Monday, 6pm, my mobile vibrates in my pocket: “Hey Martin, it´s Jon. Be at my house at 4 tomorrow morning. We´re doing the 3-Peaks!”
“What! But I´m working this week!”
“It´s OK, it only takes 24 hours. They won´t even notice you´re gone.”
“I don´t know, mate…”
“Come on, Dan´s coming too.”
“OK, OK, I’m in.”
“Great. We´re gonna need your car.”
Thus it began. We´d been talking about having a bash at the 3-Peaks for a while now but this was totally out of the blue. So off I went to the pub to for some last minute training. The next morning, after 2 hours sleep, I stuffed everything I imagined we might need in every possible eventuality into the back of my car – cooler box for a picnic on the last summit, gaffa tape for any emergency repairs to equipment or limbs, medicinal whiskey, rum and beer – and headed off in the morning mist towards adventure. Even at this un-Godly hour I had a grin so wide my face was split in two and the excitement was enough to cure my hangover completely.
At Jon´s house I was met by the same mix of bleary eyes and childlike anticipation that I was wearing, and handshakes and grins were exchanged all round. A pot of sweet tea was made and we set about planning our mission. We had all climbed Snowdon, and I had driven past Ben Nevis once, 2 years ago, so we felt fairly prepared. It was decided, without the consult of a single map, that it would be best to drive from our Oxford residence up to the Highlands and work our way down, thus finishing on the easiest and closest mountain. A sensible plan we all agreed and so we downed our tea and went to pack the car. Apparently, Jon and Dan, with the same genius as myself, had packed everything in case of anything, and his very thoughtful girlfriend had joined in the fun with homemade biscuits and cakes of every design. By the time we´d finished the car could have supported us through a nuclear holocaust.
Jon was the first to drive, Dan being unable as he didn’t share our company insurance on the car I was borrowing. I settled down in the back after realising that I hadn’t missed out on a hangover after all, it had just been waiting in the wings, ready for its cue. I drifted in and out of sleep as we drove up the M1, and at about 8am we decided to stop for some breakfast. We found a lovely roadside teashop and pulled in. Over tea, for we were all far too excited to eat (except Dan that is, who gorged on a very rich looking chocolate cake, for energy apparently), we discussed our plan. It seemed that during my slumber, Dan and Jon had found a map, and after careful inspection, had deduced that at this rate, we´d be climbing down – and possibly even up – Ben Nevis in the dark. This was obviously not ideal.
Dan disappeared to the toilet, and in his absence, Jon and I, worried about driving times, decided it was best to head to Scafell Pike first, then down to Snowdon and finally up to Ben Nevis. This couldn’t have been further from our original plan, nor could it have involved more driving, but it was the only way. Dan returned from the bathroom.
“I’ve just been sick.” He said, looking slightly amused by the incident. And so here I realised that our crew consisted of 3 pig-headed, clueless alcoholics, two of whom were skiving from work (Dan was sharing my truancy) the other skiving from his girlfriend, in a company car, with no preparation or experience. I swelled with pride and joy.
We carried on west crossing the country towards the Lakes, Jon still at the helm and Dan having a snooze in the back. We decided that it would be sensible to stop somewhere to pick up some real supplies. You know, a torch, some waterproofs, maybe a map of the actual mountains, and a Kendal Mintcake or two. Plus we had to time it right so that we weren’t going to get stuck in traffic on our way to Snowdon, so we had some time to kill, and Kendal seemed like a good town for the job.
Wandering around the shops proved to be enormous fun, as each shop assistants’s expression changed from disbelief, to humour, to actual concern as we told our plans and asked for directions to the first mountain on our quest.
“How do we get to Scafell Pike, exactly?”
I lost count of the amount of times that I was told the Mountain Rescue phone number. Of course I had forgotten it by the time we left Kendal.
I took over the driving from here and I have to say that I lucked in with the legs of the voyage, missing out on the motorways and enjoying the real driving our journey had to offer. Bearing in mind I had only owned a driving license for one month you can imagine the fun I had from tight corners and steep inclines. That said, part of the stretch to the base camp was more than I had bargained for and tested my nerve to the limit, with roads so steep I thought our little Skoda would tip backwards as it climbed them and send us somersaulting down the hill. We passed a Mountain Rescue Ranger on the way and joked we´d see him later. He wasn’t amused in the slightest.
