Three Peaks in 24 Hours 5-6th June 2021
Start time Ben Nevis: 5:06am
Finish time Snowdon: 3:59am
Total time: 22 hours 53 mins
Sleep time: 3 hours
Travel time: 10 hours - 462 miles
Ascent: 11178ft / 3407.054m
Distance: 23.2 miles
Steps: 74,000 plus….
Stoma bags: 2
Blisters: None (Charlotte had one…on her thumb from walking poles)
Like many people, I have heard of the National Three Peaks 24 Hour Challenge, walking the highest Peak in each Country in 24 hours – starting with Ben Nevis in Scotland, followed by Scafell Pike in England and ending with Snowdon in Wales. I’ve often wondered what it would be like to do, so late last year I decided I would organise a group to give it a go. My first group all dropped out during the winter, but by sheer good fortune my friend Charlotte Watson contacted me to ask whether I was still planning on attempting it. Less than 24 hours after my despondency over having no-one to do my challenge with, the event was back on! I had initially planned to do the challenge in mid May, but due to covid restrictions still in place in Scotland, which prevented overnight stays until a couple of weeks later, the date of the challenge was changed to the weekend of 4-6th June 2021. As it turns out there was horrendous rain throughout the duration of May so I am pleased that fate stepped in to push our attempt to more amenable climes!
The plan was for Charlotte and I to drive 5 hours from our home in Northumberland up to Fort William, where we would stay overnight on the Friday in a hostel at the base of Ben Nevis. Charlotte took charge of the wheels, and we had a good drive up. The journey was pretty much traffic free, some rain but mostly sunny. We stopped off at Glen Etive which is south of Fort William and where Skyfall was filmed. Sadly for Charlotte there was no Daniel Craig, just me shrieking my elegant way into the pool. I got nibbled by a fish! The cheeky little thing actually came over and chomped my thigh! It was only about 6 mm big but still...scream. I also realised that if you drink a gallon of vitamin water (to zap the cold sore away and revive me) then have a wild wee in a pool....it will come out a spectacular nuclear colour. Not only have you just learnt this fact, but so did all the other people in the Glen when I bellowed the information to a hysterical Charlotte. Never a dull moment...
That night we ate at a local restaurant, me on the haggis since I was in Scotland, but perhaps not the recommended nutrition for the night before a big event! Charlotte had brought with her Kate’s Cakes – her mum, Kate, is an exceptional baker and cook, and had promised to provide us with cake to boost us on our trip. We each had some of the lemon cake, both saving chocolate brownie for the summit. It turns out that eating a rich chocolate brownie when out in the wilds isn’t perhaps the best of ideas when you have a stoma….
https://vimeo.com/560540635 - Video 1 - the night before we start
Neither of us had particularly great sleep on the Friday night, the hostel busy with walkers coming back and forwards all the time. It didn’t help that one group parked their mini bus under our window, and left the engine running while they shouted at each other for what felt like ages. Realistically, we were never really going to get much sleep, so when the alarm went off at 4:10am on the Saturday neither of us were feeling too fresh!
Peak One - Ben Nevis 1/3
4.5 hours total
After a disrupted nights sleep we were up and off just after 5am, the midges biting with no wind in the air. I managed to get locked out of the hostel and eventually managed to alert Charlotte with LOUD whispers (why do we do this?) to let me in again. I had put on a fresh stoma bag the night before, and made sure it was empty before we set off. Usually, I need to make sure I eat about an hour before I head out of the door, just to make sure all my food has gone through properly, but as the kitchen was closed we couldn’t get hot water for porridge. Instead, I had a peanut butter and jam sandwich – nuts can cause me wind issues sometimes, but beggars can’t be choosers, I needed energy more than anything else. Off we went!
We made good progress, very few people around, mainly gazelles/mountain goats who sprinted past us but also two men carrying their mountain bikes. How to make you feel inadequate. One commented as we passed (thinking we were out of ear shot) “well you’ll go faster now you’ve got those legs to follow”…wonder whose legs they were talking about? The giraffe or duck.. On returning home I later read an article about a boy who climbed the 3 peaks in 24 hours at the ridiculously tender age of…three. Imagine being overtaken by a 3 year old! Always reminds me of the time my friend ran the Great North Run, and who was overtaken by a man wearing a shark suit who couldn’t move his legs above the knee. Another friend regaled me with the tale that she had climbed Ben Nevis a few years ago, only to be surprised by a group of nuns in habits racing up to the top. A stag do or a religious pilgrimage….? So funny!
My stoma behaved itself although I did have to stop and let the air out on the way up. The problem with eating nuts and chocolate for energy, my go-to treats, is that they can give me wind and activate my stoma. This can be very frustrating! But I always figure that if the worse comes to the worse I can empty my bag into a waste bag (like a doggy poo bag) and carry on. I am glad we set off when we did though, as it was busy on the way down, without much coverage for a sneaky bag empty.
