The Welsh 3000s in a day

In the summer between national Covid lockdowns, Lou Stone took on the Welsh 3000s in a day. A bunkhouse had become unexpectedly available, the forecast was glorious, she was feeling deprived of adventure, and so it was irresistible.

I’m Lou Stone, and I love everything mountain related. I’ve been playing in the mountains for over 20 years, and more recently working in them as well. I have many adventures under my belt, but this memory is particularly special to me.

The Welsh 3000s

The Welsh 3000s challenge involves linking together into a single route all 15 Welsh mountains over 3000ft (914m) high. The route spans three separate mountain ranges, and you can enjoy them as a three-day hiking holiday, as described in Terry Fletcher’s article How to Walk the Welsh 3000s.

Another popular version of the challenge is to hike it in under 24hr. Officially, you time yourself on this challenge from the first peak, Snowdon, to the last peak, Foel-Fras.

The distance between the two is 26 miles (42km). In reality, it’s more like 31 miles (50km), once you add on getting to the first peak, and from the last peak. More significantly, the total height gained is around 13,000ft (4000m), with a similar descent, and several sections of exposed scrambling terrain.

Sunrise Snowdon
Sunrise on Snowdon

Planning

'So what training have you been doing for this?' asked my friend. 'Um, none,' I replied. It would have been more accurate to say that everything I’d been doing in my life up until this point had helped to prepare me.

Like many who live in the south of Britain, Snowdonia was my go-to mountain playground. Over 20 years, I had hiked almost every hill and completed every scramble on the Welsh 3000s. I’m a hiking guide by trade, so I had every confidence in my navigation and route planning skills, and knew how to look after myself in the mountains.

During lockdown, when I was out of work, I took the opportunity to go out and exercise and explore more. By the time I arrived in Wales, I was fitter than I’d been in a while, and had just run-hiked 50 miles (80km) of the South Downs Way, which included roughly 6500ft (2000m) of ascent and a similar descent. Did I feel certain I could pull off the Welsh 3000s based on that? Not at all! Nevertheless, I felt ready to give it my best go!

I spent the few days in the run up to my adventure carefully planning. I confess I love a good spreadsheet, so this part came naturally to me. I broke the whole challenge into sections, and worked out distances, ascents, descents and estimated timings for each, based on what I knew my average pace to be in the mountains.

Because of the amount of scrambling terrain involved, I decided I preferred to hike in good stiff scrambling boots, rather than run.

Because it’s such a long route with lots of sections requiring great care, I knew I would have to start and finish in the dark. I made notes on when sunrise and sunset was, but also looked up times for civil twilight – the window of time when the sun is not above the horizon yet you can still operate without the need for a torch.

I preferred to tackle the first scramble, the exposed Crib Goch, in the light. I planned the rest of my timings around that.

I enlisted my partner as my ground support, to drop me off and pick me up, and meet me at planned break times with supplies. I calculated that a 3am departure from Pen-y-Pass car park would put me on Snowdon summit in time for the start of civil twilight, ready to traverse Crib Goch.

The route drops down to a main road twice, once after the Snowdon range, once after the Glyders, where I planned to meet my partner and take a break. I estimated about 5hr for the Snowdon Range, 6.5-7hr for the Glyders, and 7h for the Carneddau. My partner would finally pick me up just after 10:30pm from a car park beyond the northern end of the Carneddau range.

Although I had a final ETA, the very definition of adventure is that the outcome is uncertain. We agreed that I would keep him updated on my progress by text. We also decided to both carry walkie-talkies for the end, where we knew a mobile signal might be patchy.

Glyders2
The Glyders

I estimated I would need to consume 9.5L of water and 5000kcal in total: 2.5L and 1300kcal for the Snowdon range, 3.3L and 1840kcal for the Glyders, and 3.6L and 1880kcal for the Carneddau.

I didn’t want to carry that much weight in food and water, as a heavy pack is harder work to carry, and less stable on scrambling terrain. I packed 2L of water and many lightweight high-energy foods in my rucksack.

My partner would then bring fresh water and snacks to each meeting point for me to top up. However, I still anticipated a deficit, therefore to compensate I ate and drank as much as I could stomach the night before, in the morning, and at each break.

It’s common to underestimate how much fuel you need for these kinds of challenges, and surprisingly easy to lose your appetite when exercising hard. Yet it’s sobering to consider that a 10% drop in hydration equals a 30% drop in performance, and I needed maximum concentration.

