by Laurentiu Craciunas
The Three Peaks Challenge is an attempt to climb the highest peaks in Scotland (Ben Nevis), England (Scafell Pike) and Wales (Snowdon) within 24 hours, including the ~500 miles drive between them.
Estimates report 30,000 yearly attempts with a success rate of 40% completion within 24 hours.
We tackled the challenge on 3 June as a team of 3:
- Myself (V35)
- Nikos (V45) – recent TBH member with good general fitness (22min parkrun)
- Malcolm (V50) – ex-Royal Marine with good general fitness
Motivation for the Three Peaks Challenge
You can either accept the challenge for fun – if you are not committing to complete the hikes within 24h, or for time – if you engage with the classical challenge to test your fitness and endurance to pain. We chose time, so we had no fun, but this meant we were mentally prepared for pain. We selected the harder route climbs as it meant we had a chance to reduce time during the challenge.
Most people choose to start with Ben Nevis, travel South to Scafell Pike, and then complete with Snowdon. It makes sense to sleep in Fort William the night before and start as early as possible in the morning. We arrived at Ben Nevis car park at 07:45 when it was already full, but this could be a June issue. Just for the record, we initially wanted to do it in April, but the weather forecast was wild so we bailed out and postponed it for summer.
We planned to spend no more than 5 hours on Ben Nevis, 6 hours on the first drive, 4 hours on Scafell Pike, 5 hours on the second drive, and 4 hours on Snowdon.
The challenge can easily be failed on transitions so it is important to have a clear plan of what to wear on each hike without faffing around the car. Full fuel tank at start, all the food and drinks in the car (not boot), use Google maps to assess traffic and inform driving routes. You shouldn’t need to spend more than 10-20 minutes added on both sides of the drives.
Malcolm and Nikos swear by using hiking sticks, but I preferred to have my hands free to balance myself better and connect with the rocks when needed.
Refuelling and hydration
Malcolm was in charge of hydration supplies and we laughed when he arrived with 48 x 0.5 L bottles of Lucozade (sport), but we went through 20 L or Lucozade and 10 L of water between the 3 of us, so not that funny in the end. This was a particularly sunny day with glorious weather on all 3 hikes, it would have been different in case of rain. Just for the record, neither of us want to taste or see Lucozade for the foreseeable future, even the thought of it is sickening.
Lucozade sport has homeopathic doses of salt so ensure you bring savouries too; we relied on pretzels and crisps. You’ll also need solid sources of carbs based on preferences; we had a ton of chocolate bars.
Just for the perspective, my Garmin estimated calories burn was 2300 on Ben Nevis, 1600 on Scafell Pike and 1800 on Snowdon adding up to a total of ~6000 cal. on top of my ~2100 basal metabolism (there was nothing basal about it on the day though).
Since this was the first of the 3 peaks, we wanted to be conservative and aimed to complete it in sub 5h to play it safe. We started a few minutes past 8am and we were well within the target at the summit in 2h10min.
This was my third time hiking Ben Nevis and I experienced all four seasons within each individual hike in the past, so layering was the outfit of choice. Fortunately, this was a day when sunshine followed us throughout and we were able to enjoy the highlands from the summit without being surrounded by a cloud.
On both previous two occasions I had just missed 4h by few minutes so this time I took a personal challenge and split from the group to pick up the pace downhill with an aim to go sub 4h. I am not a fell runner, but started to jog down on a few segments just below the summit till I caught up with someone who looked brave enough to be a fell runner.
I then stuck with him and ran it down pretty much all the way to complete the descent in 1h10min which ranked me 30th out of 10,000+ all time hikers who recorded their descent on Strava – so yeah, pretty happy with that. More so that I haven’t injured myself. Thanks to my fellow runner!
Malcolm and Nikos arrived shortly after the 4h mark so excellent times for all.
