Three Peaks Challenge: controlling the chaos in Wasdale

Posted by Carey Davies on 06/08/2014
Wasdale in winter. Pic: Stewart Smith / Shutterstock

One of England’s grandest and most remote valleys has long suffered from crowds, cars and litter, much of it due to the Three Peaks Challenge. We meet the people spearheading a new effort to get it under control.

Glow sticks. For most people they conjure images of sweaty raves, Shaun Ryder and people in various states of happy intoxication. They are not the sort of thing you’d expect to find in a place praised by Wordsworth and heralded for containing ‘Britain’s favourite view’.

Sarah Medcalf from the National Trust was surprised, too. “There were a couple of days this summer when we found them on the path in the mornings,” she says. “People dropped them every few metres to mark the way in the dark. I was horrified.”

So how do containers of poisonous chemiluminescent liquid end up strewn over a Lake District mountain? Adventurous ravers? The answer is that the valley is Wasdale, and the mountain in question is the highest in England, Scafell Pike.

Three Peaks

The glow sticks were almost certainly left by a group taking part in the Three Peaks Challenge, where participants try and climb the tallest mountains in Scotland, England and Wales in one bleary-eyed 24-hour push. Sandwiched as it is between Ben Nevis and Snowdon, Scafell Pike often ends up being attempted in the dark. The glow sticks were evidently one group’s solution to the problem of night navigation – a cheaper option, certainly, than hiring competent leaders, but not the best as far as the local ecology goes.

Wasdale is something of a paradox. Hemmed in by mountains on all sides, reachable only by a long and tortuous drive to the western side of the Lake District, it is a backwater by ‘urban’ standards, a place where the wiggly pattern of dry stone walls dates from medieval times and sheep outnumber people by a considerable margin. But for lovers of mountains, Wasdale is a place of world significance. Overlooked by the brooding presences of England’s mountain gods – Great Gable, Scafell, Scafell Pike – it has served throughout history as the inspiration for the Lakes Poets, the nursery of rock climbing, and in modern times produced the legendary farmer and fell runner Joss Naylor. But in more recent years Wasdale’s status as a mountain Mecca has given rise to a dark side – the damage and disturbance caused by the sheer number of visitors, and in particular those attempting the Three Peaks Challenge.

'Mess manager'

Sarah’s job title is Wasdale Visitor Management Project Officer, but a more informal description might be ‘mess manager’. Her post was created just over seven months ago with the help of the Lake District National Park to help coordinate the Trust’s response to visitor pressures in Wasdale.

It would be wrong to say that all the problems in Wasdale stem from people attempting the Three Peaks Challenge – the valley gets large numbers of ‘ordinary’ visitors too. But the nature of the Three Peaks means its participants often leave a mark out of proportion to their actual numbers.

“You can’t say for definite that Three Peakers have a worse impact than regular visitors”, says Sarah. “But there are lots of factors that can often make dealing with them harder. A lot of people attempting the challenge aren’t regular hill walkers, so they’ve got no idea about how to navigate or what the norms of behaviour in the countryside are. They’re often in a rush when they arrive in Wasdale, so they perhaps aren’t aware of what state they leave things in. The toilets we’ve installed in the car park get very grim a lot quicker than they should – they should be able to keep up with the demand, but they currently aren’t. And then there’s the fact that challenge visitors often arrive at night. I have a feeling people feel less responsible at night, as if they can get away with behaviour that wouldn’t be acceptable otherwise.”

Heavy traffic on Wasdale's narrow roads


Exact numbers of Three Peakers are hard to quantify. “People estimate that there are 30,000 people doing it per year, but it seems to be a figure plucked out of thin air,” says Sarah. “But we do know several hundred people are using our footpaths overnight at weekends from Easter onwards. On the four weeks either side of the summer solstice it can be as many as 500 people every Saturday night. But of course that doesn’t capture people doing the challenge during the day, or people parking elsewhere in Wasdale and using other routes. It’s very hard to get exact numbers.”

