3 peaks challenge - the blog
(Posted 15:21:58 on 27th July 2009 by Mr O)
Before I start I must warn you it's a long one (as the Bishop said to the actress), in fact it's taken longer to write than it did to do! [I also apologise for the time taken to post the blog and the lack of pictures but as you'll read, the weather wasn't conducive to photography. Hopefully you can wade through it all and get a sense of the epic it was.]
Where to start? Back in April I guess when Jon, one of my best friends told me he was due to take part in the 3 peaks challenge in the summer. For those unaware of what the 3 peaks challenge is, it is a challenge to climb the 3 highest peaks in each of the three countries that make up the UK mainland all within 24 hours. (Those 3 peaks being, Snowdon, Scafell Pike and Ben Nevis). Now obviously those who know me well, know that the climbing part didn't appeal, but the driving to and between the mountains certainly did, and having driven across the US earlier in the year it would be a drop in the ocean. Anyway, I volunteered to drive, but was told it was OK as they were all sorted, so I just did my bit, sponsored Jon and wished him well.
Two weeks ago this all changed. The original plan was to have 3 drivers per mini-bus to share the driving, come the point with two weeks to go, they were down to 5 drivers for 3 buses so the call was put out and I stepped up to the plate. Copies of driving licences and waivers signed and instructions received I was all set to go. One other thing to note was that the challenge was being organised by BGL on behalf of the NSPCC. I only know a handful of people at BGL and the hope was that I'd be driving the bus with Jon and Dave in with Sam my driving buddy, well I got Sam as the buddy but we were given bus 3 which was seen as the “slower” bus, Jon and Dave being in bus 1 the “faster” bus for those with more walking/climbing experience.
The plan was to set off from the start point in Peterborough at 5 am pm on Friday, however the mini-buses were being dropped off the day before and the drivers needed to be there to check them over and be given instructions on the controls. Well we were all there at the allotted time, unfortunately the buses were not. We waited for over an hour and still no sign, so we all went back to work in the hope that they'd turn up eventually. We got a note a couple of hours later to say they had arrived and we'd just have to pick up as we went along, which really wasn't an issue.
The alarm goes off at 4am, which seeing as I'd not got to sleep until midnight did come as a bit of a shock to the system, however the thought of a free bacon sandwich laid on by BGL was enough inspiration to drag me out of bed and I was ready by 4:40 when Jon came to pick me up. Half way through the bacon sarnie, Clair, the even organiser said we had to get going so we all quickly scoffed down the breakfast and headed out to the buses.
We all had 17 seat min-buses and 9 climbers in each, which sounds like plenty of room, but once you add in all of the walking kit, changes of clothes and food, it was a bit of a squeeze in the back. As we were in bus 3 we decided to go in convoy after the other two, and waited for them to start off. We had the written instructions, a detailed road atlas and sat nav so had no fear of getting lost. As the convoy headed off down the A1, I turned to Sam and said “get yer foot down, we can go faster than this”. To which she responded “I've got my foot flat to the floor, it cannae go any faster”, and we realised that the bus was limited to 60 mph/96 kph which when you had hundreds of miles ahead of you was not a pleasant realisation. What was worse was the fact that the other two buses seemed to be set at different limits and we were slowly but surely dropping behind. By the time we reached the first junction, bus 1 had disappeared completely and bus 2 was just visible. We just kept plodding along happy that our team of climbers were behaving themselves and were wanting to just get there.
As we worked our way off the motorway onto the A roads into Wales we noticed the weather starting to get increasingly worse, which seeing as we'd been having a heat-wave recently was not was hoped for. We arrived at the car park at Pen-y-pass, 207 miles later at around 9:30 surprised to find two things, firstly that we were the first bus there and secondly that it was blowing a gales and it was raining torrentially horizontally. We all braved the dash across the car park to make use of the toilets and then the climbers got changed into their wet weather gear whilst we waited. Bus 2 turned up next, they'd had a toilet stop en-route which is how we had got past them and watched as they then made the same dash to the toilet. About 20 minutes later bus 1 turned up. We later found out that they had taken a wrong turn at the first junction and had had a stop, so despite being in the fastest bus, they arrived last. The plan was for all the climbers to start off together and for the buses to meet them in the town of Llanberis about 4-5 hours later after they had come back down the other side of Snowdon. Also in the original plan was a team photo of all of the climbers and drivers at the start point, but we declined the invitation and went into the cafe for a cuppa.
