“I don’t think I can go to sleep. You’re vibrating,” my husband told me from his side of the double bed in the B and B. I was a bit shocked but guess I shouldn’t have been – the intensity of the anxiety and anticipation running through my veins probably could have triggered seismic action had we been near a fault line.
The start of this story actually goes back to the end of my last big adventure. Coming down off Aconcagua in a state of utter exhaustion, I received a congratulatory message from a former colleague in the UK. To my response that while happy, I felt I needed a break from the big mountains, he immediately said, “Well if that’s true, why don’t you come do the Welsh3000 Challenge with us!” The description of climbing the 15 highest peaks in Wales in less than a day sounded perfect. No long travel time, not a multi-week expedition, no altitude acclimatization and loads of beautiful scenery. I signed up within days and recruited my husband to join. And then a couple months later, decided to inform myself about the mountains involved.
I searched out some photos and videos on the web. And saw people scrambling over a very rocky ridge with vertical drops on both sides. It’s called Crib Goch, and it’s not for the faint of heart. Then I saw some grassy hills, vistas down to the sea, meandering trails and fields of giant boulders. And relaxed again into my pre-disposed idea that this would be a good break from the “real stuff.” I continued training (as obviously climbing 15 mountains – even small ones – is going to require physical fitness). But I didn’t wander around wearing weights on my ankles or carrying backpacks loaded with weights or even doubling down on workouts. Until about 6 weeks ago, when my husband asked, “did you realize that this thing is like 50 km long or something?” Hmmmm. I had no idea, but couldn’t actually admit that. So I waved the comment off and flippantly said something along the lines of “It’s not exactly summiting Aconcagua – these mountains are only 3000ft high.” Isn’t living in denial a comfortable existence?
But his concern and continual insistence on doing 15-20km runs (most of which I did not join him on) eventually made me look a bit deeper. This time I googled not photos, but text….and was slightly appalled at what I found. There were the harrowing descriptions of 40-50km hikes, covering close to 4000m of elevation gain (that is more than climbing from Chamonix to the top of Mont Blanc in one go!), and people staying on their feet for 18, 21, 23 hours and more. And the stories of deaths during people’s attempts at completing the 15 Peaks challenge. Suddenly my languid approach to training seems like utter foolishness. I frantically plan a few weekends in the mountains, throwing in the occasional interval workout, and get through 3 seasons of Orange is the New Black while on the rowing machine and lifting weights.
And here we are, in the charming village of Betws-y-Coed, unable to sleep because I’m vibrating. We met the team in the van transfer up – they collected us from Birmingham airport and the evening included a team dinner and briefing. We’ve got some tri-athletes on the team, everyone has done training trips with Nick (the former colleague now running his own venture Fitways Adventures – highly recommendable!), and most are a part of his training groups at home. We’re the unknown factor in the team and I’m wondering how I’ll keep up. Or even how I’ll finish, for that matter.
At 2:53am, I wake up a full 7 minutes before the alarm goes off. We have to be suited up and in the van ready to depart at 3:20. It’s just a matter of contact lenses, throwing on clothes, grabbing hats, gloves and headlamp, and doing a final check on last night’s packing. At 3:14 we head down the stairs. Two flights of stairs, which even in my still-sleep-befuddled brain are registered as a potential major issue when we return. And at 3:19 everyone’s in the van, rolling away and towards the start point. Nick reminds us all that we’ll depart the parking lot at 4:00 for an easy-paced walk up to the first peak and the start of the actual challenge. He stresses the importance of staying within our aerobic limits and not going anaerobic, especially on this hike up, since it does not count in the challenge result.
A short time later, we are on the trail, headlamps lighting the wet rocks beneath us and I’m breathing hard as I try to prevent a gap opening between myself and the guy in front of me. My brain is screaming at me that if this is an “easy pace,” I’m utterly screwed.
And then I’m not. The start of the challenge is also the most technical part of the day, scrambling across the ridge from Crib Goch to Garnedd Ugain. Our guides emphasize safety over speed for this part of the day. The views from up here must be amazing, but the day dawns with the mountains enveloped in fog and visibility limited to a few meters. I’m not even really sorry, as it means that I don’t see the vertical drop on both sides of the ridge. Even on the damp, slippery rocks, I’m faster than I would be if my head started becoming the obstacle; with a clear view, it most certainly would. So I cheer the fog and scramble along my merry way, settling into the movement and route and forgetting my concerns.
The third summit is Snowdon (the highest of the 15 peaks), where we take a team photo and then jog off down the train tracks. Nick reminds us that we’ve now completed what “for the average Joe is a day’s hike” and for us, it’s 6:30am. We’re off to a good start and continue jogging until we have to turn off the train tracks and cross country it down a steep, grassy, very wet slope. A bit treacherous here and several people slip and slide but thankfully without real injury. We hit the road at the bottom and jog along it until we reach the parking lot and the waiting van. Nick starts the clock and reminds us that in 20 minutes, we will be walking again.
