The UK National Three Peaks Challenge, but better: an alternative approach to the classic undertaking

Three Peaks Challenge: Alex with Ben Nevis behind
High on the Càrn Mòr Dearg ridgeline with the morning sun hitting Ben Nevis' North Face (Image credit: Alex Foxfield)

It’s 2:50am, I’ve had virtually no sleep and I’m sat in a van at the foot of Ben Nevis, the British Isles’ highest mountain. Ahead of me – and my fellow mountain goats Tom and Sam – is a big, committing route that's testing on a normal day, let alone on no sleep and having already climbed both Wales’ and England’s highest mountains in the previous 17 hours.

The UK National Three Peaks Challenge

The classic approach to the UK National Three Peaks Challenge is a simple one. Hike up and down Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon), Scafell Pike and Ben Nevis in a single 24-hour push, with plenty of driving in between. The Three Peaks is not merely the preserve of summit obsessed hillwalkers, it’s a challenge that is firmly established in the British public’s consciousness.

Three Peaks Challenge: Wasdale

Beautiful Wasdale in the English Lake District is the usual location for people starting up Scafell Pike (Image credit: Alex Foxfield)

Every year, it’s thought that around 30,000 people attempt it, often raising money for worthy causes. For many, it’s a first proper taste of the high places and, for some, it ignites a passion for adventure to last a lifetime. For others, it may be their one and only experience of the mountains, a one-off raid never to be repeated.

Pen y Pass: 9:50am

The sense of anticipation is palpable. We’ve earmarked 10am as the start time to begin our Three Peaks adventure but we’ve been in place at Pen y Pass, ready to start, for 20 minutes already. We're itching to get going.

Yr Wyddfa, Garnedd Ugain and Crib Goch looked absolutely mesmerising on the drive in, their pyramidal summits rising above a sea of cloud that shrouded their lower flanks. It was in equal parts awesome and intimidating, as a risk of thunderstorms was forecast on the Mountain Weather Information Service. Now, mere minutes from the start, we just wanted to be up and down and away towards Cumbria, the Lake District and Scafell Pike.

Three Peaks Challenge: Pyg Track

Starting off up Yr Wyddfa's Pyg Track (Image credit: Alex Foxfield)

It's a relief to get going at 10am and we set off purposefully but not with abandon. We’re keen to avoid the classic ‘first night of a bachelor party’ scenario and go too hard on the initial assignment. Anything that’s vaguely uphill, we slow to a walk and anything that’s flat we pick up the pace again. Progress is fast on the extremely well surfaced Pyg Track and it’s not long before we arrive at Bwlch y Moch.

This is where we begin our first deviation from the usual Three Peaks itinerary. We leave the popular trail behind and begin the ascent to one of the most notorious ridges in Britain: the razor sharp and gut wrenchingly exposed Crib Goch…

Better ways

The reason some people who complete the Three Peaks are not inspired to continue their mountain journey might be that the traditional approach to the Challenge misses out on properly getting to know the immense character of these three mountains and gives a false sense of what hillwalking is all about. The usual smash and grab raids are far from being the finest routes to the three summits and lack any sense of a traverse or exploration. The standard approach spends as little time as possible in the mountains, tackling each by the quickest route, rather than allowing time to get to know these majestic places.

Three Peaks Challenge: Ben Nevis looking down from the summit

Looking down at Ben Nevis' Tower Ridge from the summit (Image credit: Alex Foxfield)

The usual approach to Yr Wyddfa involves scampering up to the summit from the high start point of Pen y Pass via the Pyg Track and back, a quick, aesthetic but busy route. Scafell Pike is normally tackled from beautiful Wasdale Head via a simple, relatively steep, but really quite short, out and back. Ben Nevis involves a punishing and – dare we say – dull zigzagging pull up its broad, barren western flanks via the popular Pony Track. Don’t get me wrong, these are mighty mountains and any hike up them is worthwhile and should be commended. But. And it's a big but. There are better ways.