The whole event was actually being over seen be Chris from Event Aid, he had organised walking guides for each of the teams, come up with the routes and booked the hotel in Scotland, so we met up with him to discuss plans. As we had a minimum of 4 hours to kill, we all jumped into our bus and headed down into Llanberis to have a look around and get some lunch, but as it was drizzling when we got there we decided to head straight for the cafe. We all decided on various versions of the all day breakfast and large teas, when they poured them out we realised that the mugs were a pint in size. So there we were in a nice warm cafe with a large mug of steaming tea and a fry-up on order whilst our intrepid walkers were halfway up a mountain, however at that stage as we'd not really got to know our teams that well, so no real feeling of guilt.
Chris was in contact with his guides and had found that the conditions at the top of Snowdon were pretty tricky, with 70 mph winds (yes faster than the bus) and still rain and hail so there was a slight change of plans. Teams 1 & 2 were to now come back down the way they had come up, a slightly trickier descent but quicker, seeing as the weather had already put us behind target on completing the 24 hour challenge. Our team, as it contained the less experienced climbers, were to stick to the original plan. So after we'd finished brunch, Sam and I drove the other drivers back up to their buses at Pen-y-pass and went back down to Llanberis to meet up with Chris again. He showed us where our team were due to arrive from the mountain and we parked up outside a row of houses. At this point all teams had been on the go for about 3 and a half hours and as this first one should take about 4 hours to complete, Sam and I didn't think we had long to wait.
Where we'd parked was also opposite a bus stop, and after we'd seen the 4th bus go past we knew the guys were behind schedule. We kept getting false hopes as we saw various set of legs coming around the corner, but none belonged to our team. About 4 and a half hours after all teams had started we got word that team 2 were first down the mountain and about to leave for Scafell. We had another hour to wait before the first of our team started to appear looking drenched and thoroughly pissed off. They had two problems, their waterproofs had proven to be far from that and they were soaked to the skin and they all desperately needed the toilet. Let's just say that some of the locals in Llanberis got an impromptu show as various pieces of clothing and underwear were being discarded in favour of dry clothes. One of the girls so desperate for a wee and not caring any more just went back up the hill a little way found some bushes and then had to meekly wave as a group of random walkers went by. Once everyone was settled in, we parked up in the centre of town and allowed the rest of the team to use the public toilets. It was on the two steps into the public toilets that I tweaked my calf muscle, but given the ordeal the team had gone through, I decided to keep quiet. We eventually set off at 15:45 nearly 2 hours behind schedule, knowing that in a speed limited bus we wouldn't reach Scafell by the allotted time of 18:30.
For leg 2 we had swapped drivers and I was in charge of the bus for the first time. Our team were brilliant, despite being tired and emotional from such a tough climb, there were no complaints on the journey whatsoever. We did wonder what had happened to team 1, our supposed elite team. A couple of text conversations later we discovered that they were just behind us on the A55 out of Wales. That didn't make any sense as they should have been down long before our lot. We later found that they had taken another wrong turn and had somehow made it onto Anglesey before realising their mistake.
The big issue with leaving that late was that we hit the M6 at Manchester in time for the Friday evening rush hour which slowed us down a little. We stopped our bus at Lancaster services and we made good time as the team dashed to the toilets whilst we were filling up with fuel and we were back on the road again in 15 minutes. We were making good time on the motorway, well as good as you can stuck at 60, until we turned off at junction 36 of the motorway and were at the mercy of the Cumbrian road network. We knew were behind schedule so wanted to make up time, but on roads that were twisty and turny and up and down it was difficult, not helped by the limiter on the flat straight bits and also not helped by the bouncy suspension, it was a tricky balancing act that I failed to get right. About 10 miles from our destination, I got those dreaded words on any car/bus journey “can we stop please”. Fortunately I found a lay-by in seconds but it wasn't quite soon enough and one of the ladies in the back had been sick. She had caught most of it in a plastic bag, but had got in in her shoes and down her top. So whilst she got out of the bus to get it out of her system and freshen up, the others got out to stretch their legs and get fresh air whilst one of the guys sluiced out the back of the bus with water and made sure all was cleared up, for which Sam and I were thankful as we had to sleep in the bus whilst the team were up Scafell. The last bit from the “main” road to Wasdale Head was even worse, some road bits only just wide enough for the mini-bus and other sections with a sheer rock face one side and a lake the other, not fun when you've got ill/nervous passengers in the back.