Why did I choose to hike solo? I love solo adventures. I find it empowering relying completely on my own skills and finding my own motivation. I also find the experience more direct and intense, my senses are heightened, and I have more encounters with wildlife and other hikers.

In terms of safety when hiking alone, I always carry a mobile phone, and make sure someone knows where I’ll be and when, and more importantly what I want them to do if I don’t check in with them.

After a fitful sleep, we set off from the bunkhouse at 2:45am. My partner wished me luck as he dropped me off at 3am at Pen-y-Pass car park and set off back to bed.

You can choose to climb Snowdon by any route for this challenge, or even sleep on the summit before setting off. I chose the Pyg Track, because it’s one of the two shortest routes to the summit, and I preferred the idea of the gradual ascent it offered. The Miners Track is similarly short, but it stays level for a while then ascends more steeply.

I thought I knew the Pyg Track, but hiking in the dark changed this once familiar route into a delightful otherworldly adventure. The path seemed to disappear into nothingness, and small crags loomed large overhead.

Half way up a couple appeared, hiking in the opposite direction. We greeted each other, which we wouldn’t have done had we met each other in the crowds of daytime. They were proudly finishing their Three Peaks Challenge.

Reaching the summit, I hunkered down from the wind behind the walls of the closed restaurant and tucked into my second breakfast. I watched as more and more hikers and bikers arrived to watch the sunrise.

I set off again as soon as I could switch my head torch off. As I arrived at Crib Goch under a red twilight, it looked every bit its name of ‘red ridge’.

This should not be your first ever scramble! Technically, it’s described as Grade 1, but it’s more exposed than others of a similar grade, and can be treacherous in the wet.

On this day it was bone dry, and the pinnacles glowed in the dawn light; it was the most beautiful I had ever seen it. I overtook three young guys picking their way carefully along. Then I became distracted by the views and overshot my turning onto the North Ridge.

I had to climb back up 100m to regain my route, and passed the same three people again!

The North Ridge was easy enough to follow. Picking my way off it through the scree and finding the faint path to the road from here called for more careful navigation. By now the sun was fully up.

Sunshine on the Glyders
Sunshine on the Glyders

I arrived by the roadside at our agreed meeting point in Nant Peris just after 8am. It was a huge motivation boost to see my partner. He already had hot coffee and porridge ready for my third breakfast, together with water and snacks. I’d also prepared a change of socks and top, which felt surprisingly refreshing.

My traverse of the Glyders now began in broad sunshine, and more and more daytime hikers appeared the further along I hiked. It was a long, hot slog up from the roadside to the first peak of Elider Fawr, but I was fuelled by the excitement of my nocturnal adventure and the glorious views unfolding under a blue sky.

At the first summit, I met another solo hiker going in the same direction, so we hiked together for a while. He was reconnoitring the Welsh 3000s in sections, ready for his own attempt.

Doctors had advised against it after he’d been diagnosed with cancer and was receiving treatment, but he said this was what gave his life meaning. I fully understood.

We parted company at Y Garn and wished each other luck. A little further on, I paused to greet a lone mountain goat.

Wild Encounters
Wild encounter with a mountain goat

I allowed myself to jog a little along the more level section between Glyder Fawr and Glyder Fach, gently since I was wearing scrambling boots. At the top of Glyder Fach, rather than skirting around the broken summit rocks, I made a point of climbing them to touch very top.

I then picked my way carefully down the zigzags of steep gravel paths to Bwlych Tryfan 850ft (260m) below.

Vivid memories came flooding back of a scramble called Sinister Gully, just to the north of where I was descending. This was my first ever mountain scramble and I’d been intimidated by the name and the description and full of tense anticipation. I recalled asking every few steps: 'Is this the difficult bit?' When I stood at the top, I realised I’d done it, and it had been fine!

By the time I arrived at Tryfan, the final summit along the Glyders, it was 2.30pm and there was a human traffic jam, including a birthday party of 50 people!

I spent as much time as I felt I could afford scrambling towards the top. I was forced to turn around about 150ft (45m) before the summit boulders of Adam and Eve, where everyone had come to a standstill. My plan was to descend to the Ogwen Valley by a steep gully on the west face of Tryfan after the summit. Instead, I retreated to Bwlych Tryfan, before making my way north to the roadside at Glan Dena and my next break.

I met my invaluable ground support team of one just after 3pm. He had prepared fresh pasta and coffee for me on a camping stove by the roadside. He asked how I was and if I was carrying on. Good question. I was now very tired, but still capable of putting one foot in front of the other.