Everyone we met was really friendly – there is always good camaraderie on these mountains. We met one couple making their way down, a large lady unsteady on her feet and using the walking poles as crutches. Nothing wrong with that…but it turns out that they had taken so long to get up they had to sleep overnight on the mountain. Mountain Rescue quite rightly pointed out that since they could actually walk it was their own fault for not being prepared. So many people treat MR as a taxi when they get tired. The guy said it was snowy at the top so he hoped we had warm clothes - “oh yes, I have my emergency bivvy bag and all sorts of layers”. “Ah, I didn’t bother with anything like that as I didn’t think I’d be out long”. Therein lies the problem fella….always be prepared!!!
Nevertheless, we made it up to within 10 minutes of the summit where we hit the snow and mist. We could clearly see where people had walked ahead of us to the right, but there were also footsteps heading to the left. Before I got my compass out to check the co-ordinates, we saw some men coming down to our right – they confirmed it was the correct direction. The mist lifted momentarily, to reveal a dramatic drop down a snowy cliff to the left…
A bit of slipping and swearing before we summited in 2.5 hours. And yes mountain purists, we took the tourist path - we’re taking all the easy navigation routes to get up and down as fast as possible. Here we had Kate’s brownies GET IN. There is a little hut at the top where you can take shelter in the event of a storm. We had a little peep in but since it wasn’t stormy we didn’t much fancy crawling inside what may also have been used as a toilet….
At the trig point we saw the two men with their bikes – at least we beat them to the top! I am still not really sure why they carried them all the way to the top – the path was so busy coming down I can’t imagine that they were able to do much zippy racing!
https://vimeo.com/560543202 - Ben Nevis summit
Down we ran, literally, with one man commenting that Charlotte had the most beautiful smile. Me? A guy accidentally bumped into me and called me “fella”. I told him “don’t worry it’s fine, Sarah”. Oh what fun on the mountain side. We also saw a couple of blokes with their rave music blasting out of their backpack and the biggest spliff in the world behind each ear. Good luck to them…if I’d had that at the top I’d still be asleep now.
Scafell Pike peak 2/3
Summit in 1.5 hours
Total time 2.55 hours
We made really good time down from Fort William, with an additional passenger in the form of a small green caterpillar which sat on my shoulder the whole way. I wonder what he was thinking? Big trip for the little fella!
My stoma started causing me a couple of problems, most likely from the rich brownie, but also probably because when I had put on a fresh bag the night before my adhesive remover spray had run out. I use this spray to get rid of any glue which might be lingering on my skin from the previous bag, which means the next bag can fix properly onto the skin. I also didn’t bring my flange extenders (strips of adhesive you can stick on around the edge of the bag to give it a little bit more protection). I had to stop in a layby to let the air out and then at a services to quickly change the bag as I had the familiar whiff of a leak. I haven’t had a leak for a long time so it could only have been the adhesive.
It was BOILING when we arrived at 4, having set off from FW just before 10. The first section of the climb was awful. I felt like I had landed in a volcano, hideous. It’s all steps pretty much which is just frankly unacceptable. So tough! I had a moment where I questioned my life choices but then remembered I better just get on with it
https://vimeo.com/560541993 - half way up Scafell
The folk we met initially were a miserable grumpy lot to be fair. No eye candy either, unlike Ben Nevis which was chock full of lovely looking fellas. However, the mountain steps gave way to a pebbly path, the mountain hotties arrived and all became well in the world once more. We bumped into a few other groups of 3 Peakers, who all recognised us…not sure if that’s good or bad. Charlotte, who runs a boutique B and B (https://www.thebondgate.co.uk) even managed to answer calls from guests while she toiled her way up the side of the mountain. Women are hardcore multi taskers, what more can I say!
https://vimeo.com/560543755 - Scafell Pike summit
The mist descended at the top which is of course standard, though we were really chuffed to get up in 1.5 hours. I didn’t dare eat the brownie this time in case my stoma went nuts, but we were in such a rush anyway we didn’t bother to eat anything at the summit. I had a few buttermints and a lot of water with energy tablets in. A quick rush down, knocking off an hour from our previous time of 4 hours when we climbed Scafell the month before, and we were now in the car on the way to meet Charlottes step dad, Brian, in a layby on the M6 to drive us to Snowdon.