Total distance was 16 Km on the dot. My average cadence was 85 steps per minute and I am now calculating the steps per 100 m as I believe this helps in comparing the technical difficulty between the mountains, so for Ben Nevis it was 107 steps per 100m.
|Distance (Km)||Time (HH:mm)||Pace (mm:ss/Km)||HR (maxHR)||Cadence (spm)||Steps / 100 m||Ascent (m)||Calories burned|
|Ben Nevis||16.02||03:22||12:38||151 (188)||85||107||1329||2337|
|Scafell Pike||8.66||03:13||22:17||135 (162)||68||151||902||1585|
We picked the more difficult track that starts at Wasdale Car Park. Even stepping out of the car was painful after the earlier hike with no subsequent stretching and being seated for 5h.
We started the hike at 6pm and the sun was blazing. Looking at the steps / 100 m stats I can confirm that 151 steps / 100m is in keeping with what was felt on the way. Even though the distance is only 8.66 Km up and down, the route was the most challenging of the 3 pikes and required the highest number of breaks. We completed it in 3h13min and I can’t imagine going any faster in those conditions, certainly not running it.
One special mention goes to the extremely annoying tiny flies swarming all around us over the last 2-3 Km. I think many would give up on this hike if they had to cope with the flies all the way from the start.
This last leg of the challenge has many routes to choose from. I’ve been up Snowdon for fun 4-5 times in the past, but never tracked the time and I had the perception of an easy hike that would take 2-3 hours. Looking at the routes descriptions it was clear that none of them would be so quick; hence, we set on Pyg Track with an aim to complete it in 4h.
We arrived at the car park at 01:40am, but started with a hiccup because they could not find our parking reservation and there was no mobile signal to search for emails (tip: if you make a reservation for something in a remote area, have it saved on the phone or print it).
There was nowhere else to park and all the road signs were threatening with towing. Hard decision, but given the time in the night, extremely light traffic, and our aim to finish by 6am, we made an executive decision and accepted the risk of towing by parking on the road.
We started the hike minutes after 2am after faffing around to find the start of the track in the complete darkness. The moon was not visible from our position yet, but we were aware it was a Strawberry Moon that would help with visibility; however, we were all prepared with headtorches.
The total distance was just over 11 Km, but Pyg Track is a mentally draining track. The start is very easy, if anything it feels like it goes downhill on a few segments, and you find yourself wondering when will the actual hike begin.
While you can’t see the entire track ahead in the middle of the night, the dozens of other headtorches scattered along the way are able to paint a fairly good idea of the steep ascent required fairly soon. Your own headtorch will only give you visibility over a few meters and, at times, you find yourself walking away from what you think is the most direct way to the summit which is not fun. I believe we went off track a few times as the way back seemed more straightforward to navigate in daylight.
The last 2 Km of ascent are brutal with tall steps that fuel nightmares for the subsequent descent on wobbly knees. We even considered taking an alternate route to avoid the steepness of the descent.
We reached the summit at about 04:20 and it became clear we would not be back at the car by 6am so returning to a towed car became a real possibility (!).
While the success of the challenge was never in danger, we decided that I should split again to arrive at the car asap in order to avoid complications related to towing. I didn’t feel the strain on the quads was as wicked as punishment on Scafell Pike, while daylight made the track clearer. I completed it in 3h43min and I was pleased to find another 10 cars parked in line which just shows the parking issue needs to be sorted by the local council.
Nikos and Malcolm took the Miners’ track back which is slightly longer, but less steep, and arrived shortly after 6am for all of us to complete the challenge with more than 90 minutes to spare.
The total ascent was equivalent to climbing about 1000 floors and it took an excess of 6000 calories on top of the basal metabolism (both according to Garmin). I can’t see how people would complete the 3 Peaks Challenge AND have fun, unless they are masochists and source fun from pain. The only fun bit is the social side, both within your team and with other challengers you interact with consecutively from one mountain to the other.
Do I regret doing the Three Peaks Challenge? Certainly not. I have overall positive feelings towards it.
Would I do it again to attempt a better time? Absolutely not.
What was the hardest bit? The first mile of descent on Scafell Pike – horrible rocks.
What was the easiest bit? The first half of ascent on Snowdon.
Will I try more fell runs after the Ben Nevis experience? Highly unlikely.
What body part hurts the most? Quads, I walk like a penguin.
(If you’re feeling inspired by Laurentiu’s report, further information about the challenge can be found here)