We piled into the van at 6am in early March, pulling open the door to the musty smell of our hiking shoes and damp waterproofs. Having eased ourselves between bags of snacks and assorted Gore-Tex we set off for a small café which marks the start of the Yorkshire Three Peaks.
Established in 1887, the three peaks trail undulates for 40 kilometres through the heart of rural Yorkshire, across purple heather moorland, under the great Ribblehead Viaduct and over the stone fell paths of Ingleborough, Whernside and Pen-y-Ghent. With nearly 5000 ft of climbing, the views of the Yorkshire Dales are spectacular from their summits. In bad weather though, you can see very little, as we were to quickly learn.
The third wave of the eastern snow storm that battered the North for much of last winter may seem an ill-advised time to embark on such a journey, but with Nathan’s parents Anita and Marcus having travelled up for the Easter weekend, we waved the poor forecast and set out.
Shivering in the rickety Pen-y-ghent café at the head of the trail, we huddled around our coffee cups as the proprietor lined up an ever greater assortment of navigation aids on the counter, peering at us with an unmasked scepticism. “Wouldn’t expect you’d be back before dark” he mumbled, gesturing hopefully to the shelves of maps and compasses behind him, adding in a bodeful drawl more fitting to Filch from Hogwarts “gets awfully dangerous after dark out there”. Nathan and I shared an apprehensive look over our Americanos. “I assume you do know how to use a compass” he guffawed, as Anita’s eyes visibly bulged.
Half an hour, a hurried navigation tutorial and £8 later, we left the café. Warmed from the coffee and reassured to have our new compass safe in the netting of our pack, we began to climb. Keeping close to the dry stone wall where we were bothered less by residual snow and strong winds, we ambled towards the first peak, heaving our boots through the boggy terrain and chatting about the challenge ahead.
Though the smallest of the three peaks, Pen-y-Ghent is considered to be one of the trickier accents on the circuit. After a gentle incline, the path climbs steeply to the summit in a jagged ‘Z’ of muddy rock and eroded stone pathways. We rambled upwards through the bitter wind, carefully placing our feet between the icy boulders. Conversation quickly died, along with any hope we may have had for a gentle trot around the Dales. We summited at 9:30am and between wheezes and spluttering, celebrated with the first flapjack of many.
The descent from Pen-y-Ghent first follows the Pennine Way path before dropping to meet a plain of boggy grassland. Much like an oversized muddy treadmill, the walk between the first and second peak stretches out for 12 miles with the distant ridge of Whernside rising from the horizon but never seeming to get any closer. We meandered through seemingly endless farmland dotted with sheep and agricultural buildings, the ripe scent of mud growing stronger as it soaked further into our boots until eventually, the great arches of the Ribblehead Viaduct came into view. Built in 1870, this feat of Victorian engineering breaks apart the Ribble valley for 400m. The structure carries the Settle-Carlisle railway across Batty Moss, and for the weary hiker, provides a prime spot for flapjack consumption before a winding accent of peak two, Whernside.
With the highest point in Yorkshire looming, this stretch of the hike felt by far the most challenging. Winding up along the steep fell path to summit, we trudged less spiritedly, taking stock of the aches and niggles taking root in our knees and hips. Shared looks from under the visors of our wind beaten hoods revealed a wavering confidence as Anita and Marcus dropped back to rest by the side of the trail. At 1pm, we stood weary and damp on the summit, pleased to have another peak under our belts. Obligatory flapjack eaten, we began the trek down via a steep and ill-defined scattering of stone platforms. Getting down Whernside was perhaps an even greater challenge than scaling it – vertiginous slopes and eroded paths made keeping our feet planted difficult. Once on level ground, we regrouped and Anita and Marcus decided to loop back to the van along flat terrain, leaving Nathan and I to attempt the last peak of the day.
With the 12 mile slog over the Ribble Valley fresh in our minds, it came as a pleasant surprise to pass the remaining distance to the foot of Ingleborough in good time, even managing to jog the final stretch to the Old Hill Inn, which marks the beginning of the last climb. Clambering up the grassy incline and balancing along raised wooden board walkways, we were approaching what appeared to be an impassable bank of scree over a vast bog. Little by little a jagged path emerged up the side of the mountain. The steep, near vertical staircase brought us to a final ridge from which we stumbled across the plateau in slow motion like strange Gore Tex clad lunar explorers, blind in the heavy cloud and struggling to keep upright in the fast winds.
Any elation at having reached the top of the third peak quickly diffused and our plaintive ‘hurrays’ were lost into the the thick raincloud as it billowed over the plateau, obscuring the route off the side. Buoyed by the assurance of soon returning to the warmth of the van though, we covered the remaining 9 miles more enthusiastically. With the promise of rested feet and respite from the wind, we hurried down the trail, chattering about what our next challenge might be.
Clocking in at 9 hours and a half, we finally pulled open the van door and slumped onto the back bench, letting the tonic of wilderness and accomplishment wash over our weary bodies. Shivering under our camping blanket, we gazed vacantly at our muddy boots, our minds quickly turning to the open fire, Anita, Marcus and a celebratory flapjack waiting for us at the country pub as the sun dipped below the treeline and out of sight.