The Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge

"Do you think we'll ever do this?" I asked Tom, holding up a copy of a guide to the Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge.  It was my birthday and we were midway round one of our favourite walks in the North York Moors National Park, visiting the popular Lordstones Cafe and shop on the edge of the Cleveland Hills. 

"Just get it," Tom replied.  "We're sure to have a crack at it one day."

Little did I know, as I added the book to my purchases of fudge and flapjack, that we would be undertaking our very own Yorkshire Three Peaks challenge (Y3P for short) within the month.  In that moment it seemed like an ambition for the distant future.  Something that really athletic, determined walkers would do.  I was nowhere near fit enough.  Was I?  That question was about to be answered sooner than I thought.

The incentive to undertake the challenge came in the shape of our eleven year old nephew, Cameron.  We'd been promising to take him walking with us for quite some time and the school holidays seemed like the perfect opportunity to introduce him to a spot of hill-walking.  Cam being the eager little chap that he is wanted to go straight for the hard stuff. 

"Sharp Edge!" he yelled excitedly when we asked him where he'd like to go for his first long walk.

I realised that this was entirely my fault.  Earlier in the year, in an attempt to whip up his enthusiasm, I'd told him all about the most challenging Lake District walks, including Helvellyn's Striding Edge and Blencathra's Sharp Edge.   Realising that a stroll across the North York Moors would perhaps seem a little mundane by comparison, I recommended instead a trip to the Yorkshire Dales and a climb up Pen-y-Ghent.  In fact, I suggested, why not spend a couple of days in the area and tackle all three of the Yorkshire Three Peaks, one day at a time?  This seemed to satisfy him.  Until, that is, he learned that there was a little something called the "Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge" - climb all three peaks in one day, walking a total distance of just over 24 miles in less than 12 hours.

"I want to do that," he announced.  "I could raise some money for my boxing club".

I really wasn't sure.  It wasn't that I doubted for a moment that Cameron could do it.  He's a very athletic young man, regularly boxing, playing soccer and running.  I was the one who'd struggle, I thought.  The walk of 24 miles wouldn't be so bad, but add to that three mountains?  Granted at just over 2,000 feet each of the peaks can only just be called a "mountain".  But three of them?  And 24 miles?  In less than 12 hours?  There was only one way to find out whether I could do it, of course, and that was to actually give it a go.

After consulting my diary for work and other commitments, we set a date of Sunday, 9th August, which left us with just two weeks in which to prepare.  With no time to lose we took Cam on a shopping trip to kit him out with a pair of sensible boots, fleece, waterproofs and a small rucksack.  Once he'd done a few short walks to get used to the feel of his boots, we selected a walk to put him and his new kit to the test.  Nothing too taxing, we thought.  Just a gentle stroll along the Headland Way - a distance of 20 miles along the Yorkshire coast from Filey to Bridlington.  Whilst only falling short of the distance by four miles, this walk lacked the ascents and descents we'd have to encounter on the Y3P, but it did offer several escape points, should Cam experience any problems with his new boots.

A quick check of tide times for the following Sunday (just one week prior to our proposed Y3P date) confirmed that we'd be able to catch an early train to Filey and then walk the first four miles of the Headland Way along the beach.  This is by far the best starting point for this walk, provided the tide is out and there's sufficient time to walk to the path up the cliffs at Speeton.  The walking along the sand is easy and can be achieved in just over an hour to an hour and a half.  We were aiming to walk quickly as we wanted to finish the entire route of 20 miles in under ten hours if possible.  If we could do that, we reasoned, we'd have a fighting chance of completing the Y3P in under 12.

Approaching Bempton Cliffs on the Headland Way

The day was bright and warm with a pleasant, cooling offshore breeze as we set off at a brisk pace along the golden sands of Filey Bay.  With no obstacles and a trouble-free, even surface we easily completed the first four miles to Speeton in just over one hour.  There then followed the steepest ascent of the day, following a winding path up to the top of the 300 feet high Bempton Cliffs, after which we allowed ourselves a short break before continuing to stride out along the top of the majestic cliffs.  The entire walk was completed in just over nine hours, including a couple of short rest breaks.  We were tired but not overly so and Cam's boots, he advised us, were incredibly comfortable.    We were, we decided, good to go.  Bring on the Y3P!