Eventually we reached the car park and hurriedly put on our boots and prepared the map. It was sunny here but the mountain disappeared into mist and fog as we looked up at it. I think we almost felt that this, being the smallest, was a mere formality and we just needed to get it out of the way. What we really wanted was a proper mountain! Anyway, the clock was set and off we went, marching quickly into the mist.
Our confidence was high thanks the ease of the path which showed itself clear and true and pointing to the summit, but as we climbed this began to change. About midway up, or so we guessed, we started passing several people coming down, nothing unusual there. We made polite greetings and small talk, but when pressed each one gave us the impression that they´d been born on this mountain and had never seen a fog like it. They knew this path as if they´d laid it themselves but they´d be damned if they would go to the summit today. You´d have to be mad. This sense of impending doom, coupled by the shop assistants’ reaction to us, lit a fire beneath our stubborn feet and gave us all the encouragement we needed to keep moving. “Impossible ya say? Let me at it!”
After a while we were moving with the mindset of ‘just keep going up’, for we couldn’t see more than 5 metres ahead. We climbed a gully and reached a ridge where we were thrown into doubt for the first time. Up was now the wrong way according to the compass – which none of us trusted – and Jon. We had no choice but to follow Jon down the ridge. Here we started to find way points and were convinced that we were near the summit and making good time, but our hopes were soon dashed once we realised that someone – perhaps the Gods, or more likely, the doubting Thomases we´d met below – had played a cruel prank up here, for there were what seemed like hundreds of way points everywhere we looked. It was like a mole-hill city where construction had changed from mud to rock. Angrily, we started a spiralling ascent until the summit loomed into view. We ran for shelter, took photos, and checked the map for a safer route down.
We started down the North side before bearing West to find our original path and skipped and slid back down to the car where the sun was still shining. It was 15:43 when we started and now it was around 18:15, and so not a minute to lose, back into the car and Jon was driving the short route out of the Lakes, and onto the motorway. I slept until just inside the Welsh border where I was woken and given some directions to follow so that Dan could sleep for a while, for although he wasn’t driving, keeping the driver awake and informed had been his task and I don´t think he´d slept since the night before.
I was feeling good at this stage, we´d managed Scafell Pike with relative ease and I knew Snowdon would be a doddle and was really excited about climbing it in the dark. I became obsessed with constantly recalculating our timing, working out where we would need to be at what time in order to hit our 24hour deadline. This pastime occupied my mind until we reached the Llanberris Pass and I was in great spirits as I stepped out of the car and onto the asphalt car park. Jon and Dan were groggy from their sleep but soon shook it off and joined my optimistic talk.
Compared to Scafell Pike, we couldn’t have been blessed with a better night for it. The sky was clear and jet black with pin pricks of light scattered like diamonds on an oil slick. We all packed the torches we´d bought and prepared for a cold walk but as we started along the Miner´s Path we soon put all of this gear into our bags, for the air was warm and the moon was full and so bright that its features were blocked from sight. We could see the whole mountain as we walked around the lakes, skimming pebbles and marvelling at our fortune.
My enthusiasm soon waned though, as we began climbing the steps that led to the ridge and I realised how tired I already was. Dan was storming ahead with Jon behind him and I was left panting and struggling to keep up, not just out of breath but totally out of energy and by the time we reached the ridge it was all I could do to keep my legs moving and slowly trudge up to the summit. There was not the joy which usually comes with reaching a peak, only sweet relief, and after a photo and a moment to admire our fantastic view of the surrounding towns, like glaciers of twinkling lights gliding through the creases in the landscape, we began our descent. We followed the same route down and as we walked we watched a monstrous cloud envelop the peak and once again wondered at our luck.
It had taken us 2 hours to climb Snowdon and we were back at the car after a further hour. It was now 3am and, exhausted already, we still had to drive 400 miles from Snowdon to Ben Nevis before we could even think about climbing the highest of these 3 peaks. I was back in the driver´s seat for the first leg of this mammoth dive and was infinitely thankful for the homemade flapjacks that littered our car.
