There was a palpable sense of excitement as we packed our gear into the Land Rover Discoverys for the long drive north to Kinlochleven in Scotland. Pocket-lint teamed up with Asus, with support from friends at Land Rover, Berghaus and Under Armour, aiming to tackle the Three Peaks Challenge.
The Three Peaks refers to Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon, the highest mountains in Scotland, England and Wales respectively. We'd opted to do it within 24 hours, making it a bigger logistical challenge than just the physical aspect of walking.
We'd joked with Asus that we were going in search of incredible, but we had no idea what that 24 hours in July would throw at us. No idea at all.
This is a tale of three mountains.
Gearing up and heading north
The Land Rover Discovery is a big car. It will seat seven adults in comfort; it seats fewer adults in even more comfort. It's the real deal when it comes to off-road prowess, but, like the Range Rover, it's decked out to match the HSE Luxury moniker on the back. If you're going to on an adventure, you can at least do it in style.
Powering north on the M6, watching Wimbledon semi-finals on the built-in televisions in the rear, playing with the Zenfone and ZenPad, it was the calm before the very literal storm.
Because we were aiming to climb the three hills in under 24 hours, transport was vital, as were those behind the wheel. Getting yourselves from one place to another means you need to put in about 10 hours of driving on the event itself, as well as the 9-hour drive to Scotland to get started.
For us, the Discovery was home for the weekend, as much a participant in the adventure as the passengers within.
Ben Nevis, the friendly giant
At 09:05 we crossed the suspension bridge on the path to Ben Nevis. It is the highest peak in Scotland at 1344 metres. You start walking at 15 metres elevation, so there's a lot of altitude to gain.
It was unseasonably cloudy for July in the UK, so we enjoyed the views over the valley until we hit cloud base after a few hundred metres of climbing. As the temperature dropped, so did the visibility, so we could only see about 100 metres, adding a sense of eerie character.
Nearing the summit of Ben Nevis we hit snow level, before reaching the 1344m summit's ruined buildings. We logged a distance of just under 17km on Ben Nevis during the 5 hours on Scotland's highest mountain, impressed with the performance of the Berghaus Light Trek Hydroshell Jacket that kept us warm and dry.
A faster descent saw us back in the vehicles, eating and driving south to the Lake District to tackle our second mountain, all feeling elated.
Scafell Pike, the hellmouth
Scafell Pike is the smallest of the Three Peaks, sitting at just 978m. We'd always known that we'd face darkness on Scafell, so we cracked the lightsticks attached to our packs and set off at 20:19, racing against failing light, walking a path we'd ascended in training a few months before.
People who play in the mountains know that the weather is the master, it dictates the experience and you have to respect it. What could have been a pleasant walk in the hills, navigating by moonlight and marvelling under a blanket of stars, became a march into the hellmouth.
We were only about 100 metres into the climb when the rain intensified as we hit the cloud base. The wind came with it, buffeting us at first, making us thankful for the walking poles that provided balance as well as aiding tired legs, but the wind became our greatest adversary.
The eerie tranquillity of Ben Nevis in the clouds was shattered by the screaming of the wind, driving the rain into an anthemic roar against our tightly-pulled hoods. It was deafening, we were shouting hard to be heard as we packed together following the glow of the person in front. Headtorches were soon out as we moved from cairn to cairn, unable to see any of the terrain for navigation.
We hit the summit plateau in just under 2 hours, harbouring doubts about the descent, and aimed our torches into the storm. Scafell Pike has a flattened summit, scattered with boulders in a sea of scree.
It's almost alien, barren compared to other peaks, a desolate wasteland of broken rock. We could see nothing beyond a few metres in any direction as the wind sent us skittering sideways and fighting to stay upright. We needed to get off the mountain.
The descent from Scafell Pike took us to a dark place. Turning to face the wind we lost natural light as night descended. When the gusts came, the rain hit so hard it burned at our faces and we couldn't keep our eyes open.