An alternative approach

For me – as well as many others with a love for Britain’s mountains ­– the ideal way to get to know this iconic trio would be to give them the time they deserve and spend several days exploring them and their surroundings. All three are the crowning peaks in regions of sublime beauty and almost endless adventure potential. 

However, brothers Tom and Sam, my wife’s cousins and all-round top blokes, had been eying up a 24-hour Three Peaks Challenge for several years. I had joined them on a run across the length of Devon’s Dartmoor National Park in England’s South West the previous year and we were all keen to up the ante. When they invited me on their 24-hour Three Peaks mission, the competitive part of me couldn’t refuse.

Three Peaks Challenge: Tom, Sam and Alex

Tom and Sam were keen on the 24-hour aspect of the challenge and my own competitive spirit liked the idea too (Image credit: Alex Foxfield)

Nevertheless, I knew immediately that I didn’t want to do the Challenge in the usual way, as much for Tom and Sam’s benefit as mine. Tom had done Yr Wyddfa a couple of times before but neither had been to either Scafell Pike or Ben Nevis. Having been up each several times by various routes, I knew there were plenty of possible ways to make our day that little bit more interesting.

Crib Goch: 11:00am – 1 hour into the Challenge

Crib Goch is not difficult, it’s just that many people find it incredibly scary. A thrilling grade one scramble involving a shuffle along a tightrope ridgeline, followed by some entertaining scrambling to conquer its three pinnacles, it’s right up there with some of the finest mountain objectives in the UK. With the backdrop of Yr Wyddfa, the sparkling llyns below and with the twin-topped Y Lliwedd gazing back across the void, Crib Goch enjoys a sensational situation.

Three Peaks Challenge: On Crib Goch

Tom and Sam negotiating the notorious ridge of Crib Goch (Image credit: Alex Foxfield)

The ridge is very much the psychological crux of our entire planned Challenge as, although Tom and Sam have done scrambles before, there’s no way of knowing how someone will fare when first faced with Crib Goch’s breathtaking exposure. Llanberis Mountain Rescue Team get called out to the ridge many times each year, usually to aid ‘cragfast’ hikers who have frozen and are unable to help themselves.

So, while in this very feature I’m advocating a more interesting way to approach Yr Wyddfa, I wouldn’t recommend Crib Goch to anyone who hasn’t already spent plenty of time on scrambling terrain. However, if you’ve got the experience, it’s a stunning route.

I see that Tom and Sam are enjoying the traverse, Tom having blazed a trail on the wonderful scramble up the east ridge and both smiling their way along the main arête. Too soon, we cross the pinnacles and reach the easier ground at Bwlch Coch. Crib y Ddsygl follows, with more hands-on rock fun but with nothing anywhere near as exposed as on Crib Goch, and before long we make it to the apex of Garnedd Ugain, Wales’ second highest peak and just a short, simple hike away from its greatest.

Three Peaks Challenge: negotiating the pinnacles

Tom and Sam negotiating the last of Crib Goch's three pinnacles (Image credit: Alex Foxfield)

Thought to be the world’s busiest mountain, Yr Wyddfa, Snowdon, is predictably thronged as we arrive at the summit. We don’t hang around, launching ourselves down the Pyg Track, ducking and diving between the scores of people making their way up the popular route. We make quick work of it and arrive back at Pen y Pass, where Mike – Tom and Sam’s dad and our driver for the day – is waiting for us with the van. “Go! Go! Go!” I jokingly shout as we jump in. Yr Wyddfa had taken us 2 hours and 55 minutes.

More time on the hills, less time in the car

As well as avoiding the busiest trails and the less aesthetic ways to the summit, my proposed plan should enable us to spend more time on the hills and less time in the car. On Yr Wyddfa, doing Crib Goch instead of the Pyg Track isn’t a massive deviation in terms of time and effort. However, on Scafell Pike and Ben Nevis in particular, our routes were set to be markedly different.

