By Alex Staniforth
In July 2011, I became the youngest person in history to complete the British Three Peaks Challenge solo, at the age of 16.
The challenge involves climbing the three highest mountains in the UK: Ben Nevis in Scotland, Scafell Pike in England and Snowdon in Wales – in that order and within a tough time limit of 24 hours.
To succeed, you must climb more than 10,000ft and walk 24 miles, as well as drive in excess of 500 miles between the peaks. For a novice like me, it’s the best introduction to adventuring I could have asked for and it’s left me wanting much more.
The adrenaline was pumping by the time me and my driver, step-dad Chris, arrived at the foot of Ben Nevis, the first of the Three Peaks Challenge climbs. I started the timer and up I went, setting off up the section known as “Heartbreak Hill”.
I had soon climbed a couple hundred feet and great views over the surrounding mountains and dense pine forests appeared below me, with the winding road we had arrived on disappearing into a tiny speck, just like me and my rucksack against the vast peak.
But the views were short-lived, because as I got higher up, to about 3,000ft, the air grew colder and the wind began to deafen out my iPod. Up ahead, the fog had sunk, crashing into the rocky edge of the mountain and leaving a distinct line of blindness and poor weather that I knew I had to go into.
Not long after, the first drops of rain started to hit me in the face and, looking to my left, there were no longer Munro mountains to marvel at in the distance, just murkiness.
I raced on through the bleak weather, squinting into the grey, until I stumbled across the shadow of the highest war memorial in the UK, signalling that I had made it to Ben Nevis’ 1,344m summit.
The weather was abysmal and I had no one to share the moment with, but I was an hour ahead of my Three Peaks Challenge schedule and, for a few moments, I was the highest person in Great Britain.
It was an amazing feeling and I duly descended in high spirits, pulling another 30 minutes ahead of schedule in the process and completing the ascent and descent in a confidence-boosting four hours.
After a quick snack in the minibus, we set off on the six-hour journey to Scafell Pike, in England’s Lake District, snatching a few hours’ sleep on the way.
We arrived at my second mountain at 3am, which was a strange time to be eating pasta and drinking isotonic fluids, but I was nevertheless raring to go, despite feeling tired.
The anxieties of Scafell Pike’s notorious difficult navigation built up, but the clear morning skies at dawn looked awesome. The neighbouring Wastwater Lake was beautifully calm and an amazing, peaceful atmosphere prevailed.
Before I was fully awake I had already set off up the steep path, still ahead of schedule. The adrenaline was pumping, the cloud was high in the sky and the quiet dawn breeze was lovely.
I only saw three other people on the mountain and I flew past them as I made my rapid ascent of just over one-and-a-half hours. I followed the cairns until the summit peered into view as the rocky terrain levelled out.
At 978m, I was now the highest person in England, again completely alone, but with amazing, almost lunar scenery all around me. Scafell Pike is the most difficult summit to reach and had been my biggest Three Peaks Challenge worry, but it was now in the bag.
However, after getting some pictures and admiring the views from the top, I lost focus on the descent just below the summit and veered off the path. A short scramble got me back on course, but if the cloud had sunk, it would have been a different story. Luck was on my side.
To make up time I began to run down, which made my feet burn, but just under three hours and 20 minutes after leaving, I was running towards the minibus in the Wasdale Head car park shouting “Go, go, go!”
Chris kindly had a cup of hot chocolate waiting for me and I would soon find it useful that I had remained in my waterproof trousers, as the potholed country lanes sent the scalding contents over my lap.
I was too full of adrenaline to sleep on the drive to Snowdon, even though I badly needed it. On the way, I staggered into a service station on my tired legs to get some coffee to keep us both going for the final leg.
The weather was good, the cloud had lifted and the rain had long gone. I had obviously pleased the mountain gods somewhere down the line. But I felt physically sick and exhausted by the time we arrived in Wales for my final Three Peaks Challenge hurdle.
After one last dose of Foo Fighters for good luck and a final energy drink, I threw the rucksack on, looked across the cars to Crib Goch in the distance and off I went, adrenaline in close tow.
I made really quick progress on the Pyg track, passing quite a few walkers who looked surprised at my level of fatigue, having climbed only a couple of hundred feet.
Further up, I climbed over a stile and got a great view down across the Miners’ Track towards Y Lliwedd and the striking blue Llyn Llydaw. Fantastic.
Time flew by and I gained height quickly. My ankles were flaring up, but I didn’t let it slow me down.
By the time I passed a marker stone where the Pyg and Miners’ tracks join, I had walked about 20 miles and climbed more than 8,000ft. Wind tickled my ears but the cloud cleared sufficiently for me to see the summit was only 20 minutes or so away.
After what seemed like no time at all, I was on the ridge that led to the top. I followed the trail and clambered up the steps to the trig point that marked the second highest point in the UK, and the highest in Wales, at 1,085m high. It had taken me about one-and-a-half hours to reach the top.
I sat and enjoyed the unclouded view, finished off the rest of the sugar in my bag, and for the third time proudly stretched out my Three Peaks Challenge banner and posed for a summit picture.
My ankles screamed at me as I ran down the ridge, but I needed to get some speed while the smooth paths allowed.
Before I knew it, I’d scrambled down the rockiest terrain of the path and was now standing at the edge of Glaslyn, on the Miners’ Track. I had just over three miles to go. I looked up at Snowdon, the third and final hurdle of the hardest 24 hours of my life, and smiled. I knew there was nothing stopping me anymore; I would be the youngest person to complete the Three Peaks Challenge solo.
The lake below was calm and gentle and the sun was shining. I was incredibly lucky. I looked back and thought that things couldn’t have gone better.
I wanted to beat the 22-hour mark and as I ran past a group of people who were descending when I was half way up, one of them shouted to me: “Slow down, kid, there’s no rush.” I wished I had time to turn around and say: “There is, actually.”
I once again put Foo Fighters on for the final 500m of the challenge. The best experience of my life was coming to an end and it was just how I had imagined. A sense of elation came over me.
I crossed the finishing line and proudly stopped my watch at 21 hours and 57 minutes, throwing my arms in the air with a loud cheer.
* Alex raised more than £1,700 for his two charities, REACT and Breakthrough Breast Cancer, by completing the Three Peaks Challenge, beating his target by £700. He was later selected as a London 2012 Olympics Torchbearer.
Follow Alex on Twitter @alex_staniforth
Three Peaks Challenge: http://www.thethreepeakschallenge.co.uk/