The national 3 peaks challenge is an attempt to climb Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike & Snowdon in 24 hours. Many thousands of people complete the challenge each year but it also leads to a significant number of mountain rescue calls, many of which could be considered avoidable.
This article is intended to publicise and potentially avoid some of the more common mistakes that lead to calls for mountain rescue assistance. In particular, we would like to encourage parties to go better prepared and most importantly able to help themselves before they need to call us.
In summary:

  • Plan Ahead, Be Flexible with your weekend and get a weather forecast
  • Navigation is Key – Take a map and compass and know how to use them.
  • Do not rely on your phone as the sole safety equipment. But do keep it charged up.
  • Try to help yourself first if lost – what are your options whilst remaining safe?
  • Go prepared for a night on the hill – daylight will not be far away in summer.
  • In emergency – dial 999 or 112 – ask for Police, then Mountain Rescue.

More detail is offered below to explain what to do.

Consider the Alternatives

The Wasdale team has no position on the 3 peaks, we respond to any mountain incidents reported to us on their merits, independent of whether the call is from an organised group or individual climbers. Many team members, as local people have concerns about the environmental impact of such large numbers both on the mountain and the local area due to litter, parking problems and footpath erosion. By necessity the challenge involves a lot of driving. We suggest that there are many alternative ways to challenge yourself and others both in the mountains and other fields and would encourage charity fundraisers to consider all options before embarking on a 3 peaks attempt, particularly those that burn less diesel. However, it is also clear that the 3 peaks is popular, if not becoming more so.

Most 3 Peaks Calls to Mountain Rescue are from People who are Lost

The root cause of most of the calls we receive relating to 3 peaks is navigational error. Scafell Pike has a complex topography and on the 3 peaks is normally done at night, sometimes in bad weather.

Plan Ahead, Be Flexible & Get a Weather Forecast

Try to stack the odds in your favour by being flexible on dates, picking several weekends and chose to go when the weather is good. Mountain forecasts are available up to 5 days in advance. Many parties find themselves ‘going for it’ in severe weather as it’s the planned weekend with expectation on their shoulders. Also consider the time of year. June & July have a lot more daylight than August or September. We take just as many calls in late summer for 3 peaks even though less people are making an attempt.
Consider your fitness. Many people who call us also complain of sore knees from downhill walking.

Navigation is Key

It is essential that a good number of party members are competent navigators using a map and compass, people who are familiar with mountain route finding by being out regularly in all weathers. If you are not experienced in map reading, ask yourself how you’d cope if separated from your group? This happens a lot in the confusion of busy days.

Consider Hiring a Guide / Mountain Leader

If navigation is not your strong point, consider hiring a local mountain leader / guide. They can manage route finding for you, in an appropriately sized group. A web search will reveal many providers.

Take A Proper Map & Compass

Take a full size map, not just a small printout or guidebook. You never know where you might end up. A laminated map is ideal as it resists water, or take a good map case.

Don’t Rely on Your Phone

Relying on mobile phones as a way to summon help or using other gadgets for navigation can be risky. Phone signal is patchy at best in the mountains. Rain & electronics do not mix well. However, in the event of an emergency a mobile phone can be invaluable. Make sure any phones are well charged up, consider leaving one or more switched off in reserve and also consider charging packs.

If You Get Lost &mdash Self Help is Best

If you do become lost carefully consider all your sensible options.

  • Is it possible to retrace your steps back uphill to get back on a path?
  • Is it safe to continue downwards on a path or easy ground even if it is not the valley you wanted to be in? It will be warmer and generally less windy down in the valley.
    Note. Descending steep and craggy ground is not recommended unless you can see your way to the bottom and it is clear. There are a number of steep sided river gorges in Wasdale to be avoided. See our entry on Piers Gill.
  • Shouting for help may allow you to link up with another party who know their position.
  • Is it better to take shelter and wait for daylight in the morning? In the middle of summer this will not be long to wait. Be prepared to spend a night out if necessary, see below.

Our team policy is to encourage lost parties that contact us to help themselves whenever practical. There are a number of reasons for this. Being lost in itself is not a time critical emergency. We receive many calls for help and often on a busy Saturday there can be multiple rescues across the Lake District. We have to manage our resources to ensure we can always respond to emergencies when needed. Typically it can take 2 – 3 hours from initial phone call to finding a lost party on the fell. In this time many groups could walk out to a road and stay warmer in the process. As a result we will tend to provide advice down the phone following the lines above before considering any deployment of team members.

Go Prepared for a Night on the Hill

It is a lot easier and safer to search in daylight than at night. We may decide it is better to wait until morning before sending rescuers on the hill and it would be wise to be prepared for an unscheduled stop on the mountain. As a minimum take an orange plastic ‘survival bag’. These are cheap & light. A ‘bivvy tent’ or portable shelter is an ideal option as it keeps the group together and morale higher. Tin foil blankets do not provide any significant help on the mountains, although specialist products such as ‘Blizzard Bags’ can be useful.

Help us to Help You

If we are searching for you, try to help us. A whistle is ideal for attracting attention. The mountain distress signal is 6 short blasts, repeated each minute. We will respond with 3 blasts if we hear you. A torch on ‘strobe’ mode can also be a good way to attract attention if it is well sited and does not use much battery. A camera flash can also work.

In an Emergency – Dial 999, Ask for Police, then Mountain Rescue

If you have a serious injury, medical condition or other emergency do not hesitate to call for assistance. Dial 999 or 112, ask the operator for Cumbria Police. Once speaking with the Police explain you are on Scafell Pike, give the best estimate of your location and the nature of the problem. A mountain rescue leader will want to call you back within minutes so keep your phone on and in signal. Consider registering for emergency call by text (details here). It is often possible to send a text message when phone signal is poor. If there is no signal you need to send a competent party down to the valley to summon assistance.