After months of training and planning for our uniquely different 3 day event, the Shepway Veterans complete the three tallest peaks in England, Scotland and Wales.
It had seemed a brilliant idea at the time: climbing the three highest peaks in Scotland, England and Wales to raise money for Tackle Prostate. We 7 men, Alistair, Martin, Brian, Mark, Simon, Kai and Ade from the Shepway area (Hythe and Folkestone) all aged over 45 came together after Alistair’s father-in-law, Graham lost his battle with Prostate Cancer. Alistair and Kai were chatting about doing a similar challenge to the National 3 Peaks 24-hour challenge and the Shepway Veterans was formed. After initial discussions, I approached the individuals to gain interest levels. Once the group was formed in June 2018, I then spent months planning the challenge. Clothes, walking boots, equipment (including a ton of blister plasters and Hypafix tape) transport and accommodation all had to be factored in. And of course we had to make sure we were physically fit. My training programme involved punishing 6-10-mile hikes up steep ascents around the local area, joined by others in the group as and when possible, hours in the gym on the Stairmaster and circuit training classes to get my fitness levels up. We also used the steps from the Folkestone Coastline up to The Leas Promenade and looped this several times as training sessions. Others walked their dogs and attended gyms and some went further afield to Majorca, Crete and other Belgium.
The departure date was comfortably distant: nothing to worry about. Then it was a week away, a day away… and suddenly it was here, today. I was beset with doubt. What was I thinking, skipping up mountains when I was terrified of heights? What if nerves got the better of me and I couldn’t go through with it, let everyone down? But it was too late to back out…….
Everyone arrived on time, sporting the newly printed soft shells and we piled into the taxi for the two-hour journey to Luton airport.
It was a comfortable, uneventful flight apart from an anxious moment when the hot sandwiches looked set to run out. I took the last bacon roll and felt horribly guilty.
We landed at Glasgow airport and met our designated driver, Andy, and were about to board the VW transporter (bus) when Kai had to rush back to airport to retrieve his passport, left on the plane . Thankfully a member of cabin crew recognised him from his photograph and alerted us otherwise it would have been a longer process to retrieve it.
Almost 3 hours later, we arrived at Ben Nevis Hotel & Leisure Club, crowded with coachloads of tourists (mostly German). But we weren’t here to laze about – we were here on a mission…
Everyone was in a reflective mood that night as we grabbed a bar meal and talked through our expectations of the climb and pick-up times. We treated ourselves to a single malt and retired to bed at 10.30. My sleep was interrupted with fears of missing the alarm clock, set for 0530 in order to allow me time to tape my feet….something never charted before and some might say as challenging as a climb?
Ben Nevis climb
I woke early to tape my feet with Hypafix (PHOTO) tape to prevent blisters as I hadn't worn boots for over a month. It was 0645 before I made it to the buffet-style breakfast. It was pretty decent - hearty and plenty of variety – though I could have done without the long queues. I went for the granola option as I didn't want to overload on the first day.
Our gear loaded onto the bus we were ready to take the short ride to our starting point: the base camp of Ben Nevis. I felt excited and nervous all at once. I had done my research and knew that this would be ‘all climb’ with little respite, so GoPro mounted onto my right pole, Suunto Spartan Ultra and heart rate monitor all set up to record my output, we gathered our daysacks and prepared for a team photo.
The weather was set to get worse as the day wore on, so we started around 0800. There were a few climbers at the start, and we exchanged customary greetings.
The view of the Glen was impressive and certainly set the scene for a hefty slog uphill. I was chosen to lead the guys on the first section (or until I was overtaken). The start wasn’t too bad-the constant uphill of the Stairmaster in the gym was paying off-and it soon started to have familiar larger stones and boulders crossing streams. The steps were becoming larger as we began to climb upwards. The pace was fast but not too fast as the Ben Nevis path chiselled itself in front of us. The steps cut into granite stones went on and on, up and up.
After almost 2 hours, we could see the summit and further zig-zag paths, about 5 in total-At this point climbers were coming up and down, some having started at first light-shorter in length, but steep and relentless. The group started to spread out as people got their breathing and space in the line in-tune with the mountain, ensuring a steady upward pace. As we neared the top, shouts of ‘Is this the first or last of the three?’ and ‘Only 10 mins to go’ rang out from fellow climbers, either on the way down or being overtaken by the orange patrol (us). Our bright orange rucksack covers and branded tops were doing their job in raising awareness of our challenge, easily seen and people asked about donating!!
