The Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge takes on the peaks of Pen-y-ghent, Whernside and Ingleborough, usually in this order, and in under 12 hours. These peaks form part of the Pennine range, and encircle the head of the valley of the River Ribble, in the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
“”We’re not going to lie to you… the Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge is every bit as tough as it sounds. That toughness comes with ample reward though – or at least for those who have trained well (failing to do so means you may succeed, but you’ll likely be aching for days later.
“When we completed the route, we sat in a pub in Horton and savoured glasses of celebratory red as we releases our sore, swollen feet from our walking boots and replaced our footwear with flip flops. We soon forgot about the pain our bodies were in, and focussed on the huge achievement that each one of us had just accomplished.””Lyndsey, Yorkshire's Best Adventures & Girl About Yorkshire
Yorkshire’s Three Peaks Challenge is the ultimate Yorkshire adventure with some 250,000 people challenging themselves every year to complete the 26-mile arduous hike spanning Yorkshire’s three highest mountains in 12 hours or less. The combination of distance, several steep accents and descents and the none-stop nature of the challenge make it a tough rewarding one.
The mountains of Whernside (2,415 ft), Ingleborough (2,372 ft) and Pen-y-ghent (2,277 ft) circle the heads of the valleys of the River Ribble and of Chapel-le-Dale in the Yorkshire Dales National Park with nearly 5,249 ft of ascent and descent.
Some choose to climb each peak individually, taking a day to complete one at a time. And then there those who challenge themelves to do all three peaks in 12 hours or less.
There’s a mix of big organised groups participating in the challenge as a fund-raising effort for charities, and then those who choose to complete it alone or in smaller groups. Some even crazier folk choose to run it! The route, which forms part of the Pennine Way, is open all year round. You can rock up, park your car and complete it at your own pace.
There are a couple of camp sites at the beginning for those wishing to make a weekend of it or who might want to take on each peak one day at a time. There are also a handful of bunk barns and places to crash en-route, again for those who want to break the challenge up. These places are few and far between so we would absolutely recommend booking in advance.
08:00: After parking up in the overflow car park in Horton and making our way over to Pen-y-ghent Cafe, we clocked in. Horton was teeming with kitted out hikers. Some in huge groups sporting their T-shirts in memory of various people. Others in smaller groups. The little village in the middle of the Yorkshire Dales was a hive of activity with people of all ages about to embark on Yorkshire’s Three Peaks Challenge.
The weather was on our side – overcast and dry. We wouldn’t advise anyone to try and take on this challenge on a stinking hot day – the only shelters from extreme weather conditions are a couple of pubs along the way.
After a strong coffee in the Pen-y-ghent Cafe’s car park, we were on our way, full of excitement and anticipation for what was in store. It wasn’t long before half of the LEM team were panting and puffing as we scrambled to reach the summit of Pen-y-ghent – the first of the three peaks and a four-mile climb from Horton.
This peak starts by breaking you in easily for about a mile and then the incline steepens through fields on an uneven footpath that soon turns into a lot of steps. Much of the route, certainly on the way up the peaks, is on well-kept paths made from shallow stone steps but don’t underestimate their shallowness.
The last quarter of a mile up Pen-y-ghent is a steep climb on loose ground which requires some scrambling up the face of the mountain. It then flattens out for about 50m with an easy path to the summit. At 2,277 ft above sea level, Pen-y-ghent is the lowest of the Three Peaks but try not to think about that at the top.
10:21: The view from the summit was pretty mind-blowing and from here we were able to easily pinpoint Whernside and Ingleborough. It’s up here that we started to get a much better picture of the enormity of the challenge we had taken on! Many used the summit of Pen-y-ghent and the fabulous views as an opportunity to rest limbs and lungs and have a well-deserved snack. It can get cold at the top so the layer we stripped off earlier is put back on.
10.30: The descent down Pen-y-ghent is by far the easiest (and longest) part of the challenge. It’s a good ten miles from the summit of Pen-y-ghent to the bottom of the highest of the Three Peaks; Whernside. The terrain is pretty easy on farmland paths that wind through the Yorkshire Dales that seem to stretch as far as the eye can see. Take note of the stone walling, it’s pretty incredible and the silvery grey Yorkshire stone adds a lot of character and drama to the scenery made up of many different shades of green. Lots of sheep too. Walkers can take their dogs, but keep them on a lead.
As we made our way down Pen-y-ghent, we spotted the Ribblehead Viaduct in the distance, which is one of the iconic scenes along the way. At this point the viaduct is a pinprick on the horizon – it’s also the point we needed to reach for lunch, a pee, and a well-deserved pint in the pub. Following paths through several fields and a stint on a country road, several miles later we reached The Station Inn, located right next to Ribblehead Viaduct.
12:26: We grabbed a bench out-front of The Station Inn. The pub is pretty relaxed when it comes to using their outdoor tables to eat packed lunches, as long as it’s washed down with a beverage from their bar; and this is a very popular lunch point. You can also use their toilet too for a small charge if you are not buying a drink. There’s also a burger van selling refreshments nearby, so stock up on water because you’ll need plenty of it when you start the lengthy climb to the summit of Whernside. A pint down our necks, bladders emptied, legs rested and sandwiches eaten, and we were back on our way.
13:00: Back on the official path we were on track and walked parallel to the Ribblehead Viaduct which is pretty awesome. This is the one focal point that you can pretty much see most of the way around the 25-mile circular route.
It’s colossal when you’re up close and a wonderful photo opportunity. If you’re lucky enough you might get to see a steam train cross the viaduct as the Settle to Carlisle route chugs along through the Yorkshire Dales.