We worked in pairs, tightly packed, turning and huddling when the wind gusted, crabbing sideways down the hills to keep descending when it eased off. It was slow and steady, three steps at a time off the exposed top of the mountain.
Each cairn we found was a ray of sunshine in that desolate place. It was an indicator that we were on the right path. But the paths were no longer paths, they were all rivers. Water gushed over our feet, making every surface treacherous. The illuminated spots of ground from our headtorches helped us find secure footing, moving step-by-step, longing for respite from the wind and rain.
Lingmell Gill, the river you cross on the Scafell path out of Wasdale, wasn't the happy stepping stone prettiness that it had been on the ascent. It was double the width, washing over the paths, a torrent of water to be crossed. It was also the last barrier. Crossing that river saw our pace increase as we dropped deeper into the valley, making our escape from Mother Nature's show of dominance, with the wind receding and moods lifting.
As walked the final kilometre, we passed a group starting their climb. They asked how it was. "It's like hell" was the only answer.
Snowdon, the final hurdle
For the walkers the worst was over. We'd all been to a dark place on Scafell and now we drove south once again, surrounded by wet equipment, eating everything we could find before we grabbed what sleep we could. This is where the drivers earn their medals, in that drive to Wales in the dead of night.
We drove out in low cloud and lashing rain, the long fingers of Scafell's legacy losing grip as we headed south. As we motored into Snowdonia to tackle our final peak, the cloud still hung ominously over the mountains. We dug out dry spares of our Under Armour kit and squidged feet back into sodden boots. It was 05:20 as we stepped off to climb Snowdon's 1085 metres with trepidation. The final hurdle.
On dead legs we started the climb, one eye on the clouds, praying that we didn't have to face the conditions we'd endured on Scafell. But fate smiled on us and the cloud lifted as we walked and we were spared the wind until we hit Bwlch Glas, top of the Pyg Track and one of Snowdon's most dangerous sections.
Snowdon is a lovely mountain, even if that's an odd thing to say. It's beautiful, nestled into surrounding countryside that offers some of the best views you'll find in the British Isles.
Much of the climb was spent in quiet contemplation, fighting back fatigue, but stepping on unfalteringly. The ascent to Snowdon's peak was again in cloud, but we saw one ray of sunshine lighting up the valley as we went, shimmering off the lakes below, showing us where we would eventually finish.
On the climb down we knew we'd make it. But we took care, thanking the grip of our Berghaus Explorer Trek Plus boots on wet rock. The descent is when injuries happen, because everyone relaxes and thinks the hard work is done. We'd already achieved what we'd set out to do, but we stayed focused to the last and got home safely. We were back in the car park in under 24 hours, the Three Peaks Challenge completed and 38km of walking over three mountains behind us.
A reflection on The Three Peaks
The Three Peaks Challenge is a firm favourite in outdoor event calendars. It's done by people of all ages and across all time scales. It's a mental and logistical challenge above all. You don't have to be super fit, but you do have to be prepared, both physically and in terms of your equipment, because you never know what will happen in the hills. We should have put gaiters on the kit list when we saw the forecast, because waterproof trousers alone weren't enough.
The Three Peaks has drawn criticism because those hills receive so much attention. A lot of work needs to be done to maintain those paths and those considering taking the challenge need to be mindful of the environment they are in: take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints, the saying goes.
That's what we tried to do, but we also lost two Jawbone Ups on Ben Nevis, got a Samsung Galaxy S6 waterlogged on Scafell, and hit a seagull on the M74 southbound with a Discovery. Sorry about that.
We went in search of incredible and we found it. There had been a dream of breath-taking views and walking on a warm summer's evening under the stars. Instead we had snow, face-stinging rain and no escape from the low cloud. But we're left with reflections on a great adventure to go with the sore legs.
Thanks to those who came along and those who made it possible, from Asus, Land Rover, Berghaus and Under Armour, and all those at Team Pocket-lint who planned, cooked, organised and made it happen.