Striding out on the Headland Way

With just a week to go I set about finding us some accommodation for the weekend and, after a short internet search, I found the ideal place.  Realising that our usual preference for a pub would be less than ideal I opted for a stay in a bunkhouse and was delighted to discover that we could rent an entire cabin for a very reasonable price at the Dalesbridge Outdoor Accommodation Centre which is located at Austwick, just five miles from the Y3P start and finishing point at Horton-in-Ribblesdale.  Originally, our intention was to travel to Austwick on Saturday, 8th August, complete the walk on Sunday the 9th and then return home on Monday the 10th.  As the weekend approached, however, the weather forecast for the Sunday began to look less than ideal, with Saturday looking set to be the best day of the weekend.  After a quick call to Dalesbridge we were fortunately able to change our plans and add an extra night to our stay, travelling to Austwick on the evening of Friday, 7th August which gave us the flexibility of walking on either the Saturday or the Sunday.

After a stop for fish and chips in Skipton (carbohydrate loading!), we arrived at Austwick a little after 9 pm on Friday, 7th August and were met by a very friendly young chap who greeted us with the news that our accommodation had been upgraded, at no extra cost, from a four berth bunkhouse to a six berth.  This included a fridge, a microwave and a cooker.  The bunkhouse was very basic, but it had a shower room, toilet and the bunks (for which we had to take our own sleeping bags) were very comfortable.  It was, I decided, a step up from camping which fitted in well with the adventurous theme of the weekend ahead.

Dalesbridge Bunkhouses

Sleep did not come easily that night and, at best, I managed around three hours.  I was therefore up and about before 5 a.m., preparing our food and drink supplies for the walk and a carb-heavy breakfast of porridge, cereal and toast.  In our rucksacks we each carried a couple of bottles of water, sandwiches, flapjack, cereal bars, Mars Bars and three bags of crisps each to provide us with a salt intake.  Unlike many Y3P challengers, we were going to be walking unsupported and so it was necessary to carry all our food from the start.  Thankfully though, this would mean our packs would become lighter as the day progressed.  We decided that we would drink all our water before reaching the halfway point at Ribblehead where we hoped to be able to top up our bottles at The Station Inn.

All packed up, we left the bunkhouse a little before 6 a.m. for the short drive to Horton.  The thermometer in the car registered a chilly six degrees and, as I'd opted to wear shorts, the early morning air felt bitingly cold on my legs.

The quiet country lanes which led us to Horton were deserted and therefore it was a bit of a shock, once we reached the village, to be greeted by something akin to a traffic jam.  There were cars parked along the full length of the village street and crowds of people milling about in the misty morning sunlight.  Rather short-sightedly, I had pictured an empty car park and had even, for a while, wondered about security.  As it turned out there were at least three large charity challenge events taking place that day and we were extremely fortunate to get the last parking space in the main village car park.  Any notions I'd had of a peaceful start to the day were shattered by the shouts and laughter of excited participants, gearing up for the start of their fundraising challenge.  We didn't hang around.  Having parked up, put on our boots and backpacks we set out immediately, striding back down the main street in the direction of the path up to the first peak of the day - Pen-y-Ghent.

The sun was just coming up over the brow of the hill as we, along with hundreds of others, began the initial climb.  It soon became hot work and fleeces were quickly removed.