Snowden, Peak 3/3
1.45 hours to summit
4 hours total
Brian drove us through the night to Snowdon, arriving just after 11:30pm, to the base of the Llanberis path. This starts in a village, and we were careful to be quiet when we got out of the car to begin our final ascent. Headtorches on, water bottles refilled and off we went. We had been PROMISED a “flat” route to the top, but disappointingly the track starts on a road with a steep uphill section…we kept angrily whispering “they said it was flat! This is NOT flat!”. If we had the energy we may have stamped our feet.
https://vimeo.com/560542668 - start of Snowden
I have always wanted to walk a mountain in the dark, I have no idea why since I am such a terrible wimp and freak myself out at the slightest noise. I would never have done this on my own, far too creepy. The headtorches provided good light, and the track once off the tarmac road (after about 10 minutes of walking) was very clear. We saw several groups of walkers making their way down from what was presumably a sunset walk. This gave us a boost that what we were doing wasn’t too mad – although we were the only ones going up for quite a while until we bumped into a handful of people making their way up for sunrise. The first group was with a young guide, an older group of people with one man pretty obviously struggling. The next group we saw were a group of young lads, who had stopped for a breather on one of the steeper sections. Their faces when we said we’d already climbed Ben Nevis and Scafell that day were a picture…! We didn’t see the first group again so assume they turned back, but the young lads were still making their way up as we descended.
It was a very surreal final walk starting in the dark just before midnight, on an eerily calm night. The path was easy to follow until it got to near the summit when the mist descended. As we have never been here before we had no idea what the summit even looked like, so we were just plodding up and up and up through the mist. Weird feeling. We saw a group of 3 Peakers we had seen at the previous 2 summits - they had just summited so we knew we weren’t too far off. The railway track was on our right, but that was soon completely lost from view as the mist thickened. I read on a forum a few days later that a dog had run up and over the side of the summit – something which happens with disconcerting regularity by all accounts. Mountains are mountains at the end of the day – wild places where nature holds all the cards.
The summit was cold and windy, with no view. Obviously. Quick photo, no time for cake, and then we started making our final ascent.
https://vimeo.com/560547074 - Snowden final summit
We passed lots of people heading up for sunrise…pointlessly as it was misty but hey ho, didn’t want to rain on their parade.
Our legs were tired coming back down and as the clock passed 3am the yawns started. My Garmin also helpfully died (swim 2 battery is rubbish!) but at least it captured our summit! As we neared the bottom, the light got a little brighter, and we could see some of our surroundings through the gloom. The birds had started singing, having been fast asleep when we set off. This prompted a discussion about how little sleep birds must get in the summer – as they get up very early indeed, and go to bed late. I wonder if they have little naps during the day, or just sleep more in winter? Little questions which fill the vacuum in my mind, even on an endurance event!
We stumbled down the tarmac path and towards Brian who was waiting in the car. We had done it! We whispered delightedly, but the midges arrived en masse, which kinda ruined the moment as we frantically got changed amid the buzzing. Once in the safety of the car we relaxed…well, Charlotte did…my stoma had other ideas…
https://vimeo.com/560547809 - End of challenge video!
After I had been asleep about half an hour, I woke up with a start. My bag was ballooning out alarmingly, and I knew that I would have to empty it of air pronto – otherwise the air pressure would cause the seal to break. I, of course, didn’t really know Brian much, but he was fully aware that I had a stoma – all the same, it’s nerve wracking sometimes having to pipe up and request an urgent toilet stop. By this time it was 5:30am and everyone was tired – we all just wanted to get home. Alas, the stoma is in charge at moments like this, so we started looking for a service station. Before we could get there I again got that heart stopping whiff that the seal on the bag had broken due to the pressure – at moments like this my heart rate always sky rockets, sweaty hands and much anxious wriggling. Admittedly, is it hard sometimes not to look with envy at people like Charlotte, sleeping peacefully while I stressfully grapple with a bag leak.
However, as always my moment of drama turned out to be pretty funny…the first service station we saw was a lorry park, and one of those bloody annoying ones, which state that they are just off the road but which are in fact lots of turns and roundabouts away. Brian drove along, turning left, turning right and over roundabouts, while I babbled my anxious apologies. I couldn’t help but laugh. We ended up in the lorry park, the lone car among the sleepy lorries. I then had to run to the toilet with my bag change…but of course my legs had seized up, so I staggered and crabbed along like an old woman of 90. I laughed and laughed to myself at how ridiculous I must have looked, rushing along clasping a little bag past lorry after lorry. A sense of humour is vital….
I made the toilet, changed the bag and got back o the car. The adrenaline kept me going all the way home, even for the 3 hour drive from the layby in the M6. Nothing like a bag emergency to get the blood pumping!
Would I do it again? Nah. It was a blast and such a good laugh, but it was very weird climbing up and down a mountain in the dark. I couldn’t tell you a single thing about what Snowdon looks like! So I’d like to revisit it in the day-time, and enjoy the scenery a bit more. Does a stoma prevent you doing these things? No! I should have been more organised and brought my flange extenders and extra adhesive remover spray. I also should have known better than to eat rich chocolate and nuts. But I don’t let me stoma dictate everything that I do. I do it anyway and then wing it. That’s life really isn’t it!