Are you robbing Peter to pay Paul?
This is the story of John, who decided to enter the Three Peaks Challenge to raise money for charity. His aim was to try and raise money for research into the illness that had claimed his younger brother Paul at an early age. He’d found out about it from the web - the idea was to join up with a group which would climb Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon, all in 24 hours, having secured generous sponsorship for doing so.
How romantic, thought John, to scale such peaks in one day, his older brother Peter would be proud of him. Peter was the outdoor member of the family, always off walking, whereas John hadn’t walked more than a mile in ten years. And the idea seemed even more romantic when he learned that, in order to complete the Challenge in 24 hours, he’d be setting off up Scafell Pike at 3am in the morning. Perhaps he would be on the summit by the time the sun came up! How magical it would be to stand there in the silence with his little band of heroic companions and watch it rise.
Before he could do that, there was the small matter of getting fit, raising the registration fee and the minimum sponsorship, but John was ready to give it a go. After all, the organisers of the event had promised that full support would be provided. And it would certainly do him good to lose some weight. Yet somehow things didn’t quite turn out the way he was expecting. The first blow had come when he’d asked Peter to sponsor him. The spoilsport had suggested that John should look for some other way to raise money in Paul’s memory! John assumed to begin with that Peter was just feeling guilty because he hadn’t thought of doing it. But then Peter had come out with a stinging tirade all about the damage the Challenge did. He went on and on about how he’d spent holidays building paths up mountains and so he knew how much effort it entailed and how much it cost, and how all those suckers doing the Three Peaks were systematically undoing other people’s work. What was the point, Peter had asked, of raising funds for one charity, while costing other charities money? It was downright irresponsible to use our green and pleasant land as a gym.
Well, John had got rather cross at that point and demanded to be told what point there was in building paths at all if no one was going to be allowed to use them? And why should it do more damage to walk up a path for charity than just for your own pleasure, like Peter did every weekend? It was scarcely surprising after this, John reflected ruefully, that Peter had refused to sponsor him.
This cast rather a dark cloud over the whole affair. But it wasn’t the only one. Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon all turned out to be shrouded in cloud when John climbed them, and it didn’t seem very romantic at all to be battling his way up them in driving drizzle. He knew that Peter would never have ventured onto the hills in such conditions, but this was the day on which the event had been scheduled to take place - he had no choice.
And so much for John’s vision of a brave little band of heroes. His own group was quite small, but it turned out that the Challenge was being done that same weekend by 300 firemen, whose fleet of 70 minibuses choked the car parks at Wasdale Head. Everywhere there was litter and shouting, the slamming of doors, the bleeping of phones, and people peeing against walls. But at least there was no danger of getting lost - torches lit up the slopes like a Christmas tree as a veritable procession of walkers trudged up to the top, then came crashing down again, five abreast to either side of the path, tearing up the grass with their boots.
So much too for the quiet camaraderie to which John had been looking forward. He didn’t have the energy to even talk. He’d tried to get fit in the weeks leading up to the event, but found himself gasping for breath all the way, and his feet were a patchwork of blisters. Worse even than the climbing were the hours of frustration spent on Britain’s congested motorways. John half remembered Peter trying to lecture him about the senseless waste of fuel; why couldn’t John and his fellows have climbed three mountains which were closer together? It wouldn’t exactly make any difference in the end whether they were the three highest peaks in Britain or not. But John didn’t want to think about things like that. Now that the Challenge was over, he wasn’t even sure that he wanted to collect in his sponsor money. All he wanted to do was sleep.
John, Peter and Paul are fictional characters, but any resemblance they bear to persons living or dead is very much intentional, and only too real. Tens of thousands of Johns attempt the Three Peaks Challenge every year, mostly between the beginning of May and the end of August. They do it from the most admirable of motives. Yet in many cases they are hopelessly inexperienced walkers, blissfully unaware of the trail of devastation which they leave behind them.
When the Challenge began, travel between the three mountains was done by sailing boat and on foot. This meant that no pollution and participants had to be extremely fit, and there were very few of them! Nowadays the very opposite is true. The National Trust has placed an automatic counter at the foot of Scafell Pike to monitor the number of people climbing the mountain via the most popular route. In a typical month during the Three Peaks Season (June 2000), 28,618 people passed the counter, and whilst many of these people will have been counted twice (up and down), outside the season the monthly figure is more like 4000.