I was feeling tired but was keeping a steady pace, I started to repeat my mantra: ‘I am a mountain goat. I am a mountain goat’, something I was told to say if I found things tough. And I did find it tough. The never-ending uphill stepping made my leg muscles cry out for relief. But I kept plodding forward, reciting my mantra silently (most of the time).
We finally spotted the summit of the mighty Ben Nevis; the mountain goat was going to make it! Spurred on by the offers of sweets from the goodie bags we provided from the guys, we all shared them out along the way. The instant injection of sweetness helped with our leg muscles, briefly relieving the constant, tired ache.
The summit reached, the weather began to close in and we started to worry about rain. Our descent was even more challenging. Tired limbs had to be placed carefully on the uneven surface to prevent a fall and the volume of steps was overwhelming. Mark stumbled and fell, ripping his trousers as his knee hit stones on the path.
I managed to keep my fear of heights under control most of the time. I guess my progress was slower than others in the team but I was more concerned about falling and hurting myself so I couldn’t climb the second peak. Despite his injury, Mark was able to make it down unaided.
Most of the group seemed in high spirits, despite the hard going which made the balls of my feet throb painfully. We had managed to ascend in about three hours; our descent took 3.75 hours. .
My calorie burn was over 9500 kcal for the climb and descent with an average heart rate of 162 BPM (beats per minute), peaking at 187 BPM, shows that extent of just how hard it was.
One peak conquered, two to go. Changed and ready for a five-and-a-half-hour drive to Scafell Pike, Lake District, Cumbria and our accommodation for the night, we sat rigid in the Transporter grabbing a snooze in between massaging our tired legs.
At the Scafell Hotel we ate, chatted about the options for climbing Scafell Pike, the highest peak in England. All the boys were feeling the pain of the climb and the fact that the drive didn’t allow us enough stretch time. Mark’s knee was ok, no lasting damage thankfully. We decided to take the Corridor route, which was less steep and the easiest to reach from our hotel. It’s a longer route with some scrambling involved.... This would surely test my nerves.
Climbing Scafell Pike
06.20 and foot-taping time, a relative lie in!! I managed to get this completed faster than the previous day. Slightly hampered by tight calves and thighs and protesting leg muscles, I helped everyone load the van, then headed for breakfast. I chose smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, which was delicious and hopefully set me up for the climb.
It was a two-minute journey to Seathwaite and the start of the Corridor Route.
I was leading at the start followed by, Brian who kept encouraging me to keep going, even sharing the mountain goat mantra with me. Although the start seemed relentless, the steps cut into the mountain-side going on forever, I had a good feeling about Scafell Pike. Martin, one of our very competent and experienced team members, was at the back chatting with Kai, who had taped up his knees to protect them from the relentless pounding on the descent. Martin advised Kai to remove the tape as this was causing his knee joints to swell.
Tape off, we continued to the next POI or check point. It was at this point that we realised the route on the ordinance survey map was slightly misleading.
Brian and his handy Garmin GPS unit was struggling to get a signal and Simon, a seasoned and very experienced walker, scoured the area for the path to take us up to the plateau of Scafell Pike. We continued up a route for about 15-20 minutes only to discover that we had gone off the path and would have to turn back.
At this point two things happened. Kai's knee was too painful to continue and the United States Airforce (USAF) sent an F-15 Eagle, tactical fighter jet for a training flight in the valley below, which raised our spirits no end. It was decided that Simon, who had been up Scafell Pike twice before, would take Kai back down the mountain. Kai was gutted to have to pull out, he was feeling fit and the knee being swollen and painful had caused the end of Scafell Pike-we all hoped he would be fit for tomorrow. We said our goodbyes, all feeling a little sad that Kai couldn’t continue and began the next phase in the climb, which would challenge anyone remotely troubled by heights.
As we climbed the pairs toggled positions, not that it started like this, but naturally you can only really talk to one other when in single file and the chatter was positive. Martin had begun to offer me sweets and new mantras of ‘Only when he’s moving' and ‘Fancy sticky teeth, Al?’ were born.