To tell you the truth I don´t remember much of my drive, and there is a good reason for this – I spent a lot of it asleep. No exclamation or boast, but this was the extent our, or at least my determination to complete this mission had reached. I couldn’t tell you if we left Wales via the M54 or by the way we´d come in from the North. What I do remember vividly is stopping at least 4 or 5 times for coffee. At one of these stops I was so desperate for caffeine that I drank 3 cups of coffee and 2 cups of sweet tea before jumping back into the car. I was so sleep bereft by this time that it had no effect. I remember reaching a motorway, but after waking up at the wheel facing the side of the road I had had enough. Jon would have to wake up.
He accepted this fact after we woke him at another garage with the kind of air you might expect from a man on death row who is told it’s his time. Silent, unquestioning and with no blame he stepped behind the wheel to meet his fate. Or maybe he was just absolutely shattered and unable to form an emotion. Dan had been a trooper, keeping me awake, or doing his best anyway, and I confess I left him to it with Jon without a second thought, so much was my exhaustion.
I slept for a few hours but felt no better for it when I woke. Jon was obviously feeling the strain too and I knew he was thinking about the drive back from Ben Nevis. We were planning to start driving back to Oxford immediately after descending the final mountain because Dan had to back at work the next day. This was impossible. At least it would be a miracle if we made it back alive and I could see from his Jon´s eyes that he knew this too. I think Dan must have sensed a mutiny because something about him became defiant. A break was called for to get some breakfast, much to the dismay of Dan who was watching the minutes and the miles tick by relentlessly and definitely didn’t want the wrong clock to stop moving.
Over our extortionately priced breakfast Jon and I confirmed each others concerns and planned our escape. It wasn’t that we didn’t want to finish the trip, it was just that we didn’t want to die doing it. Dan met us and we tried to explain ourselves to him. Jon went first because he was less likely to face attack, being a university buddy of his.
“There is no way we can make that drive, Dan.” He ventured.
“What do you mean? We can´t quit now if that´s what you´re saying.” Dan replied with an air of menace.
“There´s no shame in it, we´ve done ourselves proud already.” I put in.
“What!” The situation became tense. “I would rather die than not finish this! I´ll do it alone if I have to. You can just drive me there and sleep in the car while I climb Nevis.”
“We will die! All of us! There is no glamour in dying on a motorway!” I protested, feeling and understanding Dan´s desire to finish this with pride.
Sensing the seriousness of our gazes I think Dan realized that we actually believed that death was inevitable if we attempted to drive back through the night. So he agreed to pull a sicky the next day as well and it was settled.
So we were near Preston and Jon was back at the wheel and we were off again with absolutely no doubt that we had to be on the final summit before the time was out. There was no question or hope, just blind belief and devotion to the task at hand and with this feeling in the car we laughed and joked and sang with pride at how worthy we all were of the achievement, having added 5 hours of driving and doing it off the cuff in the true spirit of adventure. We were like the original eccentric English explorers, searching the globe with nothing but a ridiculous moustache and a flask of tea as aides.
And so on we went up through Edinburgh and over the Forth Bridge and somewhere around here I took over driving again and Jon and Dan tried to sleep. We had guessed that we had plenty of time left and hadn’t been speeding much at all, partly out of respect to some unwritten rules we had sort of adopted, and partly because Jon was on his last speeding ticket before he lost his licence. As I drove however, through the beautiful wilderness of the highlands, around lakes and between great soaring cliff faces, I realised we weren’t really as close as we´d thought. I stopped and checked the map and was suddenly aware of how close this was going to be. By this time I had entered into a level of commitment to the our pursuit that was worthy of psychiatric attention, and with the others asleep, set off on a one man mission to get us to that damned mountain on time or die trying. Yep, Dan´s unwavering single-mindedness had rubbed off on me.
And so I sped that car with the focus of a Formula One racing driver, round the bends and twists, unblinking and unthinking, I thrashed those gears and pumped those pedals for all I was worth. Dan was obviously somewhat unnerved by my driving because he was wide awake for the rest of the drive. Jon was asleep in the back but at one point he woke up to find us doing 90 on the wrong side of the road with a truck straight ahead. I’m still typing so obviously we ducked inside just before being crushed to death, but Jon had seen my eyes like this before and didn’t question my sanity. I did advise him to face the other way though, so that if we crashed he might manage to squeeze his backside through the gap in the front seats and save his back from being snapped like a twig.