The usual way to tackle Scafell Pike involves driving to Wasdale Head, a remote and stunning valley in the Lake District's south west. My proposal was to instead begin from Seathwaite Farm in the more accessible Borrowdale Valley, ascending Scafell Pike by the hugely scenic Corridor Route and returning over the high spine of the massif. This kind of exploratory ascent and subsequent traverse would allow us to get to know the mountain more intimately. I’d also done the maths and it seemed to me that the time we’d save on the road would equate to the extra time spent in the mountains.

Three Peaks Challenge: Alex on the Corridor Route

To reach the summit of Scafell Pike, we'd ascend via the Corridor Route (Image credit: Alex Foxfield)

Seathwaite Farm: 5:00pm – 7 hours into the Challenge

Whereas on Yr Wyddfa we were moving with the tide of people heading up the mountain, on the initial ascent towards Scafell Pike we were very much in the minority, passing plenty of people on their way down from a day in the fells. We encounter a few wild campers setting up their two-person tents by the gloriously situated Styhead Tarn, preparing to spend the night in the company of Great Gable, Seathwaite Fell, Great End and Lingmell. 

Before reaching the top of the Styhead Pass, we branch off and join the Corridor Route. Accompanying us in the early stages are dramatic views of Piers Gill, a tremendous chasm that runs below Lingmell’s intimidating east face before making a right turn and plummeting towards Styhead. We enjoy a couple of rocky steps but nothing to match the scrambling we’d encountered on Yr Wyddfa. Nonetheless, we are amazed to meet a large group who seem to be painstakingly guiding three visually impaired hikers over the tricky rock sections. What an effort!

Three Peaks Challenge: Broad Crag Col

At Broad Crag Col before the final ascent to Scafell Pike's summit (Image credit: Alex Foxfield)

To the southeast of Middleboot Knotts, we leave the Corridor Route behind, following a path to Broad Crag Col. Hindsight is a beautiful thing and I now wouldn’t recommend this way. The path petered out, bring us to an infuriating scree slope for the final ascent to the col. Much better would have been to continue to Lingmell Col and join the path up from Wasdale. However, it isn’t long before we are standing on Scafell Pike’s impressive, cylindrical stone windbreak as the highest people in England.

The views, so familiar to me, are nonetheless always magical. Most of the Lakeland Fells are on show, like old friends smiling back at me. Memories of countless adventures flit through my head.

Three Peaks Challenge: Tom running the Scafell Pike ridge

Tom running on the Pikes of Scafell ridge (Image credit: Alex Foxfield)

With no time to waste, we begin the traverse of the boulder-strewn Pikes of Scafell ridge, staying high all the way to Great End at the massif’s the northern end. Descent is via the Band, a lesser travelled route down from Great End to Styhead. Following the intermittent path, as it snakes through the outcrops and ledges, is time consuming, hindering our need for speed. So, towards the bottom, we branch off to join the main path and begin our steady trot back to Seathwaite.

We arrive back at the van at just after 9:00pm, 3 hours and 53 minutes after we'd set out.

A little more edge

By far the biggest deviation from a standard Three Peaks Challenge was our intended route to the summit of Ben Nevis. Rather than the slog up the Pony Track, we’d follow the usual route as far as Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe, often referred to as the Halfway Lochan. After this, we’d branch off and head for the Càrn Mòr Dearg (CMD) Arête, yet another sensational rocky ridge.

Three Peaks Challenge: CMD Arête

Starting out on the stunning CMD Arête (Image credit: Alex Foxfield)

As well as being incredibly fun to traverse, the CMD Arête also delivers astonishing views across the Ben’s gigantic North Face, as well as across the Mamores range towards the mountains of Glen Coe and beyond. It’s undoubtedly many times more spectacular than the usual Pony Track ascent. However, with an additional 3 miles to cover, as well as 1,100 feet of extra elevation gain, it’s also much more punishing. Particularly on zero sleep.