We approached a waterfall gully and were told by Martin that there were two lots of scrambling on the Corridor Route. This was the first. Brian led, followed by Ade, Mark and me, with Martin at the back, the rear, offering advice and words of encouragement. The scramble wasn't too bad, but careful planning and the phrase ‘Three points of contact at all times’ became the new words of wisdom. We continued our relentless upwards climb with aching, tired limbs. The view was becoming trickier as cloud cover began to settle in. We carried on until we came to the second and more challenging of the climbs, or scramble.
This involved a climb over a ridge and down, where experience and a distinct lack of fear of heights in the team filled me with gratitude. Brian quickly went over and settled to assist with poles and bags, whilst I patiently waited for my turn. It dawned on me just why they call the Three Peaks a challenge. It’s not only physically gruelling but mentally challenging, even more so when you have a fear of heights. But we made it down, everyone encouraging each other and marched on.
We discussed how we could avoid the gully on the descent. I had convinced myself that we could scramble down the mountain to return to the path. Putting the thought to one side the focus was back on: ‘I am a mountain goat’ I repeated inside my head. Every step forward was a step nearer the top.
We reached the plateau where the shorter Wasdale route meets the only path to the summit. Decision for a quick photo and turnaround was mooted and we marched upwards. Reaching the summit after 3 hours 28 minutes, relieved that we had made it up, all felt a sense of achievement, the wind was gusting at 60 mph, cloud cover upon us we quickly ate, drank and began the descent. Martin remained near the rear, offering support as each step jarred my suffering joints and knees. I asked about the gully and whether we could climb down to avoid the big climb over the ridge. Martin quashed any thought of this and we found ourselves walking quietly in our heads to the dreaded, newly named ‘Gummy Bear Gully’.
Brian and Ade made their way up first before Brian returned to assist Mark and me (I swear he was a mountain goat in a previous life). I went next and forced myself not to think about falling. After words of wisdom and repeating ‘three points of contact’, Martin remained under me, stepping up as I did, pointing out where to put my hands and toes. I was almost near the top of the ridge! I reached a point where I had to hold my weight with my right leg. Stepping up, I pulled something in my upper thigh and groin area, but ignored the pain and carried on up. I reached the top and couldn't see or hear Ade, as the wind was howling around us. I began to panic, shouting, ‘Ade, Ade!’ Thankfully, I found him resting up above. Relieved, I waited for the rest as Mark challenged his own fears to get over the ridge.
With the hurdle over we now had the long walk back through the corridor. With no USAF fly- by to spur us on, I had to return to ‘I am a mountain goat’ over and over, to distract myself from my thigh muscles screaming at me and my balls of my foot aching with each step. We continued at a steady pace, heartened by the fact we would soon be back at bus basecamp and able to find out how Kai was. After what an eternity of steps and streams, we spotted Simon who had walked to meet us with the good news that Kai had made it down safely. We managed to get back to the bus after a gruelling 3hours 50 mins descent time. My injury, although I was determined to complete the challenge, affected my ability to lift my leg and the worry of another climb began to set in.
Just over 7 hours of challenging climbing, happy to be at the end of the route.
Thankfully the journey to Snowdonia was only 4.5 hours and we sat, comatose in the transported whilst our legs and muscles tightened, en-route to Llanberis, the spiritual home of Snowdon.
Later than we had hoped but mostly in one piece, we ate and had some drinks whilst discussing the potential routes for the ascent of Snowdon. Previous thoughts of the hardest being first and the last being the easiest, evaporated in my mind and the weather warning for the next day meant poor visibility and a challenging climb. We settled into bed after the ritualistic single malt.
Sleep came quicker than yesterday, mainly because I could hardly move. If I found it painful lying in bed, moving positions, how on earth was I going to cope with the potentially the most challenging climb of all?
Foot taping was a struggle, as my right leg had decided not to move at all. Dressing was hard, painful work. The idea of climbing another mountain filled me with dread.
Breakfast was swift and we readied ourselves for the climb. Miners Route was a good long warm up followed by a steep climb to the summit. Rain was forecast so we had our waterproof jackets at the ready for the first time this week.
The mood was quiet and subdued. Kai couldn’t participate in the final climb as his knee was too sore, so we said our goodbyes and made the 12-minute journey to the car park at Pen-y-Pass.