I all but dive into the our duffel bag, searching for a dry set of hiking pants and socks. Strip down, pull on new stuff, and then trade my hiking boots for trail runners. Somewhere in the process, Nick pushes a hot cup of tea into my hands and tells me to eat. Race off to the side to take a pee – no time to run to the restrooms – and then grab a bacon sandwich and try to eat it. My mouth is dry and it’s hard to chew the bread. After eating most if it, I hand the rest to my husband and chug a sports drink as I hear the 3 minute warning call. Fill my camel back, grab a few Power Bars, pour some trail mix into one pocket and some gummi candies in another, and shoulder my pack – it’s time to go.
Leg 2 starts with, in Nick’s words, “an absolute pig of a slog” up to the summit of Elidir Fawr. It’s an 800m ascent without a real trail, traipsing up a grassy hillside and through veritable swamps as we search out the best possible way forward. And it’s steep – very steep. Our group begins to stretch out, scattered across the slope. I pass a couple of guys who are breathing even harder than I am, and wonder if this is the point where we will break into 2 separate groups. And which group will I join? I’m ascending strongly now – ascents are my strength. I’m slower on the descents, especially when steep and technical. But can I keep this pace for another 35 km? GROAN – still 35km – really?!
We finally reach the summit and regroup, those of us at the front anxious to get moving again as the cold wind chills us even through our hardshells and windstoppers. We walk through fog for a bit longer, come up over another bump only to learn that it’s not one of the 15 peaks – this one doesn’t count, since it’s not over 3000ft high. Sigh – and jog for a bit to cover more ground (there are several km between Elidir Fawr and Y Garn, which is the 4th peak). The sky now begins to clear and we’re rewarded with some beautiful views of the lakes below. One of our guides points out the next break spot and the very long route we still need to take before going there, crossing over 4 more of the peaks. We’re mostly feeling good and anxious to move, jogging the flats and easy downhills and feeling annoyed at the frequent stops and waiting imposed by the guides. One team member is having knee problems which make descents painful and slow for her, but for some reason the guides are still keeping the group intact. I feel a bit self-centered as the frustration rises, but can’t keep the emotional component in check. We have a goal, after all – and I know I can’t go any faster than I already am. So every minute spent waiting is a minute lost.
The third ascent in this leg is another steep one, and I’m thankful that the ground is still wet. It holds the dirt together a bit. Otherwise, we’d be sliding back with each step on all the loose stones and earth. As it is, we make good time and have the added motivation that this is a two-fer; when we reach this summit, we basically get the next as well, since the distance between them is quite flat. At the top of Glyder Fawr, we once again regroup (some of us chomping at the bit). The terrain is incredible, the peaks decorated with massive boulders piled up in amazing architectural-looking formations. It’s hard to believe this is all natural. The expanse between our two-fer peaks is an enormous field of rock, and we scramble across the stones as quickly as we safely can. It would be all too easy to sprain an ankle here, which would put an end to the challenge. Once across the field of stones, we climb up a mound of huge boulders to tag the summit of Glyder Fach. Guide and teammates spot for each other on some of the more precarious sections and this is my favorite part of the day, enjoying the climbing and then quickly looking around at the landscape to admire the gigantic rocks surrounded by green hills and lake-filled valleys.
And off again to Tryfan! This requires a steep descent of about 200m down a scree slope. Loose rocks, sketchy footing and tired legs combine to make this my least-favorite part of the day. I say a silent prayer of thanks that Nick brought along poles for me to use, since I couldn’t bring mine on the plane in carry-on luggage. Climbing up the rocky peak of Tryfan is again to my liking, but I’m so tired and worn out at this point. The sartorius and pectineus muscles in my upper thigh feel like a rubber-band that’s been stretched too far. Increasingly often I find the question crossing my mind: am I going to tear a tendon? I bash a finger on a stone, stow my borrowed trekking poles for the final climb to the summit, and bang my knee (again – it took a blow in the wee hours of the morning already!) and then I’m there. Arm in the air, a quick “yay!” and I turn back for the excruciatingly long, steep descent. A little over 600 vertical meters later, I’m hobbling at a slight jog into the parking area for another warp-speed break.
But then it’s not. Nick still keeps his eye on the watch, but seeing the condition we’re in, he’s also letting a little buffer play out. I slap some blister bandaids over a few hot spots on my feet, change socks and shoes, grab a plate of spaghetti bolognese and chug a sports drink. During a quick pow-wow with Nick, I share my frustration over the lost time during leg 2 through all the waiting, and my inability to go faster to make any of it up. I’m also frank with my concern that I might be holding the amibtious tri-athletes back – I dragged behind considerably on the descent and I’m not sure I can hold the pace. He takes immediate action and starts shuffling things around, enabling us to create 3 groups: a fast group, a 2nd group, and the final group consisting of our injured team member, who amazingly is determined to see it through despite the knee pain. Impressive (both his logistical flexibility and her determination)!
