When a family member approached me about leading a charity challenge for her and a group of colleagues I don’t think either of us expected it would lead us to standing on the damp, cold, windy summit of Pen y Fan at midnight…
The National Three Peaks challenge is spoken about positively and negatively in equal measure. For every tale of personal achievement, charity cash raised or growing tourist numbers, there is criticism of the ‘tick box’ approach, the litter left behind and the environmental toll of the driving heavy itinerary. It was out of the desire to avoid this latter element in particular that we were seeking a day that would still be iconic and challenging but be more about mountains than motorway miles.
So we settled on the Welsh Three Peaks, a tough but achievable challenge for a motivated team, which involves a long day of hiking but fewer hours behind the wheel. I would be leading a group of determined but inexperienced hikers taking on this trial to promote some team bonding and raise money for charity.
the Welsh Three Peaks, a tough but achievable challenge for a motivated team…
The Welsh 3 Peaks, as the name suggests, involves climbing the highest mountains in each of the three regions of Wales. These are, in order of our attempt –
North Wales – Snowdon (1085 metres/3560 feet) – The highest mountain in Wales, in fact the highest mountain in the UK outside of Scotland, Snowdon is the first mountain climbed in the trilogy. Situated at the northern end of the Snowdonia National Park, we planned take the quickest route to the summit via the Miners/Pyg Track from Pen y Pass. With the luxury of a dedicated minibus and driver the team could then descend via the Llanberis path, which runs steadily down alongside the Snowdon Mountain Railway.
Mid Wales – Cadair Idris (893 metres/2930 feet) – “Cadair” is Welsh for chair and “Idris” was a legendary giant who is said to have used the mountain as his armchair to gaze over his domain. Situated at the southern end of the Snowdonia National Park near to Dolgellau, we would take the fastest and shortest route on the mountain, up and down the the Pony Path to the summit, Penygadair.
South Wales – Pen y Fan (886 metres/2907 feet) – In the heart of the Brecon Beacons National Park, Pen y Fan is the highest peak in the southern UK. It may be the shortest climb but its harsh terrain has been used to great effect by UK Special Forces to test the mental and physical strength of prospective members. At least part of this ascent would be in darkness so we would be taking the most straightforward route to the summit from Pont ar Daf car park.
The challenge timings include travelling the distances between the mountains, which in total would work out at about 4 hours so a significant but not dominating portion of the day.
A long day…
My fellow mountain guide and I met the team, excited and nervous in equal measures, in Llanberis late on Friday night after what sounded like a traffic delayed but high spirited minibus journey. After a quick safety briefing for the following day an early start was agreed and off we went to bed.
The alarm went off all too soon at 0515 and we were starting up our first peak not long after first light (Strava record here). The Miners track is the perfect gentle warm up, slowly gaining height and allowing everybody to ease into the day before things get steep! Despite our early start it was remarkable how many people we met already descending, but it was still a pleasantly uneventful, steady ascent through only light traffic. No views from a summit shrouded in cloud removed any temptation to linger and we were soon descending the Llanberis path that now had so many people climbing up we felt like we were swimming against the tide. In just over 5 hours we were back at the minibus. We’d completed what many people would consider a tough day in the mountains and a lot of the group were feeling the effects, but really we were only just getting started…
Cadair Idris is my personal favourite of the Welsh 3 Peaks. I love the contrasts in the climb; the steep stepped zig zags, the wide open slopes, the tight technical ridges, the sweeping vistas, the dramatic cliff edges and safety of the summit shelter. For most of the group it was the most challenging of the mountains. Already weighed down by the fatigue of Snowdon but too far from the finish line to start digging into those final reserves of energy, it was a tough climb and nagging injuries started to make themselves known (Strava file here). Back in the car park after another 5 hours, a weary group of hikers, some now with pronounced hobbles, gratefully took their seats on the mini bus for a rest before the final push.
a weary group of hikers, some now with pronounced hobbles, gratefully took their seats on the mini bus for a rest before the final push…
Our average pace on the first two climbs had put us slightly behind schedule and as a result it was full dark before we started the ascent of Pen y Fan. The positive message that not only was it our final summit, but it was also the shortest and easiest climb of the three was somewhat offset by the toll the previous two summits had taken on the team (Strava record here). This was why it was called a challenge, this was why people were sponsoring the group, it was time to get it done. There was a good amount of standing around, many gritted teeth and a lot of layers came out of rucksacks to ward off the bitterly cold winds, but both the joy when the group reached the summit and the exhaustion when they arrived back at the minibus were palpable. It was finished, the Welsh Three Peaks had pushed them hard but they had done it in a total time of 18hrs 45mins!
So, would you do it again?
On reflection the W3P is a wonderful challenge, offering a suitably iconic collection of mountain climbs for a relatively low minibus mileage. It is not easy, but it is contained in one long day so doesn’t involve sleep deprivation and can be comfortably fitted into a weekend. I would definitely jump at the chance to lead another W3P and would offer the following tips to anybody thinking of taking on the challenge
Don’t underestimate it… – This may seem like the National Three Peaks little brother but don’t think of it as easy. You are climbing three significant mountains in fairly quick succession as the drives aren’t very long, so it is a tough day in the hills.
When do we start? – Think carefully about your start time, and what time of year to take the challenge on. In all but mid summer an average group of walkers will need to either start or finish in the dark so decide which of these you prefer.
When does the bus arrive? – The challenge is made much more manageable if the team has a minibus, ideally with a dedicated driver. The driver plays a key role in the team and the minibus becomes the place to rest, eat, drink and recover between mountains.
Gear up… – You will be heading into full mountain conditions, miles from the nearest roads, so need to be properly equipped and ready to face changeable conditions.
Know the way… – Unless you are a team of experienced hikers I would suggest the shared cost of having a qualified mountain guide is a price worth paying. More than just a navigator, they will help with their mountain skills, experience, safety equipment, motivation, advice, first aid etc