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26 July, 2008

Walk: Yorkshire Three Peaks

As the blog has documented, I've completed several walks and cycle rides in the south-western Yorkshire Dales, including Whernside (the highest point in Yorkshire, at 728m asl), Ingleborough (723m) and Pen-y-ghent (691m) as individual trips.  However, I've always fancied linking them together as the famous 'Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge', a single 37.5–42 km (23.3–26.1 miles – approximately a full marathon) circuit visiting all three summits, with a total ascent of over 1,600m.
HV & I had planned to complete it early on an autumn day, to avoid both the heat and congested footpaths of midsummer, but when J expressed an interest in attempting it with us and a childhood friend this weekend, we didn't hesitate.  Possibly a flawed decision....

The standard anticlockwise route is well-known and is the subject of several dedicated websites, so I won't go into great detail here; I've mentioned it in the annotations of the accompanying photos, if anyone's particularly interested. In short, we walked from Horton in Ribblesdale to Pen-y-Ghent via Brackenbottom, directly across Horton Moor to Ribblehead, up Whernside via the railway and down via Bruntscar, then up Ingleborough via the Old Hill Inn and back to Horton via Sulber.

The 'challenge' is to complete the route within twelve hours. Those who clock-in at the Pen-y-ghent Café in Horton before starting then clock back in having finished within the designated time qualify for membership of the 'Three Peaks of Yorkshire Club', and their badge & tie. No thanks – I like the safety net offered by the booking-in system, but the petty exclusivity of a 'club' and associated merchandise really don't interest me. Not that it's particularly exclusive – according to the cafe's records, more than 200,000 walkers participated 'officially' in the first 35 years of its operation, and that doesn't include those who, like me, didn't clock in.

'Official' is also a relative term: the Three Peaks path doesn't have the same level of recognition as, say, the Pennine Way: you won't find it specifically marked as a named route on an Ordnance Survey map, and it's not signposted on the ground.
Hence, take care: we were lucky enough to experience good weather and though I say it myself, I'm pretty fit, but the walk and upland environment shouldn't be underestimated – it's not a Sunday stroll and one needs at least basic equipment. Though most of the route follows well-trodden paths, the section from Pen-y-ghent to Ribblehead strikes directly across open moorland. In poor visibility 'out of season', I'd definitely want to be fully weatherproofed and carrying a map & compass.

Despite my disinterest in winning a badge, I did want to complete the route within, at worst, twelve hours; nine hours had seemed plenty when I'd planned for an easy but continuous pace (apart from momentary photo stops) and a ~15 min lunch break on each summit.
However, it didn't seem to work. My starting pace drew complaints, and I reached the summit fully 15 mins before the others, so I was more than ready to proceed when they arrived to begin their rather longer break.
Rather frustrated, I made a solo diversion to Hull Pot to give the others a head-start on the next section, but still caught them before they'd ambled far. When another break was called near High Birkwith I accepted the need to compromise, but when that became only the first of several half-hour stops, one solely in order to doze in the sun, I began to get quietly annoyed. I was no less glad than the others to stop at the Ribblehead and Philpin Lane refreshment facilities, but I can drink a cup of tea or juice in less than five minutes; more than half an hour seemed excessive. Sometimes it can be be enjoyable to sit on a wall and take leisurely sips whilst watching the world go by, but not when supposedly completing a timed challenge.
The result was that we left the summit of Ingleborough a ludicrous eleven hours after the start. I knew I could descend back to Horton well within the final hour, but had to force the pace; I was fully aware of J quietly fuming before I lost my patience: I made my excuses and – comfortably – ran the final 3 km, finishing just within the (arbitrary) time limit.
Plainly we'd had different objectives for the day. There's absolutely nothing wrong with taking a gentle stroll to walk off a hangover, but it's just not what I'd agreed to. I don't want to give the impression I'm a deadly earnest walker obsessed with completion times or bagging peaks – far from it. However, the Three Peaks is different, and I may have wanted to treat it as a timed challenge because that's a novelty, not something I'd normally attempt.

That same factor means that the route attracts sponsored events; our chosen day happened to coincide with one for the British Heart Foundation, and we found ourselves sharing the paths with a couple of hundred people wearing numbered tabards, some plainly not walkers. Not a problem (nothing like 1996, when I found myself queuing for the path up Sca Fell on the national Three Peaks walk), but the moor was rather badly churned-up in places, and I felt a slight pang of guilt at ruining the morale of struggling first-time walkers by overtaking them at a run!

I wouldn't have managed that during the day, though, as the weather was hot & humid. The plan had been to leave Lancaster at 06:00, but for a reason that was never quite established, we actually left much later and started walking at ~08:00, losing the advantage of the cool early morning. Even climbing Pen-y-ghent before 10:00 I was drenched in sweat, and the pint of orange squash I bought after Whernside was an essential supplement to the drinks I'd been carrying. In a way it was pleasant to cross the limestone pavement at Sulber as the sun began to get low. Photogenic, too.

Overall, a good walk, despite the circumstances; I'm sure I'll complete it again some time.

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