We arrived after travelling the 215 miles at around 20:30, about two hours behind schedule. Team 1 were about to set off on their walk and team 2 had started off about half an hour earlier. The problem we had was that our team's guide has disappeared as he'd got fed up of waiting, so it was gone 9 and dark before our team started off. Only 6 out of 9 of our team went, one had done their knees in on the way down Snowdon, the lady who'd been sick and another who just didn't think it was safe to go up in the dark stayed behind.
By this stage we'd been on the go 15 hours and had driven over 400 miles so our plan was a quick drink in the pub and use of their toilets before trying to get some sleep in the bus. With 5 of us in there, we didn't have that much room. Sam had the drivers seat all the way back knowing that she had the next driving stint. I had the double passenger seat but that didn't recline and the three climbers not doing the climb were in the back somewhere. We tried to settle down around half 10, but the wind had picked up and the bus was swaying quite a bit, plus it was not exactly the most comfortable of places to sleep. I think Sam managed to get about 3-4 hours whereas I got about an hour as I kept seeing torches on the horizon thinking it was one of our teams coming back.
At around 2 am the weather conditions improved and the clouds started to part. The wind was still there but you could see stars in the sky so I undertook some astronomy seeing as I couldn't sleep and tried some constellation spotting. It was whilst looking at stars that I saw another train of lights heading down the mountain. It was quite a walk from the bottom of the climb to where we'd parked so it was around 2:30 before people arrived at the buses. What surprised us the most was that it was the first folks from team 1 which had started their climb second. I wandered over to their bus to see how they were getting on to be greeted with the site of sweaty hairy bare legs and the now familiar stench of deep heat, quite unnerving really. Have spoken to their guide it appeared that team 2 had taken a different route down and had encountered another team from a different group lost apparently without a guide. They got on the road and we waited. Another half hour passed and team 2 started to arrive, they'd been up there nearly 7 hours. It turned out that the had indeed encountered a lost team and their guide had to navigate both teams back. At one point their guide had shouted “Stop” and told them all to sit down, they were literally yards from a sheer drop, so they turned around headed back to the top and came back they way they came.
Team 2 had suffered, one or two of them were doing the John Wayne walk due to chaffing and they were physically and mentally exhausted but they got themselves on their way some time after 3. We were still waiting for our team when Chris came over and said they were on their way. At around 3:30 the first of our team arrived and the hugs and the emergency cigarettes were shared in equal measure. Our team had just had a long walk, incident free but exhausting. We let them catch their breaths, get sorted so it was close on 4 am before we got on the road, which seeing as we should have been at Ben Nevis by 5, we knew we wouldn't reach our 24 hour target.
Sam was back in control, and we'd carefully studied the map and got the sat nav warmed up so we had a pretty straight forward run up into Scotland. As we got closer to Sellafield the road network improved somewhat and the guys in the back were able to get some rest. I'd lent one of the girls a fleece blanket and one of the guys a sweatshirt so as they could get warm and comfortable enough to snooze. I think I also nodded off for a bit on the drive up to Carlisle knowing Sam was clear on the directions.
We hit Scotland and got some daylight and sunlight and were making good progress but decided that we need a stop, if nothing else to stretch legs and get a cup of tea. The rag tag team that hobbled off the bus was quite a sight. The guy who'd borrowed my sweatshirt had fallen asleep and drooled on it, but didn't care what he looked like, neither did the girl who walked into the services with a blanket wrapped around her, we must have looked a strange bunch. What was amazing was that although we knew we had failed on the time, there was no dawdling or hanging around, after a toilet stop everyone got their tea/coffee to go and we were back on the road in 15 minutes. I later found out that team 2 had stopped at the same services and some of them had had showers and were drying clothes out on the hand dryers in the toilets. You can't blame them for that but out team were “happy” as they were and we got back on the road.
We made it through Glasgow without incident and headed up into the Highlands past Loch Lomond. Very picturesque but also pretty windy and even I started to feel car sick, due to tiredness and the fact I could see where we were going, I think the guys in the back were too tired to care. At one stage we had to get close to the side of the road as a delivery truck came thundering around one blind corner.
