The National Three Peaks Challenge involves climbing the three highest peaks of Scotland, England and Wales back to back, often within 24 hours. It is designed to be a challenge, and it’s not one I’ve done or have any intention of doing. However, I decided when I was in New Zealand, probably motivated by several months of hiking, that I did want to hike each of the ‘three peaks’ at my own leisure. I recently completed that aim, and this post shares a little bit about my experience, but also some thoughts on the National Three Peaks Challenge.
Snowdon / Yr Wyddfa
We started off with Snowdon (Yr Wyddfa as it’s known in Welsh), as part of a week-long holiday in Northern Wales back in 2018. We kept a careful eye on the weather, read about the various different routes we could take, and made sure we were in the car park before 8am to improve our chance of getting a space.
We went up the Pyg Track and returned via the Miner’s Track. We decided this would give us more challenge than the Llanberis track which follows the track of the railway line, and also meant the walk was slightly more varied by taking two of the possible tracks. I think I’d built it up in my head more than I needed to as we managed it reasonably easily. Obviously there are some steep uphills which always feel difficult, but we got up quicker than we thought I would.
Getting to the top of Snowdon still felt like an achievement, until we saw the guy with the fridge on his back doing the walk for charity, and a very heavily pregnant woman who’d completed the same path we had. I would say that Snowdon is the most accessible of the three given the choice of different paths you can take, and it even has a mountain railway to the top if you can’t face the hike.
Fast forward a few years and we headed up to Fort William for a week long holiday in 2021, with the primary aim of hiking up Ben Nevis. A quick check of the mountain weather forecast meant this became the first thing we did in the week, not allowing the couple of warm up hikes we’d hoped to get in first. There were fewer route choices for Ben Nevis so it was an easy decision to opt for the main route. We also decided to walk from our accommodation which added a half hour onto the walk at each end, but meant we didn’t have to contend with the car park.
Ben Nevis was hard. Ben Nevis is the reason I never even want to attempt the Three Peaks challenge as my poor knees were so shot the next day I knew I’d have done permanent damage if I’d attempted another two mountains straight afterwards. The path itself is well marked and easy to follow up to the top. However, we were incredibly lucky with the weather as the mountain was completely cloudless (apparently there are an average of 10 days a year where this happens). Had there been low cloud, the path on the scree slopes would have been much harder to see and it’s really important to know your bearings at the top as there is a sheer drop.
Going up was a long slog, but the views were fantastic due to how clear a day it was. We hadn’t expected the patch of snow we needed to go through and at that point a pole would have been useful (we usually walk without walking poles). It was busier at the top than I’d anticipated given that it’s the tallest of the three, but given how clear it was that day I assume most people had made the same decision we did.
We returned the same way we went up, and probably did it a bit too quickly given how sore we were the next day, but it felt like a big achievement to have gone up the highest peak in the UK!
Scafell Pike took us a very long time to get round to attempting, largely because it’s in a really awkward place to get to. It would have made sense if we’d spent a week’s holiday in the Lake District but that’s something we’ve never done given the close proximity to my family. However they are still that bit too far away given the early start that would be needed. Eventually we decided to spend a long weekend in Wasdale specifically to hike up Scafell Pike. It coincided with a terrible weather forecast.
After a couple of weeks of glorious weather, the weather in the Lake District decided to break just as we planned to go up. Given the forecast I came close to calling it off but we decided to travel up anyway just in case, and I’m very glad we did.
The first morning the cloud was low and we checked as many forecasts as possible and spoke to as many different National Trust staff as we could. Basically we had the option of going up and back in the low cloud which would mean we did the hike, but wouldn’t get a view. There were plenty of people who were doing that but we decided to wait for the following day where provided we were up early enough, we should be able to beat the thunderstorms due after midday.
We were walking by 6am and had got to the top just after 8am. We decided to head up the main track from Wasdale and then make a decision on our return route based on the weather. We were rewarded with views, and a quiet (but very windy) summit. I think there probably only about 10 of us at the top at that time – the quietest of the peaks. After assessing the weather again, we decided to return via the Corridor Route which was meant to be a more challenging but interesting route back. Originally we’d wanted to do this route up, but knew it would take longer and had been warned about a scramble partway along which we might find easier to do one way than the other. I’m really glad we did this route back. We took our time over it, but we were rewarded with some stunning views and much more interesting walking than the way up.
I wouldn’t recommend the Corridor route unless you’re ok with a bit of a scramble, and I wouldn’t have done it in low visibility or wet conditions as it was a harder trail to follow and was quite narrow at points. As it was, it worked out well for us, but almost as soon as we returned to our tent the heavens opened and I know a lot of people who’d set off later would have got drenched. It’s true what they say about mountain weather – you need to be prepared and you need to be careful.
The Three Peaks Challenge
Over the course of walking the three peaks myself (in my own time, at leisure, for fun) I’ve become more and more sceptical about the Three Peaks Challenge. At Snowdon we saw people finishing which looked like an emotional and momentous occasion. On Ben Nevis we questioned people’s sanity and my own fitness as I came to the realisation it was probably a challenge too far for me. At Scafell Pike I became genuinely concerned.
Whilst I have nothing against challenging yourself, I also happen to love walking and there were so many people taking part who were saying they’d never walk again, or they didn’t see the enjoyment from hiking. That’s because you’re doing it wrong I wanted to scream. If you want to enjoy it, take your time, enjoy the view, get a good night’s sleep and some proper food beforehand – it all makes it much more pleasant.
We saw lots of people at Scafell Pike who were clearly injured after their first walk or two, but were still planning to do Snowdon. Listen to your body – do you want to do yourself permanent damage?! There were also a lot of locals and walkers at Scafell Pike who were clearly very sceptical of those completing the Three Peaks, blaming them for the amount of rubbish left on the mountain (often energy drinks and similar) but also knowing they weren’t contributing anything to the local economy with their visit. We met a lady known as the Wasdale Womble who climbs Scafell Pike every day simply to pick up litter left behind by visitors. If it wasn’t for her and other similarly minded locals, each of these places would be overrun and they’d soon lost their beauty. Always take home everything you take up!
I was most worried speaking to three young men who hopefully decided to abandon their attempt (there was clearly some debate going on when we came across them). They had decided to do all the driving themselves, as well as the walking, meaning the three of them had had no sleep, hadn’t had food other than Haribos and Wagon Wheels, and still had to get the rest of the way down one mountain, drive to Snowdon, walk up it and then drive back home to London. They weren’t enjoying it and I was genuinely worried that if they didn’t injure themselves, they’d do worse to someone else by causing a traffic accident on the road.
Quite frankly, my advice would be to do the peaks at your leisure. But if you must do the Three Peaks Challenge then I’d advise doing it through a company so you know the logistics are sorted and you’ll be looked after. At the very least, get a driver. Or be prepared to do it at a slower pace rather than trying to cram it into 24 hours.
Have you walked up the three peaks? How did you find them?