The Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge (At Night, On Ice!)
The Yorkshire Three Peaks comprise of Pen-y-ghent, Whernside, and Ingleborough. The hills are traditionally also walked in that order, starting at the village of Horton in Ribblesdale where it’s possible to clock out and in at the Pen-y-ghent cafe. The challenge is not merely to walk these three hills, but also to do it in under 12 hours. Technically, it doesn’t matter which order the hills are climbed or where it’s started from. So long as all three are summited and the walk starts and ends in the same place within the 12 hours then it can be counted as a successful attempt. In terms of mileage and effort, the walk can be between 23 and 26 miles long depending on the exact route used, and covers over 1,400m of ascent.
Length: 24 miles
Area: Yorkshire Dales – Southern Fells
GPX File: Download
Pen-y-ghent – (Height: 694m, Drop: 306m)
Whernside – (Height: 736m, Drop: 408m)
Ingleborough – (Height: 724m, Drop: 427m)
Other POI: Brackenbottom, Brackenbottom Scar, Pennine Way, Hunt Pot, Whitber Hill, Nether Lodge, Ribblehead Viaduct, Grain Head, Bruntscar, Chapel-le-Dale, Old Hill Inn, Limestone Pavement, Braithwaite Wife Hole, Humphrey Bottom, Simon Fell, Sulber Nick
A couple of years ago, I completed the Yorkshire Three Peaks challenge walk. It was the month of May, a Saturday, and sunny. I miraculously found somewhere to park and proceeded to do the challenge alongside, what seemed like, thousands of fellow walkers. It was quite a challenging walk as you’d expect but, as a walker that enjoys the solitude and tranquility of being in the hills and mountains, I was struggling to enjoy being surrounded by so many other walkers. I wouldn’t go as far as saying it spoiled the walk, but it certainly lessened the experience for me. All I could hear for most of the way was the ‘click click click’ of a multitude of walking poles.
So… as I managed to complete the challenge walk with a minimum of fuss in around nine hours, I decided to plan to do it again, but this time increase the intensity of the challenge whilst also reducing the number of walkers around me to a reasonable amount – like hardly any. I really can be an antisocial grouch at times! That’s when the idea of ‘The Yorkshire Three Peaks, in winter, at night’ was born.
Quite a lot of time had passed since then with the idea still buzzing around in my head but no action taken and so, nearing the end of 2016, I made the decision to do it on the first perfect night in January. My conditions for what I saw as a ‘perfect night’ were that it had to be a clear sky with minimal chance of rain or snow, minus temperatures for at least 24 hours beforehand to ensure a nice frozen ground, not too strong a wind (max 25 mph gusts), and not too much snow on the ground; a sprinkling of snow on the summits was acceptable.
I decided that the walk may get a touch lonely going solo and so I tried to spread the word a little, and see who was interested in joining me. I know this seems like a contradiction as I’ve just stated that I’m antisocial, however, due to my competitive nature, having a few other faces with me helps a lot with motivation. In addition, it’s far easier to talk yourself into giving up when you’re on your own. I initially had around seven people interested which dropped considerably once I announced the date – the night of the 2nd of January, just before half the country goes back to work after the Christmas holidays. In hindsight, I guess it was a bit of an inconvenient date.
The only interested two remaining were Angus and Vivian of angusandvivianadventures, however it turned out that Angus could only really do it the night before. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to do this due to commitments, a hangover, and poor weather forecast for the night (snow and 50mph gusts). So that left just Vivian.
Admittedly, I was convinced that Vivian wasn’t going to show. A young girl meeting up with a bloke she’s never met before for a walk at night across deserted Yorkshire hilltops and moorland? Never going to happen. I was prepared for doing the walk on my own, but there she was waiting for me in the car park at Horton in Ribblesdale at 4.30pm. Either she was very brave or she just hasn’t watched enough horror movies.
We headed up towards the first peak of Pen-y-ghent, which really was quite straight-forward and not at all representative of the rest of the walk from the top of the first peak onwards. It was heading up to this first summit where we passed the only people we were to encounter for the rest of the night. Pen-y-ghent is normally relatively straightforward, and it doesn’t take long to tick it off. It’s the smallest out of the three peaks and has a fairly well defined and comfortable path leading back down on the descent. I remember when I did the route a couple of years earlier; there were hordes ascending up the hillside, and the summit was an extremely crowded place. It couldn’t have been more different this time around. When the torches were turned off, it was absolutely pitch black. The crescent moon was a sliver of light and at an early phase, meaning that moonlight was virtually non existent. There was also absolutely no noise at all. Just an absence of everything!
The ascent of Pen-y-ghent was certainly the easiest part of the night for us as we encountered the first of the black ice on the way back down and did our first few impressions of Bambi on ice. As we discovered from here on in – the better the path looked, the worse the ice was. The only easy walking was on the low level sections between the hills.
As we started on the long walk between Pen-y-ghent and the Ribblehead Viaduct, we discovered just how much harder it is to navigate at night with an absence of visual aids, and moonlight at a minimum. Faint paths across fields were almost impossible to make out in torchlight (we both had head torches) and we headed off in wrong directions on more than one occasion. Thank goodness for GPS!
Eventually we arrived at the Viaduct, which is normally an amazing sight but on this occasion, quite invisible! Luckily I took a picture of it a couple of years back which I’ve included here. The track continued for a while parallel to the railway before eventually crossing and beginning the long gradual ascent to Whernside. I must note that at most junctions of footpaths, the Yorkshire 3 Peaks path was clearly marked on signposts which helped a lot. Also, my memory of the route seemed to be returning with a greater clarity as I recognised more and more sections. As we started to gain height, the black ice returned causing more Bambi on ice moments, and making progress much slower than normal as every step was placed carefully. We were virtually baby stepping our way up. As we were bracing ourselves for a slip at every step, it seemed to be putting more strain on the muscles too and I was feeling it in areas I wouldn’t normally. My knees were holding out fine though thanks to the knee supports I decided to wear. I only normally wear them on long challenge walks.
