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Completing the Three Peaks Challenge Sustainably

Posted 20th April 2022

Climb Snowdon - Completing the Three Peaks Challenge Sustainably

You’re considering attempting the National Three Peaks Challenge and want to find out more. You’ve looked at the numbers, studied the route and checked your diary for a free weekend. But have you thought about how you can achieve the challenge in a sustainable way?

In this in-depth guide, we’ll look at what you can do to ensure your Three Peaks attempt is as sustainable as possible. In doing so, we’ll look at some of the problems climbing all three peaks in 24 hours poses, and how you can consider overcoming these.

Climb Snowdon - Completing the Three Peaks Challenge Sustainably

What is the Three Peaks Challenge?

Over a remarkably short period, the Three Peaks Challenge has become one of the best-known charity challenge events in the UK. It involves scaling Wales, Scotlands and England’s three highest peaks. These are Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon), Ben Nevis and Scafell Pike, respectively. Not so tricky, you say? There’s a catch. Participants typically try to scale all three peaks in 24 hours. That’s right – “a single day”.

There’s no doubt that this is a seriously tough challenge. If you’re hoping to complete the challenge, you’ll have to walk approximately 42 kilometres and tackle a total ascent of around 3,000 metres. Some of that climbing will take place in the dark, too. Even in the middle of summer, there are simply not enough daylight hours to fit it all in.

You’ll also have to travel between the three mountains. More often than not, this means jumping in the car, minibus or coach and spending a considerable amount of time, over 11 hours, on the motorways and country lanes across the country. This tends to be the less enjoyable element of the challenge and one of the main aspects that come in for criticism.

A Quick Look at the Concerns

Over the years, the challenge has been on the receiving end of a fair amount of criticism. Most of this criticism is well-founded and is something that should be taken into consideration if you’re thinking of taking on the challenge.

Later in this article, we’ll take a deeper dive into each of the main areas of criticism and look at ways you can mitigate damage and make the event more sustainable. But for now, we’ll give you a brief overview.

Broadly speaking, the main issues with the Three Peaks Challenge are:

● Environmental damage and degradation
● The wider environmental, social and health implications of transporting participants from peak to peak.
● The impact large numbers of participants have on local communities

At Climb Snowdon, we’re not anti-Three Peaks Challenge. In fact, we’ve helped organise and participated in a great many iterations of this challenge since 1999; have contributed to best practice articles and booklets, as well as giving talks at national forums. However, we do believe it’s irresponsible to simply ignore any negative effects the challenge may have. That’s why we want to try and encourage participants to think about the way they can organise a more sustainable challenge.

We love to see people out on the peaks and engaging with nature. It gives us great joy to help people experience the wonders of Yr Wyddfa, Ben Nevis and Scafell Pike. But we also have a responsibility towards the environment and the generations that come after us.

If we’re to safeguard these natural treasures and iconic landscapes, we need to consider how we can protect them, ensure they’re not solely perceived as a resource and consumed as a commodity, and accept a role as stewards of the land. To put it more simply, we need to think a little more carefully about how we live, move and enjoy ourselves in nature.

The Three Peaks and Environmental Sustainability

More people are enjoying the British countryside than ever before. It’s a wonderful thing. Being out in nature allows us to decompress, unwind and detach ourselves from the troubles and stresses of the daily grind. It keeps us fit and healthy and it’s proven to help with mental health problems such as anxiety and depression (Mind).

However, if all that outdoor activity is restricted to a handful of mountains, it starts to cause significant environmental damage. During the summer months, littering can be a big problem on all three peaks. The sheer number of visitors also damages paths and natural habitats, resulting in expensive repairs for national parks to manage and this can’t always be carried out during the “off season”.

Climb Snowdon - Completing the Three Peaks Challenge Sustainably

An influential article in Summit, the magazine published by the British Mountaineering Council, even suggested that the money raised by participants pales in comparison with the amount spent by (admittedly different) charities to repair the damage done to these mountains by participants. In response, supporters of the event argue that the number of people participating is a fraction of the total visitor count for all of these mountains and their share of the damage is negligible when compared with everyday hikers.