Alongside Sarah’s appointment, the Trust has also embarked on a £30,000 overhaul of its facilities in Wasdale, and in particular its car park at the north-east end of Wast Water, Wasdale’s sternly beautiful lake. It has created marked bays for cars and minibuses installed new signs, installed a new tea and coffee hut to allow a staff presence and hired a handful of temporary toilets. The hope is that Three Peakers and visitors generally will gravitate to the new car park and reduce pressure on the settlement at Wasdale Head, a little further up the road, where residents have complained of minibuses disgorging noisy crowds in the middle of the night and people treating their fields as toilets. The work will develop over the years to come, with possible additional formal car parking and the replacement of the temporary toilets with permanent ones.


But Sarah emphasises that the task is as much about communication as infrastructure. “We emailed about 90 transport and adventure companies who provide Three Peaks packages to let them know about the new arrangements,” says Sarah. “Some have been brilliant and really responsible – one even gave us a £400 donation because they recognise what they’re doing has an impact. But others have been silent. Of the companies we contacted, only about a quarter got back in touch.”

So have the new changes made a difference? “There have been much fewer problems this year,” Sarah says. “We’ve definitely had fewer complaints from residents. But it is going to take time. The biggest challenge is getting the message out to the public about the Three Peaks so that people think about the environmental implications before attempting it. I would like there to be a sort of public consciousness about it.”

Coupled with this increased communication effort has been a change in tone and emphasis. In years gone by the approach of organisations like the Trust – and the BMC – to the Three Peaks has been one of straightforward deterrence. Whatever the moral merit of this approach, it plainly hasn’t been successful – the popularity of the event continues to mushroom year on year.

“People in the past have just said ‘we wish people didn’t do it’, but now we’re trying to change that” says Sarah. “You’ve got to recognise that people are going to do it anyway, so we’re trying to be more positive and proactive. Part of this approach is emphasising there are ways of doing fundraising events that don’t have an impact; saying the Three Peaks isn’t the only answer, there are other things you can do.

“Having said that, we also think there are certain things that could be really great about doing the Three Peaks. What if people doing it thought about the places they were in, and learned about them? What if they gave some sort of pay back to the conservation charities? What if they used public transport? What if doing it became a springboard to a love of the mountains generally? The Three Peaks isn’t just a problem; it could also be an opportunity.”

And what is the BMC doing to help? We're on the brink of several new initiatives aimed at managing the effects of visitor pressure in the mountains, including producing written guidance for organisers of big groups and challenges, organising a visitor engagement event in Wasdale on August Bank Holiday, and hosting an access conference on 9 October on the theme of challenge events events in the uplands and the dilemas they bring.

If you are involved in challenge events in the uplands, come along to this conference. We would like to hear from you in order to shape our future policy and guidance. More information is below.

Click here for the National Trust's guidance on doing the Three Peaks Challenge from Wasdale.

EVENT: BMC access conference October 9 2014: Challenge events in the uplands

This year's BMC access conference is set to look at the cost and benefits of challenge events in the outdoors, including the Three Peaks Challenge, and how these can be managed. It will be held at the Rheged Centre in Penrith on 9 October.

The registration fee for the conference is just £30 per delegate for BMC members and £40 per delegate for non-members. BMC membership costs just £14.97 for the first year when you sign up by Direct Debit.

For more information on this event and how to register, click here.

READ MORE: Done the Three Peaks Challenge and want to take on more mountains? Get into hill walking with these BMC resources

  • Hill Walking Essentials DVD: Follow Fredelina and Ben as they learn essential skills and techniques for the British mountains. Buy it now in the BMC shop.
  • Safety on Mountains: Your essential guide to safe hill walking. Available to buy in the BMC shop.

COURSES: Learn from professionals

  • BMC Active Outdoors: Want to learn all the skills you need to be a confident hill walker at a bargain price? The BMC's Active Outdoor courses include 'Head for the Hills' courses, affordable hill walking weekends for beginners at the famous Plas y Brenin mountain centre in Snowdonia.
  • Hill and Mountain Skills: The BMC's partner organisation Mountain Training has just launched its new Hill and Mountain Skills Courses. They aim to equip you with the basic knowledge and safety skills required to participate in hill and mountain walking in your own time and are run by providers all over the UK.

