It’s been a couple of years or more since I last tackled the Yorkshire Three Peaks and I’ve just signed up to attempt the challenge once more. It’s hard, it’s grueling. Weather dependent it can be a pretty horrible experience. But, if I look back years gone by, it’s also one of the most rewarding, challenging, experiences I’ve ever completed.
Twenty-four miles, three mountains, and all in under twelve hours (the best I’ve done is nine hours). Starting at the Pen-y-Ghent Cafe (where you can sign up for the official challenge – details are at the end of this entry) in the village of Horton in Ribblesdale, the route takes in three tough climbs and throws in an almost-marathon for good measure. From the outset you’re faced with a steep climb up the 691 metre high Pen-y-Ghent. This starts as a long grassy slope before giving way to a rocky summit. It’s typically necessary to navigate your way past other walkers as well as climbing up what seems like roughly hewn high steps to make the top. I’ve never been able to see much from the top of Pen-y-Ghent. Starting so early in the morning and faced with mist, fog and low cloud, anything beyond your nose is usually obscured.
From the summit of Pen-y-Ghent there is a long, long, walk to Whernside across boggy land and fields. Whernside provides some of the most breathtaking scenery it’s ever been my pleasure to see. It sits as a monolithic backdrop to the Ribblehead viaduct. Massive and imposing, the look of it doesn’t do justice to the arduous climb which is required.
By the time you reach Whernside you’ve walked ten or so miles over difficult terrain. The approach to the path leading up this 728 metre high peak takes you parallel to the crest of the mountain. It’s a long if easy approach. The keen-eyed will be able to see walkers who have gone before you navigating the spine of Whernside. Each step taken brings you closer to a climb which, whilst gentler that Pen-y-Ghent, is tough and feels like it goes on forever. The top of Whernside is the highest point attained and affords stunning views of the viaduct and surrounding countryside.
I’ve always found the descent from Whernside to be the toughest part of the walk. The first time I did this, four years ago, I almost quit after the climb down from Whernside. Every step seemed to sap more and more energy. I’m pleased I had the resolve to continue, because now four or more times through it’s one of the best physical experiences I’ve had.
After getting over Whernside it’s another long hike to the start of Ingleborough (summit: 723 metres). The climb up Ingleborough is the steepest section of the walk. Knowing it’s the last climb you’ll have to complete is incredibly valuable in seeing it through. From the top of Ingleborough you can look west and see the Irish Sea on a clear day. The peak is marked with a cairn and it’s traditional to add a stone to this when you’ve completed the final ascent.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the hardest part was over, but the final section – down Ingleborough and back to the village – is marred by some of the toughest terrain of the entire route. Rocky, jagged, sometimes water-logged, sometimes treacherously slippery, the final journey back to the village is arduous. But from here though you have little choice but to proceed.
After the rocks the path gets easier. There are markers counting down the last two miles, and then one mile, to the village – those are some of the longest miles imaginable. Finally, the land opens up and you can see the village just up ahead. Feelings of elation at nearly being finished help with the pain in toes and soles and shins. There’s a final trudge over farmers fields before crossing the railway and then a brief walk through the village itself to your final destination.
If you’ve checked in at the start of the walk at the Pen-y-Ghent Cafe you can return there (if you’ve completed in under twelve hours) and join the ‘Three Peaks of Yorkshire Club’. Or, if the promise of a pint has seen you through the last few miles, you can head to The Crown Hotel for a well earned beer.
Difficult, challenging, breathtaking, stunning, painful, exhilarating. The Yorkshire Three Peaks is all these things and more. I’ll be completing this (hopefully) once more in April this year. I think I better make a start on improving my fitness!