And we're off - the lower slopes of Pen-y-Ghent

I'd climbed Pen-y-Ghent several times before and, in truth, these days I find it something of an easy climb.  The final, rocky section is the toughest part, but it's quickly over to be followed by a gentle slope to the summit.  The earlier stages are not particularly challenging at all.  I was surprised then, having ascended less than half the distance to the top, to discover that several people were already dropping out of the challenge.  One man in particular looked to be in something of a bad way.  His face was a very livid shade of purple and he was practically vomiting into the bracken.  At the same time a small group of people sprinted by us, dressed in running kit, clearly aiming to complete the challenge in the quickest possible time.  As we approached the summit the crowd had already thinned out considerably and Cam posed for a quick photo.  Our first goal of the day was drawing near and he was clearly enjoying every minute.

Approaching the summit of Pen-y-Ghent

On the top of Pen-y-Ghent we paused for a very short break.  A lot of the other walkers seemed to be crashing down, red faced and gasping, reaching for their water bottles, but we decided there was no time to lose.  A quick drink and summit photo was all the break we allowed ourselves before turning to climb over the steps in the wall and our descent towards the long path to peak number two, Whernside.  The gap in the wall was blocked by a young woman who had decided to sit on the steps.  After moving aside to let a couple ahead of us through she plonked herself back down again, glaring at me defiantly as I approached.

"Sorry," I said, smiling, "but you're sitting on the exit point".

"Oh for God's sake," she snapped, hurling her rucksack across the ground and stomping after it.  I can only assume that she wasn't enjoying her Y3P and I can't help but wonder if she made it to the end.

Peak No. 1 - Pen-y-Ghent

For us though the real work now lay ahead.  We had completed the first summit in just over an hour and were now faced with a walk of around 9 miles to Whernside.  There was to be no hanging around.  Any time we could gain now while we were still fresh could buy us time for a break later on.  After the steepest part of the descent of Pen-y-Ghent we all three of us broke into a downhill jog.  Tom and Cam almost instantly got ahead of me but I redoubled my efforts when Tom called out to me.

"If we make good enough time to Ribblehead, there might be time to spare for a beer!"

I quickly caught them up only to have Cam sprint ahead as we reached the foot of Whitber Hill.

"Don't overdo it," I shouted after him, but by this time he was almost at the top.

Running up that hill

There then followed a lengthy section of almost level walking.  I had started to use my walking poles from the summit of Pen-y-Ghent onwards and these helped to propel me along.  Even so, I still struggled at times to keep up with Tom and Cameron who were setting a cracking pace.  There was hardly a cloud in the sky and the August sun was now beating down on us.  In the distance we could see Ingleborough, our third and final peak of the day.  At this point I didn't think about the fact that even after Whernside we would still have to climb Ingleborough and then walk back to Horton.  I switched off all thoughts and just concentrated on keeping up with the others.

Distant Ingleborough viewed from the path to Whernside

Along the way we passed a couple of checkpoints providing support for the organised charity walkers where people could stop for a drink and a short break.  We just kept on going, periodically grabbing a cereal bar and a drink from our water bottles as we walked.  We did, however, pause for a little while by a stream to apply copious amounts of sun block.  The day had become blisteringly hot.

A pause on the way to Whernside (visible in the distance)

As we drew nearer to Ribblehead the number of walkers ahead of us began to thin out significantly.  We were maintaining an average pace of around three miles an hour and with three hours elapsed since the start we had almost walked for ten miles.  I was beginning to tire but the thought of a rest stop at The Station Inn was a great motivator.  I just hoped that the pub would be open.  Aside from anything else, we needed to replenish our water supplies.

Striding out

I was hugely relieved to discover that not only was The Station Inn open but that Tom considered we'd made sufficiently good progress to allow for a break of half an hour or so in the pub's lovely beer garden.  Having purchased our drinks Tom returned to the bar with our six water bottles which the very kind barmaid filled for us with water and ice cubes.  It was a little before 11 a.m. when we set off on our way again, passing the impressive Ribblehead Viaduct as we began the long, steady ascent of Whernside.

Ribblehead Viaduct and Whernside

Our break had allowed a number of other walkers to get ahead of us again and the path up the side of Whernside was rather busy.  At 2,415 feet Whernside is not only the highest of the Yorkshire Three Peaks it is also the highest peak in Yorkshire and, to be honest, the easiest.  The route to the top is long but the climb is gradual.  Once again we made good time and Tom, our pace-setter, announced that there should be time for a lunch break once we reached the summit.