In fact Richard Palmer, National Trust Property Manager for the Lake District Western Valleys, describes the numbers involved in the Challenge as ‘colossal’ and claims that ‘the mountain simply can’t take it’. The engineered path up Scafell Pike, which the National Trust was reluctant to build in the first place because of its artificial appearance, cost £125,000. Already it is being seriously eroded by walkers, beside it there is now a gash in the glacial moraine up to 15 metres wide and 2 metres deep.
The Challenge adversely affects communities as well as the environment. Residents of the Wasdale valley regularly have their summer nights disturbed by large Challenge groups whose conduct Richard described as ‘totally antisocial’. Nor does the Challenge have any positive effect upon the local economy. Challenge groups do not stay in local hotels or even buy drinks in local pubs, since they arrive in Wasdale in the middle of the night and leave in a hurry in their minibuses the following morning. Nor can the tourist infrastructure at Wasdale Head cope with the influx. There certainly aren’t enough toilets, car parking space is at a premium, and Mountain Rescue vehicles have been all but forced into the ditch by minibuses hurtling down the narrow road in the dead of night. Yet road widening and the building of facilities are not what nature lovers come to see.
Some very reputable national charities are benefiting from the Challenge in spite of its controversial nature. Prominent on Three Peaks websites are the Meningitis Trust, the British Heart Foundation, Children’s Aid Direct, the Neurofibromatosis Association, Action Research, CARE International and Shelter. These charities are no doubt putting the money they make to good use, but the same cannot be said for the middlemen who are making plenty of money too.
Some of the charities are aware of the controversy surrounding the Three Peaks and have co-operated in the production of a Code of Practice which aims to minimise its harmful effects. The Code stipulates that no organised event should have more than 200 participants, and that no one should arrive or depart in Wasdale between the hours of midnight and 5am. Since its publication, some things have improved. Many groups now elect to do the Challenge in 36 hours instead of 24, reducing the temptation to speed on the motorways or set off up Scafell Pike too early in the morning. The Mountain Rescue has not had to deal with so many Three Peaks call-outs in recent years, either, though this may well be because there are now so many people up the mountain at once that they rescue each other!
But even if all groups adhered to the Code of Practice, this would not in itself be sufficient to protect Wasdale from harm. Each group inevitably makes its plans in isolation from the others, with the inevitable result there may be more than one group of 200 doing the Challenge simultaneously. And not every group does adhere to the Code. The British Fire Service on one occasion this year has had 76 minibuses in Wasdale all at the same time, and up to 400 walkers on the fell.
There is still an enormous litter problem. Unlike those fell walkers who climb mountains because they appreciate their beauty, Three Peakers do not necessarily do so. The National Trust has collected ‘bags and bags and bags’ of rubbish from the car parks, and found trails of tickertape leading all the way to the summit of Scafell Pike. A few charities have offered some of their proceeds to the National Trust in acknowledgement of the extra work they are causing. But the Trust’s policy is not to accept such offers, since this would be tantamount to condoning the Challenge, implying that the damage being caused can be readily repaired by throwing money at it. It can’t.
If the Three Peaks Challenge does so much harm, why don’t organisations such as the National Park Authority and the National Trust seek to get it banned? There are certainly members of both who wish they could do so. However, Chris Berry, the South West Area Ranger, and Richard Palmer both recognise that their organisations exist to provide public access as well as for conservation purposes – and this has to mean access for all, including participants in fund-raising events. Nor would they want anyone to think that they did not respect those people who are prepared to put themselves out to raise money for charities.
But although they do not feel that they can or should press for an outright ban, they do very much seek to dissuade. The Challenge is in danger of destroying forever what the vast majority of visitors to areas of outstanding natural beauty are seeking. Richard Palmer appeals for people to think twice before undertaking it, saying, ‘Remember that the National Trust is a charity too’. There are so many other ways in which funds could be raised for worthy causes without doing irrevocable environmental damage in the process.
And as for myself, I won’t say that the Challenge does more harm than good. But the harm it does is very real. I’d say: just don’t do it. And, like Peter, refuse to sponsor anyone who does.