Glen Nevis Youth Hostel: 3:00am – 17 hours into the Challenge

We set off on the long hike up to the Halfway Lochan at a slow but steady pace. Amazingly, there’s enough natural light to render our headlamps unnecessary, even at 3 in the morning! Nevertheless, there is, bizarrely, the light of several head torches coming towards us – people on the way down from a midnight visit to the mountain. Very curious.

Beyond the Halfway Lochan, we branch off on the path that arcs below the Ben’s North Face. The distant ridges of peaks I honestly couldn’t name beyond Loch Linnhe are painted in gorgeous pastel shades of pink and blue by the pre-dawn glow. The sight is just the kind of boost our tired bodies and minds needed.

Three Peaks Challenge: dawn on the way up Ben Nevis

Gorgeous pre-dawn light across the West Highlands (Image credit: Alex Foxfield)

However, the part of the day I had been looking forward to least soon arrived: the long, pathless slog up the steep flanks of the Càrn Mòr Dearg ridge. Wearily zigzagging our way up the mixture of dense vegetation and perched boulders, we edge our way agonisingly slowly up the huge flanks of the mountain. It’s definitely the physical crux of the whole Challenge and it’s plain to see on our faces that none of us are enjoying it. After what seemed an age, we top out onto the ridge.

Càrn Mòr Dearg is the ninth highest Munro but it’s nonetheless dwarfed by Ben Nevis. Yes, it looks like a majestic peak in its own right from neighbouring Càrn Dearg Meadhonach, but it doesn’t compete with the Ben’s massive North Face illuminated by the rising sun. Somehow, the face is still clinging to the last of the season’s snow patches in its crevices. The awe-inspiring view before us is one that those doing the standard Three Peaks route don’t get anywhere near.

Three Peaks Challenge: running with Ben Nevis behind

Dawn light across the Ben (Image credit: Alex Foxfield)

Next up is the CMD Arête, a sharp ridge of jumbled boulders that leads to the Ben in a great arc above the head of the valley. Not as nerve jangling as Crib Goch, it’s a hugely entertaining traverse, particularly as we’re seemingly the only people here in this gigantic landscape. I point out the peaks and ridges of the Mamores range, including the famous Ring of Steall, to Tom and Sam as we near the end of the traverse.

A weary final ascent brings us triumphantly to Ben Nevis’ summit plateau. It’s just before 7:30am and we realise we’ve got a two-and-a-half-hour cushion for the descent. With the ever ticking time pressure removed, we drink in the awesome panorama.

Three Peaks Challenge: end of the CMD Arête

Sam and Tom nearing the end of the CMD Arête (Image credit: Alex Foxfield)

The descent from the Ben via the Pony Track is long, much longer than on Yr Wyddfa and Scafell Pike. However, once the dreaded zigzags are behind us, we pick up the pace and exchange cheery greetings with those on their way up the mountain for the day.

It’s 9:15am as we cross the footbridge over the River Nevis and stop the clock at the van, 6 hours and 15 minutes after we'd left Glen Nevis Youth Hostel and 23 hours and 15 minutes after we’d started up Yr Wyddfa. We crack open the beers and each unwrap a Yorkie bar – a post-challenge tradition of Tom and Sam’s that dates back to who knows when.

Three Peaks Challenge: beer at the finish line

A beer and a Yorkie at the finish line (Image credit: Alex Foxfield)

Mission accomplished, challenge completed but, more importantly, a wonderful adventure that allowed us a closer acquaintance with these three wonderful mountains.

My Three Peaks Challenge kit list:

Alex Foxfield

Alex is a freelance adventure writer and mountain leader with an insatiable passion for the mountains. A Cumbrian born and bred, his native English Lake District has a special place in his heart, though he is at least equally happy in North Wales, the Scottish Highlands or the European Alps. Through his hiking, mountaineering, climbing and trail running adventures, Alex aims to inspire others to get outdoors. He's the former President of the London Mountaineering Club, is training to become a winter mountain leader, looking to finally finish bagging all the Wainwright fells of the Lake District and is always keen to head to the 4,000-meter peaks of the Alps.