that doing all three mountains in succession is quite enough, whether over 25 hours or three days. But for many, the 24 hour limit is sacrosanct, and provides an excellent benchmark when raising money for charity.

If you’re fit enough and train for the peaks, the main difficulty will be the lack of sleep. Some people can sleep on minibuses or in cars, while others find it difficult. Whatever you’re like, you should try and get as much sleep as possible. Take a pillow. And make sure you have dedicated drivers that aren’t also walking.

A guided walking weekend to the summit of Ben Nevis in Scotland

This then leads to the obvious question of how you should arrange it. Some people do it by themselves, having an allocated person to drive the car while the others do the walking. This works fine for some, but leaves a lot open to go wrong, including navigating, both on the road and on the mountains and emergency planning. A far better way is to do the challenge with an organised group through an outdoor company, where you will be led by a qualified mountain leader. The navigation will be done for you, you won’t need to worry about the driving, or finding your way in the dark through small country roads, and just as importantly as the challenge itself, you’ll learn more about the mountains you’re walking through, and the interesting places you pass by.

Another reason to join a guided group is to reduce the environmental impact of the challenge. One minibus is better than four cars, and learning about the mountain environment can really help you understand what’s needed to protect it, and the hard work landowners in the mountains put in to reduce the erosion caused by walkers.

You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned any hard facts in this blog, any measurements of distance or ascent, or suggested times for each peak. These should really come later, when you’ve thought a bit more about it. But one thing to take in is that it’s a hard challenge. I’d compare being able to do the three peaks under 24 hours to running a marathon. Not exactly the same of course, but in terms of training needed and the mental and physical difficulties, they are very similar. Having said that, if it wasn’t hard it wouldn’t be a challenge!


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