I've been here before, everything is so familiar. Only the last time I was here the car park was full and there was an abundance of walkers and outdoor enthusiasts milling around preparing to head up the mountain. Not this time. This time there are only a handful of cars dotted around and, but for the three of us, not a soul in sight. But then, in all fairness, it is quarter past one in the morning on Bank Holiday Monday and most sane people are in bed.
Our collective sanity has been slowly fading as the cumulative effects of no sleep in over twenty hours, and two successful mountain summits began to take its toll. We are now in Pen-y-Pass car park preparing for the final push on our Three Peaks Challenge, one last effort to successfully complete it in under twenty-four hours. And yet it could have all been so different, we could have seen our challenge ended on the first mountain, Ben Nevis. The day before we flew up to Scotland there had been some pretty bleak reports as far as weather on Ben Nevis was concerned, heavy snow and blizzard-like conditions. Given it was the end of May it was hard to believe, but a quick look on Twitter and there were the pictures to back up the reports.
Even at the foot of Ben Nevis on Sunday morning, where the sun was slowly rising and the skies were doing their best to remember we were heading for summer, we couldn't fathom just how bad conditions were a thousand metres above us. Yet, as we gained height, the weather slowly deteriorated and it wasn't long before hats, gloves and waterproofs were going on as an icy wind, coupled with a persistent drizzle of rain, reminded us that conditions were only going to get worse. And sure enough they did, a lot worse.
Whilst we were not the first group to set off for the summit it didn't take long for us to be the ones leading the way up the mountain as we set about maintaining the sort of pace we would need to complete the challenge in the allotted time. It came as something of a surprise then when we encountered two walkers coming down the mountain. The news they brought with them was not exactly good, they had turned back not long after reaching the snow line because conditions were so bad, visibility was all but a few metres and there was a howling wind. Still, not to be deterred, we pushed on thinking how bad could it really be. The answer wasn't long in coming.
For those who have ever been up Ben Nevis you will know that there is a section of zig-zags that lead you to the final stretch before the summit. It was when, as we neared the top of the zig-zag section, the path disappeared to be replaced by a blanket of thick snow we knew things were not going to be straight forward. Using the limited compass bearings we had we set off across the icy snow in what we thought was the right direction, only to quickly realise it wasn't the right way - on one side a sheer drop and ahead boulders with no clear visible path up them. It was decision time; turn back or try and find another way. As much as we all wanted to summit it was agreed that our safety was paramount, so we turned around and began to re-trace our footsteps.
It was as we neared the last recognisable part of the path again that our fortunes changed, thanks to one of the other groups who had a decent map and a fair idea of which way we should all be heading. Even with a map, detailed directions and another group leading the way it was a struggle to find the summit, conditions were that bad. By now what had been rain earlier was heavy snow being whipped into our faces by a relentless wind. There was no great sense of achievement upon reaching the summit as thoughts quickly turned to the fact we now had to get back down with the weather growing increasingly worse by the minute.
Our footprints from the ascent were our only real guide back across the snow and, as they began to fade under fresh snow, it was with a certain degree of relief that we eventually made it back onto the track and headed back down the mountain. It was also with a certain degree of amazement the attire we saw people heading towards the summit in, seemingly oblivious to what lay ahead of them. Here we were coming down in full winter clothing and people were going up in fashion trainers and tracksuit bottoms. Still, that wasn't our problem as we had plenty more to think about with two more mountains to conquer. And so, with a change of clothes and optimism high we set off for Scafell Pike knowing we had taken care of the hardest leg of the challenge.
Whereas Ben Nevis and Snowdon are, for large parts, gradual ascents up the mountain, Scafell Pike is very much the opposite. From the moment you leave the car park it is pretty much straight up until you reach the summit in a relentless fashion. By the time we started up the seemingly endless stone steps there was a steady trickle of people coming back down, and we knew we would have to get moving to be down and back on the road again in day light. Having negotiated the steps we cam to a fork in the path; turn left and continue up a snaking set of steps all the way to the summit, or right and up a near-vertical scree slope, through a gap in the ridge of the mountain and traverse across the plateau to the summit. Spotting two fell runners picking their way through the scree slope we opted to follow their lead.
It was hard going but the three of us eventually scrambled up the final section of the slope to be greeted by the most stunning views on the other side, looking out across the Lake District in all its glory. The hard work was very much done and now it was a case of crossing a boulder field to the summit in the distance. Again, once at the summit we didn't dwell for too long, just long enough for food and water before setting back off down the mountain, only this time down the path we opted not come up as there was no way we fancied heading back down the scree slope. The guide time for Scafell Pike is four hours, so we were delighted to have made it up and down in just under three hours, meaning that we had gained invaluable time ahead of a the long drive to Snowdon, followed by the final ascent in the dead of night.
And so to the familiar surrounds of Pen-y-Pass car park and the prospect of getting out of the warmth of the car and heading off into the cold, dark night. It was now as much about mental strength as anything else, knowing that despite just wanting to sleep we had to put our boots on and face up to the prospect of another four hours of walking. Having been up Snowdon a number of times before it was over to me to lead the way. Even though we were going up one of the easier routes on the mountain it was made that much harder by the sleep deprivation and it being the middle of the night. Several times the path almost disappeared in front of us as we traversed our way around, all the while a dark shadow hanging above as a remind that the real climbing was still to come.
One of the hardest aspects of walking in the dark is not actually being able to see where you are going. Not in the sense of the five metres in front of you, as we had torches for that, but in the sense that we wouldn't see the summit and as such never really knew what still lay ahead. All I could remember from previous trips up, albeit on various other routes, was that once we reached the ridge we were all but there. However, as legs grew weary, the ridge seemed to take an age to get to, and as such it was a massive relief that we finally made it up, only to be greeted by a swirling wind. From here it was just a case of wanting to summit and be on our way back down again, and so there was little talk as we pushed on through the wind.
As the three of us stood around the summit point there was finally a huge sense of achievement and satisfaction, we had made it, all three peaks summited. After a few moments to re-fuel, huddled behind a wall to escape the violent wind, it was on to the final leg, the decent. Despite enjoying the moment at the summit we all knew that challenge wasn't over until we got back down from the mountain, and yet now all motivation seemed to be draining from us. What had kept us going on the way up, that desire to reach the summit, was suddenly gone. Now it was mind over matter as we set about getting down as fast as possible. We all knew that we were suffering when, upon stopping for a drinks break, we suddenly found ourselves sat there drifting off into day dreams as the dark night slowly gave way to the first signs of dawn. It was an effort to get going again.
And then, just over 23 hours after we had started, we came around the final corner and caught sight of the car park and the end of our challenge. We had done it, three friends, three countries and three peaks in under twenty-four hours.