As the clean-ups begin on the three highest peaks of Scotland, England and Wales after another summer of huge numbers, we take a look at the controversy surrounding the Three Peaks Challenge and ask for your views.
An autumnal freshness is in the air, the sun is sinking in the sky, and the foliage is starting to turn. The summer has drawn to a close. And with it, Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon are breathing huge sighs of relief.
If past estimates are anything to go by, the highest mountains of Scotland, England and Wales could have seen as many as 700,000 visitors between them (100,000, 225,000 and 360,000 respectively) – a number roughly equivalent to the population of Detroit.
Those numbers take a toll on the places involved. Erosion, littering, Mountain Rescue callouts, human waste and general mess are bigger problems on Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon than anywhere else.
And with the last official weekend of summer, the season for the famous Three Peaks Challenge also drew to a close. Over the years since it was first invented, the Three Peaks Challenge has become a phenomenon, an experience attempted by thousands of people who would never even set foot on a mountain otherwise. This year will have been no different – over the last five months or so, thousands of people will have attempted the ever-popular aim of walking up each of the nation-capping peaks, driving the 450 mile distance between them, in under 24 hours.
Looking at it objectively, the Three Peaks Challenge might seem an unlikely candidate for mega-popularity; a rushed, sleep-deprived trial consisting of furtive naps on the M6, hastily gobbled Pot Noodles and many hours of trudging upwards and downwards in processions of people, much of it in the dark. But it seems neither the nature of the challenge nor the huge numbers attempting it have dimmed its appeal over the years, and the prospect of reaching the high points of three different countries in one day is clearly an idea that still captivates people.
But the Challenge has also become an established target of criticism, with a widespread perception among many outdoorgoers that it exacerbates existing problems on the mountains involved and creates ones all of its own. Critics allege the driving portion of the challenge (as much as 11 hours is spent on the road) encourages speeding and is environmentally unsound; local residents complain of minibuses disgorging loads full of people outside their houses in the middle of the night.
Horror reports of rubbish, excrement and discarded food are common. Last July Wasdale Mountain Rescue Team complained of "shocking amounts of litter, people creating new paths, the stink of urine and worse on the summit of Scafell Pike this morning.” In the same month a group of volunteers removed 10 bags filled with miscellaneous pieces of litter – including, puzzlingly, an octopus – and noted the number of discarded glowsticks left around cairns, apparently left to guide the way for Three Peakers attempting the challenge in the dark.
This year, in what they have dubbed the “Real Three Peaks Challenge”, a group of volunteers are setting out to “deep clean” Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon. Its leader, Richard Pyne, a Mountain Training Instructor, said: "I'd led groups on the top of Ben Nevis in winter before, but I was up there with a group this summer and I was appalled at the amount of litter I saw. I started filling a bag and ended up carrying down 3kg of rubbish that day." Volunteers from the Snowdonia Society are also hitching a free ride on the Snowdon Mountain Railway to do their own localised clean-up on Snowdon. The irony of the Three Peaks, as many have pointed out, is that a challenge often attempted with charitable aims ends up taking a strain on other charities, such as landowners the John Muir Trust and the National Trust, Mountain Rescue, and bodies involved with conservation and footpath repair like the Lake District’s Fix the Fells.
In fairness, most of the people who complete the Three Peaks Challenge have a great time, behave responsibly, and raise large amounts of money for charities of choice in the process. And no one wants to do down the feeling of achievement experienced by the Challengers themselves. It’s also important to get things in perspective. Precise numbers are difficult to obtain, but estimates for how many take part in the Three Peaks Challenge annually are put at 30,000 at the most – compared to around 700,000 visitors to the three mountains combined.
Those numbers may be significant in the confines of Wasdale, as buses squeeze through the narrow roads and empty loads full of chattering people at 4am in the silent valley, with only a few temporary toilets to meet their needs after the long drive down the M6 (the Lake District National Park Authority installed these toilets in 2010 but has yet to replace them with permanent ones.) And there is an argument that Three Peaks Challengers, many of whom will be having their first (and possibly only) experience in the hills, lack the ‘mountain sense’ of other walkers.
But against the wider background of visitor pressure on the mountains involved, only a portion of the damage done can be attributed to Three Peaks Challengers. This is a point often made by leaders of organised Three Peaks Challenges when the prospect of restrictions or other special measures is mooted – why should one particular event be singled out when it makes up only a portion of the overall problem? A balmy August Bank Holiday this summer saw a minor media flurry as pictures of nose-to-tail processions of people making their way up Snowdon led to headlines of ‘Rush hour at Mount Snowdon’ [sic] and reports of queues for the summit. Among the day-trippers, tourists, stag parties, hen dos, casual walkers and people who’d just hitched a lift on the railway thronging the summit on that day, how many of them were Three Peakers? Probably only a tiny fraction.
The Three Peaks has perhaps become symbolic of wider concerns over visitor pressure, over and above its actual impact. For the BMC, as with the organisations above, dealing with this pressure – whether caused by Three Peakers or other folk – can represent something of a quandary; how to most effectively balance the spirit of access for all with the need to safeguard the fragile mountain environment. As Ed Douglas explained in a BMC article sparked by pictures of the Snowdon summit crowds, striking this balance can be a complex business. The freedom of the fells is a principle we all cherish, and calling for bans or restrictions on certain types of activity is incompatible with it.
Authorities, charities and organisations concerned with the knock-on effects of the Three Peaks, including the BMC, have instead adopted a policy of education and mitigation – reinforcing paths up the mountains to minimise erosion, placing toilets and facilities at their base, and working with charity fundraising bodies to ensure good standards are followed in the organisation of Three Peaks events, to name a few. The BMC is playing its part in a number of ways; producing skills guidance to help advise participants in safety basics, working with safety partnerships in Wales and helping to fund footpath repairs on Scafell Pike through our Access and Conservation Trust (ACT), to name a few.
The BMC’s Green Guide to the Uplands has this to say on challenge events in general: “Events such as ‘challenge’ or sponsored events are increasingly popular for fundraising. They often involve large numbers of people and can cause significant damage and disturbance to local residents and other users. The mountain environment is fundamentally unsuitable for this type of event”, before outlining criteria – consideration of the environment, the preparation of participants, planning and minimising disturbance – to be met before a challenge event goes ahead.
However, in light of the increasing popularity of challenge events, we are working on expanding the interaction and engagement we have with the organisers and participants of these type of events. Simply saying they are ‘unsuitable’ is unlikely to stop them going ahead; better to work with the grain than against it. With this in mind we are drawing up new guidelines for organisations wanting to organise large-scale events in the mountains, some of which will relate specifically to the Three Peaks Challenge. Watch this space for the results of this work.
To help us, we’d like to get your thoughts on the Three Peaks Challenge. Did you complete it this year? If so, what did you think of the experience? Were you walking in the hills not as part of the Challenge but encountered groups of people doing it? Have you seen something – perhaps litter, crowds or erosion – that brought home its impact on the environment? Are you a local resident living with the impact on your community? What do you think of the current efforts to manage its impact? Are they enough?
Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
Watch BMC Hill Walking Development Officer Carey Davies discuss some of the issues surrounding visitor pressure on Scafell Pike in this behind-the-scenes clip from Terry Abraham’s upcoming film ‘Life of a Mountain: Scafell Pike.’
Donate to Terry’s self-produced film here.