A few weeks ago, before I moved house and lots of other Grown-Up Stuff that has got in the way of microadventures and writing, some friends and I took half a day off on Friday and drove to Scotland to take on the Three Peaks Challenge over the weekend.
We did Ben Nevis.
It was horrible.
We did not go any further.
Here are five things I learned from failing the UK’s biggest mountain challenge.
1 Biggest Isn’t Best
I find the ‘outdoorsy’ culture intimidating sometimes. Between the magazines and social media, there’s a lot on emphasis on ‘ticking off’ the biggest peaks, or the most peaks, or doing all of them the fastest. It stands to reason that, given that Ben Nevis is the highest peak in the UK, it must also be the most spectacular. Controversial opinion time: it’s not. Ben Nevis (via the ‘normal’ path) is a boring mountain.
I’ve been to the top twice now: once on a clear and sunny day in May; once on a wet, cold and windy day in September. Big Bad Ben didn’t take my heart the first time and it almost took my fingers and toes the second time. The biggest hills don’t necessarily offer the best rewards: try teeny tiny Roseberry Topping in North Yorkshire if you don’t believe me.
2 Teamwork makes the Dream Work
If you read my blog regularly you’ll know that I’m totally sold on hiking alone. When you hike with a group, you make compromises: the fastest of you can’t tank off at their usual pace; the more bonkers of you can’t just chuck a tent up and camp in the hills. But I would go as a group again in a second, because there is absolutely no substitute for a good team when you’re tackling a tough challenge. Whether they’re keeping an eye on your mood and reminding you to have fun, making you laugh by carrying a plushy shark all the way to the summit because, well, Baby Shark, or waiting at the bottom with a hot coffee and a bag of shortbread, choosing teammates who understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses will make or break the experience.
3 Don’t Underestimate the Challenge
In world terms, our mountains are not very big. People go up each of the Three Peaks all the time. There are clear paths, visitor centres, and even a train on one of them. How hard can it be?
The National Three Peaks might not be Everest, but it does still involve a lot of height gain and descent. That’s hard work in itself, but with height also comes changeable weather: if the mountains want you wet, you are getting wet. It was a blustery day with some showers when we started the Three Peaks Challenge. By the summit, it was minus nine degrees with 50 mph gales. I was wearing some pretty hefty waterproofs, and I ended up so cold and wet that it actually hurt. I also saw people at the summit wearing shorts and the kind of plastic poncho you get at theme parks: I can only imagine how they were feeling but I can tell you they were probably at serious risk of hypothermia or worse.
4 Gaffa tape is not an adequate fix for a broken map case
Thanks to the well-defined paths, navigating on Ben Nevis isn’t too tricky. I didn’t actually have to get our map out in the rain, and could get away with just a couple of checks of the OS Maps app. (Find out more about OS Maps HERE) Even so, when I got the map out of my third-hand and slightly battered map case, there was a tear all the way along the fold from the wet that had somehow seeped through my Amazing Gaffa Tape Fix. It wasn’t even my map, it was Matt’s. I did my best to dry it out, but the rip is pretty obvious. I haven’t told him it’s damaged yet; it’s still in my car. Oops.
Make sure your gear is fit for purpose…and buy the Active versions of the OS Maps. It’s just easier.
5 Don’t be afraid to call it a day
Failure is a scary concept, and we suffered much ribbing in the office the Monday after we abandoned the Three Peaks. But I don’t feel the weight of the word ‘failure’ when I think of our attempt at the challenge. My number one reason for going outside is to have a good time; I can tell you that, on that day on Ben Nevis, it was that which I felt like I was failing at.
I don’t know if we’d have made it if we’d decided to carry on after Big Bad Ben, but there are two things I do know: the thought of putting my soaked, icy-cold waterproofs back on in the dark at the bottom of Scafell Pike still makes me recoil; and I certainly did not feel like I’d failed anything when I was watching Toy Story in front of a log fire that evening with friends and a pot of tea.
My waterproofs were still wet four days later so I think it’s clear we made the right choice.
NOTE: I was so cold by the time we got to the top that I couldn’t face taking my gloves off to take any photos. All the pictures used were taken by Matt.