Now Dan was looking at the map and our progress compared to the ticking clock and we knew we needed 3 hours of climbing time to be sure of hitting the mark. We soared over bridges and through towns and started to realise we were close and now it was like we were all driving the car, everybody´s will and effort urging it forward until finally we rounded the last corner and found ourselves in the car park at the base of Ben Nevis. And what a day!
The sun was shining down and it filled us with energy and we quickly packed our bags and checked the route on a map in the car park set off in good spirits. As we were walking by the river at the base we were looking at what we thought was the summit to our left and it looked easy. We ran a bit and walked and ran a bit more and kept this up for a while before thinking better of it. My drive had breathed some life into me and I felt fit and perky and led the way up that never-ending staircase. We soon realised that the summit was not where we thought but our spirits didn’t dampen and we pressed ahead. We had left with 2 and a half hours to get to the summit and we were confident.
But fate was still dealing us bum hands, because as we were crossing the stream which flows into a waterfall I had a phone call – it was my boss! Of all the times to call it had to be now! I urged Jon and Dan to keep going and not to slow down for me, I’d bloody well run if I had to but I wouldn’t stop them from getting to the top in time. I stood and took the call, claiming to be in Brighton and working hard whilst standing half way up Britain’s highest peak in the Scottish highlands! He was anything but quick and I had lost 5 minutes on the others by the time he let me go.
Suddenly I was exhausted. I had been running on pure adrenaline for the last 3 or 4 hours and now that I had stopped it had stopped flowing. Moving my legs was like dragging the body of a dead man up that mountain, and now I was far behind my friends. I pushed and pushed up that hill and I tell you never was a path made to be more disheartening than that winding zig-zag through the fog. I caught sight of the others but it took an eternity to reach them.
When finally I did, Jon was as tired as me and Dan was storming ahead into the distance with big powerful strides and to this day I don´t know where he drew the energy from his alcohol and tobacco ridden body. Jon and I lumbered after him like two old men running from death and I could see Jon´s resolve slipping. Occasionally he would trip and fall and be so tired his arms wouldn’t go forward and his body would just hit the floor like he´d dropped dead.
We were getting such awful looks of disdain from people walking down wearing hundreds of pounds worth of jackets and boots and using Leki poles staring at us in our ugly state and knowing nothing about what we´d done already just to be there. I took to asking them how long it was to the top. Regardless of the reply I would yell forward whatever time we actually had left on the clock.
“How far to the top?”
“Oh, 45 minutes in this weather.”
“20 minutes to the top guys! Easy!”
Maybe out of spite or by the same tactic, Dan would continuously yell back, “I can see the summit!” sending us two scrambling after him only to have the clouds reveal another mighty lump of rock ahead.
We were running out of time and Jon was running out of legs. He´d taken to sitting and protesting at any attempt to move him, before suddenly catching himself and forcing himself onwards with heroic effort. Then came the shout, “It´s here! It´s here!” and this time there was no doubt that Dan had found the summit, but even then it was too much for Jon and I to do anything more than keep moving and just to get there. There was nothing left in us that could make us run or even jog.
But then we saw it too and suddenly we could move, and Jon went forward to meet Dan at the point and I followed, checking the time on my phone and the digits that I read from my luminescent screen were the closest thing to a divine moment I’ve ever experienced: 15.43 We had done it to the minute. To the minute! All the things that had led us to this point and we had finished it with not a minute to spare, maybe not even a second, for as soon as I saw the time I was yelling it out so Dan and Jon could understand what we´d done.
We escaped to the shelter where I realised just how tired I was. I´d never felt this before and we still had to get off the mountain. It took us twice as long to descend as it took us to climb and by the end of it, when we had found a hostel and showered and gone out to celebrate, none of us could even manage to eat a meal. We went to bed early and quietly, leaving each other to our own high, proud thoughts before the long drive home in the morning.