35 minutes later, we’re heading off on the final leg. Pockets again filled with snacks and plenty to drink for these final 19km. The fast group gets off about 90 seconds before we (the 2nd group) leave, and head straight up the mountain side. Our guide tells us that we’re going to walk first along the mountain and take a different ascent, which he thinks is a better way up. We follow along….and along….and along. As we round the far side of the mountain, we ask “shouldn’t we be headed UP?” and he says it’s just ahead. I begin cursing as it’s now clear that while the nicer ascent path, this route added about 4 km to our total distance. And it’s the distance that’s killing me and costing time – the elevation we have to cover is the same either way! Achim listens to me for a few minutes and then tells me to just get over it. We agree that I’m allowed one last curse of lost time and extra distance and then I’ll just buckle down and do whatever I can to increase speed and compensate. Which I do – after a short climb over some large boulders, we reach a steep zig-zag trail towards the summit and I cut out some of the zigs and zags, taking as direct a route as possible. Achim is suffering from having eaten too much too quickly at the last break, and as I regain my strength and ascent-legs, he drags behind and fights his way up. Amazingly, I’m feeling good again. There’s still strain on the key hip flexor muscles but they are working and I’m climbing faster. As we summit, we see the group ahead of us – pretty much exactly by the extra 4 km we walked down below. So we’re pacing along with them and could have remained in one group, after all. We decide to speed up and work on closing the gap, still aiming for a 14 hour (minus breaks) completion.
The next summit only entails a slight ascent, and then we opt for difficult terrain to circumvent a peak and save on elevation, first rounding Carnedd Llewelyn to tag Yr Elen, then ascending Llewelyn. This is a very tough 100m ascent – not because it’s particularly long or overly steep, but just because I’m now utterly exhausted. On our way up, we see Nick and Hazel on the traverse to Yr Elen – she is moving remarkably quickly given the injury. I wave, silently wish them good luck, and put my head down again as I trudge up the mountain. From the summit, we look across the high meadows towards the remaining peaks. They seem to extend forever. We begin yet another descent and I mumble to Achim, “I don’t know if I can do it. I don’t know how I can possibly still walk so far.” He says, “Of course you can do it!” And really, I know he’s right. There’s not really much choice in the matter – I’m here and the only option I have is to keep walking. He asks if I would like some trail mix, some dried fruit, and every time I shake my head “no,” whatever is in his hands lands in the grass. Aha! Someone dropping ballast over there to make the going a bit easier.
We pick our way down through a rocky field and when we hit a trail, we begin jogging. The change in motion is a relief, although the energy required doesn’t seem to exist in my body. I chew some gummi candies, drink something, and keep moving in a shuffling jog until the next ascent becomes too much and I slow back to a trudge. We come up over a peak that our guide informs us doesn’t count (it’s not over 3000ft), I groan and we lapse back into a jog of sorts. As we tag Foel Grach and have only 2 more peaks to go, our guide gives us the time and says, “if you really want it, you can make it.” We jog along, shuffle, scramble. The guys jump over swampy areas, I scamper around and across as best I can (jumping is out of the question) and we reach Garnedd Uchaf. One more to go!
Once more, we take off at the fastest jog we can manage. As we approach Foel Fras, we see the group ahead of us just leaving the cairn. We pick our way over the field of boulders and touch the cairn with 5 minutes to spare. I’m almost too weary to bother with a photo. Luckily, my husband insists on it and I’m relieved to have the achievement somewhat immortalized. We then look down the path at the guys ahead, knowing we’ve still got a long way to go (in fact, around 6.5 km, which I luckily only learned after-the-fact).
Our guide says, “You could catch them and make it first to the van.” We look at each other, shrug with a what-the-hell look, and head off at a rapid clip. As we get closer, we realize that some of the other guys are walking a bit crooked. I’m obviously not the only one feeling it, and that gives me new strength. We catch up, congratulate the others, and continue walking until my bladder insists on a break. So we let everyone pass us again to give me some privacy – well worth it as the rest of the descent is easier to take. It seems to go on forever, and our pace slackens with every passing km until I begin to wonder if we will ever actually reach the end. Rounding a corner, I shout out exuberantly “there it is! The van!” We limp across the final 100m and drop down anywhere for a drink and to take the weight off our poor feet. We’ve finished the challenge within our defined goal and made it to the end without having to don headlamps. I almost want to cry in relief. Within minutes, I am shaking and trembling with cold, so I change out of my sweaty base layer into something dry, climb in the van with everyone else, and we let the engine – and the heater – run while we wait for the final climbers to return. We must have looked like a van-load of zombies.
Sunday morning, I wake up feeling elated…until I try to lift my legs over the side of the bed. Yep, muscles on strike and the 2 flights down to breakfast will be torture. Hunger convinces me it’s worth it, and we meet the group for a wonderful English breakfast while we swap stories and thoughts and experiences of the previous day and other adventures. Once again, adrenaline overcomes exhaustion and I’m almost hyper-active (in a robotic-moving way) as we finish breakfast and packing up. In the van, exhaustion takes the overhand and I sleep until we reach the airport and a well-earned celebratory cocktail before the trip home. I have a new respect for what the Welsh3000 challenge entails, and we’re already calculating what we thing an ambitious, achievable time for a repeat attempt might be!