The long, gradual ascent of Whernside

Even though the going up Whernside is relatively easy I was nevertheless beginning to tire quite considerably as I reached the summit.  And then I reached the point close to the top where a magnificent view of Dentdale and the distant Howgill Fells comes into sight and all thoughts of weariness left me.  Just a few weeks previously we had walked through Dentdale whilst completing the Dales Way.  I paused for a few moments to drink in the stunning panorama and suddenly I felt uplifted.  I may be tired but I was really enjoying myself.  We were now past the half way point and I felt confident I'd be able to finish.

A view of Dentdale and the Howgill Fells

On the top of Whernside we squeezed through a gap in the wall to enable us to take a photograph by the summit trig point before finding a place to sit down and eat our packed lunch. 

Peak No. 2 - Whernside

We were by no means alone.  It was pretty crowded up there and seemed to be the favoured lunch break place for many other walkers.  At this point the three of us also changed our socks.  This was a tip I'd read in the little guidebook I'd purchased and it certainly helped to revitalise my aching feet.  I was surprised at just how soggy my socks had become and, before changing into the fresh pair I allowed some fresh air to circulate around my bare feet as I devoured my sandwiches and crisps.  In total we spent around 20 minutes over our lunch break on Whernside's summit before setting off on the rocky descent towards the path to Ingleborough. 

Onwards to Ingleborough

The path down from Whernside is much steeper than the path up and very rocky in places.  Unfortunately for me at this point I found myself stuck behind a group of ladies who were very unsure of themselves, meaning that in no time at all Tom and Cameron had got way ahead of me.

"I don't like it," I heard one of the women wail. 

"Take your time, pet," said one of her friends and the descent slowed to a virtual standstill.

"I'm really scared," I heard the woman crying out again at which point, in a sudden fit of impatience, I squeezed past her and jumped down at least two of the steps at once.  How I landed squarely on my feet is something of a mystery, but I didn't hang around to think about it.

"Sorry about that," I called back, "but I'm losing sight of the rest of my group".

And with that I descended the rest of the way as quickly as I could, finding a well of energy and agility I didn't know I possessed.  At the bottom of the descent I was relieved to find Tom and Cam waiting for me by a gate.

"What kept you?" Tom asked.  "Tiring are you?"

"It's not my fault," I protested.  "I got stuck behind people who really shouldn't be up there."

Maybe that was a little unkind, but I was a bit irritated to think it may look like I was letting the side down.  And, in truth, I was beginning to feel very tired indeed.

What kept you?

As we trudged along the lane in the direction of Chapel-le-Dale and the path to Ingleborough I began to experience something I could best describe as "hitting a wall".  It started with cramp in my feet and then, bizarrely, I got what felt like cramp in my jaw.  We paused for a while to enable me to have a long drink after which I instantly felt a little better.  Suddenly though the going had become extraordinarily tough.  I needed to cool down and I needed a toilet break.  But then, just when I began to wonder if I might have to throw in the towel after all, help appeared in the shape of the Philpin Cafe, which is basically an old farm building with a kiosk selling drinks, snacks and ice creams and, most importantly, has a toilet which can be used free of charge by customers (with a small charge for non-customers).  A large number of people had stopped here for a break as there were also a couple of charity checkpoints.  Amazingly though, there was no queue for the toilets so while I paid a visit Tom bought us all an ice cream and paid to have our drinks bottles filled with iced orange juice.  This, it seemed, was all that was needed to get me over "the wall".  Soon we were on our way again, striding purposefully across the fields in the direction of Ingleborough.

