For anyone who likes to blend a little altruism with their outdoor adventure, few feats of self-inflicted endurance match up to the popularity of the Three Peaks Challenge.
As well as conquering the highest mountains in England, Wales and Scotland, participants are required to negotiate the sometimes equally treacherous motorway and road network that connects them (although the truly intrepid cycle or more adventurously sail) – all within a 24-hour period.
But the growing popularity of the event, which attracts tens of thousands of entrants each year and raises millions of pounds for charity, has given rise to increasing complaints that the mountains are being over-exploited by the armies of well-intentioned hikers, some of whom descend in groups numbering several hundred and leave a trail of environmental destruction and human waste in their wake.
Later this month, representatives from the National Trust, National Parks and the John Muir Trust, which owns Ben Nevis, will meet at Fort William along with the Institute of Fundraising to draw up a new code of conduct for Three Peaks competitors. They hope it will end the worst of the excesses being inflicted on the beautiful landscapes while still allowing charity cash to be raised. Among the proposals being discussed will be a registration system that limits the size of the groups taking part and spreading out the times people attempt their challenge to reduce congestion during those most popular weekends in the early summer when the light is most abundant.
Fran Lockhart of the John Muir Trust said the aim was not to deter visitors but improve the experience for everyone. "Our aim is to encourage people to use the hill [Ben Nevis] but such large groups of people do detract from the enjoyment of others. There is a lot of habitat up there which is really fragile. The code will be voluntary and it is not our intention to lay the law down," she said.
Scafell Pike in the Lake District may be the lowest of the peaks but the National Trust, which owns it, believes it has the worst problems. The number of climbers it attracts increases ten-fold in the summer with some 45,000 tackling the summit in May. Local people complain of late-night door slamming, lanes crammed with minibuses and mountain paths left covered in faeces and toilet paper.
Tony Holliday, who runs Keswick Lake and Mountain Travel, says the key is to persuade people who want to raise money that there are other equally demanding pursuits in stunning locations where they can put themselves to the test in a good cause. "They have to be convinced that this is not the be-all and end-all of mountaineering in the UK. For a lot of people it has become a question of ticking a box – so they can say, 'I've done that'."
Three Peaks: The challenge
*17.00: depart Achintee to begin ascent of Ben Nevis
*20.00: reach summit of Ben Nevis – 1,344m
*22.00: complete descent – 10.25 miles in total – and drive 343 miles to Cumbria
* 04.30: arrive Wasdale Head, Lake District, and begin dawn ascent of Scafell Pike
* 07.30: reach summit of Scafell Pike – 978m
* 08.30: complete descent – 7.25 miles in total – board minibus, drive 214 miles to North Wales
* 13.30: arrive Llanberis, Snowdonia National Park
* 15.30: reach summit of Snowdon– 1,085m
* 17.00: complete descent – nine miles in total
Driving time: 11 hrs 30 mins; Walking time: 12 hrs 30 mins; Distance covered: 583.5 miles Distance walked: 26.5 miles
'I did it for my sister, who has breast cancer'
Jamie Gatoff, 34, a business development executive from London, completed the Three Peaks Challenge in July 2008
"It was extremely difficult to be honest. I had never done a day's exercise in my life but my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 30 just a few weeks after giving birth. I came up with the idea at a drunken Christmas party. I really wanted to do something for a cancer charity, something physical, so I joined a gym and spent six months with a personal trainer to try to get me fit enough to get up these mountains. I got a team of nine from my work at Friends Provident and we raised £32,000 for the Breast Cancer Campaign. Everyone either knew someone or had a member of their family affected by the disease.
We did it in 24 hours but only just – we spent 13 hours walking and the rest travelling. Now I am committed to raising money for charity and this year we are planning to walk Hadrian's Wall and raise even more than last time. The whole event was very well organised.
There were quite a lot of people doing it and each party of 10 people had a guide and you had to adhere to the rules and regulations – but you are so hard pressed against the clock that you haven't got time to do anything other than follow the path.
I am really in favour of people being able to do this sort of thing in future. We were able to see exactly where our money went – it was used to fund a full-time research assistant at University College Hospital and they were really appreciative. My sister is making a recovery and doing really well."
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