July 07, 2020
A team of three, 15 mountains, over 15,000 feet of ascent and around 50km of pain, laughter, and crazy British weather. One of the toughest walking challenges in the UK, a big step up from the national 3 Peak challenge, all in 13 hours and 17 minutes, excluding the approach and descent. There is nothing more empowering than reflecting on a deeply embedded experience, to understand the areas for improvement and to enhance your toolbox of experience. Hence why, I would like to invite you to sit back, relax and enjoy, hopefully to learn something for yourself whilst I reflect on an adventure of a lifetime.
Prior to jumping straight into it, I believe it is important to highlight that the Welsh 3000 challenge should not be taken lightly whatsoever, hundreds of people fail every year and many go away seriously injured, simply because there are too many factors involved. From physical and mental ability, to weather, navigational skills, group skills, equipment, food and so much more, every single aspect needs to be considered in great detail. It is no doubt that research is the most influential factor that leads to a successful attempt. A very detailed guidebook published by Cicerone is a great start. There are many articles and blogs such as one written by Will4Adventure or by an official Welsh 3000 page, both will provide people with an insightful overview about the concepts that are crucial for a positive experience. There is no shame if people do not have the confidence or the ability to execute their plan. We all start at the bottom, there is always someone happy to help achieve your goals. Following the guidelines set out by the British Mountaineering Council is the key for staying safe and avoiding any misconduct towards the private land owners. More importantly, visit Mountain Training to find an appropriate leader, who can safely guide you through the process whilst having an awesome time.
Without a further ado, the big question is; what can we do better next time to complete the Welsh 3000 challenge under 12 hours? Starting our adventure at 0300 from Llanberis was the first area for improvement. We were at the summit of Snowdon (1083m) at 0430 and ready to start our journey at 0500. It was late in August and the sunrise was just past 0630, which meant that we had to do the Crib Goch ridge in total darkness, with headtorches and in thick mist, whilst tackling one of the most technical grade 1 scrambles in the UK, which unfortunately has seen many deaths. We were totally safe and had a really exciting time on the ridge, but we just lost around 1 hour of taking time and being cautious. Doing it in early July when the sun rises around 0500 is certainly the way to do it, especially when time is the enemy. However, at the time our focus was to simply complete the challenge under 24hours, which hundreds have failed to do and many will do over a two-day expedition.
All three members of the team had slightly different reasoning for tackling the challenge. I was preparing for my Mountain Leader assessment with Freedom Outdoors (highly recommended for any courses), Richard, T. was bagging some quality mountain days and Matt, D. as always looking for something to push his limits, but all three of us wanted to create amazing memories with our best friends. Which brings me onto the second key area for improvement, because we did not have a shared goal of completing the challenge as fast as possible, we did not apply any specific training to prepare our bodies physiologically and psychologically. Applying hill sprints, long distance running, with heavier backpacks and over complex terrain etc, as well as continuing with our normal hill walking days would substantially prepare our bodies for the arduous 12 hours.
However, it is all good being fit enough but if you do not feed your body with the right nutrients, your energy and concentration levels will drop and it will only go downhill from there. For the body to operate efficiently at high level of activity for a prolonged amount of time, it is beneficial to consume complex carbohydrates such as bananas or oatmeal. Whereas we have consumed more of simple carbohydrates such as sugary sweets, chocolate bars, energy gels etc, our energy levels were up and down all over the place, meaning we were not giving ourselves best chances. This was further compromised by having big breaks on less regular occasions, as opposed to having many regular short breaks. In result, we were working really hard for a long time, our bodies did not have enough time to recover and each time was getting worse. I remember stopping in the Ogwen Valley, just after coming off Tryfan (918m), for 40minutes and not wanting to stand up after. If we were going to give up it was in that moment, it was a perfect time for pub dinner and beers as well.
Our pacing at times probably did not help either. I remember very clearly the massive slog to the top of Elidir Fawr (924m) happening very quickly and then the flat being super slow. That is perhaps because we wanted to get the hard section done and over with as quickly as possible or we probably had too many sweets/chocolates and had a sugar rush, just before coming off the A4086. The hard ascent was shortly paid off with seeing a Raven fly upside down for the first time ever, a moment I have been waiting for three years and it happened on the Welsh 3000, quite a spectacular moment. The A4086 reminds me of very well spent 15minutes in the toilet at a campsite near the Mountain Rescue base just before my stomach almost exploded. Number one tip is to empty everything out and bring no extras with you, because for simple reasons like this we lost 15minutes straight away.
Another key aspect for improvement, is picking the right weather window where the conditions are stable, allowing us to adapt and stay consistent. Unfortunately, we started in the dark, we had thick mist in the morning, clear skies around lunchtime, but we also had strong winds and moderate rain for a few hours towards the evening, basically a bit of everything. The temperatures were all over the place, from running in t-shirts and leggings, to running in a synthetic jacket with gore-tex waterproofs, hat and gloves too. Basically, quite a lot of faffing around but luckily when the harsh British weather really hit us, we were only 30min away from the shelter at Foel Grach (964m). Stopping for 10minutes, re-layering and having a warm drink was certainly needed, almost a second melt down and not wanting to stand up again.
In summary, there were a number of small aspects that could make a significant difference. Starting our journey just after the sunrise with stable conditions, along with more quality food, as well as paying more attention to our pacing and having short regular brakes, would easily push our time under 12hours, especially if we apply some specific training. Not saying what we did was poor judgment but if we want to improve, we have to be slightly picky and pay very close attention to the small aspects that will change the whole game.
Did we have fun? Hell yeah! The Welsh 3000 challenge has pushed our limits and gave us the opportunity to create some of the best memories. Want to see how we get on with round 2? Tune in late August and find out what happened!