WATCH: Life of a Mountain: extended teaser on BMC TV

 WATCH: Hill Walking Essentials DVD trailer on BMC TV

Watch more inspirational and skills videos on BMC TV

TWITTER: Follow the BMC's hill walking Twitter feed: @BMC_Walk

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If you are involved in challenge events in the Uplands come along to our conference on the subject in October. We need to hear from you in order to shape our forthcoming guidance on the topic.
Rather one sided with no input from any companies involved, and a photo from six years ago?
3) Anonymous User
Although I agree the Three Peakers need to be carefully managed, I think the photo of traffic is misleading as that is probably from the weekend in October when the Wasdale Show is on.
4) Anonymous User
The three Peak's challenge is a non sense. I don't see the challenge in walking thee peaks separated by a bunch of miles in a day. It is more a driving and parking challenge than a mountain challenge. It would make more sense to a a several peaks challenge in each of the national parks than be driving around to walk up the biggest mountain on each of the countries.
5) Anonymous User
I myself have attempted, and succeeded, in the Three Peaks Challenge. Alongside our group of three, there was also a large group, of whom we did not know, who were also attempting the challenge and I have to say, not one single person allowed any of their compatriots to litter so much as a sweet wrapper. The reason 3 peakers attempt the challenge, or know of it in the first place, is because they of their love of the mountains, and the feeling of climbing up Scafell in the pitch black morning is surreal before reaching the destination and seeing the sunrise from the top of Scafell is a beautiful thing that I recommend all see. However all hikers I've came across have had nothing but respect for the land, mountain, and area. I think whoever has written this article has certainly not done their research on both sides, and is largely looking for a scapegoat, being 3 peakers.
6) Anonymous User
Has anyone done the three peaks just using public transport - can it be done ?
7) Anonymous User
I'd be very keen to attend the conference but less than keen being asked to pay £30 to attend.
I live and work in the Lakes, and mountains are part of my livelihood so this is an important topic to me.

The photo of car chaos is something I am yet to witness in Wasdale, even after 100's of visits during peak times.

Loos at The Green are very welcome, well done National Trust for this. And well done for putting some at the car park near the campsite.
Not sure what campers views are on the 'new' car parking facilities right next to the campsite! Noisy, probably. Is that what visitors to Wasdale come for?
But something needed to be done for sure. Blocking the layby (opp the campsite turn off) seems poor form to me, it's a perfectly serviceable area that's useful for parking and as a passing place.

A shame more companies didn't get back to you. We we're contacted (we don't provided full 3 peaks but do provide guiding services for Scafell Pike), if we had been a response would have been received.
The environmental argument has some validity. Any travel is harmful to the environment. But why single out 3 peaks? How about Everest Base camp, Kilimanjaro, Inca trail, all involve long distance travel with associated pollution. And closer to home, how many folk escape the cities every weekend in search of rural peace, and how do they arrive at their destination? If they're heading for Wasdale it won't be public transport that's a certainty. Public transport in the Lakes is crap, that's partly why the roads are clogged, private car is currently the only feasible way.
8) Anonymous User
I realy feel they should have a pay per person Licence put into place to the 3 Peaks event bookings in advance, The NT would hopefully get a decent return to help keep the place in good order , and hopefully would have a register of what groups have been on the hill or used / abused the toilets etc (also good for knowing what groups are on the hill for safety?).
its' such a beautiful place spoiled by a select few. the Charities do very well from this type of event. and its clear some of the participants have no respect for the locals or the amazing landscape.
Charge them , all other races / Runs are chargeable for taking part so why not the 3 Peaks.

Sean (Winter ML)
9) Anonymous User
To the numbskull who posted his contention that 'Three Peakers' are scapegoats. Nonsense. I have witnessed these clowns on multiple occasions, dropping litter on Nevis, Snowdon and the Pike. It's not much of a challenge anyway and although I am not undermining charity work, there are much better challenges in each of the areas. The challenge just relies on moderate fitness and luck with traffic (or speeding) if done within 24hrs.
10) Anonymous User
Just to respond to Mark's comment about public transport ("crap") and private cars ("the only feasible way") .

I regularly travel to the Lakes from Cheshire, using public transport all the way. I find the bus services excellent (in summer, at least) - and have no problem reaching Wasdale: it's a nice walk.