How You Can Minimise Your Environmental Impact

Whichever side of the debate you fall on, we can all agree that our environmental impact needs to be minimised if you’re to participate in a sustainable challenge. There are several ways you can do this:

● Make sure you pack-out everything you pack-in. Leave no trace! That includes rubbish, toilet paper and anything else you may have brought with you
● Keep to established trails and be mindful of how you climb. Though you may feel under pressure to complete the event in the designated time period, that doesn’t mean your group needs to come thundering down the mountain like a herd of elephants or racing through quiet local villages in the small hours with engines revving!
● Speak to an experienced hiker/mountain leader and ask them how you can climb responsibly
● Consider an alternative event in a different location. But more on this later on!
● Donate your time and energy to one (or all) of the three conservation groups that protect these environments. They are Friends of Nevis, Fix the Fells and the Snowdonia Society.

The Three Peaks Challenge’s Impact on Local Communities

Yr Wyddfa, Ben Nevis and Scafell Pike all define the communities that live around them. They dominate the landscape, they affect the weather, they fundamentally alter the way we move around the landscape, dictating where we can and can’t go. In other words, they’re an integral part of residents’ everyday lives.

Another way they have a significant effect on local communities relates to the number of visitors they attract. Most residents accept that the mountains bring both the good and the bad. Tourism stimulates the local economy, creates jobs and provides communities with the revenue required to support each other and the local area. However, during the summer months, the numbers can lead to big problems with littering, anti-social behaviour, traffic and noise. You only have to look at the horror stories from last year’s COVID-fuelled staycation boom to realise that more visitors isn’t always beneficial for local communities.

With the Three Peak Challenge, it’s even more complex and confusing. Residents complain that it brings all the negative aspects of mass tourism without any of the positives. They have to put up with the noise, litter and crowds but, because participants are racing between the peaks, they don’t stop to spend any time or money in the local community.

Climb Snowdon - Completing the Three Peaks Challenge Sustainably

How You Can Have a Positive Impact on Local Communities

There are a few things in particular that drive locals mad. One of them is the way that Three Peaks participants often cause a lot of noise at unsociable hours. As you’re attempting all three climbs in 24 hours, you’ll be doing some of the climbs in the dark and will be dropped off at a ridiculously early hour of the morning. Large groups of excited hikers are not quiet.

Residents also complain about litter and traffic. We’ve already mentioned our pack-in, pack-out policy and we’ll be talking about transport in a moment, so we’ll leave those for now. To summarise, you can have a positive impact on the local community by:

● Spending your money in those local communities. Organise the challenge with a local provider, extend your stay by booking a B&B and finding a local restaurant to celebrate your achievement, and buy your outdoor gear from a local shop
● Watch the noise. Try to be as quiet and respectful as possible when around residential areas and don’t linger for too long. Get out of the minibus and go!
● Make sure you don’t litter and that everything you take on to the mountain leaves with you
● Wherever possible, try and minimise traffic and congestion by utilising public transport…

The Three Peaks Challenge and Transport

One of the most controversial aspects of the Three Peaks Challenge is the transport between each of the peaks. What most people don’t tell you about the event is that you have to drive a total of 450 miles to get between the mountains. Sometimes that means 11+ hours of your day is spent on the roads. For a challenge that’s all about experiencing the most magnificent peaks in the UK, that’s a lot of time in a vehicle.

Some people self-organise and travel between the peaks by car. This is by far the least efficient and environmentally damaging way to travel. We would strongly encourage you to look at alternative means of transport as not only is small-scale private transport the most environmentally harmful but it also contributes to unsustainable levels of traffic in the areas around the three mountains. Besides, who wants to have to drive after all that climbing?

Though they have their own problems and residents really do despair at the sight of dozens of minibuses pulled up along local lanes and in car parks, minibuses and coaches are certainly better than private cars. The best way of arranging these is through experienced local event organisers.