It began to drizzle and we stopped to put on waterproof trousers. Karl went ahead to get some shots, but as the weather closed in, he turned back for a wet walk to the car. We continued to walk, me hobbling as each step caused pain.
Martin and I bought up the rear while Brian and Simon began to search for the route with the GPS and map highlighted. I realised that Snowdon, the second tallest of the three peaks, was going to prove the most challenging. We passed a very steep scramble area and all I could think of was the fear of the climb, factoring in the wet and windy conditions. We met some fellow climbers who advised us not to take the route we were considering as it would kill us (their words). We continued around the rocky outcrop only to find that the steep bit was where we had to ascend. I was standing next to Mark and Ade, and reading each other’s expressions, we decided to say that we would rather go back and take the Llanberis route up, before Martin’s finger pointed upwards, stifled any thoughts of backtracking.
We began to climb. Scrambling for some is fun, but with one leg aching from the general abuse of three climbs in three days and the other injured, factored with a healthy fear of heights, to say I was slightly nervous would be a lie. Mark and Ade were also filled with anxiety. Simon, Brian and Martin reassured us that all would be well. In between the gusting wind and rain, I continued my mountain goat mantra while Martin supplied me with jellied sweets and malted loaf.
It was unbearably cold, wet and extremely windy. But the bad weather meant I couldn't see the sheer drops on the left-hand side, which was a blessing in disguise.
We continued scrambling (‘three points of contact’) until I realised that I had almost completed the climb. Thoughts of how I was going to get down began to surface. I hadn't spotted any mountain goats or sheep on this side of the mountain, so I began to worry as the weather was deteriorating rapidly. Eventually we reached the summit to be told that the wind was gusting at over 70 mph. We could be easily swept off the mountain. We reached the summit and Brian and Simon were first up the steps to the summit point. Ade, Mark and I held back, only to be told to get up for a picture. This was the final push but it was also the most dangerous. Never before have I experienced clouds being forcibly blown through you. On our hands and knees, we inched towards the pile of stones marking the summit, me literally holding on for dear life, took the photo and then crawled down on hands and bum down.
Our ascent time was 3 hours 3 minutes.
A tough climb, to put it mildly. We hustled into the doorway of the Snowdon Café at the top of the mountain only to find that due to bad weather the Snowdon Mountain train wasn't running, dashing our hopes of a cream tea as we had jokingly said we would have one as a reward! We drank some much needed water and had some food, squeezed out our sodden gloves and hats and I ditched the trousers-around-my bum look, much to Martin’s relief! We decided for safety’s sake to take the long, winding Llanberis route back to town. This, whilst long and involved many steps, was the right choice. We had made it up, bar Kai and had achieved it under terrible circumstances. To risk it all on a treacherous climb back the way we came would be foolhardy. So, we changed positions and chatted to each other as began our ascent, each step taking us closer to the end. This route was quickest and took 2 hours 33 mins.
We contracted our drivers, Karl and Andy via a walkie-talkie, and they met us at the end of the Llanberis Path. Kai, Karl and Andy greeted us and we hugged and shook hands, all sharing the success of the challenge.
As we drove back to Padarn Hotel in the high street, some were contemplative, some were more animated, but we had shared and achieved one goal. We had completed the inaugural Shepway Veterans 3 Peaks Challenge for Tackle Prostate Cancer, and in turn raised almost £6,000. A little presentation of the achievement for the Shepway Veterans!
We set out to raise money for a cause that is slowly becoming a killer far too frequently. Together as the Shepway Veterans, we are united in the fight to beat prostate cancer.
Thanks to everyone who donated, shared and shouted about our cause, for those provided who transport and the photographs, running blindly into the wind and rain to get the shot. Thanks to our families holding the fort at home while we completed the challenge. Thanks to the LIFEtoken community, who rallied to raise funds in the form of LIFEtoken. Even after the event donations are still being made with LIFEtoken and regular fiat money. And finally, I would like to thank each of the Shepway Veterans; Simon, Martin, Brian, Mark, Kai and Ade, who together got me up and down three mountains safely.
In memory of my father-in-law, Graham Deacon and all the dads, brothers, partners, uncles, grandfathers and men lost to this disease.