Even if it weren’t dark we still wouldn’t be able to see a thing – the wind is lashing the rain sideways across our faces. My three clients must be praying that one of the others will buckle first while I feel as if I’m doing a PhD in navigation across the Glyderau of Snowdonia, map and compass firmly in hand, heading for Glyder Fawr. We’re doing the “Welsh 3000s Challenge” what people do on a weekend while other normal, sane, people go shopping, clean the house and go out for a beer…
Easily defined and without the need for either technical climbing skills or specialist equipment, the Welsh 3000s (also referred to by some as the *Fifteen Peaks Challenge), done in a day present the budding hill walker-cum-mountaineer with the perfect challenge. For the hapless walker who sets off in their pursuit, ascending the fourteen mountains of Wales inside a day is neither a mean feat nor a foregone conclusion. It’s a challenge that requires fitness, stamina, a head for heights, a knack with a map and compass, and a dose of good luck.
“… how hard can it be? Let’s do it!”
First given public recognition in 1919, a party from the Rucksack Club led by Eustace Thomas, completed the traverse of Wales’ highest mountains within 24 hours. Nowadays, it is not long for anyone who enjoys the hills to hear about the legendary challenge that is the “Welsh 3000s.” It’s usually in the warmth of a pub when the beer starts flowing that someone utters those words “… how hard can it be? Let’s do it!”
Planning and preparation
Part of the joy of undertaking this challenge is in the planning and preparation. Planning requires knowledge of the area, detailed study of local maps and referring to a few choice websites (see below). Preparation might start as far as a year before the big day with a programme of cardio-vascular fitness (normally best achieved by running up and down hills) and continues all the way up to the night before, taping up your feet and the ritual over-consumption of brown pasta.
Choosing the style in which the challenge is to be completed is also a consideration. Traditionally the challenge begins at the summit of Snowdon and ends at the summit of Foel Fras. Getting to and from these summits normally adds another 8 miles to the day – and that’s 8 miles which are not counted as a part of the challenge! It’s like doing the London marathon – but walking to the start line for two hours first.
With this in mind there are all sorts of permutations: to bivvy on Snowdon and start ‘fresh’ the next day or to start at Pen y Pass car park and add the ascent of Snowdon to your day. Personally my days of sleeping at or near the summit of Snowdon are over: it’s unbelievably busy up there with the world and his wife attempting one challenge or another keeping you far from sleep. Of course – if you’re not going to be dogged by tradition you may also decide to begin with Crib Goch or go South to North and start at Foel Fras.
Fourteen peaks in three groups
The whole challenge incorporates the ascent of fourteen mountains – but this is a little misleading as these are conveniently situated in three adjacent groups: the Snowdon group (3), the Glyderau (5) and the Carneddau (6).
With the Snowdon group done, you’ll need a calorie-packed breakfast before pushing up the biggest and baddest of the lot – Elidir Fawr (Big Elidir). This is only the fourth peak but for many it can be make or break. Going straight from near sea level to an altitude of 923m gives you plenty of time to ponder your fitness and the merits of undertaking this arduous event versus a plate of egg and chips served with a pint of tea at Pete’s Eats in nearby Llanberis. The Glyderau culminate with Tryfan and then a hasty retreat to the A5 in the Ogwen Valley where hopefully a support team will be waiting for you with some hot food and dry socks.
If you make it out from the A5 – the chances are you’ll complete the task. The race is on now to get Yr Elen (the third summit in the final group) before it gets dark: a sneaky traverse around and below Carnedd Llewelyn helps with this. And if you get Llewelyn ticked off before dark you’ll be romping home to the finish line two peaks later at Foel Fras with a skip in your stride. But don’t be too quick with those high fives – it’s still a good two hours to get down to a waiting car a further four miles north from this end point.
When to go:
Aim to do the Welsh 3000s Challenge as close to mid-summer’s day and reap the rewards of as much daylight as you can. Best of all, go on a day that has a full moon and is close to mid-summer’s day and if you’re lucky, your route finding over the tops by night will be so much easier. Go mid-week and you’ll get the hills to yourselves too!
