THE RACE TO EMPTINESS
I find myself sitting in a coffee shop overlooking the busy streets of Manchester; it feels autumnal. I have to remind myself that we’re still officially in summer. The city is blanketed in dense cloud with a fine mist filling the air. Grey is the overriding colour as I look from my vantage point over the teeming city streets below. It feels like I’m watching a colony of ants going about their everyday business. People running from errand to errand with a smart phone either attached to their ear or in the palm of their hand, heads bowed somehow avoiding bumping into each other; time looked like it had been sped up. However, where I was sitting it felt like time had slowed right down as I stirred the steaming cup of tea on the table in front of me. I was tired. I hadn’t had any sleep for around 30 hours and, to avoid messing my body clock up even further, I opted to stay awake until the evening. My right knee was giving me grief, my back was aching and, more pressingly, I was in need of a good hearty meal. I had been surviving on high-energy snacks: pastrami wrapped cheese balls and a menagerie of nuts with chocolate and coffee. My body was screaming for proper sustenance. I was also in dire need of a shower and a change of clothing as my, now dried, sweat-drenched base layers were beginning to smell. I was sure that this was the reason why there were no other customers sitting within my immediate vicinity. I was too tired to care. I was also too early to check into my overnight accommodation. I just sat, waiting for my tea to cool down enough so I could drink it without scolding my mouth, transfixed by the view below, and feeling utterly drained. I had an overarching feeling of emptiness within me that I couldn’t seem to shake.
I had just successfully completed the National 3 Peaks Challenge that involved ascending the three highest mountains in the three countries that make up mainland UK within 24 hours - Ben Nevis in Scotland (1345m/3392ft), Scafell Pike in England (978m/3208ft) and Snowdon in Wales (1085m/3559ft). It’s an endurance-style event that continues to grow in popularity with each year that passes. This year alone it’s being predicted that an additional 30,000* hikers will be drawn to the slopes through this challenge increasing the yearly footfall across the three peaks to just shy of a staggering 700,000* people. Previous to taking on the 3 Peaks I only had two summits on my résumé, Mt Kosciuszko in Australia (2,228m/7,310ft) and Mt. Snowdon in Wales. Both were leisurely pursuits complete with food breaks and photo opportunities. Not really great preparation to what is in fact going to be a speed challenge.
It began in Fort William, a small town at the foot of Ben Nevis in mid-Scotland. It was still dark when the bus departed our overnight accommodation for the short journey to the Glen Nevis Visitor Centre. Apart from the usual pleasantries the bus was devoid of any chatter, instead filled with nervous energy. It was a good time to mentally prepare for the challenge ahead. In total the next 24 hours would comprise of 2957 metres (9700ft) of ascents over approximately 26 miles (41.8km) of hiking routes with an additional 450 miles (724km) of on-the-road driving distance. It was going to be a long day. As the bus made its final approach, the sun started to peak over the horizon exposing what was hidden by the darkness: rugged mountainous landscape, lush vegetation and the River Nevis that runs through the valleys of the national park. It would be touching this water that would start the timer for the challenge. Jumping off the minibus I felt a chill more akin to early spring than the heart of summer. Who thought shorts were the correct attire? I persevered with it and made my way over to the river where a splash of icy water to my face not only shocked me into full consciousness but also acted as the starting klaxon.
Little did I know at the time but the biggest challenges wouldn’t become apparent until later on in the day on Scafell Pike. The Lake District had been drenched by torrential rain for the week leading up to this challenge with many groups having to abandon their attempts at the National 3 Peaks Challenge altogether. The area had received a deluge of rainfall making the river crossing dangerous and the slopes unbelievably slippery.
It was touch and go whether we would have clearance to attempt the mountain at all. Our bus had turned from just being a carriage between the peaks to a moving weather station using all the latest mobile applications and local contacts to build a picture of the current state and safety of the mountainside. Leading up to the challenge I hadn’t given much thought to Scafell Pike; I had an assumption that it would be the easiest because it was the shortest. Was I about to be proven ignorant?
