Yorkshire 3 Peaks
“My elbow hurts. Why does my elbow hurt? It hasn’t even done anything”
The middle of January is a silly time to tackle the Yorkshire 3 Peaks; snow blankets the mountains, and there are only 8 hours of daylight to complete the 12 hour challenge. But, after a little persuasion, and perhaps more importantly, a short session in the pub, I had convinced my University pal, Al, who I was visiting, that it was a great idea. We threw a headtorch into our packs, set our alarms for 5am, and headed to bed.
The challenge is simple, a circular walk taking in Yorkshire’s three highest peaks (Pen Y Ghent, Whernside and Ingleborough), and returning to the start in under 12 hours. They are not big mountains, Whernside, the tallest of the three, is only 728 metres, but still, a 24 mile round walk with 1,600 metres of ascent is not to be underestimated.
We stepped into darkness from the Café in Horton-in-Ribblesdale, following in the footsteps of countless adventurers who have left here over the years, hoping to conquer the mountains. Don’t forget to ‘clock in’ inside before setting off; make it back in time and you’ll be invited to join the prestigious ‘Three Peaks of Yorkshire Club.’ The foreboding silhouette of our first mountain, Pen Y Ghent, was only just visible, ominously towering above the small town. Our pace was fast, religiously chasing the light from our head torches which hit the ground a few paces ahead. My breath blinded me as it froze in the bitter morning air, and became entangled in my torch beam, like walking through a disappointingly frosty and never-ending steam room.
As we walked, intricate detail crept into the sky above us until after 45 minutes it was just light enough to make out the path leading up the steep shoulder of Pen Y Ghent. Silence surrounded us except for the crisp crunch as we left footsteps in the virgin snow. Lights began to flicker below as the sleepy town of Horton slowly awoke. We felt epic to already be halfway up a mountain. A quick rocky scramble suddenly brought us out at the top, where a Trig Point welcomed us and gave us a morale boost at having climbed the first mountain after only 1 hour. A quick break for some tea warmed us from the inside but we resumed quickly; the clock was still ticking.
After Pen Y Ghent, the most remote of the three peaks, begins the long trek to Whernside. Much of this section follows the popular long-distance trek, the Pennine Way. Consequently, the path is well-established and clearly way-marked with stone slabs and board-walks laid to prevent against erosion in many places, making navigation simple, rendering our map and compass largely redundant. Where such measures have not been taken, expect energy sapping bog and a fierce battle not to slip over. We chuckled as we spotted a rather stiff-looking guy limping up the path, until it emerged he was 60 hours and 100 miles into a race along the entire Pennine Way and was still yet to sleep. I was punished for laughing to Al, with a slip and an impromptu mud bath.
By 11, we had made it to the bottom of Whernside, where we wolfed down cheese sandwiches in the shadow of the impressive Ribblehead Viaduct as a train trundled over, while Al desperately wished we had time to retreat to the warmth of a pub lunch. There’s normally a burger van positioned here, but it turns out that is not the case in the middle of January.
After lunch we crossed the train tracks which symbolise the halfway point and tried to stay motivated about having another 12 miles remaining. Beginning the climb up Whernside we were soon surrounded by cloud but the sun occasionally shone through creating an ethereal landscape of heavenly winter haze. The ascent was gradual allowing us to savour our striking surroundings while treading fresh footprints into virgin snow. Conversation flowed easily as, buoyed on by our progress, we dreamt of future adventures together, of driving a rickshaw across India and walking across frozen lakes in Siberia. (Stay tuned.)
All three mountains are flat on top, but Whernside’s 3km long straight ridge is most impressive, feeling endless in the impenetrable cloud. The trig point appeared suddenly, and we joined 5 guys sheltering behind one of the Dale’s characteristic drywalls for a sandwich. They reminisced about when they last completed the 3 peaks more than 15 years ago, and reassured us that we were making good time. We didn’t hang around for long, with less than 4 hours remaining until the sun set.
We descended the staircase-like path almost at a run, warily avoiding frozen patches, headed for the tiny collection of pubs and farmhouses of Chapel-le-dale lying low in the valley between Ingleborough and Whernside. We quickly overtook a young couple slowly making their way down, looking uncomfortably ill-equipped in a pair of trainers in the ankle-deep snow. We met only a handful of people all day, a stark difference compared to summer when thousands of people can take on the challenge a day.
Ingleborough is the most beautiful mountain of all three… apparently. I wouldn’t know because it was shrouded in thick cloud at the time, seeming to rise impossibly large ahead, dominating the entire landscape. After crossing unique limestone pavements the path headed straight for the top at a gradient seemingly approaching vertical! It was at this point we began to get little niggles. My fitness was fine but my feet were sore and every step was uncomfortable, and Al’s legs began to feel tight. The snow was deepest here, and our feet sunk in with every step, requiring willpower to keep on plodding. There was an entirely invisible, thin and filmy layer of ice covering the slab steps, making walking a slow perilous task. The wind gusted, trying to drag us off the mountain, nature seemingly using its entire arsenal of weapons to halt our progress. Finally we reached the wide featureless plateau, but actually finding the trig point was difficult, and took a few minutes. We took a selfie, and even that brief respite provided satisfying relief, before turning our attention to getting back down.
Time seemed to slow down as we wearily stumbled back. My fitness was fine, but each step was a painful blister-y challenge. In the distance, the sun was just beginning to nestle on the horizon, radiating a warm hue across the Dales, which be dark within an hour. We couldn’t see Horton which was tucked low in the valley, but Pen Y Ghent, our first mountain, was beginning to loom large ahead, so we knew we were nearly back. On the brow of a hill, the town suddenly came into view, we crossed the railway, and within 2 minutes we were there, strolling down the road, wood smoke lingering, as people were tucked up warm on their sofas in front of the television.
The town seemed entirely oblivious to our arrival, but it did little to dampen our sense of achievement.