I appreciate that people have their opinions, but saying that roads are clogged because public transport is poor is just silly. Roads are clogged because people choose to drive, simple as that.
11) Anonymous User
I agree that large groups doing the 3 Peaks should have to pay a registration fee, although this wouldn't be enforceable for small groups of friends. The money could be split between the National Trust, who could improve car park facilities and arrange litter picks, and Mountain Rescue. This would also make it possible to put a cap on numbers at the busiest times of year. Finally, participants could be asked to sign a form to agree not to leave litter when they register.
12) Anonymous User
Very true to observe that many 3-peakers are not regular hill-goers and that fact is evident in their behaviour and at other events across the UK. Has to be tackled on many fronts - education, information etc and also getting the big charities who benefit from these events to use their imagination and get their fund-raisers to do more sustainable, more responsible events which don't degrade the environment, cause danger on the roads - I'm aware of reckless driving incidents as 3-peakers charge their way between the 3 venues, never mind what happens on and below the hill. The charities have a role to play - they could perhaps say that they'll not accept funds from participants who don't sign up to a code of behaviour - who knows, just a thought. Either way why should some good causes benefit at the expense of detriment to the hill environment and some communities? Alan B.
13) Anonymous User
There is a real conflict here. Some three-peakers will be outdoor enthusiasts looking to use their love of the outdoors to raise money for deserving charities. Others will be people who have signed up for the challenge having rarely, if ever, gone into the mountains before. Part of me wants to say well done for getting off your backsides and going for it. As has been said, this could be the beginning of a lengthy and loving relationship with mountains and wild places. Sadly however the majority of three-peakers I have met on Snowdon and Scafell Pike have been of the latter type: a noisy group of "get out of my way because I'm on a tight schedule I've no time to appreciate my surroundings or other people I'll do this at any cost and not stop to count the cost" people. This has regrettably clouded my personal view. I feel that maybe a voluntary ban/ reduction on such large events for a fixed period of time could give the paths a chance to be repaired, and maybe encourage charities to seek alternative means of mass fund-raising in the meantime? Maybe this could reduce the pressure on our beautiful mountains.
14) Anonymous User
Glowsticks on the path is indeed horrifying. Worse I think are the thousands of aluminium cased flares dropped by rescue helicopters . I don't know about England but the casings can be found in all the main Cairngorms corries . There are not that many rescues so most are dropped during training. They should use cardboard flares...if fireworks are paper cased why not MOD flares for mountain rescue ?? Aluminiun casings will take hundreds of years to decay.
15) Anonymous User
In response to Anonymous of 08/08/14, I have done the National Three Peaks as a walking challenge from Glen Nevis Youth Hostel to Snowdon Ranger Youth Hostel using only trains to get between the peaks. It took 41 hours and 52 minutes. 4 trains were used to get between Fort William and Dalegarth, and 5 trains were used between Ravenglass and Roman Bridge on day 2. This was a car-free walking challenge and I have neither before or since wished to take up the driving / parking challenge mentioned by anonymous of 07/08/14.

I agree that setting a challenge that involves driving between peaks is a nonsense, given that it depends on driving speed. Given the disruption caused by most teams climbing Scafell Pike in the dark my solution is to restrict access by motor vehicle to the valley between certain hours for non-residents.

Given that the challenge is really a driving / parking challenge with a little bit of walking, the answer is to somehow make the driving / parking elements more difficult, so that people are encouraged to take up alternative challenges that does not rely on motor vehicles once you have set off.
16) Anonymous User
The true challenge of the Three Peaks Challenge is to walk all the way!
17) Anonymous User
Sadly I have experienced first hand the chaos in Wasdale from inconsiderate and inappropriate parking from 3 Peakers. Every passing place and cattle grid was filled with vans and minibuses. The article doesn't over state the problem. I think the solution lies in education of those who organise the events.


Active Outdoors: subsidised skills courses

It is time to Get Active Outdoors. If you want to start hill walking, rock climbing, scrambling or learn winter skills, then check out the subsidised BMC Active Outdoors courses. Suitable for all abilities and levels of experience there is something for everyone.
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