Friday, November 9, 2012

Primal Wilderness Rambling From British Isles

Mountaineering /n./ slow walking uphill while not feeling well.

“I think that climbers should get some credit just for remembering what their jobs are on Monday.” ~ Gary Clark

“To qualify for mountain rescue work, you have to pass our test. The doctor holds a flashlight to your ear. If he can see light coming out the other one, you qualify.” ~ Willi Pfisterer

I remember visiting my grandparents when I was a child and picking up an old magazine. Maybe it was National Geographic. found something about climbers taking on the three highest summits in England, Scotland and Wales during a twenty-four-hour period. They were rapidly transported between peaks by car.

This was something I found curious that stayed with me lurking beneath the surface. I first got a taste of what rock climbing really is on the Niagara Escarpment cliffs when I was around twelve. While hiking alone one day, I looked up at the sheer face of Rattlesnake Point and thought I could climb that. Which I proceeded to do, without experience, equipment, or a partner. 

That was something I kept to myself for several years afterwards. It’s not the sort of thing you mention to your parents. At any rate, free climbing to the top of the bluff, I discovered just how much I enjoyed it. Meeting like-minded people in university, I began rock climbing in earnest and never looked back. It’s who I am and where I’m most at home.

Those peaks in the United Kingdom have long simmered in my mind. The British have a strong tradition of hiking and climbing, though their mountains tend to be shorter than some we typically think of. Still, there are plenty of peaks to work out on and the Alps are quite near by. I actually found an organization that specializes in those three peaks, partly for an annual charitable event with thousands of participants.

This National Three Peaks Challenge organization sets up the logistics for expeditions and offers transportation for the climbers between the mountains, each of which boasts the highest point in that part of the United Kingdom. Plus, if you just want to have a go at it for yourself, you can arrange a guide and transport at any time of year. June to October is ideal, but January summiting is rough.

The driving route for the challenge is around four hundred and fifty miles from Wales up to Scotland, which includes about eleven hours on the road. The organization notes that doing it faster means breaking the speed limit. Ideal ascents take near thirteen hours, bringing participants in right under the clock. The hiking and climbing involved covers some 26 miles with a full ascent of nearly ten thousand feet. The general approach is to start in Scotland one evening, drive through the night into England, then finish the last climb in Wales by the following evening.

Ben Nevis is the first peak to ascend. The highest point in Scotland is also the highest point in Britain, rising to 1344 metres or 4400 feet. This is part of the Grampian range. Nevis presents a vast array of different challenges, from its North side cliff face to the long winding path on the South side. There are observatory ruins at the summit, where you can get a hell of a view of the surrounding Highlands. The Ben Nevis route is the longest of the three peaks with five hours up and down.

Driving through the darkness South brings you to Scafell Pike in England’s Lake District. It stands at 978 metres or 3200 feet. There are a couple of routes and one is longer than the other, but both traverse roughly the same slice of altitude from the North or South side of the peak. Ideally, the run up and back down should be done by morning, allowing time for the drive over into Wales and the final ascent.

Snowdon is a mountain reaching 1085 metres or 3500 feet in Snowdonia National Park. It is very popular with climbers and sacred in the Arthurian folklore as well as other tales of the British islands. Like Scafell, the mountain originated from ancient volcanic activity and offers outstanding challenges.

Ed Hillary used the peak to train for Everest in 1953. Even today, the massif presents adventures for the climber, several routes for the hiker and a railway for lazy sods who can’t bother to climb it themselves. Assuming challenge participants have timed themselves right, they should be making it down off Snowdon with a few minutes to spare in the late afternoon, twenty four hours after they began this madness up in Scotland.

The idea of scaling these three peaks within twenty four hours has some tremendous appeal to me as a climber, a hiker, and someone who loves the great outdoors. It is a way to forge inner strength. It is life put to the test. Even though family and friends may think that it’s a sign I’ve finally and irretrievably lost my mind.

William Kendall is a writer, photographer and rock climber from the Ottawa Valley. When he's not working on his world domination scheme (no golfers allowed), he can be found writing the forthcoming Heaven & Hell, plus his personal blog Speak Of The Devil.


  1. Great story and wonderful idea. I'm sure you can do it William. I used to belong to the Sierra Club's One Hundred Peaks Division and we did several peaks way over 4400 feet. Maybe you could visit the Rockies and the Sierras for some great training grounds. Of course going to Scotland sounds like fun too. And if you like rocks, you'd love it around here....

  2. You're really going to do this, aren't you?

  3. Sounds like you're up for the challenge! What beautiful places, well worth the haul.

  4. The thought of making a go at it appeals to me tremendously, so of course I have to go!