Route Planning and Navigation
On the day you don’t want to be wasting time working out which way to go. If you can spend two days in preparation do a good route recce. In particular check out the route along Crib Goch and your chosen descent back to Nant Peris. On the final leg you will be tired and exhausted and in no fit state to process the information required to navigate new terrain. Make sure you know the Carneddau and the route off like the back of your hand. Get good at employing navigational strategies and make sure that when you take on the Welsh 3000s that this isn’t the first time you try out your night navigation skills! (Learn more about how to navigate with us).
How long will it take?
In a parallel universe (of dreamland) you may expect to finish in time for last orders back at the Vaynol Arms in Nant Peris. In reality you won’t. The actual route is more than the challenge itself – you need to factor in time to get you from road to road. Seasoned fell runners will take around 12 – 16 hours (road to road). The rest of us are looking at times closer to 20 hours when completed inside a single day. A gentler and more enjoyable way to go about it is to break the route down into three bitesize chunks and complete it over three days!
Equipment – main rules of thumb:
Expect rain, expect it to be cold at night and steer clear of all things cotton (no jeans on the hill!) Whatever you use, make sure it’s comfortable. If you’re a fell runner with strong ankles and tough feet, and the weather is good you may wish to wear fell shoes for some/all of the route, the advantage being their lightness. But they are no good for keeping your feet dry and offer no ankle support. While I’m not a fell runner, (I run on tracks and trails), my footwear of choice on a dry day for this challenge is always a pair of approach shoes. (A pound on your feet is the same as five on your back – read more here).
If you have the time get hill fit by steadily increasing miles walked each week, make sure to include as many hills as possible. Better still is to get fit through running. Again, make sure you include plenty of hill time. We’ve had marathon runners struggle on this challenge for the lack of preparation on hills. More advice here.
Similar Challenge Events to consider:
Marsden to Edale – 25 miles of the Dark Peak (join us)
The Yorkshire Three Peaks – marathon distance done in 12 hours incorporating Yorkshire’s three biggest hills.
The Derwent Watershed – 42 mile circumnavigation of the (Dark) Peak District – and if you do this in the form of the High Peak Marathon you do it in winter and overnight too!
The Bob Graham Round – more men have walked on the moon than completed this Lake District circuit … (well not really, but it’s truly hallowed ground for skinny runners who think a layer of Lycra is enough to equip them to the top of Everest and back).
The author Will Legon is a professional mountain leader and annually leads teams on 1,2 and 3 day versions of the Welsh 3000s Challenge every year. More information on the Welsh 3000s and training for the hills can be found here.
Loads of useful information and route choices – www.welsh3000s.co.uk
Gain more insight and regale your own saga on the Snowdonia Society’s website – www.14peaks.com
Read all about it – The Welsh Three Thousand Foot Challenges: A Guide for Walkers and Hill Runners by Roy Edward Clayton and Ronald Turnbull, Grey Stone Books, 2010
*The Fifteenth Peak
Some people refer to this as the Fifteen Peaks Challenge – or refer to the fifteen Welsh 3000s. It’s true – there are 15 peaks that are 3000 feet or higher and Gwenllian (formerly Garnedd Uchaf) is the “fifteenth peak”. But for it to count as one of the three thousanders it needs to have a relative height gain of at least 150 feet and alas Gwenllian climbs around 100 feet from the surrounding plateau – hence in this article we maintain that there are only 14 Welsh three thousanders. That said, for the purists out there, even if only bagging 14 peaks, you are still likely to walk past Gwenllian anyway.
*The Fourteen Mountains of Wales – The Welsh 3000s
Crib Goch 923m
Carnedd Ugain 1065m
Elidir Fawr 924m
Y Garn 947m
Glyder Fawr 999m
Glyder Fach 994m
Pen Yr Ole Wen 978m
Carnedd Dafydd 1044m
Yr Elen 962m
Carnedd Llewellyn 1064m
Foel Grach 976m
Foel Fras 942m
The Welsh Three Thousands Route
Welsh 3000s 24 hour challenge route taken by Will4Adventure