How You Can Travel More Sustainably

If you’re planning a sustainable Three Peaks event, the first thing you need to think about is how you’re getting to your start location and back home from your final mountain. We believe that the most sustainable means of doing so is via public transport, i.e. train or coach.

The second thing you need to consider is how you’re getting between the mountains. If you’re committed to doing the challenge in a day, we suggest you avoid travelling by car and opt for a minibus or coach. However, there are alternatives. If you prefer to prioritise sustainability over completing all three peaks in a day, you can easily plan ahead and use public transport to move between them.

Climb Snowdon - Completing the Three Peaks Challenge Sustainably

What if you want to be more sustainable while also upping the challenge? You could walk or cycle between the peaks. It’s been done before. In fact, we helped Radio 1 DJ Greg James accomplish this mammoth feat in his Gregathlon: Pedal to the Peaks for Sport Relief challenge.

But we understand that not everyone has the time nor the resources for these longer challenges so, with that in mind, here are our recommendations for planning sustainable travel:

● Avoid travelling to, from and between the peaks by private car. It’s environmentally unsustainable and contributes to significant traffic problems at the peaks
● Share transport with others – this will probably mean contacting a challenge organiser to help you organise a minibus or coach for your group or to match you up with other people if you’re participating on your own or in a small group
● Consider extending the challenge over a longer period so that you can make the most of public transport or even walk or cycle!

Consider Alternative Events

We understand the appeal of the Three Peaks Challenge – we feel it too! However, throughout this guide, we’ve dropped a few hints that there are alternative options to consider. If you’re really serious about being as sustainable as possible, this might be your best way to go.

While most of these don’t currently have the name recognition of the Three Peaks Challenge, some of them are actually equal to, if not a fair bit harder (if that’s what you’re interested in). When you consider that the National Three Peaks Challenge includes 11+ hours in a vehicle, they’re all considerably prettier overall, too.

Welsh 3000s

This is one of the alternative challenges that’s actually much harder than the Three Peaks. It consists of walking all 15 of Wales’ 3,000+ feet peaks within 24 hours. More time on your feet, less on the road and beautiful landscapes the whole day long. There’s not a motorway in sight! You can split this over 2 or even 3 days if you wanted to make it more achievable

Edale Skyline

This is a 12-hour walk that takes in the ridgeline that encircles the Peak District village of Edale. It’s jaw-droppingly gorgeous, a decent challenge and it’s walking all the way.

Yorkshire Three Peaks

Taking in Whernside (736m), Ingleborough (723m) and Pen-y-Ghent (694m), the Yorkshire Three Peaks takes around 12 hours and is a formidable challenge. Though most people start in Horton-in-Ribblesdale, you can pick up the circular route anywhere that’s convenient.

Three Peaks Over Three Months

Rather than doing the Three Peaks in a single day, why not do them over three days, three weeks, three months or even three years. Not only does this let you minimise your environmental impact by using more sustainable transport and allow you to stay in the local area, but it also means you can raise a bit more money. Three Peaks in Three Years means three fundraising opportunities and we have worked with a number of charities such as OSCARS Paediatric and Radnor House School to do just this with huge success!

Your Own Personal Challenge

Finally – and this is our favourite option – why not create your own challenge? There’s a whole world out there to explore and an endless array of ways to do it. You can walk, cycle, climb or swim. You can stay in your own backyard or you can travel enormous distances. You can go places you’ve never been and do things that no one’s ever done. If that sounds like a bit of you, we would love to help you organise your own personal challenge in Eryri (Snowdonia) or anywhere else really because we love adventures!.

Working with Three Peaks Experts

Finally, we think it’s necessary to say that one of the best ways you can guarantee a sustainable Three Peaks Challenge is by making the most of an organiser’s experience and expertise. RAW Adventures has been helping people organise their Three Peak Challenge for a considerable number of years and is committed to doing so in the most sustainable way possible.

It’s local to Eryri and the guides’ in-depth knowledge of Yr Wyddfa is second to none. They’ll help you plan, organise and execute the trip and provide you with all the support and guidance you need to complete the challenge. Good luck!