Further up, as you start to climb the long path made up of literally hundreds of steps, there are other focal points such as an aqueduct and waterfalls. By this point you might possibly be starting to wonder if you’ll ever make it to the top; it seems to go on and on for miles and miles. The scenery is breathtaking but the mosquitoes were incessant. A good time to re-apply that repellent.
15:00: After a two-hour arduous climb, Whernside starts to level off. With the summit in spitting distance, the team got a little second wind and marched towards the highest point at a mighty 2,415 feet above sea level. Once at the top, you can see all the way to the coast on a clear day, which it was. Strong binoculars would allow you to see Blackpool Tower, we’re told.
By now, black clouds were whipping up over Ingleborough in the distance and the threat of rain was in the air.
After catching our breaths, soaking up the view and resting our weary bodies, it was time to head back down Whernside.
15:14: Aim to start the descent down Whernside at around 3pm to stay on track. This is a hard trip down – very steep in places with loose ground. By this point you’ve hiked around 18 miles and the burn kicks in around the thighs. We had a couple of short stops on the way down to give our legs a rest, and these were opportunities to look at what we’d achieved already – and was pretty mind-blowing.
The further away from Whernside we got, the bigger the mountain looked. With Pen-y-ghent on the horizon to our left, the enormity of what we had achieved so far hit home. And as we reached the lowest point between Whernside and Ingleborough, the urge to call it a day and spend the remainder of it in the next pub was strong.
The Old Hill Inn is a popular watering hole in the village of Chapel-le-Dale at the foot of Ingleborough. Before you reach the pub there is barn with decent toilets (50p in the honesty box) and a caravan serving refreshments. The local taxi company probably does quite well here too with a few walkers choosing to give up at this point –quite frankly, we had to muster up a lot of willpower to continue on our journey up the third and final peak.
17:00: Looking up at Ingleborough’s sharp, abrupt terrain and the 2,466 ft summit, it seems as though Ingleborough may be the most demanding of the Three Peaks but in our opinion the most interesting of the mountains.
With muscles we didn’t know we had aching and our feet throbbing, we pushed ourselves to start the ascent.
The first mile or so is pretty flat (and quite boggy) and took us through fields of cotton plants, which looked like carpets of snow as far as the eye could see. The closer we got to Ingleborough, the more hellish its profile thanks to abrupt, steep escarpments. Quite rapidly, the path goes from pretty flat to extremely steep and there was a good 30 minutes of scrambling to where it started to level off about three quarters of the way up the mountain.
Eventually, as the steep climb begins to flatten out the summit plateau of Ingleborough was in sight. By now, thick cloud had set in and after another short scramble we reached the plateau and there in the distance, marked by a large shelter in the form of a cross and an O/S survey pillar was the summit of the third and final peak!
Through the thick gathering fog, we could just make it out in the distance – the eeriness was tangible. With visibility distance very low, there were certainly no beautiful views of Yorkshire – it was almost like being on the moon.
18:07: We didn’t have a flag to stick in the ground like Neil Armstrong, but we did have a little hip flask of something strong with us so we all necked a little of it, group hugged, took a few obligatory group photos and with that, started the decent. Conscious of the time, we had to crack on if we were to complete the challenge in 12 hours, we still had more than five miles to walk.
Nothing could have prepared some of us for the descent down Ingleborough’s south side back to Horton. From the top of the mountain the path looked wonderfully flat and inviting. But the closer we got to it, it quickly became apparent that this is another path made up of large loose, sharp edged stones that by this time, felt like nails poking through the bottom of one’s walking boots.
The landscape becomes very dramatic half way down and the scenery changes from fields and pastures to extensive areas of limestone pavement. Pen-y-Ghent rose up ahead of us on the horizon but didn’t seem to be getting any nearer. We were desperate to see the village of Horton ahead of us – just a small sign that the end was in sight.
Eventually, after climbing the brow of a small hill, there in front of us was a car park and a smattering of white buildings. Like a dessert mirage but real, there, ahead of us, was the finish line, and more importantly the pub!
Climbing over the last of many many styles we made our way across the railway lines, into the village of Horton and back to the Pen-y-ghent cafe to clock in literally within 10 minutes of the 12 hours limit to spare.
As we all sat in the pub in Horton, savouring our glasses of red wine and releasing our sore, swollen feet from our walking boots in favour of flip flops, we soon forgot about the pain our bodies were in and focused on the huge achievement that each one of us had just accomplished.
We are not going to lie to you, this challenge is hard, but possibly also the most rewarding adventure you may ever embark on. Just get some training in first…
LYNDSEY’S TOP TIPS:
* Train – this is almost a marathon on very rough, mountainous terrain – unless you are used to this type of extreme physical activity you will find it very hard if you don’t prepare yourself.
* Invest in walking poles – climbing up the peaks is hard, but getting back down them is harder and incredibly harsh on the hips and knees due to the steep inclines. Poles will help take the pressure off of your legs and will also help to steady you and prevent you from injury.
* Cut your toenails – your toes are pushed to the front of your walking boots on two very long, steep descents and this can be very painful if your toenails are not cut down.
*Wear walking boots and make sure they are worn in so you don’t get blisters. Trainers are not appropriate for this challenge – good ankle support and a strong walking boot sole is needed, especially on the loose, rocky terrain along much of the route.
* Layer up – the weather can change dramatically over the course of the day so wear lots of thin layers and whip them off when needed.
* Popping into a pub for a pint is part of the day – but stick to just the one. This is not a challenge to embark on when you’ve had a few drinks.
* Sun Cream
* Insect repellent
* Lots of water
* A decent rucksack
* Walking boots
* Walking poles
* Sun hat
* Waterproof jacket
* Blister plasters
* Sugary snacks
* Packed lunch
* Spare socks
* Wet wipes / toilet roll