The bare facts make it sound simple and a lot of people don't comprehend just how tough it can be. Last year another group attempted it for Sandwell Women's Aid, taking 36 hours to complete it with one member damaging their knee cartilage on Scafell Pike. He's since had surgery and is still not back to full fitness.
Our team consisted of eight people with a core of three or four who have been planning and training for this since November 2013. One team member withdrew 48 hours before the event due to personal circumstances and another who was recovering from a chest infection only completed Ben Nevis (a magnificence achievement), the remaining six all completed it.
Please note: The times below are my approximate and personal times, I was neither the fastest or slowest team member (times varied an hour or so either side of mine) and this is my personal account of the event.
Saturday 26 July
6.00am Get up brush teeth, have a hot shower, and all the other simple things we will be going without for the next 48 hours or so, travel to Birmingham to meet up with the rest of the team.
7.30am Tuck into a team breakfast at Weatherspoons. As it turned out it was our last hot meal until a celebratory pub lunch, also back in Birmingham, on Monday 28 July.
9.15am Catch train to Carlisle from New Street. The most eventful thing about this four hour journey was the fact we were in the only coach on the train without air conditioning, but we soon forgot about that.
12.15pm Meet up with the Minibus, guides and driver who we'd hired. Despite being a sixteen seat minibus it was spartan and cramped, with our stuff and the guides gear, food, water, etc. taking up nearly half the very uncomfortable seats available. Pillow, earplugs and face mask, none of which I'd bothered with are strongly recommended if you want to try and sleep during the challenge. Also, unless you want your spine forcibly removed from your body avoiding sitting over the rear axle. You will feel every bump and pot hole as I did.
6.15pm After driving though heavy rain we arrive in Fort William, are briefed by guides and kit up in full waterproofs. If doing this again I would willing pay the extra cash to travel up the day before and rest overnight. We had been already been traveling for 12 hours before starting the challenge.
6.30pm Begin Climbing Ben Nevis, by which time the rain has stopped and strip off waterproofs to avoid overheating. This was to be the driest of the three ascents, with a rising cloud base giving glimpses of the views available on a clear day. You have a 1 in 9 chance of a cloud free summit with three major weather systems converging on Ben Nevis.
9.30pm Reach the cloud shrouded summit after negotiating Ben's year round snow field to briefly become the highest people in Scotland and Britain before slipping on our head torches and coming back down. It was our first ever night walk (something we should have practiced along with skiing or skating on compacted snow and ice) and although enjoyable slowed the descent considerably. At least the path is relatively clear, easy to follow, and a steady 1-in-5 gradient for the most part.
11.30pm Arrived back at the minibus try to find our bags and sort out our gear among the chaos, eat, and prepare for the next leg of the journey. Driving through the night to Scafell Pike. The driver skilfully hits every bump and pot-hole along the way, listening to loud 80's pop music, while we try to master the art of sleeping when sitting upright in a noisy tin box and not snoring or farting too much. By the end of the weekend the bus had the ambiance of the inside of a packet of dry roasted peanuts that had gone off.
Sunday 27 July
7.30am After a couple of wrong turns and some particularly bone jarring pot holes that threatened to throw me out of my seat had I not been wearing a seat belt we finally arrive at a rain sodden Wasdale Head and begin to slog our way up Scafell Pike. The best way to describe this route is short, but brutal, with a steep pull out of the valley over Lingmell Gill (which can be impassable after heavy rain) to Hollow Stones. Where it eases off to become a trek across a surreal boulder field to the summit. On the way up we encountered freezing cold cloud, rain, sleet, hail, and day trippers in flip-flops. This was where I hit my personal wall and considered throwing in the towel but dug deep to find the determination to carry on. This was also the only part of the challenge I'd not walked before (having previously done Scafell Pike by the longer corridor route) so was unknown territory, but I wasn't going to let it (or someone in flip-flops) beat me.