Arriving at Wasdale Head the conditions were dry with the sun peaking below a somewhat localised cloud cover overhead, so dark in colour they were verging on black. The contrast between the intense deep yellow sunlight low in the sky and the dark clouds high above gave an almost apocalyptic feel to the landscape, creating long shadows behind foliage that stood in the way. A local resident informed us that although rain was a certainty during our ascent that the river would remain passable for the duration of the night. Reluctantly, we were granted access and began making our way up a shallow incline, over the Brackenclose Bridge and towards the Lingmell Gill Crossing – the potential show stopper. Luckily, there were enough boulders breaching the surface water to traverse safely. From here the gradient increased sharply towards the “Y” Junction before zigzagging to the summit. The terrain flipped between steep, incredibly smooth rock to man-made steps created from mountainside material. Our progress was incredibly slow. After arriving at the “Y” Junction, the sun disappeared below the horizon line, our way now only illuminated within the arc of light provided by our head torches.
The route continued along the same terrain until we passed nearby Lingmel Col arriving at the start of the boulder field. The clouds, although successfully holding onto its load until now, had reached saturation point. We would not only have to contend with the boulder field but also torrential rain. The terrain became slippery and visibility reduced even further, we now had to rely completely on a map and a compass bearing to find our way. Our speed dropped dramatically as we struggled to find the peak. I had never felt stress like it. All I could hear in my head was the sound of a ticking clock [tick, tick, tick]: every wrong turn or false summit was reducing our chances of completing this challenge within the 24-hour timeframe [tick, tick, tick]. It was tortuous [tick, tick, tick]; that constant thought was really sucking the enjoyment out of the mountains. The stress was really starting to take its toll that when arriving at the actual peak I experienced no satisfaction, no elation, no feeling of accomplishment, just an overriding feeling to get back down the mountain and en-route to Wales and Mt. Snowdon – the final piece in the jigsaw puzzle. We made our way back across the boulder field to begin our descent. In our haste to get away we increased our speed to try to recover some lost time, literally jumping from boulder to boulder. My heart was still beating hard and fast with an overwhelming feeling of stress. I felt alert, overconfident even. That was until the inevitable happened: I slipped. Applying pressure to my rear foot to propel me onto the next boulder, I lost grip falling forwards onto a smooth rock. Luckily with the amount of clothing I was wearing and the way I fell – flat on my stomach with my head avoiding impact - it cushioned my fall. No time to waste. The clock was still ticking [tick, tick, tick]. Clambering back onto my feet, it was like the slip had never happened, my mind so focussed on getting off this mountain. I wouldn’t realise how lucky I was not to have sustained any injuries until a few days after completing the challenge. The focus and stress had somehow carried me through. Our route down the mountain was marred with incidents; every hiker in our group took a tumble yet miraculously all arrived at the minibus unscathed. It did unearth a question though: when does safety override the need for speed on a timed challenge?
During the preparation for the National 3 Peaks Challenge I hadn’t given much thought to the 24-hour timeframe. I hadn’t even thought much about hiking in the dark or the amount of time taken up by driving between the locations. The hook for me was the sheer elation and satisfaction that standing on the highest peak of any given mountain provides.
This then coupled with a clear view stretching as far as the eye can see in all directions can provide an experience more evocative than any other. In that moment nothing else matters: hardships and tiredness are forgotten and replaced by an abundance of enthusiasm and excitement. When stumbling across this challenge I had assumed that I would find this on each of the three peaks that I summated. However, by adding the time-element into the equation it turned it into a race against the clock. This inadvertently reduced these peaks to mere hurdles to overcome or timestamps to measure our progress over the unfolding 24-hour period. It removed any of the elements that I had come to really enjoy about being in the mountains: the freedom, adventure and being in and around natural beauty. During this challenge there was no time to really deviate from the purpose of the trip: to cross the finish line at Pen-y-Pass after a return trip of Snowdon’s peak before the 24-hours was up. I did end up managing that feat with an overall time of 23 hours 27 minutes but only through jogging up the mountain and running back down.
Although I was happy to have succeeded what I had set out to do, the triumph was short-lived. All I had, as a take-a-way, from this challenge was the finishing time. The experience overall was a blur with one mountainside merging into the next. All three of these mountains are located in stunning, yet different, national parks but, by adding the time element, I didn’t feel like these were seen or experienced in there fullest. As someone who is attracted to exploration and adventure this challenge left a void of emptiness manifesting itself whilst sitting alone in a café overlooking the streets of Manchester feeling distanced from the reality around me. But at least now the ticking clock had ended.
Words & Image: Marcus Samperi
* = British Mountaineering Council estimated figures – October 2013