Approaching Ingleborough

The early stages of the ascent of Ingleborough were relatively gentle until, that is, we reached the steep climb up a series of stone slabs I named "the staircase".  There was no stopping Cameron at this point.  He was, it seemed, as fresh as a daisy and he virtually scampered up those stairs, closely followed by Tom who set a steady, continuous pace to the top.  I, on the other hand, took my time.  I wasn't on my own at this point, however.  At the foot of the "staircase" I met up with a lovely old chap who wasn't taking part in any challenge.  He was simply out for a day's walk up Ingleborough and neighbouring Simon Fell which, he told me, was something he'd done many times over the years.  As I followed him steadily up the steps we chatted about walks we had both done, views from various summits and walking boots.   At the top of the staircase he turned to the left to continue his walk along to Simon Fell whilst I turned right for the final part of the ascent of Ingleborough.  I'm sure he didn't realise, but his company and friendly banter for that short section of the walk helped me a great deal.

"The Staircase"

As I approached the summit of Ingleborough Tom and Cameron were nowhere in sight.  I turned to look back and was rewarded with a splendid view over to Whernside and a distant Ribblehead Viaduct.

Looking back to Whernside

On Ingleborough's summit plateau I was reunited with Tom and Cam.  They'd already visited the summit trig point and were making their way towards the exit point and the descent back to Horton.  Aware of the fact that I was holding them up and that Cam's sponsorship relied upon him completing the challenge in under 12 hours, I suggested that they should continue without me, but they both very graciously accompanied me to the summit so that the three of us had stood on each peak together as a team.

Peak No. 3 - Ingleborough

There now just remained the simple matter of a hike of around five miles back to Horton-in-Ribblesdale.  It was nine hours since we had set off, leaving us three hours of the challenge time remaining.  The route was now mostly a gentle descent which we should easily accomplish in a couple of hours. 

The final descent

Tom and Cam set off at a brisk pace, agreeing that I should take my time and that they would meet me at The Crown Hotel in Horton.

"Get the beers in," I called out as they strode off ahead of me.  "I won't be far behind you."

The path back to Horton

In actual fact I was now well and truly over "the wall".  In fact, I'd got something of a second wind and felt almost energised.  The number of other Y3P walkers had by now dwindled completely and, for the final four miles of the walk, I was totally alone.  And I loved it!  Maybe I was slightly delirious, but I sang out loud as I walked, silly, nonsense made-up songs.  It felt amazing to be alone in such a wonderful place and having come so far, knowing I was, after all, going to finish.  As I walked along, and Pen-y-Ghent's distinctive outline grew closer and closer, I was, quite simply, euphoric!

Approaching the finish

I walked into Horton-in-Ribblesdale just ten minutes behind Tom and Cameron and with a finishing time of 10 hours and 47 minutes.  As I crossed the railway line on the edge of the village I beamed at a lady sitting on a bench, waiting for a train.

"I did it!" I yelled at her, grinning from ear to ear.

"Well done!" she said, although I'm not entirely certain she knew what it was I'd done.

A loud round of applause greeted me as I walked along the road in the direction of The Crown Hotel.  Clearly the group of people standing by the road side thought that I was one of their charity's group.  I nodded in acceptance of their applause (why not!) before catching sight of Tom and Cameron, sitting on a wall by the pub, holding aloft a pint of beer.  I grabbed it with both hands and downed it in two long gulps.

"Right!" I said.  "What's for dinner?"

The altitude graph speaks for itself!

Later that evening, once we'd returned to our car, we met an old gentleman changing out of his walking boots at the car parked next to us.  We chatted to him for a while and discovered that he was 84 years old and had just completed the walk for the twentieth time, having walked it once a year every year since his retirement. 

"Today will have been the last time," he said, rather sadly.

"Really?" I asked.

"Well," he shrugged.  "Maybe one more time next year".

I hope he does manage to walk the Yorkshire Three Peaks again.  And I hope we will too.  As for Cameron?  As I expected, he managed it with ease and with good humour throughout, and in doing so raised over £500 for his boxing club.  He hasn't mentioned going for a walk with us since!

Coming soon...My next blog takes us back to April when we completed an interesting and picturesque circular walk from Bainbridge in the Yorkshire Dales.


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