I had no blisters, no sore joints, and was still motivated to see how far I could go. I changed some clothes, refreshed my supplies, and on I went, north into the Carneddau, the final range in the challenge.

I climbed the easy scramble up Pen Yr Ole Wen and hiked over Carnedd Dafydd to just south of Carnedd Llewellyn. I then had to detour west to the outlying peak of Yr Elen, in order to stay true to the challenge and ‘tick’ all the peaks higher than 3000ft.

Re-joining the main ridge at the summit of Carnedd Llewellyn, I continued north over Foel Grach and Carnedd Gwenllian. Here I paused to enjoy the sky turning through all the colours of sunset before dipping below the horizon, and watch the moonrise in the twilight.

Moonrise Carneddau
Moonrise on the Carneddau

I had assumed that this final section of the challenge would feel the easiest: here the terrain is more rolling and grass-covered, which I imagined would be gentler on the feet and joints.

This much was true. However, the excitement that had motivated me up the Glyders had gone. I was now extremely tired and night would soon be falling. I had kept my promise of regularly texting in location updates, disconcerting my friends with the accuracy of my estimated timings.

With sheer fatigue, they had now begun to slip. What kept me going was the knowledge that the easiest and quickest way off in the dark was simply to finish the route. Encouraging messages from my friends back at the bunkhouse helped a lot.

In a daze, I reached the final peak of Foel-Fras just after 9pm. I realised I had only thought about the route as far as this final summit, which was technically the end of the challenge. Yet here I was, with 3.5 miles (5.5km) distance and 2000ft (600m) descent still to go, in the pitch black. In this part of the route, the hilly terrain obscured any light from nearby villages.

There are a few choices of where to finish after reaching the final summit of Foel-Fras. I chose Bwlch y Ddeufaen car park because it was easy to navigate to in the dark when tired.

I could follow a fence from the summit all the way down to the track near the car park. This worked for me because I had the support of my partner, who was happy to drive to such a remote car park late at night to collect me.

Other options to finish are shorter but more difficult to navigate, and your decision will depend on whether you have a driver, or need to find accommodation or public transport.

With no mobile signal, I switched on my walkie-talkie at our pre-arranged time, and was surprised to overhear a conversation about getting into pyjamas. A family was wild camping nearby, using the same default frequency as me between their different tents.

A little further on, I came across a couple of men in the dark, as surprised to see me as I them. They’d come up to enjoy the sunset, and were preparing to go down. They congratulated me on nearly completing my challenge as we parted company.

Sunset Carneddau
Sunset on the Carneddau

By now, my knees were on fire, and I was hobbling gingerly downhill, leaning heavily on my hiking poles. I saw a single torchlight in the distance, and switched on my walkie-talkie again.

'Is that your head torch, Lou? Are you ok? You seem to be walking very slowly!'

Guided by my partner’s head torch and encouragement, I made my way down the last few meters of the hill. He joined me for the walk down the track to the car, where he presented me with a welcome cold beer.

I finished at 11pm, just 20 minutes after my ETA. It had taken me about 20 hours from car park to car park, 15.5h from first to last summit. It also took me another four days to be able to walk again properly! Nevertheless, I was very proud.

One of the things I love about the mountains is how they teach you that you’re far more capable than you ever think you are.

If you’re thinking of taking on the Welsh 3000s, here are my top tips:

  • Consult Cicerone’s Mountain Walking in Snowdonia, and Scrambles in Snowdonia, and do lots of online research: www.welsh3000s.co.uk is full of useful info.
  • Consider tackling the route in the way that suits you best: running or hiking, 1/2 or 3 days, solo or with company, self-guided or guided by a mountain leader
  • Be realistic about how long your chosen method will take you and plan accordingly
  • Make sure you gain experience of scrambling on exposed Grade 1 terrain
  • Get fit with lots of cardio. Include training uphill and on uneven terrain.
  • Engage your ground support team and make sure they know what you need from them
  • Take many different sweet and savoury snacks to tempt you to keep taking on energy, and take electrolytes as well as water. Take on food and water regularly even if you don’t feel like it.
  • Pack as light as you can, but take everything you need. Things can change very quickly in the mountains. I always pack a lightweight emergency shelter, waterproofs, sun protection, warm jacket, first aid kit, communication device and map and compass even when I’m using digital mapping. A powerful headtorch (and spare batteries) are essential for navigating in the dark, and my hiking poles were invaluable for steep descents and tired legs.
  • Have fun, and be proud of yourself however far you get!

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