The Yorkshire Three Peaks – with added challenge

Having taken on the Yorkshire Three Peaks, Cicerone sales rep James Benson found he was running out of light and time. At least he had his map… oh. Luckily, help was to hand.

‘I don’t often see people coming up this way at this time of night,’ opined the bloke striding down towards us from the gate at the foot of the forbidding-looking south west ridge of Pen-y-ghent. Whether from the effects of ibuprofen or lightheaded stupidity, I replied to the effect that we still had to get to Ribblehead, hopefully today. ‘Best get back down to Horton and walk up the road,’ was his bluffly delivered advice, ‘you don’t want to be out on that moor this late, this time of year…’

‘He looked like a local,’ said Carolyn, ‘we should take his advice and get back down.’ We stumbled on up towards the gate in the rapidly fading afternoon light. ‘Nah, it’s fine, we are locals and I have done this before, even if the next bit is the most complex bit of route. We have got torches and the map, and all night,’ I replied, perhaps slightly uncertainly.

It was only as we finally summited Pen-y-ghent, that I had a distinct and alarming mental picture, and one that blocked out the glorious wintry sunset and the best view of the day so far. A mental picture of the OS map, sitting on the kitchen table at home where I had left it when we set off just before 6am that morning.

In sight of Ingleborough

We are lucky enough to live within sight of Ingleborough, and over the years we have scaled the Three Peaks on quite a few occasions from most directions and in all seasons. To celebrate a major birthday 10 years ago, I yomped around all three with my chum, Tim, an effort that has taken a good decade to recover from. It doesn’t help that my birthday, whether significant or not, falls in mid-winter when daylight is short and the days are potentially wild. With a walking holiday down south in the offing, the 10-year anniversary of my last significant birthday looming and a decent weather window promised, it seemed to be a good idea to drop everything and just go out and do them again one Friday in mid-January.

Midweek means missing the crowds, but also means there is no one to follow if you happen to be so dumb as to leave your map on the kitchen table. Not that there was anyone to follow as we left our little blue car in the deserted layby at Ribblehead and made off under the arches in the full moonlight. ‘Under the arches?’ Cheats. Well yes, it is a brutal shortcut but theoretically, walking via Gunnerfleet and turning right over the wall just after the bath takes you straight up to the summit of Whernside on a sort of footpath that avoids the gorgeous curving route along Force Gill. It is good enough for Wainwright, and more or less follows the route of the Fell Race, so there is precedent. However, it saved us no time and was just as exhausting and twice as wet as Force Gill. The sun was coming up as our heads popped over the ridge near the summit, startling a corgi, which is not a sentence I write very often.

As the sun came up, so the clouds came down and the view disappeared; Whernside summit was freezing cold, we had lost time and lost even more as we slithered our way down the lethally iced slabs that make up the footpath.

whernside summit
Whernside summit

From wherever you start, the next section to Chapel-le-Dale and on up to Ingleborough is one of the best sections – the miles go quickly and the going is good, whether on track, a little tarmac or the grassy sections around the collapsed doline of Braithwaite Wife Hole. Eh?

The steep climb up Ingleborough back into the clouds was less icy, although we had to reply on instinct, sheer local knowledge [snigger] and footprints to find the summit shelter.

A section to saviour

As you emerge at the top of the steps above Black Shiver Moss you pass a standing stone with bits of metal sticking out of it – perhaps an old stunted gate post. With only 9 miles and two peaks covered, it is possible to bail out here, but we decided to press on rather than turn back over Simon Fell and down to the car. The next section down to Horton is one to savour – a great path and often great views, even if Pen-y-ghent, which we could not see, remained distressingly distant. There is another potential bail out opportunity at the point at which the path from Clapham to Selside intersects, but we pressed on, now below the cloud base, and past the cattle, stopping for a quick lunch at almost exactly the half-way point. Already running late as we arrived at Horton, there was no time to stamp any badges or join any prestigious clubs, or even buy any sherbet lemons.

Pen-y-ghent is our personal favourite of these summits – it has a lovely approach from Horton, a fine profile and a sporting final section, and makes a satisfying day out, perhaps combined with lonely Plover Hill and Foxup Moor. Today, the climb from Brackenbottom seemed long and slow and cold, and the afternoon light was fading. Bothersomely, we kept meeting people coming down. We took the final steps onto the summit promenade in fading golden light, and then the realisation dawned that with the final 7½ miles of slightly more challenging route finding ahead, I had left the map behind. The mighty arches of Ribblehead Viaduct were a small distant smudge in the gloom. Moving more urgently down the steps, we only needed to get the head torches out by the time we reached the junction on Horton Moor.

approaching horton
Approaching Horton

God’s Own Country is invariably wonderful, but right then, stuck in a bog in haunted cold twilight, miles from the nearest Bettys, we had had enough. It was certainly not the time to be thinking of the sad tale of the Lady of the Hill. Resigned to the dogleg of dropping down to Horton and the miles back up the roads to our little blue car, my hand groping around in the rucksack, found not just the headtorches, but a familiar and massively welcome shape: 17cm x 11.5cm of Trail and Fell Running in the Yorkshire Dales, published by Cicerone. Hallelujah. Not that there was going to be much trail and fell running going on but this, stuffed into my rucksack without much thought last night, was a truly wonderful thing. Pages 50 and 52 saved the day as we picked our way onwards.

The route is well signed and there are some great sections of new path, notably over Whitber Hill, but the route can still be disconcerting at night, especially on the Pennine Way section as it swings off into the darkness to the north away from the lights at Ribblehead, and gets separated from those lights by a low ridge. Crossing open fields in the dark was also a challenge, but by Birkwith and then Nether Lodge, we made it, each step bringing us closer to the finish. Just one car passed us on the final mile of road walking, but we would not have accepted a lift. The utter darkness at Ribblehead road junction was broken as, 100 metres off, I found the key fob for our little blue car. The blinking flash as I unlocked it was one of the most welcome sights of the day, competing perhaps with the fridge door full of beer a little later.

But no, the best sight of the day was neither of these, nor the view from Pen-y-ghent and not even the startled corgi; it was that comforting little blue book, with Pete Ellwood’s bombproof directions and full colour detailed OS maps.

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