We arrived the 262 miles later at the start point at the Ben Nevis Inn at just before 10 am, the original completion time. As we got there we noticed that team 2 were still getting ready for their walk so both teams decided to head up together. One of their team had to call off the final walk due to a damaged ankle and two of our team also couldn't make it, the girl who'd done her knees on Snowdon and another who'd been finished off by Scafell.
So as the intrepid 15 set off on their final journey we met up with the other drivers. Seeing as it was nearly 24 hours since our last fry-up we planned to head into Fort William for some food. One of our girls decided to stay in our bus so we jumped onto the other two, and for some reason I was entrusted with the keys to bus 1. We would have taken one bus as there were 8 in total heading into town but there was so much debris all over the buses we took two. As the rain started to fall once again we had a big decision to make, where to have brunch, one of the drivers was craving McDonalds but the majority of the group didn't fancy it so we went up market to the local supermarket cafe, that said we dumped both buses in Maccy D's car park making sure no-one else could park there as the group split into two. Another full English later we decided it was best to move the buses up the road to a proper parking space whilst some of the girls went to look round the shops. We parked up and the heavens opened so the rest of us sat on the bus waiting for the shoppers to return. We didn't have long to wait as the bedraggled girls came back, fortunately we did tell them where we'd moved the buses to, and we headed back to the pub car park to wait.
It's at this point that I have to make clear quite how bad the turning circle on one of these mini-buses actually is, it's akin to an oil-tanker, so bear that in mind for the next bit. So there we were driving up the windy lane up to the pub when one of the girls from the other bus was complimenting me on my driving compared to their driver when we pulled into the car park. The car park was split into two sections, the first being a section where the cars were parked at a slight angle to the road pointed back down the hill so you had to swing round to get into the space. Well I saw this space between two cars and took a wide swing out before coming back in, of course the front of the bus took a wide swing whereas the back decided not to move, so as I got further into the space I heard a noise I wasn't expecting or hoping for, that kind of plastic meets plastic kind of noise. Having thought I'd imagined it, I pulled the bus up to a stop and got out to inspect my handy work. To the layman you wouldn't have known anything was wrong, who needs mudguard/wheel arch type affairs on a minibus anyway, and who was to say those scratches weren't on the rear bumper of the car before, it was quite a crappy old Toyota. Having given the flappy-dangly bit that was the mudguard a swift kick to finish off the job I went to speak to Chris to explain what had happened. His response was a tad surprising, he told me to move the bus to the other part of the car park and prop up the now detachable mudguard on the blindside of the bus and no-one would be any the wiser, so being a good boy, I did as I was told and headed into the pub throwing the keys back to the designated driver of bus 1 telling him that he may find it a tad quicker now I'd improved the aerodynamics and left it at that.
It was now around 2 pm and as the non walkers and the non drivers slowly got trolleyed in the pub we watched out of the window and waited and waited. I went back to the bus to try and catch a few z's as we continued to wait. It was around 3:30-4 as the first guys and girls from group 1 started to trudge their way down the last bit of the mountain to be greeted by a hero's welcome. As each one arrived they were met by a cheer, a round of applause, a hug, a cigarette and a beer, not necessarily in that order. As each one got down they were telling their individual tales and were desperate to get out of their climbing clothes into something a little more comfortable before heading to the bar for a much deserved second/third/fourth drink whilst we all waited for the last of the teams to make it down.
We'd booked into a hotel for the Saturday night and dinner was laid on for 7:30 which at the time seemed plenty of time as we had originally planned on finishing at 10 am, but as it was getting closer and closer to 6:30 and we were waiting for the last few to make it down some were getting anxious, and some were just getting pissed in the bar. We didn't have much longer to wait and as the last one made it down the champagne was cracked open. We ushered the stragglers on to the buses and headed off in convoy to our final destination in Newtonmore 50 miles further North. We got there just after half 7 and were given instructions to freshen up as quickly as possible and head for the dining room. I also had another near miss with the wing mirror and mudguard on our minibus when parking up at the hotel but I don't think too many noticed.