10.30am Finally the highest person in England. The summit was not a place to linger, drenched in sweat in a bitingly cold wind with the clouds whipping around me (last time I was up here I could see as far as the coast of Ireland) and I made a rapid descent, as my body temperature began to drop, to warmer territory. Thankfully I soon warmed up once I got below the clouds and out of the wind. It can be useful, if not particularly accurate, having a thermometer built into your wristwatch. I experienced mild hypothermia many years ago in similar conditions and it's an experience I'm not keen to repeat.
12.30pm Having arrived safely back at the van dried off and got into fresh gear it was a case of onwards and upwards to the summit of Snowdon. Either the roads were smoother or I was too tired to care as I actually managed to get some sleep on this leg of the journey. What I do recall were glimpses of sunshine on route turning to unrelenting rain as we approached Snowdonia.
6.30pm We finally arrived at Snowdon in torrential rain, 90 minutes after our scheduled finish time. It took my last reserves willpower and energy to force myself into my gear and out the van to get another drenching. The towel was to wet for me to throw it in at this point anyway. As per Ben Nevis the cloud lifted and the rain stopped as soon as we started, providing damp, but mild, muggy conditions, so off came the waterproofs again. The Pyg track is one of the roughest, but shortest routes up Snowdon so we hit it and went for the summit becoming increasingly spread out in the process as everyone went for it to get the best possible individual times. Also it's probably not the clearest or easiest route to follow in places when your knackered.
9.00pm Having cleared the top of the Pyg track it was a quick 15 minute stroll along the final leg of the Llanberis path through biting wind and thick clag to claim the summit as the clouds and night closed in. Emulating the very first documented attempt in 1926 I'd claimed the summits of Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon in 24 hours, which was good enough for me. Visibility was so poor I nearly missed the marker post for the Pyg track on the way back down. Moving as fast as I could my aim was to drop below the clouds and clear the most confusing sections before darkness fell.
9.30pm Coming down I met the last member of the team coming up with one of our guides by the Pyg tracks famous penny post (there's actually two) and shortly after met the second guide who walked me back to where the Pyg and Miners track converge to make sure I carried on along the Pyg track, where he stopped to wait for his colleague and our last remaining team member. In stark contrast to Scotland darkness fell quickly and I was soon reaching for my head torch, only to find I'd drifted off the path on a indistinct section intersected by slabs of rock and had to be 'rescued' by the guide. At which point the weather closed back in with a vengeance.
There are few things more disorientating than being alone on the side of a mountain in the dark, in torrential rain, with nothing but a head torch, fatigue, and sheep for company. If it wasn't for the guide I could have easily become a mountain rescue statistic. Familiar routes walked many times during daylight hours can take on a completely different character at night especially when walked in reverse in poor weather (In training we'd always gone up the Pyg track and down the Llanberis path). I'd also left my maps, compass and GPS behind on this trip leaving the guides to take care of the navigation side of things.
11.30pm Wet, tired and jubilant I finally made it back to the bus stripped off and got into some dry clothes, thankfully I still had something dry left to change into. There was then a considerable wait for the last team member who had refused to come back down the Pyg track in the dark and insisted on using the longer but safer Llanberis path. However the guides phone had run out of charge and their two-way radio was out of range. So when they finally arrived in Llanberis after midnight and soaking wet they had to resort to knocking on doors looking for someone willing to call a taxi (the only available taxi was over an hour away on another job) or mad enough to give them a lift. The only other option being a long, lonely and miserable slog up the Llanberis Pass. Thankfully the local hotel came to their rescue and gave them a lift back up the Pass to the minibus. It was then simply a matter or recalling the other guide who was searching for them on the lower reaches of the Pyg track unaware they'd taken the Llanberis path.
Monday 28 July
Sometime after midnight we set off for another bone jarring ride to Chester and the rest as they say is history. We checked in at 2.30am, a hotel bed has never felt so good, and checked out at 11am. Grabbed a beer at Chester station waiting for the train and another waiting for our connection at Crew. On arriving in Birmingham we took the difficult decision to delay our return home for a pub lunch and the consumption of more alcoholic beverages to combine lunch with the celebration we had been denied the previous night!
The exact whereabouts of the two bottles of champagne that were waiting for us in the cool box on the minibus after completing the three peaks remains an unsolved mystery.
Job done till the next challenge...