After a long slog, we eventually reached the summit and took a trig point photo before moving on quickly due to the raw, biting wind that was penetrating both my hat and my gloves (Note to self: buy some windproof gear for next winter). Whernside is the highest of the three hills and technically only half of it is in Yorkshire with the other half being in Cumbria. The actual trig point is on the Cumbria side. The route down, again, was icy in places although better than I was expecting and it didn’t seem to take too long to get to the bottom at Bruntscar. From here we headed down farm tracks to Chapel-le-Dale.
There’s a relatively short distance between Whernside and Ingleborough in comparison to the first two peaks, and the ascent path southwards towards Simons Fell and Ingleborough soon appeared. The total length of this path to the summit is only 3 miles, which was comforting to know although it felt like much longer. Eventually, after some walking across fields and an area of limestone pavement, a paved track was reached that snakes across Humphrey Bottom and all the way to the foot of Simon Fell. This is where we encountered the worst of the ice, and the slabs were next to impossible to walk on. The issue we had is that the surrounding ground, at this time of year, is normally bog. This would be OK if it had all completely frozen but unfortunately it hadn’t frozen quite enough and our feet kept breaking through the ice into soft ground below whenever we attempted to leave the paving stones. So yet again, we walked very slowly and carefully towards Ingleborough, and losing time all the while.
Eventually we arrived at the extremely steep steps that led up to Simon Fell. If these were covered in black ice, they would have been extremely dangerous to ascend. Surprisingly they were in much better shape than the simple paving stones below and it wasn’t too bad getting up them. I remember really struggling with these the first time I did the Yorkshire 3 Peaks challenge so I can only assume I’m a little fitter now than I was back then. From Simon Fell, it’s a short scramble up Ingleborough’s north-east rocky ridge to the summit plateau where the chilling wind returned with a vengeance, as did the mist. The torches were next to useless in these conditions so after a few hopeless and rather aimless attempts at finding either the trig point or the wind shelter, we decided that we were on the top and that was good enough for us. Due to the wind and mist, we didn’t bother with the photos so, just for completions sake, here’s a photo of Ingleborough summit from February 2015!
It took us a short while to find the correct path down from the summit of Ingleborough, and it was actually Vivian that found it as she still appeared to still have a sense of direction in the mist whereas mine seemed to have deserted me completely. I had been saying all through the walk that the final descent back to Horton was the easiest descent of the day due to it being very gradual and easy going – excluding the initial drop from the summit. It turned out that I was completely wrong – yet again due to the ice. It was the first time I actually fell over in the whole walk. I slipped onto my hands and knees and started sliding slowly down the path as I attempted to scramble back to my feet – unsuccessfully as my feet couldn’t find purchase on anything. Vivian eventually managed to help me up after she’d finished laughing, where I informed her that I was still beating her as she’d fallen over three times so far. She replied that my one fall was worth three of hers in amusement value. Onward we went, brains completely dead, and bodies completely on autopilot. We walked through the Limestone Pavement via Sulber Nick and eventually spotted the lights of Horton in the distance. It really did seem to take forever and reminded me very much of the journey back to Bethesda at the end of the Welsh 3000’s walk I did back in 2015.
Eventually we arrived back at Horton. It was twelve and a half hours after we began the journey and 6.00am. I knew that there wasn’t a chance I was going to be able to drive straight home and so I started setting up my emergency bed in the back of the car. The bed is actually an extra large foam dog mattress which fits nicely in the back once I put the back seats down, creating enough room to curl up and sleep. Vivian lived a little nearer than me and so drove straight back. I said a very half-hearted and apathetic goodbye to her, which I felt bad about afterwards but my brain really wasn’t functioning at all at the time. As it turned out, I managed hardly any sleep due to daylight arriving shortly afterwards, cars parking next to me, people moving about and talking, and me accidentally leaving the car window open a bit, meaning the temperature inside the car quickly dropped to freezing temperatures. In the end, I ended up driving home after about half an hours sleep, and that was probably as challenging as the walk itself!
All in all, it was an interesting experience and certainly a bigger challenge than when I did it in summer during the day a couple of years ago. In hindsight, I wish I’d have bought myself some micro-spikes beforehand as I reckon it would have knocked at least a couple of hours off our time and would have made the whole route much safer. I also wish I’d have at least attempted to take more photos – a mistake that I also made the last time I did the challenge! Night navigation was interesting and much more difficult without having the visual aids of landmarks and other hills around me. Paths all start looking alike, and less defined paths are much harder to make out. The head torch I received for Christmas did the job and was still bright after the twelve and a half hours of walking. Vivian’s didn’t do quite so well and was barely lighting up anything by the end. Luckily, I was also equipped with a powerful emergency hand torch that could light up a small football field and had at least twelve hours worth of battery life in it. It was a shame that I wasn’t able to see any of the great scenery that a person would normally see on this walk, but at least I had seen it before. Vivian, on the other hand, had never seen any of it before and I felt bad that she’d not had the opportunity to appreciate any of it. All this aside, the important thing was… mission accomplished! Yes, I know we were technically half an hour late but, due to the conditions and the fact it was night time, we’re claiming it anyway! Read Vivians account of the night here
Walk completed on 3rd January, 2017
Map and Elevation Data:
GPX file for the walk
Vivians account of the walk, and some night hiking tips
Three Peaks page at Yorkshiredales.org.uk
Three Peaks page at walkinyorkshire.com
Pen-y-ghent – Wikipedia page
Whernside – Wikipedia page
Ingleborough – Wikipedia page