When we got into our rooms we were not exactly overwhelmed by the facilities but they had a bed, a toilet and a shower which was enough. I dumped my bags, jumped in the shower trying not to pull the shampoo dispenser off the wall and jumped out again. I couldn't decide whether I was more tired or hungry but went for the hungry and headed for the dining room. When I got there I realised I was the second to get there only beaten by Jon, and knowing how he likes his his food, no surprise there. It was hard to describe the dining room, I guess I'd go for trying too hard. All the waiters and waitresses were dressed in their finest Scottish garb, but the menu didn't match, it was more akin to your bog standard B&B (very much like the rooms). Anyway Jon and I helped ourselves to the bread rolls whilst we waited for the rest to arrive, and they did in their ones and twos, some walking better than others. We decided to rearrange the furniture in the section we were in and stuck two tables together. Every time a waiter came near we tried to give him our drinks ordered but he was too interested in taking our food orders and it took half a dozen attempts before he begrudgingly took our order.
The food itself was fine, nothing fancy but not awful, the shame was that we were all so tired that we couldn't manage it, not even me with my famed appetite. We did have a bit of fun with the poor Portuguese waitress and the desert trolley, one of the deserts was called “lumpy bumpy” which of course we were calling “rumpy pumpy” to much hilarity but I guess you had to be there. Even now I'm not sure what it was. So we all finished off desert and headed for the bar only to find it wasn't big enough for our entire group so we went back into the dining room where the rep from the charity was there to give a speech to thank everyone for their efforts and to explain where the £15,000 we'd raised was going (to train and man extra childline advisors in the Peterborough area).
At that point I was exhausted so made my excuses and headed back to the room to plan the route back in the morning and to get some sleep knowing we had an 8 hour drive ahead of us. However some of the guys were up for a bit of a session and didn't finish in the bar until half midnight. I found that nugget of information out as I was chatting to a few of them in the car park at 12:55 am after the fire alarm had gone off. It was one of those surreal moments, you are fast asleep and all of a sudden you wake up with a start in a strange bed with a high pitched whining sound coming from somewhere nearby (I guess if you go out on the pull in Peterborough you may get used to that). Anyway I grabbed my jeans, put them on and stuck my head out of the door into the corridor to see other just as perplexed people trying to work out what was going on. I ducked back into the room, put my trainers on, studied the fire exit map and headed out into the car park. Fortunately it had stopped raining but it wasn't very warm. We were out there for about 10 minutes before being allowed back in. The alarm did go off again briefly not long after we'd got back but no-one reacted to that one being too tired to care if they burnt or not. We did hear in the morning that it may have been one of our group trying to have a crafty fag in bed that set it off but it wasn't confirmed.
The alarm clock went off at 8, another more leisurely shower later and I knocked on Jon's door and we headed for breakfast, my third fry up in as many days. That's one thing that hotels can't go wrong with is breakfast and it hit the spot. During breakfast a couple from our group took the bus keys and did a compete tidy up, so our crew were ready and packed and checked out by just after half nine, and by the time we'd loaded up and said our goodbyes we were on the road by a quarter to ten. I'd worked out our route, the halfway stop point to change drivers and fuel stops the night before so we were clear when we left whereas the other groups were still trying to work out which way to head back. Sam did the first stint knowing that she had another hours drive home after we got back to Peterborough.
Again the 465 mile journey was pretty uneventful with our team remaining easy going as ever. We kept them informed as to how far to go to the stop and even when we got there, 15 minutes was enough for a stretch of legs, a drink, some food and a toilet break. It was on the last leg that I somehow momentarily got the bus up to 68 mph just as we were going past a police car, but I've no idea how I did it and couldn't repeat it. We were getting regular updates from the other buses and it was quite obvious that we were at least an hour ahead of the other teams so when we arrived back at our start point at 6 pm and the heavens opened once again, we didn't hang around, said quick goodbyes and went out separate ways. It was a shame as we didn't get a team photo of bus three and although we may have had some of the slower climbers in the team, we were the first to get to Snowdon, the first to the hotel and the first back to Peterborough so I see those as moral victories.
I do hear that Stephen from our team is trying to organise another independent attempt in a few weeks time, so good luck to all who endeavour to do that. I know I could never achieve the climbs but would be more than happy to drive again, with one caveat that I have slightly faster equipment, as it was an honour to be part of such a monumental effort.
A big well done to all that took part and no matter how many peaks you conquered you were prepared to give up your time and energy to attempt it, so kudos to you all.